The Chesapeake Bay's fishing year generally ends with a bang, not a whimper, as scattered fish school up and head for deep water to ride out the cold. They're hungry, concentrated and on the move, which makes them triply vulnerable.
But fishing can be challenging even in the best of times. "I can't make them open their mouths," said Capt. Ed Darwin last week as he trolled along beneath the Bay Bridge in his wooden charterboat Becky D, hunting for schools of plump, autumn rockfish.
It was the best day you could hope for in November, with just a trace of a northerly breeze rippling the surface under a pale blue winter sky. Even the water was bright clear, as it never is in summer when algae cloud it.
The only thing lacking was tide. "These fish bite best on a flying tide," said Darwin, "but I don't think we're going to see one today." Unlike the ocean, the Bay is fickle about tide, its currents responding more to wind and freshwater runoff than to the pull of the sun and moon. You can go a whole, dispiriting day without a strong running tide.
We'd left Mill Creek and sailed east into the rising sun to find the last, faint vestiges of flood tide swirling around the bridge pilings. But when the flood fell off to nothing the water level was still low, an after-effect of two days of hard northerly winds that blew much of the water out of the Bay. "With it this low, there's nothing to drive the ebb tide," said Darwin.
The captain, an ex-schoolteacher from Baltimore, doubted we'd get a good rockfish bite if the water didn't move. But he's been fishing these haunts for a half-century and had a few tricks up his sleeve. While rock like a flying tide, their smaller kin, white perch, often feed best on slack water.
"There's a big school of perch under us right now," said Darwin, eyeing his depth-sounder. How he can tell the difference between perch and rockfish by a few blips on a flat-screen monitor is his secret, but none of us doubted his word.
So George DePaula, the mate, hauled out tiny, light spinning rods with small, double-hook bottom rigs and started cutting up bloodworms for bait while our party of six anglers stowed away the trolling gear.
"Get your baits down there, boys," said Darwin. "We're right on top of them."
We started hauling up prime, silvery perch from the 40-foot depths, sometimes two at a time. DePaula, who usually cleans the fish his parties catch at the end of the day, began lobbying for conservation after about a half-hour of perch-jerking, when the catch box was starting to fill. "I don't plan on spending two hours cleaning perch," he said. "Do you guys really want all these?"
He's probably accustomed to out-of-towners who don't know that white perch, though small, are the finest-eating fish in the Bay. "Yeah, we want 'em," we said, all but in unison. "Well, then," said he, "you're going to clean 'em," which stemmed our ardor a bit.
In the end, Darwin had other spots to check for rockfish anyway, so when we had close to our fill of perch, we brought out the deep trolling rigs again and began exploring. All of Darwin's stops have names -- there's even "Ed's Lump," a rocky underwater outcropping named after himself. We didn't stop there but he took us to the "First Winter Spot" and the "Old Dumping Grounds" north of the bridge, then north all the way to Love Point. But nothing of consequence bit and time was running short.
When he turned south again, heading toward home, the only slim hope left was that the ebb tide had finally begun to run at the bridge. We eyed the surface as we drew nearer, searching for telltale swirls. Andy Hughes, ever the optimist, saw the first hints from afar and let out a whoop.
"Boys," said Darwin, pointing to water rushing around the main bridge pilings as we drew nearer, "if we can't catch them now, we never will."
To make his point, he sent twin small bucktails straight to the bottom on his own fishing rig, twitched the rod once and instantly set the hooks on a pair of keeper rockfish.
An hour later we all had our two-rockfish limits. Darwin turned for home at idling speed and DePaula rigged up a fish-cleaning table on the stern, where Larry Coburn and I spent 45 minutes feverishly slashing away at perch, carving skinless and boneless nuggets from the shiny, silvery fish.
It added up to the best of all possible conclusions: a full catch-box, a bright November sky, cool, gentle winds, a flying tide, and schools of fish still out there, hungry. We left 'em biting. You can't do better than that.
Deep-trolling for rockfish around the Bay Bridge should hold up through the end of the month and could run on into December. It demands some technical skill. Small bucktails dressed with pork-rind trailers are rigged on long, 30-foot leaders and fished as close to the bottom as possible, using 16- to 20-ounce sinkers ahead of the leader to get deep. Anglers must work the rods constantly, letting out or taking up line so the sinker bounces along the bottom; if it drags, it'll snag something; but if it's not right next to the bottom it won't catch fish.
As for perch schools, they, too, should hold up at least another two to three weeks. Fish for them on the bottom using tiny jigs that imitate grass shrimp or with bloodworms or cut bait.
Darwin, the dean of the bridge fishermen, has a few dates left in November. Call 410-974-0263.
In December, the action shifts to the lower Bay as giant rockfish up to 50 pounds arrive from the sea and congregate around the mouth of the Potomac. Among charter skippers who pursue them are Capt. David Rowe (804-529-6725); Capt. Eddie Davis (301-8725871) and Capt. Joe Scrivener (301-994-0398).