Fishing on the Chesapeake is spectacular in November as rockfish, white perch and whatever else is still around gorge on bait before the winter. The best place I know to go this time of year is the so-called eastern rockpile on the Bay Bridge. Trouble is, everybody else knows about it, too.
The eastern rockpile is one of two center supports on the older, southern span of the twin bridges that connect the rest of Maryland to the Eastern Shore. It's unclear why it's so attractive to feeding fish, but the combination of deep water, fast current and rocky underwater structure always lures a crowd of hungry predators -- and, of course, anglers chasing them.
This leads to occasional unpleasantries as competing fishermen employing different techniques vie for the same space. Some prefer to anchor, some to drift, some to troll, some to flyfish. It's not unusual to tangle someone else's line, and boats occasionally bump. Since it's almost all men out there, there's much chest-thumping and snarling, particularly on weekends when the crowds are thickest.
It can get ugly. I never quite figured out how to duck confrontations until last week, when clever George Turner showed the way. He brings an attractive woman!
Turner, a real estate salesman who specializes in high-end waterfront property around Annapolis, knows how to schmooze and make nice. So when he goes to the rockpile, he brings along his former assistant, Joanne Martin, a graceful, slender, blonde ex-dancer who just happens to love fishing.
Talk about parting the Red Sea. When we drew near the rocks late in the afternoon, the usual crowd of boats was there and we got the standard glares signifying displeasure at the arrival of yet another interloper. Martin offered to steer as we rigged up trolling rods for the first pass. As soon as we got into the thick of it, all those glowers turned to glows and the snarls switched to smiles.
"Hey, that's some driver you got there," said a toothless old fellow, waving happily. Another guy shouted with a grin: "Got one!" He waved his undersized rockfish at Martin before releasing it.
It only got better when we switched to deep-jigging and Martin grabbed a rod and started pulling in perch, herring and rockfish. Those hardheaded old men acted like choir boys, beckoning us over to the best spots to catch bigger ones.
"It's always like this with Joanne," Turner said. "We go out on the ocean trolling for tuna with my friend C.A. and you can hear them talking on the radio: 'Hey, check out the scenery on the Mako coming toward you.' "
No one ever said life was fair, of course. At least this time of year, we grizzled old codgers can catch some fish. The eastern rockpile should remain productive into December, and it's easily accessible in small boats from the launch ramp at Sandy Point State Park.
Fishing is best on a moving tide. Bluefish that were plentiful two weeks ago appear to have departed for warmer waters, but perch and rockfish remain in abundance. Keeper rock over 18 inches bite best on small, white or yellow bucktails trolled along the bottom. The water is 30 to 50 feet deep, so 16 to 20 ounces of lead is needed to get down to them. Smaller rock frequently break the surface chasing bait and can be caught on flies, feather jigs or popper lures.
Perch are so abundant, they frequently cloud the fish-finder in great mounds rising off the bottom. Best bait for them is bloodworms or artificial Fish-Bites fished on the bottom. They also bite grass shrimp or Sabiki rigs, which are daisy-chain lures made to look like tiny shrimp. Unfortunately, Sabiki rigs come packaged with five hooks, though under Maryland regulations anglers are barred from using more than two hooks at a time.
Proper practice is to cut down Sabikis into two sets of two hooks apiece, though knowledge of the law is not widespread. Turner, for one, was unaware of it and I myself was unsure till I checked afterward with state Natural Resources Police.
Turner can save himself some damage in the future by cutting his Sabiki rigs down. "I had a kid out with me a couple of weeks ago who hooked four 16-inch rockfish at once," he said. "When he got them up to the boat, he lifted the rod and it snapped in half. We released all the fish and I hated to lose the rod, but that kid has a story to tell for the rest of his life. 'I caught so many rockfish, I broke my rod!' "
Thursday Paddlers, the informal group of canoeists and kayakers who travel the region looking for challenging whitewater, made their last trip of the season on the Potomac last week in honor of R.C. Forney, the Arlington paddler who died in West Virginia's Cheat Canyon a week before, leaving a wife and two small children.
Forney, 42, was entrapped by a submerged log and drowned at Pete Morgan Rapids after capsizing on a rock at the head of the rapids. Two paddlers who were on the trip, Terry Irani and Dick Pierce, made the Potomac run as well. Both expressed shock and regret at the first fatality in 10 years for the Thursday group.
The Cheat was running at a level of three feet that day, which Pierce, a kayaker, described as about average for experienced whitewater paddlers. Others said it was a challenging level for an open, solo canoe of the kind Forney used.
Only five paddlers made the final, windy Thursday run on the Potomac from O-Deck rapids below Great Falls to Carderock Park just above the Beltway Bridge. They were joined at the takeout by a half-dozen other area Thursday regulars who honored Forney's memory with hot cider and tea and some last thoughts on his passing.
The Thursday group's organizer, Steve Ettinger, said activities will resume in the spring unless there's a particularly mild weekend this winter when the water is up, in which case he'll try to hastily assemble a group via e-mail.