Trolling is sneered upon by some sport fishermen, but trolling for fall rockfish in the Chesapeake Bay is a delicate and skillful business. And the colder it gets the harder it gets to catch stripers any other way.
With fish hitting better now than they have for some years, it would be a crime to go out improperly equipped. Here is what the experts recommend:
First you need a good, strong trolling rod with wire line or monofilament of at least 20-pound test strength.
Bucktails are the preferred lures, generally in 1/0 and 2/0 sizes. Most anglers choose white or yellow bucktails, and say that the lures with the most hair on them look the most lifelike and catch the most fish.
Bucktails are trolled at the slowest possible speed over hard bottom, preferably oyster shells, generally in around 20 feet of water this time of year. Later the fish will go to deeper holes of 50 and 55 feet.
The lure should be as close to the bottom as possible without actually hitting bottom.
To get it there requires about 10 to 12 ounces of lead sinker, depending on the depth and the kind of fishing line used. Heavier monofilament line is harder to get to the bottom; wire line needs the least weight.
The sinker is connected to a threeway swivel by about a foot or 1 1/2 feet of leader material. Line from the fishing rod is tied to the second eye of the three-way swivel, and the third eye holds a 20- to 30-foot leader at the end of which the lure is tied.
A barrel swivel can be tied into the long leader about five feet from the swivel to keep the bucktail from twisting the line.
A piece of pork rind (size 50 is best) graces the hook of the bucktail to give the lure motion. Yellow-and-white pork rind is preferred. The rind should be split lengthwise to increase fluttering effect.
This combination should be actively played over the bottom by the angler. That means jigging the rod slightly while trolling, to give the bucktail a slight up-and-down motion as well as forward motion.
Rockfish have been caught on the shallow, hard-bottom bars of the eastern shore from Bloody Point north to Swann Point and on the western shore from Sandy Point north of the mouth of Bodkin Creek. The fish move around, and there is no guarantee where they will be from day to day.
These hard-bottom shallows are impossible to find without a chart. The annual Fishing in Maryland magazine has an excellent fold-out chart of the Chesapeake that fills that need.
It's fine to try the spots that look good on the charts, looking for pods of fish on the depth-finder if you have one. But one of the best ways for part-time anglers to find rockfish this time of the year is to look for the professionals in the big boats and see where they're catching fish.
It doesn't make the professionals too happy, but it works.