It's an upside-down year on the Chesapeake Bay. Fishing was excellent most of the summer above the Bay Bridge and around Baltimore Harbor, of all places, while down south in traditional hot spots like Crisfield and Point Lookout at the mouth of the Potomac it's been hit-or-miss.
I spent a long day at Lookout last month with my old friend Bill Brener of McLean, hunting breaking schools of striped bass (rockfish) and blues, usually abundant all fall, and went home empty-handed. That's a first, and all the more improbable as the day before we'd been bailing those very same species on topwater lures around the Bay Bridge from my little skiff. It's bass-ackwards, as they say.
A week or so later, Baltimore's Inner Harbor was bathed in rosy sunset as Capt. Skip Slomski and I entertained ourselves hooking rockfish, blues and big white perch on feather jigs. Slomski says it's getting better all the time around the mouth of the Patapsco River as the weather cools, and he expects a bang-up fall.
Slomski and others think water quality has much to do with the peculiar turnaround. For some reason the water near Baltimore has been clear and full of life all summer, while down the bay it's been murky and less productive. Some say fish are rallying to the upper bay to escape expanding "dead zones" in the main bay where oxygen is scarce.
The fact is, nobody really knows why fish do what they do. That's what keeps it interesting. "It's why I keep my boat on a trailer," says Slomski.
Still, old habits are hard to break and old triumphs hard to forget, so despite the turnabout, Dick Franyo and I made the long drive down to Crisfield last week to fly-fish around Smith and Tangier Islands with Capt. Kevin Josenhans.
Franyo books Josenhans every October and November for six days and can recall outings when his arm got weary catching keeper-sized rock. Josenhans says the fish move into shallows as the water cools to fatten up on bait for the long winter. Sometimes they are joined by hungry speckled trout and bluefish.
A Maryland Park Ranger by profession and fishing guide on the side, Josenhans saves up his vacation days for autumn when fishing is best. He keeps a 20-foot Jones Brothers skiff in showroom condition and can fish three clients comfortably. He's an experienced, skillful guide who's been at the flyrod/light tackle game about as long as anyone in the region.
Yet even he had a war-weary look after the slow summer. He said he's been particularly put off by the growing number of rockfish he's caught bearing red sores from micobacteria infections.
But most are healthy and autumn always brings promise. We set off from Somers Cove Marina on Wednesday and idled out past the new condominium blocks that are transforming Crisfield from an old-fashioned waterman's village to just another tourist destination, then made a beeline for golden, sunwashed, uninhabited marsh tumps lying low on the horizon.
Fishing the shallow points off these tumps is a tide-dependent game, and we had a wait to endure while the flood made up. Josenhans had classy, nine-weight Loomis flyrods rigged with sink-tip line and we used them to cast weighted minnow imitations along the banks. Occasionally a small rockfish took the fly, but it was slow going in the slack water. We also spent an hour or so buzzing out to deep water to look for breaking fish, but found none.
By lunchtime, the first hints of incoming current were swishing around the tips of the outlying marsh islands. Josenhans idled close to one, set the anchor and instructed us to cast up into the tide rip forming, where hungry rockfish and trout would likely lurk. We tossed our flies in to the choppy water and bang! There they were.
It wasn't nonstop and sadly, no speckled trout showed up, but the action on rockfish up to 24 inches long was exhilarating. The fish were hungry, struck decisively and put up a good fight, and only a few wore the depressing red spots of disease. Healthy or sick, we released all we caught.
Franyo, 61, a retired Baltimore investment banker who owns the Boatyard Bar & Grill in Annapolis, was high rod by a lot, having honed his skills over years fishing with Josenhans. He also wins the award for most enthusiastic hook-setter. Every time a fish struck, he'd let out a yelp and jerk back on the rod with an exuberance that grew downright unwelcome to those of us not sharing his level of success. "If I ever do a fishing video," said Josenhans, "I'm going to make sure Dick is in it."
The harder the tide ran the better the bite got, and we probably had brought 30 rock to the boat by quitting time at 4 p.m. "That's nothing," said Franyo. "I've had days when we stopped counting at 100."
Josenhans reckons those days are yet to come. With water temperatures lingering in the mid-70s, the fall run is late, he said. "It doesn't get really good till it's in the 60s." Slomski, up in Baltimore, shares his optimism about angling prospects over the next month and a half. "It's just starting to get right," he said.
Twenty years ago, it was hard to find a light-tackle or fly-fishing guides like Josenhans and Slomski on the Chesapeake, but these days more and more outfitters keep their boats on trailers and go where the action is. Following is a list of 21 such guides who specialize in the middle bay, as provided by the Chesapeake Guides Association (www.chesapeakeguides.com):
Bo Toepfer, Chesapeake Bay Fly Fishing, 410-535-6259
Norm Bartlett, Saltwater Fly Fishing Guide Service, 410-679-8790
Richard Borneman, Twilight Zone Charters, 410-939-2948
Mike Critzer, Coastal Fly Fishing Charters, 301-253-5605 or 240-876-6915 (boat)
Tom Cross, Fast Break Charter Service, 410-827-6687
Steve Culver, Check Your Fly Charters, 410-476-3342
Pete Dahlberg, Four Seasons Guide Service, 410-586-8340 or 703-395-9955
John Deering, Shadyside Charters, 410-867-0605
CD Dollar Osprey Expeditions, 410-827-0786 or 410-991-8468
Kurt Freund, Fishsticks Charters, 410-745-6357 or 410-829-7738
Richie Gaines, Angler's Connection Guide Service, 410-827-7210
Mark Galasso, Tuna the Tide Charter Service, 410-310-1200 or 410-827-6188
Scott Hopkins, Fly's Down Guide Service, 610-869-4490 or 610-220-1391 (boat)
Kevin Josenhans, Josenhans Sportfishing, 410-883-2648 or 443-783-3271 (boat)
Bill Kassakatis, 410-293-6035
Gary Neitzey, Fish Hawk Guide Service, 410-758-4262
Mike Murphy, Tide Runner Fishing Charters, 410-397-3474
Jeff Popp, 410-592-7518
Darren Rickwood, Chesapeake Bay Adventures, 410-586-2319
Skip Slomski, Jenny Beck Fishing Charters, 410-746-6907
Matt Tawes, Chesapeake Angling Guide Service, 410-968-3286 or 443-235-5925