It's rip-off time in the Chesapeake Bay.
"There he goes!" the captain shouted.
One of the three trolling rods on the transom bent double and the reel hissed as wire line stripped off. Jack Davey, retired Navy captain, leaped to his sea legs and slipped and slid to the rain-splashed stern.
He grabbed the rod but, pulled it from its holder and jerked it overhead to set the hook. Plain old nothing tugged back.
The spring fishing season officially opened Thursday in the bay. May 1 is the date on which Maryland law permits sport fisherman to keep one large striped bass (over 32 inches) per day.
"There's plenty of fish out here now," said the captain, Dick Houghland, as we left the dock the day before the season opened. "But you won't see any crowds. They're waiting for legal season tomorrow."
Indeed, on Wednesday the Chesapeake was a lovely, gray empty place. When the mist lifted from time to time, you could look from east shore to west, the vista only occasionally interrupted by a passing yacht headed north from a summer in Florida.
The water temperature was 53 degrees, three degrees above the magic number at which fish begin to bite. Or so they say.
Bluefish and striped bass were our quarry and bluefish is what we got -- the few blues, anyway, that didn't play the rip-off game.
"Biting light" was how Houghland described the blues' propensity for quick slashes at the lures. "I think these big spoons are great, but the trouble is the fish have so much to strike at that a lot of times they miss the hook."
Good theory. The favored spring trolling lure in the bay is a curved metal spoon about five inches long. It seems likely that even a big fish could grab it without encountering the hook.
So we switched to long white surgical tube lures that resemble swimming eels. "We might not get as many bites but we won't lose so many fish," said Houghland, who gets paid to know such things.
So we got even more bites and lost even more fish.
Houghland's boat, Mary Lou, left the dock at 7 a.m. and was back in at a little past 5 p.m. In the long hours of fishing, the rods doubled over perhaps three dozen times, setting off a made scramble each time. But by quiting hour only 11 bluefish were in the catch box, mostly four- to eight-pounders.
It should have felt like a long day but it didn't, so fresh was the excitement of first day out. "Nice fish," said Davey late in the day when he hauled in a medium-sized blue. "This time of year, they're all nice," said Houghland. This time, he was dead right.
Most fishing techniques are complicated enough to defy explanation in written words. But spring trolled in the Chesapeake is about as cut and dried as you can get.
The fishing grounds are easy to find and the equipment is practically standardized. Fishing season is here, so is a quick rundown on how to do it:
WHERE TO FISH: Big bluefish and striped bass are on the move in May. They are generally passing through the bay on their way to summer residence in New England. As as result, they are most numerous in May close to the deep shipping channel.
You should fish the edges of the main channel in water 35 to 70 feet deep. The channel is easily identified by huge marked buoys that guide seagoing vessels into Baltimore harbor. Either side of the channel, west or east, is likely to produce strikes.
WHAT TO USE: There are three basic lures. Spoons have taken the last three record striped bass in Maryland. The general favorite is Tony Accetta No. 19 or No. 21 spoons in silver or white, although several other manufacturers produce excellent spoons.
Surgical eels also catch fish. White ones are favored in spring, and they should be gently twisted by hand until they swim with a rolling motion as the boat slips through the water.
Bucktails are a third choice, in about 6/0 size. Always attach a piece of split pork rind to the hook.
HOW TO FISH: All three lures are fished in basically the same fashion -- trolled slowly behind the boat. Wire line is best for trolling because it sinks faster and requires less sinker weight to get it down.
In order to find the fish, it's best to troll several lines at different depths. The traditional spread goes this way: Shallowest line uses 3-ounce sinker with 200 feet of line behind the boat; next, 5 ounces of lead, 165 feet of line; then 6-8 ounces at 125 feet, 10 ounces at 100 feet, 12 ounces at 85 feet and 16 ounces with 70 feet of line.
That spread should cover depths from 15 to 35 feet. If using monofilament line instead of wire double the weights.
The sinker should be an inline model, attached at either end by a snap swivel. Use 20 to 30 feet of 50-pound test monofilament near the middle of the leader to keep it from twisting.
As for speed, the theory is to troll eels slowest, bucktails at medium speed and spoons fastest.
That's it. Now just sit back and drive the boat and wait for the action to begin.
And beware of rip-offs.