It's been more than five years since most Washingtonians last had a chance to fish for rockfish, but while the layoff may have diminished skills, it hasn't dampened appetites.
With rockfish season set to reopen Oct. 5 in Maryland and on the Potomac and Nov. 5 in Virginia, lines already are forming for the old hotspots.
Virginia's Marine Resources Commission issued more than 2,000 free rockfishing permits within 10 days of opening the process to mailed requests this month. The Potomac River Fisheries Commission sent out more than 3,000 free permits, ran out twice and is now in a third printing.
From the murmurs he hears, veteran Maryland charter skipper Ed Darwin expects floating chaos at the Bay Bridge, the Chesapeake's famed rockfish haunt, on opening day. "I doubt I'll be able to get near the bridge," he said.
"It's going to be the biggest day the Bay has ever seen," said Annapolitan George Turner, who will head out early from his dock on the Severn River.
Why all the excitement? Just this: After a painful separation, sportsmen finally have a chance to reacquaint themselves with the region's premier sport fish and top marine delicacy. Rockfish have rebounded from a dismal population slide, evidently as a result of their recent protection.
Now, from Wilson Bridge at the D.C. line to Seven Foot Knoll at the mouth of Baltimore's Patapsco River; from Crisfield on the Eastern Shore to Ragged Point on the Potomac's Virginia shore, anglers are again gearing up with vigor.
But is vigor enough? Jay Sheppard, a fly fisherman of considerable skill who dimly recalls the grand old days of rockfish plenty on the Bay, has doubts.
"I think it might be a good time for someone to put together a primer on how to catch them," he said last week. "The moratorium has been on five years, but rockfish were scarce before that. For some of us, it's been 10 years or more since we seriously fished for them. We might have forgotten more than we care to admit."
Good point. So, in the interest of general edification and for the greater glory and success of the rockfishing public, The Washington Post offers a Guide to Autumn Rockfishing, compiled with the surprisingly willing help of some Bay experts.
First, some background. The general theory on rockfish migration is that the largest rock leave the Bay and head for New England after spawning in spring and don't return until the next spring. So they won't be around. But smaller fish in the tiny-to-10-pound-and-up range remain scattered around the Bay and its tributaries all summer.
As the weather cools, these fish school up and begin to head downstream toward wintering grounds in the Bay's deepest holes.
Exactly where in that migration they will be in October and November, and what they might want to bite, is the question. Experts differ, but most were kind enough to offer their thoughts.
Since tactics and techniques vary from place to place, some traditional fishing hotspots were picked and resident gurus asked for advice. The results:
Ken Wilson of Bass Fever Guide Service (301-953-1722) says he and other Potomac largemouth bass guides will chase rockfish from Wilson Bridge downriver as far as needed, with a probable concentration of effort around Fort Washington.
He said the upper Potomac has had rockfish aplenty the last few years, and October is usually a fine month. His tips: "The fish will be on the flats near grass beds in eight to 10 feet of water in the mornings and evenings, and in the deep holes around bends in the river during the middle of the day."
He'll look for schools of breaking fish to cast topwater lures to where possible. Otherwise, Wilson said he'll troll the best-looking spots using Redfins, Sugar Shad and crankbaits, and look to his depth finder for signs of schools in deep water, then try to dredge them up by jigging spoons and bucktails over them.
The waters around Morgantown Bridge at Route 301 are a known rockfish gathering spot, where veteran charter skipper Art Cather (301-735-8623) will head with his boat, "Rockhound." The ban, he said, "has been driving me crazy. I just can't wait for rockfish season to start."
Like most rockfishermen, Cather is a diehard troller and holds firmly to the notion you can't catch rock by leaving a trolling rod in its holder. "You've got to hold it in your hand and bounce the lures along the bottom."
He'll use as much weight as he needs to reach bottom and troll a double rig, using his own Size 4 silver Cather spoon on a 25-foot leader on top and a 5/0 to 7/0-size white bucktail with white pork rind on a shorter leader below.
The idea, said Cather, is to work hard bottom along channel edges in 12-35 feet of water when the tide is moving. Time of day means nothing, he said, as long as there is tide for the fish to feed in.
Cather reckons there are plenty of rock to be caught in the eight- to 10-pound range. But he doesn't expect to be alone. "It'll be a madhouse out there," he said.
Doug Scheible in Ridge (301-872-5185) said he'll run his headboat Bay King II as far upriver as needed to intercept the fish, concentrating on areas around Tall Timbers, Piney Point, Ragged Point, Blake's Creek and St. Georges. He hopes to chum rockfish in close to the boat, using ground-up menhaden or razor clams. If that doesn't work, "we'll go trolling in the headboat," he said.
Scheible said the abundance of rockfish around the mouth of the Potomac in spring leaves him optimistic about this fall. When trolling, he said he'll look for hard bottom and about 40 feet of water near dropoffs and ledges and use double bucktail rigs fished right on the bottom.
Chris Sullivan of the charter boat Miss Dolly (301-336-0710) expects like Scheible to be fishing hard bottom in 40 feet of water with double bucktail rigs in size 3/0 to 5/0. His favorite spots: Punch Island Sound off the Eastern Shore, the mouth of the Choptank River, the Winter Gooses off Parkers Creek and the shallow, heated water off the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant, where he expects hordes of anglers to descend.
Tommy Goottee of Goottee's Marine on the Eastern Shore (301-397-3122) said he likewise will be fishing around Punch Island Channel near Hoopers Island Light, using 16 ounces or so of weight and wire line to keep the trolling rigs on the bottom. Goottee, Sullivan and just about any other troller will tell you it's critical to keep the lures bouncing along the bottom, where most of the fish lurk.
Kevin Kenno, who does his fishing from a rented skiff out of Sandy Point State Park, expects plenty of company on the Bay's best-known rockfish hotspot. But rockfish are thick there, he said.
He'll fish 1- to 1 1/2-ounce white bucktails with white pork rinds on light tackle in the 15-pound-test range, casting the lures into the cushion of water where a running tide collides with the bridge pilings. Rockfish, he said, lurk on that up-tide side, snatching at bait as it washes past.
If he can get them, Kenno also will buy live eels to fish on the bridge pilings the same way. A live eel is just about irresistible to a rockfish, he said.
Ed Darwin (301-254-1711) is the acknowledged expert on bait, and says there should be plenty of his favorite -- grass shrimp -- available in October. He'll head for traditional rockfish hotspots in the Upper Bay like Seven Foot Knoll, Nine Foot Knoll, Gum Thickets, Belvedere Shoals, Hodges Bar and Swan Point Bar, anchor up and and ladle out one to two gallons of grass shrimp in the course of a day, using the offerings to draw the fish in range.
Just put two or three shrimp on a hook and drift it back with the chum, using a little pinch of lead on the line to hold it down, he said. "You can draw the fish right to the surface from 60 feet of water" that way, Darwin said.
He also favors fishing soft-crab or peeler crab baits on the bottom when he locates a school of rock on the depth-finder, but cautions that crab can be hard to find in late fall.
Finally, in deference to Sheppard, who raised the issue of a rockfish primer in the first place, veteran saltwater fly fisherman Lefty Kreh offered his advice on this most challenging fishing technique. Kreh recommends using his own fly pattern, a 3- to 5-inch Lefty's Deceiver, or a cork and deer-hair popper tied on a 2/0 to 3/0 hook and fished in shallow water for fall rock.
He favors marshy areas around Crisfield where the tide runs fast through a gut or along a marsh bank, but also has had good luck on the Potomac above Piney Point and poking around in areas like Eastern Bay or Poplar Island, searching for schools of rock breaking the surface in pursuit of bait and casting into the schools.
Proper tackle, said Kreh, is a 9-weight rod and a 10-weight, shooting head line to get the fly out 60 feet or more. He uses a tapered bass leader with 12- to 15-pound-test tippet.
Ideas, ideas, and barely a month left to mull them. Then, at last, rockfish!