It wasn't too long ago that you could fish anywhere from the marshes to the ocean and never run across a flyrodder on salt water. These days the folks with the long wands are everywhere, and October is one of the months they like best.
The big problem with fly-fishing the suds at other times of the year is that saltwater fish mostly run deep, and fly rods don't do their best work at depth. Sure, you can buy sinking lines that drag a fly 20 or 30 feet down, and many good anglers do, but a fly to my mind is best suited to shallow water, and, best of all, surface fishing.
Which is why October is so appealing. This is the month bluefish and rockfish in Chesapeake Bay school up and feed voraciously before heading to the ocean (blues) or to deep holes in the bay (rock) to ride out the winter. Mostly they are smaller fish, 12 to 16 inches long, but they are wildly energetic, hungry as hyenas and abundant beyond belief when you find them.
Often they drive schools of bait to the surface, then slash away in plain view. That brings flocks of sea gulls to feast on the bait from above, which means a flyrodder with a fast boat has only to scan the sky for big knots of diving birds, race over and get in on the action.
I've been patiently waiting for schools of breaking fish to show up around Annapolis. Usually it's good by mid-September and better through October, but this year for reasons unknown the early action was spotty. Finally one day last week I ran into some roofers I know who gave me the high sign.
They'd been working on a waterfront house at Bay Ridge. "I've never seen so many birds in my life," said one. "They were diving on breaking fish as far as you could see all morning."
A few hours later, Northern Virginian Bob Poole and I set out in the Boston Whaler, armed with foam white popping bugs and Lefty's Deceivers and an assortment of other saltwater flies we could skitter across the surface to imitate fleeing baitfish. We spied the birds diving off Tolly Point almost immediately, and sped over in time to hook a couple of blues. But soon the action slowed, then quit altogether.
What to do? Rob Jepson at Anglers Sporting Goods had told me fish were breaking consistently at the eastern rock pile at the base of one of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge's main supports. The bridge was in view, far over choppy seas. We put the hammer down on the little 15-footer, leapfrogged waves for six miles and were richly rewarded.
A flood tide ripped along and in the fast water the scene was mayhem, with rockfish balled up so tightly in a 100-yard-wide circle it looked like a solid mass of swirling silver slashing at the helpless bait. It took your breath away.
Poole tossed his popper into the chaos and was quickly fast to a rockfish. I looked around at the handful of other boats. Here was a flyrodder, here another, here another . . .
A few days later, Gene Miller and I launched the Whaler for another foray. "Where are we going?" he asked as I poked the nose of the boat out the creek.
"Eastern rock pile, baby!" I crowed. And once more it was worth the trip.
As we eased up under the bridge, I spied a familiar figure drifting along in the rushing ebb tide. It was Capt. Norm Bartlett, one of the bay's premier flyfishing guides, with a pair of clients in his 17-foot Key West skiff. When we came alongside one of his anglers reared back to set the hook as a rockfish smashed his fly. The fellow smiled as the rod tip danced. "Number 431 for today," he said, exaggerating more than a little.
"It's been fantastic here for two weeks," said Bartlett, a retired machinist from Baltimore's Bethlehem Steel and one of the most energetic and imaginative guides on the bay. "I've been coming here every day."
Bartlett had one flyrodder and one spin fisherman aboard. Gene Miller is a spinning-rod man, and Bartlett showed us a trick to improve his chances. Bartlett uses a standard plastic popper on spinning tackle, but to the back set of treble hooks he attaches about two feet of 10-pound-test line, to which he ties a small white fly. That way, when you chug the popper along the surface and fish come up to whack it, they see the little fly tagging along behind, which looks more like the baitfish they've been feeding on, and whack that.
The upshot of this "popper with a dropper" technique is more fish, and most of them are taken on the small, single-hook trailer fly instead of the gang hooks poppers employ. Since almost all the rockfish we caught were under the minimum keeper size of 18 inches, it meant less damage to them and a much easier time releasing them.
And did we catch 'em. The tide was piling up on the rock pile, and as usual most of the rockfish were in the churning tide rip just uptide of the rocks. They'd come to the surface and smash at bait, and the four or five boats working the scene rushed to get uptide of the action, then drift down through, casting into the thick of it.
There were some small blues mixed in, and we kept a handful to fillet for supper. Occasionally, Bartlett, said, a keeper rockfish shows up in the mix, too, but the best we caught was a 17-incher, which is great fun on a flyrod whether you get to keep it or not.
How long will this go on? Good question. Every cold front that blows through gives the rock and blues reason to flee. Time's winged chariot rolls on. So sooner, rather than later, sounds wise.
Flyrodding for breaking fish at Chesapeake Bay Bridge is something anyone can do using rental boats from the fleet at Sandy Point State Park. The fee for a boat and motor is $60 a day; call 410-974-2149.
Best flies are white cork or foam poppers or minnow imitations in white, yellow or chartreuse. Fast retrieves seem to work best; some flyrodders tuck the rod under their arms and use two hands to get maximum speed on the retrieve.
Spinfishermen use four- to five-inch poppers in white or white with silver sparkles, with a white fly on a two-foot dropper trailing off the back. Quick, jerky retrieves seem to draw the most strikes.
When fish are breaking, civic-minded anglers do not anchor in the prime spot, but instead motor uptide or upwind and drift back through. That way everyone gets a crack at the hot spot. Folks who anchor mess up the fishing for everyone else, and also limit their own options. These are bad things.