An Embarrassment of Fishes

Rockfish, bigger rockfish, speck, drum, catfish. Get ready for the change-of-season smorgasbord. [October 2013]

By John Page Williams

So many fish, so little time. That's the phrase that springs to mind as I look forward to another fall season on the Chesapeake and its rivers. Speckled trout and red drum are quickly becoming year-round residents, along with schoolie rockfish, and large rock that have summered in New England will come into the southern Bay to feed on the stream of summer residents that are leaving as water temperatures fall. There will be some bluefish around through October, but croakers, spot, and many menhaden will leave this month and next. Meanwhile, upper Bay and upper river residents such as catfish and white perch offer both sport and great eating as their flesh firms up in the cooling water. There are way too many choices for anyone with real-world commitments. To help you maximize your outings, here's a rundown of what some of our favorite species will be up to this fall.

Early Rockfish

The season for the Chesapeake's iconic striped bass has been open all summer in Maryland; in Virginia, it re-opens October 4 after the summer closure. This year, a surprising number of 24- to 32-inch rockfish have spent the summer in Maryland's upper Bay. They come from the 2004 to 2008 year classes, whose hatches were reasonably strong in the Nanticoke and Choptank Rivers and especially at the head of the Bay. Unfortunately, in the Patuxent and the Potomac, the hatches in those years were not as strong, and fishing for rock has been tough in the mid-Bay between the Little Choptank and Smith Point. There are plenty of schools of sub-legal 14- to 16-inch rock up and down the Bay from the banner hatch in the spring of 2011, but the intervening years have been poor, as was last year.

Both the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) should release the results of their 2013 surveys early this month, but it's clear that up and down the Atlantic coast, the population has fallen from the bonanza years in the middle of the past decade. There are still some big fish in the migratory coastal stock, from the large year classes of 1996 (now 48-49 inches), 2001 (38-39 inches), and 2003 (35-36 inches), and a few from 1993 (now truly huge at 54-55 inches).

Remember, though, that these fish are generally referred to as cows because most of them-and all above 42 inches-are egg-bearing females whose ovaries are beginning to form about one million eggs per pound of body weight. They are our spawning stock, and their survival is crucial to the future of our fishery, as well as those from here to Maine and even the Canadian Maritimes. They deserve our respect and best stewardship. The science is telling us that it's time to back off the pressure we put on that spawning stock, so we may see tighter regulations on them next year, but there's nothing wrong with voluntary limits now.

Bottom Line: Will there be nice rockfish out there this fall? Of course. Will we have to work for them? Of course; that's why we call this exercise fishing, not catching.

Through October and early November, those 24- to 32-inch rockfish that summered here will feed in shallow water, offering fly- and lighttackle anglers serious thrills, especially those using surface lures. The opportunities abound from Baltimore to the Virginia Capes, especially in the mid-Bay islands and Tangier Sound, though the season's characteristic cold fronts will periodically complicate matters with wind, waves and roiled, muddy water.

For the best fishing, go early in the day-really early-or late. Remember that most striper hounds in New England fish at night and morning's first light, because the fish are uniquely equipped with acute low-light vision and sensitive lateral lines that detect vibration. Learn to work "walking plugs" like Heddon Spooks and Bomber Badonk-A-Donks as well as spitting poppers like Stillwater's Smack-It and Storm's Chug Bug. Take the hooks off a popper and tie a feather jig onto the back eye with an 18- to 24-inch leader, or do the same with a rattle float like DOA's Clacker.

Other shallow-water options include Texasrigged soft jerk baits from Bass Assassin and DOA, suspending plugs like Rapala's X-Rap, and seemingly oversize in-line spinners, like number 3 to 5 Blue Fox Vibraxes. Fish under docks until the water temperature drops into the low 50s. Don't forget bucktails, and try pork rind-split deep and trimmed for maximum action. Last fall, friends and I caught some nice schoolie rock while wade-fishing at dusk on falling tides in the mouth of a tiny creek. My go-to lure was a 7/8-ounce Luhr-Jensen Laxee spoon, fished on a rip-drop retrieve that made it vibrate hard, then flutter. My fly-fishing friends did well with Clouser Minnows and poppers.

Through the entire season, be ready for light-tackle jigging (LTJ) when fish go deeper. Look for hard-bottom lumps in 10 to 30 feet of water in the main Bay everywhere from Pooles Island to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. And don't neglect the lower rivers. For example, the mouth of the Choptank holds a large field of oyster-encrusted reef balls in 20 to 22 feet of water off Cooks Point, and the lower Rappahannock is full of three dimensional restoration oyster reefs. In both states, look for oyster restoration areas and watch your fishfinder.

Specks & Reds

Last year's bonanza of redfish didn't quite repeat in 2013, but there have been plenty of puppy drum in the lower Bay, and many of them have been over 18 inches in length, legal to harvest in both Virginia and Maryland (remember that Virginia's upper limit is 26 inches with a bag limit of three, while Maryland's upper is 27 inches with a bag of one). Look for them this fall from Tangier Sound to the Lynnhaven River, but as the weather cools, the odds will favor the area from Hampton Roads to Cape Henry. Refer to last month's Angler's Almanac, for techniques that will hold till early November- and even longer in Hampton Roads, depending on weather. Last year saw quite a few oversized catch-and-release red drum bottom fishing with cut bait in October from the Northern Neck Reef (between Smith Point and Tangier Bar) down to the bridge-tunnel.

Ed Lawrence Photos
In 2012, Virginia anglers caught citation speckled trout literally every day of the year, though in the coldest months virtually all of them came from the Elizabeth River. In October, the Virginia fishing was best along the Bay's Western Shore, in most of the tributaries from the Great Wicomico to the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, again using the techniques described in September's "Marsh Wisdom" column. On the Eastern Shore from Smith Island to Cape Charles, the specks were mixed with rockfish, and those waters did not turn up as many large fish, but their numbers were sufficient to make many anglers happy.

One technique not discussed last month that caught both specks and rock in shallow water was trolling. This version is as uncomplicated as big-boat planer-board fishing is intricate. It involves simply tossing a jig or plug 75 feet behind a skiff and moving slowly along marsh banks and underwater grass beds. Anglers around Crisfield and Tangier, and farther down on the western side, out of Mathews and Gloucester, have practiced this form of trolling for many years, some of them still by rowing or paddling.

Other Options

Maryland anglers dearly love to catch and eat white perch, and those fish are especially tasty when they come from cold water. The best white on my boat last fall, a 14-incher, came in mid-October from a salt pond on the Severn River, caught on a number 3 Blue Fox Vibrax. Wanting her genes to stay in the pool, we released her, but we got an astounding number of 10- to 12-inch keepers there, jigging on shell bottoms and reefs in 15 to 25 feet of water.

In the upper Bay and all of the Chesapeake's upper rivers, catfish have flourished after this summer's rains, giving us a smorgasbord of tasty blues, channel cats and flatheads. Take advantage of them by bottom fishing with cut fish, but pay attention to the states' health advisories: The best cats for the table will weigh 2 to 10 pounds.

One interesting lower Bay option that has strong devotees is tautog, fished around the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel in November and December. The bait of choice is chunks of hard crab worked around the pilings and rocks. Tautog are challenging to hook (strike half-a-second before he bites, they say), but they are strong fighters and their firm, white meat makes a great chowder.

Big Rockfish

In November and December, the big coastal migrant rockfish heading south from New England will move into the Bay to feed on departing menhaden and other forage fish. How far up the Chesapeake they come each year depends on a host of factors, only some of which we can follow: namely water temperature, rainfall, salinity, menhaden distribution, and fishing pressure. The best we can do is look for them on our fishfinders-and follow the gannets, which are following the same forage fish the rocks are after. This is cold-weather stuff: sturdy boats, cold-weather clothing, and big trolling spreads at varying depths.

From Cape Charles, Va., to the bridge-tunnel, a lot of anglers will bait up for these big rockfish with eels. At night, they'll anchor on the shoals just inside the bridge-tunnel and deploy their eels on sliding-sinker rigs. During the day, they'll drift, with multiple eels set at varying depths, including at least one near the surface under a large bobber. Light-tackle jigging will take some big fish in this area too, especially in late November and December under "gannet storms." It's big, cold water, though. Watch the weather and take enough boat to stay safe.

Go easy, though, on big fish that will spawn next spring. To keep the great fishing we've had since the moratorium, we need to pay attention to the future.

Lure Manufacturers

Bass Assassin:
Bass Kandy Delight:
Bass Pro Shops: (both freshwater and saltwater fishing)
Berkley Gulp Alive jerk baits:
Case Salty Shad:
DOA Jerkbaits:
Lunker City Slug-Go and Fin-S Fish:
Mann's HardNose Jerkbait:
Old Bayside Shadlyn:
Strike King Redfish Magic Zulu:
Zoom Lures Super Fluke:

Hook Manufacturers and Dealers

Barlow's Tackle Express:
Daiichi (TTI Blakemore):
Eagle Claw:
Jann's Netcraft:
Lunker City: