The best fishing on the Chesapeake Bay has gone away to pursue more lucrative commercial prospects on the Gulf of Mexico. This is not a loss that will hurt in May, when just about anyone can catch big striped bass if he puts in his time. It won't hurt next summer when big bluefish and gray trout come bounding after the baits. It hurts right now.
With Dick Houghland gone, there is no one around who to plan the annual last-gasp striped bass fishing trip. Over the years this trip has developed a character all its own, forged in the cold of December and distinctly different from standard fishing, which basically is just fun.
Says Ben Florence, the striped-bass specialist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and a last-gasp trip survivor. "It is definitely the most challenging type of fishing you can do on the bay.
"You may be fishing an area the size of a small room somewhere out in the middle of the bay. Everything has to be right, and you have to know a number of these places because each one only holds fish some of the time."
Houghland knows the spots and he knows the techniques. But he's off somewhere in the Gulf chasing grouper and snapper, his wife reports. And he took his secrets with him, the fink.
In the summer the Chesapeake teems with life, a seafood resort full of warm-weather residents that take over. The natives of the bay, young striped bass, escape to quiet spots up the freshwater rivers that feed the big estuary. b
When it gets cold the summer visitors head to sea and the school-size stripers start filing out of the rivers, retaking the Chesapeake's choice feeding spots. As water temperature drops they bunch up in schools. Stripers generally feed infrequently and capriciously. In the cold winter these schooled fish feed even less.
The challenge of the winter striper fisherman is to find a school 30 or 40 feet down in a huge body of water that all looks the same on the surface, then to stay with it until the fish decide to feed, and to troll the baits past the fish in such a way that the picky stripers can't resist. It helps to have a captain who knows what he's doing.
It's not a sport for everyone. One excellent fisherman who was along for one last-gasp voyage thought it was the silliest thing he'd ever seen. "Dragging around one-pound lead sinkers on wire line to catch a one- or two-pound fish," he grumbled. "Ridiculous."
But the satisfaction isn't in feeling a giant fish rip line off the reel or in coming home with hundreds of pounds of stripers. It's the finding and fooling, rather than the flogging, that's a turn-on.
Houghland could find 'em and fool 'em. The last-gasp was his idea. After running hired trips out of Chesapeake Beach all spring, summer and fall earning a living, he'd call a few friends and insist on one last December trip strictly for pleasure.
His haunts have names -- Brownie's Hill, the Stone Rock, the Diamonds, the Winter Gooses. These are hills in the floor of the bay where the schooled stripers congregate. Houghland could tell if the fish were there by staring at his depth-finder. When the red line signifying the bottom 25 to 50 feet down broadened out it meant the shcool was there, hugging close to the sand and rocks. It sounds easy, but you try it.
The crew in the stern had its mission, which was to man the rods whether it rained, snowed or blew a gale. The baits were bucktails dressed with pork rinds and fished as close to the bottom as possible. To make the lures attractive each fisherman was required to work his rod steadily up and down, which made the bucktail rise and fall like a living thing.
It's hard to describe the peculiar satisfaction of this voyage that became a tradition. It has to do partly with being the only boat on a big, cold and generally inhospitable body of water, in pursuit of the only game fish left to pursue. It never failed to seem a miracle when we succeeded, which we sometimes did.
Florence loves this winter fishing and already has begun his meanderings on the upper bay in his own small boat. He's had mixed success, finding the stripers not yet schooled thickly.
The best spots so far have been the mouth of the Magothy River, Podickory Point, tghe dumping grounds above the Bay Bridge and the hill off Poplar Island, Florence said.
Before long the stripers will have moved south to the spots below the Bay Bridge that Houghland knows, but he won't be there to find them.
The last-gasp crew has lost its skipper and it's hard to figure where to turn. There are December days on the bay when if you knock one boat out of the winter striper sport fishery, you've knocked out the fleet.