Thursday, December 31, 2020

The Old Man and the Sea - My First Offshore Adventure!

When I was about ten years old, I remember watching the movie, "Old Man and the Sea", based on Ernest Hemingway's novel.  The drama, the seemingly never ending battle against a monster swordfish, the exhilaration of catching the gigantic fish with a hand line that ripped apart his hands, followed by the old man's exhausting ordeal fighting off the sharks while trying to get the behemoth back to shore whole.  

That story left a mark on me, not only the vastness of the ocean, but the tranquility, the beauty, and also the potential terrors, not only from what lies beneath, but of the sea itself. Although it was a fictional drama, it seemed to me to be very realistic and a well told tale.  The open ocean has been a mysterious wonder of mine for my entire life.

An August sunrise over the Atlantic.  What deep sea monsters and adventures await us at the fishing grounds of "The Old Man and the Sea"?

At that young age, memories of helping my grandfather surf fish off of Ocean City, Maryland while we were on vacation always stuck with me.  I remember cutting squid and mullet for him to bait the hooks on his surf rigs.  I remember him catching lots of small sharks and rays, slammer bluefish, an occasional nice rockfish, sea trout, flounder and one big really big red drum.  That drum seemed gigantic to a ten year old like me.  I remember creating tide pools in the sand to play with Northern puffers that he caught.  I remember tickling their bellies so I could watch them inflate themselves in a defensive maneuver.

While he surf fished, I always remembered "The Old Man and the Sea", and wondered what monster fish might bite his rig and give my Grandfather the fight of a lifetime.  As I grew older and surf fished on my own, I realized that offshore fish like that would never come within surf casting distance.  Still, as I fished and gazed out to the vast open ocean, I always wondered what it would be like to catch a monster fish like that, or, what monsters were inshore that might give me the fight of a lifetime.  

Well, this past summer, thanks to my good friend, Ed Lewandoski, that dream came true as he offered me a nice two day weekend open ocean trip of a lifetime.  One of his trip goals was to catch a big mahi-mahi, but we'd be happy for just about any other gamefish out there that would offer up a good fight.  For me, the entire experience was the goal.  One of the wonders of fishing the ocean is that you really don't know what you'll hook into.  The variety of fish that you may encounter blows my mind.

On our first day, we stopped at the local gas station, gassed up, picked up some eats for the trip out, and bought lots of ice for the fish bag.  After ingesting a couple Dramamine pills during the wee hours of the morning, we dropped Ed's boat in at Chincoteague and headed out to the canyons some 50 to 60 miles offshore.  

Thinking of my comfort, Ed brought a bean bag chair that I could sit in behind the console so I could sleep during the trip out.  Are you kidding me?  Heck, no sleep for me.  I insisted in taking part of every moment.  After all, it's my first trip out to the deep blue.  I wanted to witness everything.  I was so STOKED!  There was no way that I could sleep, even though it was tough to see anything as we plowed through wave after wave in the dark.  It was nice of Ed to think of my comfort though, and I appreciated that.

The ocean was a little choppy, but not bad.  The forecast was pretty good for the first day, and even better the second.  It took a bit of getting used to the rhythmic motion of the boat plowing into one roller after another, but posed no problem for my inner ear.  

As the sun began to rise in the East, Ed encouraged me to keep my eyes out for anything floating in the water, and I mean anything.  If there is something out there on the water's surface, it will attract bait and predators, especially mahi-mahi.  Upon spotting such flotsam, we'd stop and cast for whatever hungry teleosts might inhale our offerings.

Basically, you look for anything out there that floats on the surface, whether it be crab pots, trash, macroalgae like sargassum weed, or balloons, or whatever!  We heard one boat on the radio talking about a pallet floating out there that they caught fish off of.

My eyes scanned the vast ocean as far as my poor eyesight would allow me to see, hoping to see something that might put us on fish, or maybe witness something out there that I may not ever see again.  Ripples on the waves, or the waves in the distance, offered my poor eyesight mirages of potential pelagic critters.  I wanted to see something so bad, that my eyes invented images of sea monsters or lesser activity, when in reality, it may have been just a white capped wave.

Ed told me during our long truck ride about his most recent trip with his pal Jason, when they came across a partially deflated kids foil balloon floating out in the middle of the ocean.  They stopped and cast jigs and caught some really nice sized dolphin (mahi-mahi).  That's all it takes.  He jokes about a time when he saw a party balloon on the ground in at a local grocery store parking lot, and texted a picture to Jason with the caption, "Mahi!".  Only an offshore angler would get excited seeing a downed foil balloon!

When we stopped, finally, after almost a two hour trip out, we set up for trolling one of Ed's spots that he had planned to visit.  The wave action still posed no problem for me.  The Dramamine worked just fine.  After trolling a short while, Ed hooked up and caught the first of several small mahi-mahi.  We trolled various squid type baits at different distances and depths using outriggers to keep some of the baits out to the edge of the boat wake.  

I was amazed at how beautiful mahi-mahi, or dolphin fish, were in person.  In the water, they are absolutely stunning as they approach with electric blue and green coloration.  Even landed, for a brief period, their colors are so vibrant.  What a beautiful fish they are.  Already, my trip was made, catching another species of fish that I've never caught, and a beautiful one at that.

My first ever dolphin fish (aka mahi-mahi).  This little one was released, but we kept some for the table on this trip.  They are so tasty.  I could not get over how beautiful these fish were as they approach the boat, and even while posing for pictures.  Their beautiful colors fade the longer they are out of the water.  Pictures don't really do them justice.

I couldn't believe how blue yet clear the water was.  The prop wash was even a bright blue.  You could easily see fifty feet down or more.  When we hooked fish, the colors were just amazing.  Now, it makes sense when the Wicked Tuna guys yell that they see color when a fish nears the boat.

We had one massive hit that sounded like a canon going off.  We looked around and one of the lines was down, but didn't seem like it had a fish on.  Ed reeled it in, and there was a small mahi hooked and not moving, with massive bite marks across it's body.  A shark, or perhaps a big bluefish, was most likely the assailant.  It probably chased and hit the mahi as it hit Ed's lure or shortly afterwards.

Ed caught this mahi-mahi that was attacked by a toothy critter, perhaps a shark or a big chopper bluefish.

After that, we headed for the canyon.  On the trip out, we came across a pod of bottlenose dolphins.  Ed slowed the boat down and they immediately moved in to frolic in the wake of the boat.  I jumped up and yelled to them like a little kid.  I took a video of that experience (below).  Again, I'm a newb to that world, so forgive me.  I loved it.  One dolphin kept turning and looking at me as I yelled and filmed.  So very cool to make contact with other intelligent life forms!

On the way to the canyon, we passed what I thought looked like a crab pot.  What the heck, way out in the ocean?  I yelled out and Ed slowed down and pulled a U turn.  He guided the boat to within casting distance of a crab pot marker buoy.   Ed asked me to move the bean bag to the front of the boat out of the way.  It was big and bulky, and the only way was to push it around the fish bag.  

I swung the bag partially over the gunwale and gave it a heave toward the front.  Then, disaster struck as the handle on the bag snagged the reel handle of Ed's jigging reel that was sitting in a nearby rod holder.  The weight of the bag broke the rod off at the base of the handle.  The rod and reel fell into the deep blue sea, but I managed to bend over and grab it without falling in myself.  

I felt awful as I handed Ed his brand new broken rod.  He actually was able to use it and caught a bunch of fish jigging with it.  It looked like an ultralight crappie spinning rod combo at this point.  That incident bugged me the rest of the trip, but Ed was a good sport about it.  After the trip, I ordered a replacement for him and had it delivered directly to his house.  As I said earlier, I felt absolutely awful about it.

Meanwhile, I threw a jig/soft plastic combo that worked well for stripers, having never been out there before.  Why did I have that on?  I don't know, maybe just lazy, or confidence, as it was already tied on from striper fishing.  But, I still thought it might work.  It didn't.

Meanwhile, Ed, using his abbreviated rod handle spinning rod, immediately hooked up on his jigging spoon and boated a nice mahi-mahi worth putting in the fish bag.  On his next cast, he hooked, landed and released a smaller one.  

Then, we noticed that there were more crab pots, in fact, a whole line of them, perhaps eight or nine of them.  With no more action at the first crab pot, we moved to the next one.  Ed hooked up again on his next cast and added another keeper for the fish bag.  He then lent me a jigging spoon similar to the one he had luck with, and I hooked up on a small mahi that I released.  

We moved to the next pot and repeated our success.  I'd say that we had at least a fish on for just about all of the crab pots.  None of them were the big monsters that we hoped for, but many of them were good enough for the table, so we added more to the fish bag.

After trying the crab pots a couple more times, the action slowed.  Ed marked the spot on his GPS, so we could return another time.  Then, we continued toward the canyon.  

After about another half hour ride, we finally made it to our destination, the canyon.  We only saw a few boats in the distance all morning long, but we got to the canyon only to find about a dozen or more boats trolling the area.  There were a series of lobster pot markers that everyone trolled around.  Last time out, Ed and Jason caught a couple nice mahi off of them.  We covered a fair amount of water at various depths, but we didn't have any luck trolling around the canyon.

After marking a huge school of fish on the bottom, we tried deep dropping some bait to them.  But, while fishing over 350 feet down or more, you don't feel much without using braided line.  The rods that we used were spooled with mono, and, with the stretch, you couldn't feel anything.  I still managed to catch a new species, something that I've only seen in public aquariums, a chain catshark!  Apparently, this particular species is rarely caught by anglers.  Way cool!  That's what I love about fishing the ocean, you never really know what you will catch!

Most people wouldn't be happy reeling in one of these.  But, I was thrilled. It's a new species for me, and one that is rarely caught by anglers, a chain catshark!

We were hoping to latch on to a tilefish or perhaps a triggerfish, but no luck with that.  After an hour or so, we decided to head back in and troll where we had success earlier, and perhaps troll a couple other locally known hot spots.  On the way back, we saw what we thought was an ocean sunfish.  We went back to look for it, but couldn't find it.  Maybe it was something else, a shark, or a pilot whale perhaps?  Would game fish be hiding under it as well?

We returned to the area where we trolled and caught fish earlier, and locked on to a nice mahi.  I reeled this one in and it turned out to be the biggest mahi that I had the pleasure of boating on the trip.

This nice mahi hit a trolled squid near the end of the first day.  It was a decent sized one, at least for me, the biggest that I reeled in that day.

One thing to note is that when trolling, Ed pretty much did everything.  I helped as much as I could, but he was the one setting up the rigs and outriggers, driving the boat, just about everything needed to troll and catch a fish.  Other than reeling in between spots, I didn't do much except reel a few fish in.  Ed had me reel in the first one, so I guess I caught that fish.  After that, we alternated fish hits and reeling the fish in.  In truth, Ed (or his boat), caught the fish, and I just helped.  

I want to make it clear that, for the entire trip, when we caught fish trolling, it was his strategies, his spots, his efforts, that put fish in the boat.  When I "caught" fish, I did the easy part.  So, when you read this article, please know that when I speak about me catching a trolled fish, it's really "we" caught that fish, or more true, Ed did, and I assisted.

As the trip went on, and I learned the ropes a little bit, I wound up taking orders and helping as much as I could.  Nobody that fishes as much as I do wants to be a deadbeat on the boat.  We want to participate, to do anything to help catch fish, or make the trip easier and less of a burden on the Captain.  And, quite honestly, no boat owner wants to take repeat guests out again if they fall into that deadbeat category.

On the next pass, one of the rods on an outrigger slapped down and we had fish on again.  At first glance, we thought it was a tuna as Ed fought the hard fighting fish and brought it to the boat.  He handed the rod to me and he carefully brought it into the boat with an expert gaff to the lower jaw.  It wasn't a tuna, but rather, a false albacore.  As it turns out, they're not good eating, but the oily meat is good for using as bait for deep dropping to other large species.

Ed caught the first false albacore of the trip.  It put up a great fight and made for a nice picture.  

Ed told me that the false albacore (Euthynnus alletteratus) has several common names, including albie, little tunny, fat albert, bonito, and spotted bonito.  He says that little tunny is probably the most popular name.  No matter what we call them, they are popular game fish, not as table fare, but for their fight.  They hit hard, produce drag ripping runs, and put up an incredible fight for their size.

We caught another Mahi trolling, and not long after that, Ed caught a small, almaco jack, a cousin of the amberjack.  Another species that Ed can add to his list!  We didn't have much time left because Ed wanted to get back before dark, so after a little more time trolling, we headed back to port.

Ed caught an almaco jack, a cousin to the amberjack.  It has a black bar across the eye just like the amberjack.  These fish get pretty large, but not quite as big as it's cousins. 

Close up of Ed's almaco jack.

The next morning brought us even calmer seas.  It was like glass out there with slight rollers.  Obviously, it took us a little less time to get out to where we finished up the previous evening.  We decided since we had all of our luck a bit more inshore, to not make that long run to the canyon.

Here's Ed on the second morning cruising around looking for flotsam as we trolled.  Ed put me on fish during my first open ocean trip, so that qualifies him as a Captain in my book.  Captain Ed Lewandoski...has a nice ring to it, right?

The conditions on the second day were perfect.  Calm glass-like water conditions and overcast skies really seemed fishy to me.  We had to have a good day.  These conditions made it easy to see flotsam further away.

Our first goal of the day was to find those crab pots again.  Ed headed toward the spot that he marked on his GPS a day earlier.  We found them easily, and fished each one carefully.  We caught fish on just about every crab pot again.  Ed had the hot hand, catching at least two on each pot with his broken handled rod.

My first jigging mahi of the second day.  Small, but so colorful and cool.

We gave the crab pots a good effort, and when the action slowed, we decided to troll the spot where we had success at the end of the previous day.  We set up for trolling again, and hooked up almost immediately on our first pass.  After a hard fight and cramping hands, I landed the first false albacore of the day.  They are beautiful fish in their own right! 

I landed another species for me, the beautiful false albacore (also known as bonito or albies).  Man, do they ever fight hard.  They are like miniature tunas!

There were a couple wrecks in the area and a few boats fishing for triggerfish and tilefish, and a couple boats trolling off in the distance.  We wondered if the bonito were hanging out around the wrecks that may have been drawing baitfish.  At any rate, every time we trolled through that general area, we had a fish on.  And all of them were hard fighting albies.  

We trolled back and forth over this particular area and wound up taking turns to catch ten false albacore.  We could have kept on catching one after another, as they were thick and aggressive there.  But, we decided to stop at ten.  Why?  Our shoulders were sore from fighting them one after another!  Also, it was getting late and we both wanted to catch more mahi to bring home.

My shoulders ached and hands cramped after reeling in those false albacore.  One thing that I had to learn was how to reel in the line and guide it back and forth across spool using my thumb, even when fighting a fish.  Doing this keeps the line neat and even on the spool, so line will come off easily if needed and not bind the spool in the reel.  I'm so used to the level wind baitcasting reels that automatically do it for you.  A really big tuna or swordfish would break the line off using a conventional baitcaster because line couldn't come off fast enough.

What lures did we troll with?  Most of the lures were various types of plastic skirted squid type lures rigged either singly or in multiple squid rigs.  The squid lures are four to six inches long and colorful attracting colors.  The picture below shows a few different style squid lures with varying heads that pop, dart, swim or dive, depending on their shape:

Darting and diving squids to the left, popping versions to the right.  Blue and white is thought to resemble the favorite food of mahi-mahi, the flying fish.  Pink and white is also a popular fish catching color.

Spreader bars are used with teaser squids teamed with the actual hooked lures, giving the fish the impression of a school of baitfish, similar to the concept of an Alabama rig used for largemouth bass.  Another popular rig is called a dredge, which may have as many as 100 teasers that are designed to run about 5-10 feet down, almost like a striper umbrella rig.  This rig supposedly resembles a bait ball and can be quite effective, but also tough to reel in with all that drag, as you might imagine.  We didn't use a dredge during this trip.  We used another daisy chain style rig, where several squid like lures were rigged in-line.  

Basically, whatever rig you use, you want the surface and subsurface lures to bounce and thrash the surface to attract fish that think that they are chasing baitfish such as the  flying fish.  There are many other types of rigs, these are just a couple things that we used.  Below is an example of a spreader bar:

The spreader bar dances around causing the squid lures to bounce around like fleeing baitfish.  It creates quite a ruckus.  Reeling these things in as almost like fighting a fish because they have so much resistance. 

Basically, you set up lines off outriggers and several rod holders at different distances apart and behind the boat, to cover as much water as possible.  You have to cover the prop wash as fish are often attracted to them.  You also set up lures just inside and outside the boat wake, and one really far back behind the boat.

On the way to the next spot, we found another group of crab pots and checked them out.  These didn't hold any fish for some reason, so we moved on.  Maybe someone fished them already?  Why didn't these crab hold fish and the others did?  

We stopped at another location where Jason and Ed caught fish on their last trip.  On the first trolling pass, we hooked up again on another good fish.  After a ten minute fight, Ed landed another chunky false albacore.  The next pass yielded a nice mahi for the fish bag.  After a few more trolling passes around that area with no hits, and since it was starting to run late, we decided to head back.

But first, on the way back, we decided to visit the crab pots that we found earlier that held fish.  We found them, and with no other boats around, had them all to ourselves.  We moved from pot to pot, casting jigging spoons and lures toward each one.  Ed hooked up on several mahi-mahi.  Ed had it down pat while I struggled to get bites.  Eventually, I got the hang of it and landed a couple more.  

These pots enabled us to put some more fish in the bag though, so we were happy.  They weren't huge, but, they taste great.  With not much time left, I decided to give a crankbait a try.  I put on a Rapala suspending X-Rap and hooked into a decent mahi-mahi that added to our fish bag total.  When I was fighting this fish, you could see a bunch of mahi underneath in a frenzy trying to get in on the action.  Ed dropped his jig down to them and hooked up immediately, and after a short fight, boated yet another mahi.

Here's a small mahi that I caught on a Rapala X-Rap crankbait.  It was especially fun casting to fish like this.  So much fight in a small package.  I can't imagine what fighting a bull dolphin would be like.  What a pretty fish!

As we pulled up and drifted close to one of the crab pots, we noticed a fish holding about a foot under the surface on the down current side of the crab pot rope.  It was a filefish!  Later, we drifted by another one and it also had a filefish on it.  We noticed the same thing on other ropes.  We wondered deeper down what other species of fish hung out there, and which ones the mahi-mahi fed on.

On the way back, only a few miles from shore, we finally found the huge sargassum weed patch, exactly what everyone looks for further out.  Could predators lurk below the weeds?  The conditions were perfect, clear water, cover, just about everything you'd ask for.  But, after trying several spots without any sign of fish, we gave up and headed back to port.  

We had a long evening ahead of us, as we had to clean fish and the boat, pack up our gear, and we still hadn't eaten anything for dinner.  We'd been up since the wee hours of the morning two days in a row.  It was a tough two days physically, but well worth the effort.  

Ed's fishing vessel docked after a long day of fishing.  
We put in two solid days of fishing out in the open ocean, in water as deep as a thousand feet or more, so deep that the sonar couldn't read the bottom!  I caught three species of fish that I'd never caught before.  Time flies out there too.  Hours flew by like minutes when we were out offshore fishing.  Those ten albies took a lot of time to reel in, about ten to fifteen minutes each.  

Ed's boat is a smaller offshore boat.  So for safely reasons, it's good to do research ahead of time to make sure conditions are on the calm and safe side out there prior to heading out.  There are internet resources and weather/wind phone apps that make available real time conditions.  Most of the larger offshore fishing boats have multiple motors that enable them to get back if one fails.  Ed has a single motor, so it's imperative to be as safe as possible, to plan and hit it right so the conditions make for an enjoyable day on the water.

In addition to that, other safety considerations should include having ditch bag with water, portable VHF radio, water, strobe, reflectors, first aid kit, Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB), etc. on board.  It's best to not take chances offshore that you might risk in a bay or river, especially in a smaller boat.

What a terrific experience.  Now, I need to invest in more tackle for another type of fishing.  I think my first investment would be a jigging set up, beefy enough to handle a monster mahi, but with enough finesse to jig comfortably.  I'd also consider a rod and reel combo for deep drop fishing.  Maybe I can do it with one set up.  I have to research a bit more.

The visual appeal of the movie and plot of the book, "The Old Man and the Sea" bounced around in my head throughout the trip.  All I could think about was how beautiful, amazing and surreal it was out on the open ocean.  The entire time, I couldn't believe I was out there.  It was a trip that I will never forget.  And, on top of that, we had some delicious fish to bring home to the table.  And man, did those mahi filets taste great!  Thanks Ed for the trip of a lifefime!

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

"The Sickness"

The call of the wild drives our passion for the outdoors.  That's what drives us to get outdoors as often as we do.  It's primeval.  Every now and then, as one season ends prior to another one beginning, I explain to my wife, when bargaining for fishing time, that maybe this is the last best chance that I'll have for the season to get out and catch or bag whatever it is that I'm after.  Her response is that it's all one big season, that they all run together, and they never end... "So, just go, if that will make you happy.".  

Each season ends and butts up against another one.  It's so true.  And each season can be as addicting as the last, whether it's hunting or some aspect of fishing.  But, my friend Steve and I have one major addiction that crosses all seasons and overrides all other addictions.  That addiction is fishing for rockfish, and it's an all year long affliction.  My friend, Captain Steve Kelley calls it, "The Sickness".

Fishing for rockfish is an addiction.  We call it, "The Sickness".  If you catch a bunch of these, you'll understand.

It's not just an addiction, it's an obsession.  It's grown into this monster that pushes us to get out in extreme (not unsafe) conditions to fill the need to feel that bite, set the hook, and fight fish that just don't quit, even after they've been landed.  

Let's face it, the striped bass (Morone Saxitilis) is one tough hombre.  In 1881, Dr. James Henshall wrote a book titled, "Book of the Black Bass".  Within that book is an oft-quoted passage, that smallmouth bass are "inch for inch, pound for pound, the gamest fish that swims".  Although I agree with the premise that smallies are among the strongest fighters for their size, I have to wonder if Dr. Henshall ever hooked into a striped bass.  If he had, then perhaps he might have revised that statement to "one of the gamest fish that swims". 

"Inch for inch, pound for pound, the gamest fish that swims."  -Dr. James Henshall from his 1881 book, "Book of the Black Bass".  Although I love smallies and understand his passion, it's obvious to me, Dr. Henshall had never hooked into a big rockfish. Pictured:  Bob Barber with a nice Susquehanna smallmouth.

In a nutshell, that's why they are addicting.  Rockfish are so strong that I often hook a decent one and claim that it's a better fish than it is, often shouting to my fishing pals, "This is a good one!" as a little drag peels off, and then realize later in the fight that it's the same size that I've been catching all along.  I'll follow up with a statement like, "well it's a future forty incher!"  

However, when you actually hook into a jumbo rockfish, you can tell it's an entirely different class of fish.  Let me tell you, the big ones can really test your light tackle skills.  No big rockfish is caught until you've either got a hold of it or it's in the net, because they simply have no quit.  

On my last trip out, I hooked a fish on a topwater plug, and it turned out to be a jumbo rockfish.  I hooked it on a medium spinning rod with ten pound braid, and that fish took me around the boat.  My fishing pals were all fighting fish too, so I had no help.  I was on my own to land this fish.  No biggie, right?  I've done it hundreds of times.  This fish was just a little bigger.  With my rod in my left hand raised as high as I could, I eased the lunker rockfish toward my hand.  The huge mouth that could have almost enfulfed my head had my large Stillwater Smack-it all the way inside it's mouth.  We didn't have a net large enough for a fish like this, so I tried to grab it's lower jaw, as it seemed that the fight was over.  

The fish had other ideas.  It took off straight down under the boat like a shot, and my 20 pound Seaguar Fluorocarbon leader snapped.  The fish escaped with my favorite topwater lure, leaving me with an empty line and leader blowing in the wind.  I almost cried.  What an amazing species.  It showed me who's boss!

Fishing for rockfish isn't new to my circle of fishing buddies.  We've fished the tidal catch and release areas for brute migratory rockfish for years.  The exception was this past spring, because our local laws changed to prohibit catch and release fishing in the major tributaries of the Bay.  That was painful.  Prior to last year, it's been an annual April tradition.  

Over the years, those spring runs have produced some tremendous days, with catches yielding rockfish over 40 inches numerous times.  Casting crankbaits has been our pattern of choice for targeting big spring rockfish.  The crankbait bite is truly an addiction within this addiction.  There's nothing like the vicious hit of a rockfish on a crankbait.  It's pretty amazing when a big one smashes it and nearly dislocates your shoulder on the strike.  You work the crankbait fast and erratically, and then all of a sudden, one crushes it.  It feels like you've hooked a bucking bronco.  That feeds the addiction alone, nevermind the ten or twenty minute fight that you have coming.

Crankbaits rock when it comes to catching big spring rockfish.

The truth is that we stumbled on the tidal crankbait pattern.  One day, many years ago, my friends, Bill Dowd, Bill May and I were bass fishing out of his bass boat.  It was a frosty early April morning.  Bill May caught a nice chunky three pound largemouth that hammered a spinnerbait from under a partially floating log, but, other than that, the bass fishing was very slow.  We used the trolling motor to venture out from shore in an effort to mark fish along a drop off or in a channel.  It seemed like it took forever to move from three feet of water to six.  Then, it went rather quickly down to twelve feet of water, and lo and behold, we marked fish.  

Bill May, dropped a green pumpkin bass tube jig down to the bottom and had a nice fish hit it immediately.  That fish came unbuttoned just out of sight under the boat.  We all thought it was a big largemouth.  Then, I hooked up and fought a nice fish as well, and it turned out to be about a six pound fish, was a striped bass!  We repeated the drift and observed the sonar, and noticed them holding in a twelve foot trough for about a mile mile long.  

After repeated drifts down the trough, we caught numerous stripers all day long.  We caught fish on bass lures, mostly four inch tube jigs, Rat-L-Traps, spinnerbaits, small crankbaits, and jigging spoons.  My friend Bill Dowd caught one that went just over 30 inches, and I managed to boat a 34 incher that hit a jigging spoon, which was my personal best at the time.  

After hearing about our trip, my good friend Bob Barber invited Steve and I to fish out of his boat and we found them again in the same "trough".  We caught lots of 18 to 30 inch rockfish by jigging or trolling sassy shads and Rat-L-Traps.  Steve and Bob pounded them all day on the jigs.  

Stubborn me, on the other hand, wanted to fish crankbaits.  I caught a few fish on a Rat-L-Trap, but the action was a little slow on that lure.  The crankbait action was hot the prior trip at the end of the day, and I wanted to duplicate that with more time.  I was frustrated as Bob and Steve landed fish after fish, about three or four to my one.

During the late afternoon, the tide changed and the action picked up, and things started to change for me as well.  Bob fought a nice mid-twenty inch fish to the boat, and, right at boatside, a monster striper rose from the depths and tried to eat the smaller rockfish, and nearly knocked it off of Bob's hook.  We all stood there with our mouths agape.  In the movies, one might say something like, "We're gonna need a bigger boat..."

I immediately dug into my tackle box looking for the biggest crankbait that I could find, and pulled out a seven inch Bomber Long A.  If I remember correctly, it was about the third cast, just as Bob swung the boat around with his trolling motor, a fish hammered my Long A.

I fought that fish for a long time.  It seemed like forever.  In my mind, it seemed like maybe forty minutes, but, in reality, it was probably only ten or fifteen minutes.  I'd have to have Bob or Steve chime in on that.

We were using light tackle, and this big fish fought extremely hard against the spinning rod that I typically used for fishing plastic worms for largemouth bass.  I was using twelve pound Fireline that day.  It took me quite a while to get that fish to the boat after several runs.  It was a monster, a 45 1/2 inch striper and weighed 38.1 pounds!  That fish remains my personal best to this day.  I'm glad that I stuck with fishing crankbaits!  After an excellent job putting that fish into Bob's undersized net, we admired the fish and set her free.  Bob and Steve both tied on big cranks and caught good fish for the rest of the day.

The Long A really turned my day around, as my biggest four fish went 45 ½ inches and 38.1 pounds., 37 inches and 21 pounds, 34 inches and 15.2 pounds, 31 inches and 11 pounds, and I caught several between eight and ten pounds.  It was nice to have a scale to record the weights of the fish.  Because of that day, I have a good idea of how much the fish we catch today weigh.  

I'd love to share pics with you of any of those fish.  But, I can't.  You see, this was way before any of us owned a digital camera or a phone with a camera, and, earlier in the day, we used up all of our film on the smaller fish.  We had no idea monster rockfish were in the area.  The only proof that I have are the eye witness accounts of my friends, Bob and Steve.

What a day!  That changed everything.  That's when the striper addiction started for us, way back in 2002.  From then on, we went back to that area in an attempt to repeat our previous success.  Conditions vary during the spring there, and you have to hit the conditions just right to fish crankbaits for stripers.  The right conditions need to be the right water temperature, good water clarity, light winds, and the fish have to be there.

My friend Bob Barber, Steve and I had a great day back in 2002.  Here, a few years later, Bob lands a really nice rockfish that he caught on a crankbait during a past April catch and release season.

We've had some successful days since then, but, you had to time it right.  Finding suitable fishing or boating conditions doesn't always coincide with when the fish are there.  The weather in April is usually not the most stable.  Wind is the enemy, because, not only does it result in small craft advisories, it muddies up the water.  Dirty water is not a good condition for fishing crankbaits for striped bass.  You need some visibility.  It doesn't have to be gin clear, but clear enough for the fish to see your lures.  

A few years ago, out of Steve's boat, I was nearly able to match that 45 1/2 inch rockfish, with a really fat 44 and 3/4 inch fish.  It may have been heavier than the one that I caught in 2002, but, we never weighed it.  I'll post the details of that memorable day in a future post.

This 44 3/4 inch beast hammered an 8 inch Bomber Long A.  You can see why, when you catch a trophy like this, you're addicted for life and crave ever so more...

After that, we were all obsessed with the catch and release spring striper fishing, so much so, that we'd forget all of those other good fishing opportunities available to us for other species.  I mean, I was a largemouth bass fanatic from way back.  I never thought that I'd pass up fishing for largemouth bass in April for anything.  For the month of April, fishing is good just about everywhere for any species.

Don't get me wrong, the good Lord knows that I love catching three to five pound largemouth or smallmouth bass, or slab crappies, or big white perch.  But, put each of those fish up against a trophy rockfish, and the choice is clear, at least for me, what I'd rather target.

I caught this big largemouth on a Rat-L-Trap off of Captain Steve Kelley's boat also.  We both love fishing for largemouth bass in the spring.  But, our first choice is to target rockfish in April.

When the spring crankbait bite is on, you can't beat the thrill or the action, especially when you have the chance at the fish of a lifetime.  But, the spring trophy catch and release "season" is short lived, as the bigger fish leave the tributaries and head out to the Bay and into the Ocean in a matter of weeks.  In other words, our addiction pretty much ended when that "bite" was over.  It was truly a short term sickness.

Summer traditionally for me was the time to wade fish for smallmouth bass.  I love small stream fishing.  But anytime Steve invited me out to the Bay, the chance of catching a big rockfish trumped stream fishing for bass.  No offense to my stream fishing buddies, but I like variety, and getting out on the Bay was a welcome change.

When Steve invited me to fish the Bay with him in the summer, we always had the goal of getting a few keeper fish and simply have fun.  We'd drift bait back to the bridge pilings and catch a few keeper rockfish mixed with white perch.  It was fun, because you never really knew what you were going to catch.  Rockfish, toadfish, drum, trout, flounder, perch, bluefish, and sea bass catches always kept you guessing.

We were convinced that bait was the way to go to catch big fish, and, although we knew that anglers regularly jigged for rockfish successfully, we clung to the notion that bait was the best way to go.  It's no secret that live or fresh bait will tempt big fish of all species.

Steve with a nice rockfish caught by drifting bait to bridge pilings.  Bait will catch fish, big fish, consistently.  However, learning to catch big fish on jigs really stoked our addiction for striped bass fishing.

After we'd run out of bait, we'd head out and look for breaking fish under birds or find spots with good current and structure that held rockfish.  Once we found such places, we'd toss paddle tail swimbait jigs to catch lots of schoolie sized rockfish.  It was fun, and, although we both heard that big fish may be under the smaller fish, we didn't know how to find them or fish for them.  Still, we had fun fishing the Bay that way.  Every now and then, we'd catch a smaller sized "keeper" fish.  Even though we had fun, we didn't really feel the rockfish addiction as we did during the spring catch and release bite.

We both wanted more.  We tried jigging with limited success around the Bay Bridge pilings, but still were convinced that bait was the ticket for bigger fish.  Steve and I researched the internet to learn more.  We watched YouTube videos about fishing the Chesapeake Bay, read blogs, and fishing forum posts.  

I purchased Shawn Kimbro's books after we watched every single one of his videos.  The books and videos were not only very informative, they were also inspiring.  We did everything that we could do, purchased the right tackle, practiced the right techniques, and did everything that he recommended.  That was the start of "The Striper Jigging Revelation".  

You can read all about that by clicking on the blog post link above, or simply scroll down the page to post below this one.  That article contains information about jigging techniques and recommended tackle.  Each trip out, Steve and I learn something new.  Every time we successfully found and jigged up nice rockfish, it was like  putting the bigger puzzle together, one piece at a time.  

However, it's more than that.  Our growing rockfish success caused us to give up other outdoor activities.  Steve and I both bow hunt.  Since my Brother, Kyle, passed away, Steve's been the only person that I've hunted with on a regular basis.  We each have our own spots too.  Neither of us missed hunting season for anything.  It was another seasonal addiction.

But, last winter, we wanted to catch stripers so bad, that neither of us purchased a hunting license.  Steve typically winterized his boat each year around late October or November or so.  Last year was the first year that he didn't do that.  We kept fishing, and never sat in a tree stand.  We gave up one addiction for another.  That's sick!!!

October though mid-November used to be reserved for bow hunting during the rut.  Now, those months have become addictive striper fishing months.  Now, we fully understand the Maryland term for that time of year, "Rocktober".  Our bow hunting time has been relegated to a late season phenomenon.

Dan Ricker knows the sickness too as he sports a fat slob of a rockfish caught on a Coach Jig Head rigged with a Bust'em Baits Fat Boy.  Dan constantly barks out how he'd rather be walleye or crappie fishing, but you can tell that he's as addicted as we are.

So, for those of you that know this disease and suffer the same affliction as we do, then you recognize the symptoms.  That's when you know you have it bad.  All you think about is the jig, topwater or crankbait bite, and the fight of a big rockfish that peels drag off and fights so hard.  All you think about is how you can find more pieces of the rockfish puzzle to achieve further fishing success.  Instead of watching television with your family, your mind drifts off to another world as you scan the Navionics app on your phone, looking for good structure that might attract rockfish via current breaks and ripping tides.

You can't put down Shawn's books.  You've read them until you've almost memorized them.  You scour the internet and read every local fishing report that you can find, or any web forum post about striper fishing, for that matter.  You can't stop scrolling through the Facebook posts of your fishing groups to read rockfish reports for the days that you couldn't fish.  

Catching fish like this just aggravated Steve's symptoms.  After a fish like this, you'll get "the sickness".  

You go through and organize your tackle and repair the rigs on your striper rods even though you may not have a trip planned yet.  You order tackle on-line, or visit the local tackle shops to get more of what worked for you.  If you're broke like me this time of year, you visit on-line tackle stores and add items to your cart or wishlist, knowing that you can't afford to pay for them yet.  You may visit a local tackle shop to buy some tackle for a fishing friend as a holiday gift, but, of course, you can't help picking up some tackle for yourself.

You find that, while doing other things, whether it's shopping at the local hardware or grocery store, doing errands around the house, sitting in a tree stand, or even other types of fishing, you dream of jigging for rockfish.  You find yourself always checking the weather...not at home.  No.  You check, at multiple locations around the Bay using various weather apps to find out wind and wave conditions for the next ten days.

Check out our buddy Rodger Moran's expression after catching this rockfish.  Think he's got "The Sickness" or what?  

You also call your fishing friend network to find out the latest intel.  When your fishing pals are out there on days that you can't go, you text them constantly for updates, knowing full well that if you were out there and the bite was on, that you would focus on fishing and ignore your phone.

You dream about jigging for rockfish, and you set the hook in your sleep and accidentally knock your spouse in the arm.  Or, perhaps you have a dream where, on every cast, big rockfish are knocking your topwater plug out of the water or crushing it so hard that they set the hooks themselves.  These are recurring dreams, by the way.  

You've got it bad.  There is no cure.  Your only hope is to treat the symptoms.  How?  By going out fishing for rockfish.  

You've got "The Sickness"! 

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

The Striper Jigging Revelation

Probably the biggest change with my outdoor experience over the past year and a half was how my fishing buddy, Captain Steve Kelley, and I approach fishing for rockfish (a.k.a. striped bass, stripers, rock, etc.).  The biggest change was that we learned how to find and jig for nice sized rockfish no matter the time of year.

In the past, we tossed crankbaits in tidal catch and release areas of the Chesapeake drainage or fished live bait over structure.  We caught nice fish along with some monsters in the spring, but that bite is hit or miss, depending on the weather, water quality, and water temperatures.  During the summer, we worked crankbaits and jigs and caught mostly schoolies (smaller sized stripers in the 14 to 18 inch range).  Most, if not all, of our bigger fish came on bait.  Every time we fished, while he fished bait and caught keeper sized rockfish, I would try unsuccessfully to catch stripers on lures. 

Then, a year ago in the late summer, Steve got me hooked watching and reading about jigging for stripers in the Bay using light tackle.  That convinced us to take the inevitable path that we both really wanted, to be more proficient with catching rockfish on lures with light tackle.  So, we both invested in the right tackle, rigged our rods appropriately, and then gave it a try.

I remember the very first day that we took jigging seriously was a year ago from this past September.  We searched everywhere as we looked for birds and fished for the fish pushing bait up under them.  We had no idea what we were doing, really as we caught a few smaller fish on smaller baits.  

That evening, right before sunset, a last ditch effort on a frustrating day, we found a nice current rip over a large long rock pile type structure, shallow water next to deep on both sides.  Steve lobbed his 3/4 ounce skirted Coach Jig Head teamed with a seven inch Bust 'em Baits Fat Boy trailer and instantly hooked up on a trophy size sea trout.  I can't remember exactly, but it was about 25 inches long, and, without a doubt, the fattest trout that I'd ever seen.  Literally, three casts later on the next drift, Steve hooked up again on back to back keeper sized rockfish sized in the mid twenty inch range.  We both became believers and have been addicted to jigging for rockfish ever since.

Steve Kelley's tank of a sea trout jump started our jigging addiction.

I struggled that evening.  I didn't have the knack of feeling that striper jig bite yet, despite having the right tackle set up.  I was hampered by tackle problems.  I snagged on my first cast, but got the lure free.  On the next cast, however, since the braided line became buried in the spool of my baitcasting reel, the shock of the next cast caused my lure and leader to break off.  I became mesmerized as I watched my lure fly off into oblivion.  As I tried to tie on another leader and lure, that's when Steve hooked into his second striper.  

But man, Steve had it down pat.  I always thought of him as the "Striper Whisperer" anyway, ever since our crankbait striper fishing days, as he has a sixth sense of when a rockfish is around his lure and ready to bite, just by the feel of what is going on with his lure.  That's when he'd take action to make that fish bite with erratic jerks of his crankbait.

About a couple weeks prior to that night, Steve searched YouTube videos about fishing the Chesapeake Bay.  Several videos stood out, most notably were those done by Shawn Kimbro and Jeff Little.  Shawn and Jeff have some great "how to" stuff that they share, from every topic you can imagine when it comes to jigging for stripers.  I linked both of their channels in my favorite haunts section of this blog to the right.  Please check them out.  

Anyway, we listened, and after that first night, we really took notice and focused on what we needed to do.  In fact, for both of us, it became an obsession.  Now, jigging for rockfish is all we think about.  Last week, we both reminisced about having dreams of fish biting and us setting the hook.  Steve's wife caught him physically setting the hook in his sleep one night and has been teasing him about it ever since.  You don't want to wake up from dreams like that.  Even more, you don't want to leave the water when the fishing day is over when that bite is for real.

We had no idea that you can catch fish like that all year long consistently.  I purchase two of Shawn's books (you can purchase them from his blog, Chesapeake Light Tackle site or on Amazon).  These books offer a ton of good information and I highly recommend them.  My failures that first night combined with Steve's success drove me to learn as much as I could, and, I'm still learning.  These books were a great start.

These two books by Shawn Kimbro are chock-full of great information that will help you fish light tackle on the Chesapeake Bay, or anywhere, for that matter.  Not only that, but both books are a great read.  I highly recommend them if you want to improve your fishing in the Bay.

It took me most of last fall to get the hang of it.  Steve picked things up right away.  It wasn't unusual for him to catch two stripers to my one.  Things started to change for me after I purchased my first rod and reel dedicated to striper fishing.  For Christmas last year, I bought a St. Croix 6 foot 8 inch, extra fast action, medium power baitcasting rod matched with a Shimano Tranx baitcasting reel.  I spooled it with light braid.  I absolutely love this set up.  Now, I can feel the lightest of bites.  

With a sensitive rod, you can determine what exactly is a bite, and what could lead to a bite.  Sometimes rockfish nose your jig but don't quite bite, almost like short striking largemouth bass, and the action necessary to get that fish to bite is needed.  You know a fish is there, you've marked them on the finder, they're interested in your lure, but you need to make it happen.  I truly think that when I struggled, I felt fish there, but didn't realize it.  I thought that perhaps what I was feeling were jellyfish being cut by my line or stuff like that, when probably, most of the time, fish were nosing my jig.  That's where jigging techniques come in to play, turning those short strikes into hits.  More on that later in this post.

A year and a half ago, we never thought that you could jig up fish like this in the summer.  We thought that live bait was the ticket for big fish.  Boy, were we wrong, and we are thrilled that we were.  You can jig rockfish like this all year long with light tackle.

First, what tackle works best?  Basically, a medium power, fast or extra fast action, graphite 6 foot 6 inch (or 6' 8") baitcasting rod teamed with a reel that holds a fair amount of line but is light enough to jig with, has a good drag, and a high speed gear ratio works best.  Baitcasters give you better control of how much line you have out, which is critical to catching big stripers.  But, there is a trade off.  Baitcasters tend to not quite cast as far as spinning rods.  Most of the time you don't need to make really long casts.  But, when I feel the need to, I also have a spinning outfit rigged with similar tackle as my baitcaster.  I use that when I need a long cast to reach fish that the other rod can't reach.  

What about line?  Most of the experienced light tackle striper anglers use ten to fifteen pound braided line, matched with fluorocarbon twenty or thirty pound leader, depending on the size of the fish.  Lighter braid allows your lure to get deeper with less drag.  The leader should be long enough to reach past the sharp spines and of the size fish that you are targeting.  For most of the year, and for fish under thirty inches, two to three feet of twenty pound leader works fine.  For the big slob stripers that show up in early spring and late fall, it's probably best to up that to thirty pound leader.  These fish are so strong, and so much can go wrong, and you probably don't want to lose a fish of a lifetime.  

Lures are, of course, a matter of personal preference.  I will mention my favorites for jigging, but the key is always getting the lure in front of the fish and taking action to make them bite.  My advice is, go with what you are confident in.  If you find a lure that works for you, stick with it until you find something that works better.  My suggestions below might help if you're struggling, but please know that there are lots of choices out there.  The suggestions below work for me and have reduced my learning curve.  Starting off with good tackle also saves money, because you benefit from the experience of others, as I have.

I like the Coach Jig Heads made by Shawn's fishing pal, Rich Jenkins.  They come in a variety of sizes and colors.  I think I use one ounce size most often.  However, there are times when the tide, current and winds aren't as strong, where a 3/4 ounce or lighter jighead might perform better.  You can fish them with or without a skirt.  By skirt, I mean skirts that are designed for spinnerbaits and buzzbaits.  When the currents are strong and the wind picks up, you may wish to up the weight of the jighead to an ounce and a half or maybe two ounces, especially if you are fishing bigger soft plastics.  Use whatever the lightest weight jig is that gets the lure to the fish effectively given the conditions.  If the fish are finicky, a heavier lure might be dropped by the fish quicker, or the action might not be right to get a fish to bite.

Fish will bite on these jigs whether or not they have a skirt.  Skirts give the jig and soft plastic combo a little bigger profile and movement.  But, if you need to lure to get down, say for strong windy conditions of lots of current, maybe leave the skirt off, as it creates drag, preventing your lure from perhaps getting to the bottom.  I personally like fishing the skirted jigs because I have confidence with them.  But, I've also caught nice fish without the skirts.

The three brands of soft plastics that I like are made by Z-man, Bust'em Baits, and Bass Kandy Delights (BKDs), not necessarily in that order.  The seven inch sized fluke style baits made by each company resemble "bunker", the bait that the bigger fish prefer.  But, bunker can grow as large as ten or twelve inches, so the ten inch sized plastics work well when you find big fish feeding on big bunker.  In fact, my biggest fish this year was a fat 41 incher that fell for a ten inch BKD on a two ounce Coach Jig Head without a skirt.

This beast of a rockfish nailed a ten inch Bass Kandy Delight (BKD) earlier this year.  As it turned out, it was my biggest rockfish of 2020.  Big lures catch big fish!

As far as color goes, go with what you feel confident in.  Anything that you can do to get a fish to bite, whether adding a skirt, dying the soft plastic to give it contrast and scent, trying contrasting colors, or anything like that is worth a try.  When you are successfully catching fish, file that into your memory about what you were using, the conditions you faced, and how you worked the lure.  I'm a big fan of the color chartreuse.  In fact, a former Potomac River bass guide, Glenn Peacock, had a saying that I adopted and repeat to this day, that "if it ain't chartreuse, it ain't no use!"  

That said, popular colors in the Chesapeake Bay are white or chartreuse, or a combination of that.  But, other colors work just fine.  Think about the conditions.  If your favorite lure isn't working and your fishing pal is catching fish, take note of what your fishing buddy is doing or what he is using and adapt.  Adapting is the key to catching fish.  

Don't be afraid to use scented dyes to alter or add a little extra oomph to the lure.  I've been dying the tails of my plastic worms chartreuse while fishing for bass for years.  I made my plastic worms seem less monotone and more lifelike, plus, the added garlic scent certainly seemed to help get me more bass bites.  The dyed tails always reminded my of how a bluegill looks while swimming off.  At the very least, my repeated success using soft plastic dye gives me confidence. 

The shad style soft plastics work great, but sometimes, a paddle tail soft plastic will catch fish and generate more bites.  I really like the 5 inch Z-man Diezel Minnowz for many reasons as my favorite shad tail bait, but mostly they catch fish.  In fact, when bluefish are around, the Z-man baits can, most of the time, withstand a bluefish bite while other brands become cut in half.  That's probably my primary reason for using them as often as I do.  When is a good time to fish a paddle tail?  When the fish are super active and are in chasing mode, or, when they aren't very active and dragging the bottom produces.  

Of course, you can jig these using the same techniques as the shad tails.  I've caught some really nice fish this past year using this bait just by snap jigging it.  I've had particular success catching nicer fish under feeding birds with this bait too.  For these, I use a long spinning rod so I can get that extra casting distance and reach more fish.  

I've caught bunch of nice fish on these swim tails, the Z-Man DieZel Minnowz.  I don't know what it is about them, but stripers like them. 

Each of the aforementioned brands of soft plastic has worked well for me.  If I'm not getting hits on one brand, size or color, then I'll switch to another.  BKD's, Z-Man 7 inch Jerk Shadz, Bust'em Baits 7 inch Fat Boys have caught me so many fish that I can't count.  I've linked Coach Jig Heads above, so I'll link these soft plastics here.  Coach Jig Heads, Bass Kandy Delights, and Bust'em Baits are all made locally in the Maryland section of the Chesapeake Bay, but you can order directly from them on-line.  I really believe in supporting our locally produced products.  But, not only that, they work wonderfully! They all have great customer service.  

Bass Kandy Delights (BKDs) 

Bust'em Baits Fat Boys

Z-Man Jerk Shadz

By the way, the Bust'em Baits "Fat Boy" has nothing to do with the name of this blog, but it is fitting, I guess.  My blog name comes from the name of an ice fishing jig.

Steve Kelley showing us a nice rockfish caught on a skirted Coach Jig Head teamed with a 7 inch Bust'em Fat Boy.  The color?  "It ain't no use if it ain't chartreuse!"

Look, the brands of lures mentioned above aren't the only ones that catch rockfish.  There are many brands.  It's not the lure that catches them, it's you.  If you have a brand of lure that you like and have confidence in, then give it a try.  If it works, stick with it.  The entire point of this is that the size, weight and shape of the lure play a big roll in getting the lure down deep enough to the fish.  Also, it needs to resemble the baitfish that they feed on.  What you do with the lure, presentation, is the most important thing.  You can use the "right" lure, but if you don't work it properly, you probably won't catch as many fish as someone next to you that may work their lure properly.  And believe me, that type of thing frustrates me.  I simply named a few lures that I rely on and have had success with to show you as examples of the types of jigs that catch fish.  

What about techniques to catch rockfish on jigs?  Snap jigging is a popular method to get fish to bite when they won't otherwise.  The snap is usually so hard and fast, that you can actually hear a whipping sound.  The erratic quick movement of the lure when snapped like this really draws strikes.  Sometimes, multiple quick snaps are necessary to trigger a good strike.  Stripers tend to strike short often, almost like they're trying to taste the lure first.  That extra snap fires them up into biting.

Click here to watch Shawn Kimbro's Snap Jigging Video, where he demonstrates his technique that he made famous in our area.  Snap jigging is the primary technique that I use to jig up nice size rockfish.  

The most important thing when snap jigging, or when jigging for stripers in general, is to always keep slack out of your line, keep the line as tight as possible, as the lure falls at the end of the snap.  That's when most bites occur, and most often, the bites are very light.  Be ready to set the hook at any time, because rockfish sometimes bite at the very top of your snap.  If your line is slack, you won't feel the bite.  If you feel anything, set the hook.  Even better, become a line watcher.  If you see the line go slack, or twitch in a way that it shouldn't, set the hook.  Sometimes, you see the bite before you even feel it.  

Other times, you feel something that doesn't feel like a bite so much, almost like a spongy feeling or something like a jellyfish hitting your line.  If you feel that, jig aggressively, because it could be fish nosing the lure or something like that.  Often, you can entice them to inhale the jig rather than just mess with it.  Don't assume it's not a bite until you know it isn't.

OK, before I go on, you may be wondering why I mentioned jigging with a spinning rod after previously stating that I purchased a dedicated baitcasting rod for jigging.  I think that they have a place in my own arsenal.  It's your preference, really.  For me, I have a muscle cramping disease, and after lots of jigging and catching fish with one rod, my jigging arm cramps up.  When that happens, I have to switch to fishing with my right arm, and the spinning rod fits that need.  I jig my baitcaster with my left arm, meaning that I cast with my right hand and switch hands, old school's how I learned.  I cast and jig a spinning rod with my right hand and arm, so having the ability to switch between rods and jigging arms actually gives me more fishing time.  So, in addition to what I said about spinning rods above, I have my own personal reasons.

There are other ways to generate strikes.  Sometimes, simply dragging your lure on the bottom will get rockfish to bite.  For me, that usually happens when I try to grab a drink or eat a bite of lunch.  I always leave my line in the water as much as possible, because of the old saying, you can't catch fish if you're lure isn't in the water. 

Of course, just swimming a bait can also catch really aggressive fish.  There are times when you may reel in quickly to make another cast, and have a super aggressive rockfish nail your lure on the way in.  I find situations like this to be a bit random though.  Dragging the lure or speed reeling is a technique to catch fish, but not really a jigging technique.  However, when you combine that with jigging, you can really get a fish to bite.

For example, my fishing pal, Steve Kelley, has a very effective technique to draw rockfish hits.  He often makes a long cast, lets the lure sink to a desired depth, then jigs it, reels it very fast for a few cranks, snap jigs it a couple times, then let's it fall while keeping a tight line, again, waiting for that hit on the fall.  If no hit occurs, he repeats that process, perhaps several times, all the way back to the boat.  This technique evolved from our spring crankbait fishing days.  Erratic action draws strikes.

Don't be surprised if a rockfish nails your lure at boat side.  Don't remove the lure so quick for that next cast.  If you just let it hang there for a second before going on to another cast, you just might get that boat side hit.  I can't tell you how many times I've had nice fish take a swipe at my lure as I've lifted it out of the water.

Another key is to always fish your lure in the strike zone.  Use your sonar to determine where the fish are.  Are they on the bottom?  Are they suspended?  Or, are they breaking on top, or just finished doing so?  Obviously, if they're on the bottom, let it sink to the bottom, and then keep jigging to the boat.  If they are at mid depth, let it fall part way and start jigging the lure back to the boat.   If they are in the upper third of the water column, cast out and start jigging aggressively right away back to the boat.  If they are all over the screen, big fish tend to be deeper than the smaller fish breaking on the surface, so get the lure down to the deepest fish marked, and jig.  If no bites, crank it up a bit and jig different depths until you get a bite.

Basically, just jig to where the fish are.  As an example, if they are suspended, you probably don't want to fish the bottom and fish underneath the fish you are marking.  You should try and put and keep your lure where the fish are, the strike zone.  It makes sense, right?

Not everyone can see the sonar at the same time in Steve's boat.  So, when Steve and I fish together, the one who can see the screen will constantly communicate where the good marks are.  Teamwork like this helps everyone in the boat consistently catch nice fish.  It's always more fun when everyone is happy catching rockfish. 

Over the past year, I've caught more nice size rockfish than I have my entire fishing career.  It just gets better and better the more we learn.  I'm blessed to have fishing buddies, especially Steve, to learn or jig with along the way.  I haven't discarded any of my crankbaits or topwater lures, as there is always a place in my box and often a need for them, but jigging has become my primary method to catch big rockfish.  I think that applying these techniques may prove useful for targeting stripers in reservoirs as well.

One last thing about light tackle jigging in the Chesapeake Bay for rockfish, that this is nothing new around here, just new to me.  There are many good jigging anglers out there in the Bay area that use these techniques.  Some have been a huge influence on us.  Thank you to those pioneers that are willing to share their knowledge, like Shawn Kimbro and Jeff Little, their friends, and many others.  

Also, I'd like to formally thank Steve Kelley for introducing me to this wonderful fishery.  We've caught a lot of big fish together over the years of different species, and these experiences just add to those great memories.  Steve's not a charter boat captain, but could be, because he's that good of a fisherman. It's a nickname that I gave him since we most often fish out of his boat.  I still call him "Captain" when we're chasing other species in the upper rivers out of my jet boat. 

Steve sporting his well deserved personal best 42 inch beast of a rockfish.

There will be more posts about fishing for rockfish, so stay tuned.  In the meantime, check out the references mentioned in this article for more information.  

Thanks for following the blog.  I hope the info here helps you catch fish.  I think that it's important for me to share stuff like this, to help others, as others have helped me.  Until next time, good fishing!

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Fat Boy's Outdoors Apology and Blog Resurrection

Every year on this day, I think about my Brother, Kyle, who passed away in 2007.  I can't believe it was 13 years ago today that this tragic event happened.  And when I think about him, I think about why I started this blog in the first place, to dedicate and document my outdoor experiences and share what I've learned over the years.  

The last time that I posted was a year ago today.  I've been negligent about keeping this blog up to date, and for that, I apologize to my brother to those of you that follow my blog.  I also vow to regularly post and keep this blog up to date.  I appreciate the following and hope to keep it up, not for my sake, but to honor my brother.

So, with tears in my eyes, I'm going to move on and write this next post.  Kyle, if you're reading this from heaven, this is for you.

My outdoors experiences have evolved once again.  I have many new topics to cover.  Probably the biggest direction with my fishing has been targeting rockfish (a.k.a. striped bass or stripers) and other fish species in the Chesapeake Bay.  

Kyle loved fishing the Chesapeake Bay from my Dad's sailboat.  He mostly trolled surgical eels for bluefish.  He caught quite a few "slammers and choppers" off that boat.  Slammers are medium sized bluefish in the five to ten pound range, while choppers are bigger bluefish in the ten to fifteen pound range.  

Kyle loved fishing the Chesapeake Bay out of my Dad's sailboat.  The area around the Chesapeake Bay Bridge (pictured above) was his stomping ground.  The Chesapeake Bay has become one of my favorite fishing spots too.  (photo by Captain Steve Kelley)

While trolling for bluefish, Kyle would occasionally catch a nice rockfish.  Back then, all rockfish had to be released, because there was a moratorium on them.  Since then, the striped bass fishery has rebounded nicely, and they are once again, the most prevalent predator in the Bay.  Blues still show up, but not in the numbers found back in Kyle's day.  Kyle would have loved fishing the Bay for rockfish.

I promise to post more about fishing the Chesapeake Bay, my experiences and other topics surrounding fishing for stripers and other Bay species.  I've learned so much and have so much to share.  But, for this post, I'm going to keep it to a few pictures of some of the rockfish that I caught this year and dedicate those fish to Kyle.   

I'll post more on how I caught these fish among other adventures on the Bay in future posts.  I'll keep the blabbering to a minimum, so I'm going to stop here.  After all, a picture is worth a thousand words.

This was my biggest rockfish of 2020, a 41 inch fat brute of a striper, caught and released back in March.  It's not my personal best, but might be the fattest one that I've ever caught.  You can see my personal best pictured in a prior blog post about that day.

This is the same fish pictured above, a 41 inch rockfish.  This picture gives you a good idea of the girth of this fish.  Notice the large soft plastic lure used, a ten inch Bass Kandy Delight (BKD) on a 2 ounce jighead.  Big lures catch big fish!

We caught a good many keeper sized rockfish this year on topwater lures.  What a blast.  Kyle would have loved doing that.

Here's a nice rockfish that I jigged up using a skirted one ounce jig with a soft plastic fluke style lure. 

Here's another nice striper caught on a skirted jig/soft plastic combo.  I'll cover topics about jigging for rockfish with light tackle in future blog posts.

Another thick rockfish.  You can see why fishing for these can be addictive.  We caught quality fish like this throughout the year, but there is nothing like fishing for this species in the fall.

This was a summer time rockfish caught jigging bridge pilings.  As you can see, I've come to rely on sun protective clothing.  For fair skinned folks like me, these types of clothing are a must.

Catching fish like these are a blast on top.  I get pumped when I see schools of fish like this breaking.  Then, after tossing a topwater lure nearby and seeing fish like this blow up on it...what a thrill, let me tell you!

I owe a debt of gratitude to my good friend and fishing/hunting buddy, Steve Kelley (shown here with a nice rockfish that he jigged up), who put me on the fish pictured above.  In addition, I caught my personal best striper off of his boat.  Meet Captain Steve Kelley.  He's not a charter boat captain, but he's every bit as good as one...  I've mentioned him in past blog posts, but you'll read more about him in future blog posts.