There may be a better place to be in October than right here but I'm not familiar with it. This is the season when the sky clears, the air dries, the breeze freshens and the water cools down. It's the best of all times for a fisherman -- everything that can move is on the move and hungry.
But nothing about the wild is predictable and this fall is no exception. By now, the Chesapeake Bay should be alive with breaking rockfish and blues churning the surface as they rampage through schools of peanut bunker, with flocks of seagulls overhead and sea trout lurking beneath to gobble up the remnants.
Chasing breaking fish this time of year is my favorite form of angling, so my rods are rigged and the boat is ready. But for reasons unclear, it's just not happening. Maybe bunker are scarce, maybe they're just staying down in the water column. Who knows?
I called Bill Brener, my man in Point Lookout at the mouth of the Potomac where breaking fish are just about guaranteed, but he said he'd been mostly bottom fishing for spot and flounder and has seen few breakers. Shep McKenney on the St. Mary's River gave a similar report.
Fly-fishing guides Richie Gaines and Norm Bartlett, who go where the fish are, said they'd seen a few schools of small rockfish breaking at the Bay Bridge and in Eastern Bay, but there were few keepers among them. Gaines suggested I call Sherman Baynard, fisheries chairman of the Maryland Coastal Conservation Association, who keeps a 17-foot Mako on a trailer and roams the Eastern Shore from the Chester River to Crisfield hunting for fish.
Baynard said he'd all but hung up his tackle after the most disappointing season in years. "I'd be happy to take you," he chuckled, "but all I can promise to do is show you places I used to catch fish and tell you stories about what it was like."
That sounded better than nothing, so off we went from his farmhouse in Centreville at the crack of dawn Wednesday. You couldn't have asked for a prettier day or a gloomier prognosis.
Baynard retired from farming at 50 to devote himself to the conservation cause and sportfishing. He fishes only shallow water with flyrod or light spinning tackle, saying, "If you can't stand up in it, it's too deep for me." Mostly he fishes for rockfish in tidal rivers like the Chester, Choptank, Wye, Miles, Little Nanticoke and Honga, and along the shore in Fishing Bay, Tangier Sound, Smith, Poplar, James and Janes Islands. He casts around submerged rocks and tree stumps or at jutting points of land where the tide runs strong all summer, and in the fall likes to chase breaking fish.
He was quite successful early on, but for the last four years it's been going steadily downhill. This year, after several trips when he failed to catch a single keeper, he began to lose enthusiasm. "You don't have to catch big fish every time you go -- nobody does that," he says. "But you have to believe you can. You have to think on every cast, 'This is the one.' If you don't have that feeling, eventually you'll stop fishing. Why else would you get up at 5 o'clock in the morning and bang around in an open boat all day?"
We launched at the public ramp at Bellevue on the Tred Avon, a Choptank tributary, and braced for a fruitless day. Then, surprise! At the first stop, along a crumbling concrete breakwater across from downtown Oxford, I felt a tap-tap-tapping on my pearl-colored Bass Assassin lure, reared back and set the hook on a 16-inch rockfish. So began a satisfying day that reinforced once again one of the basic truths of fishing: You never know what's going to happen till you wet a line.
Over the years, Baynard, who generally fishes with his wife Diane, has built up an encyclopedic knowledge of the waters he plies. We fished the Tred Avon, then ventured out into the main Choptank, hugging the Talbot County side awhile, then crossing to the Dorchester County side. The stops were all predetermined and at each he described in detail the underwater landscape.
"The rocks here run in a dogleg pattern," he'd say, sweeping an arm to map the scene. "They put the breakwater here to protect a little island but it washed away. You can see where the rocks are by the darker water. Cast up toward the corner of the house and you'll pass right over the edge of it."
It was tricky fishing with plenty of hangs and snags but it proved productive at almost every stop. Mostly they were undersized fish of 12 to 16 inches, but occasionally a keeper rockfish over 18 inches grabbed hold. Two or three times a few fish popped to surface to chase bait around and we switched to flyrods, but mostly it was blind-casting to underwater structure, though it wasn't really blind since he knew what lay below.
In early spring, when the water is clear but fish haven't yet started to move, Baynard rides around the rivers getting the lay of the land, looking for places to come back to. It's useful knowledge when the fish show up if they do. This year, they hadn't, until now.
We picked away from 7 a.m. till 2 p.m. and boated a half-dozen keepers, setting aside four to take home. "You might not believe it," Baynard said, "but this is the first time all year I've put four keepers in the boat."
Baynard is at a loss to explain why his fishing has declined so sharply. He thinks it may have something to do with the continued plunder of bunkers (menhaden) by the purse seine reduction fishery in Virginia, which takes millions of pounds of the bait fish annually to grind up for oil and cat food. The fish we caught were skinny and the two I cleaned had a grand total of one, dime-sized blue crab in their stomachs. Are these fish starving?
But in October, even hard times look good. If nothing else, our trip renewed the spirit of two bay anglers who were losing hope. The fish are biting at last and I'll be back out soon. I reckon Baynard will, too.