Fishing for Rockfish on the Chesapeake Bay. From Glacial to Warp Speed.

It was mid-morning and the last thing my wife LisaMarie said to me before leaving the house was “we have dinner plans tonight, so DON’T BE LATE!” My response was the typical husband response “of course not dear.”

This seemed to be a very safe commitment to make considering she wanted me showered and ready to walk out the door by 6:30 pm. After all, I was only going fishing for a few hours and was planning on ‘limiting out’ shortly after lunch.

Unfortunately, my morning departure from the dock was slightly later than expected, making the prospect of fishing the full, incoming tide less likely with every passing minute. It was another case of too many morning projects getting in the way of my plan to catch a live box full of spot to be used for an afternoon of rockfishing.

I can’t complain — it was Friday, a few minutes before 10am (thank God for PTO) and I was on my way to do a little ‘two step’ fishing. In other words, STEP 1: catch a couple dozen spot. STEP 2: search out the fishing fleet, nestle up close, drop anchor again next to a couple big charter boats and then splash a couple lines hooked up with a lively spot nervously waiting to be served up as the perfect meal for a hungry rockfish.

Now for a little confession…

This was my first time to actually two-step fish on my own. Sure I had done it with charter boat captains before, but I never paid attention to all of the details necessary to ensure success. I also didn’t have first hand knowledge as to where, or for that matter how, to catch spot.

Oh and one more detail, my boat doesn’t have a live box.

The good news was I got some second-hand instructions from my work colleague, Ruth, whose husband, Joe, is a big time Chesapeake Bay fisherman. She forwarded an email to me with a satellite picture of the best “spot” spots circled on the photo. I saved it to the camera roll on my iPhone.

Not having a built-in live box was a different story. Since it was too difficult to build one into the boat, I did the next best thing and bought a kit at Bass Pro to convert my Igloo cooler into one. Installation took only a few minutes and then I was ready to ‘rock’ (fish that is)!

Once I lowered the lift cradling my 21-foot Steiger Craft, I fired up the engine, made my way out the creek, down the Severn River and turned a SSE heading for Poplar Island.

My onboard fish finder/chart plotter estimated the total dock to drop (anchor) was 27nm, which at 4,200 rpm should take me about 46.5 minutes. The breeze was cooperating by keeping the surface nice and calm, temperature was in the mid-80’s, humidity tolerable…what a great way to spend the day off.

Once I arrived at the recommended destination near the Poplar Island Narrows, I dropped anchor and waited for action, and waited, and waited.

Gary Oster fishing
Gary Oster fishing

After a considerable amount of time elapsed, I decided that the morning anglers must have already wiped out the schools of spot, so I decided to change my location which I did again, and again, and again. Ugh! This wasn’t supposed to be the hard part.

After quite a few hours, I saw a number of boats anchored about a mile from me that I initially thought were fishing for stripers. I decided to investigate, so I pulled my anchor one more time and got within clear binocular eyesight.

Crap!

I was in the wrong “spot” spot. Everyone there was pulling in the little fish and dropping them into their live boxes. So I found a location close a boat with two anglers on board who were catching spot on nearly every cast. Now I thought smugly, it was my turn. I could only wish it were so. After nearly an hour, I caught only four fish for bait.

Ugh again.

It wasn’t until later I realized that the other fisherman were using fresh bloodworms while I was using manmade Gulp fishbites (which were suppose to resemble the look, smell and feel of live worms without the hassle of dirt and blood). My Ziploc-sealed, manufactured bait was about a year old, however never once did I question its possible age.

At least I had four bait fish in my recently converted cooler. The worst part, however, was that it was almost 3pm and I hadn’t even started rockfishing yet.

I pulled anchor again (I really got a lot of upper body workout) and followed one of the top charter boats up into Eastern Bay where the VHF was crackling that the fish are hot on the lumps opposite Kent Island’s Romancoke Pier.

By the time I arrived it looked like a fishing boat rally. There must have been 50 vessels occupying four square acres, some as close as 15-feet from one another. Most were anchored; a few let the tide drift them through the fleet. I thought to myself, “this is going to be exciting.”

It wasn’t, at least not for me.

Fishing for rockfish on the upper Chesapeake Bay
A fishing fleet angling for rockfish on the upper Chesapeake Bay

Boats were pulling in rockfish all around me. One solo fisher drifting only 20-feet away was jigging with a crippled herring and pulled in a 20-inch-plus keeper right next to me (frustration is building).

Then, I got my first strike!

However seconds later I reel in half a fish (exasperation is setting in). The remaining carcass had clearly defined bite impressions, obviously the work of a speedy bluefish. Within 15 minutes the remaining three spot suffered the same consequences and I don’t have any rockfish to take home (exasperation is replaced by depression).

Then the phone rings. As I pick it up I noticed the time — OMG it is 4:30pm — and answer slowly, “yes dear”…”I know, I know”…”don’t worry”…”I promise I won’t be late.”

I heaved the anchor for the final time of the day, turn the ignition key and slowly maneuver my way through the now even larger field of fishing boats. Once clear of all the boats I slam the throttle down and make my way down Eastern Bay towards Bloody Point light.

At least it is a pretty evening, I rationalize, as I make my way closer to the old rusty, leaning lighthouse.

Then I see something I haven’t witnessed in decades. Is this my chance for redemption?

Dozens of birds are diving frenetically into the water, which appears to be boiling, almost frothy from fish breaking and slapping the surface. I slow down and immediately put the engine in neutral, then I shut it down, as I slowly drift towards the activity.

In less than a minute I am at the epicenter of a feeding frenzy and there is not another boat in sight.

Rockfish feeding frenzy
Rockfish on a feeding frenzy in the upper Chesapeake Bay

I quickly grab my five-foot, ultra-light, Ugly Stick rod with a 1/2oz Kastmaster spotted tiger spoon. First cast. WHAM! I hook and release a 17-inch rockfish. Third cast another 17-inch. Then, a keeper — 18.5 inches!

For what seemed like just minutes I continued to follow the school until the action stopped cold. It was as if Mother Nature turned off the switch. No fish, flat calm water and only a handful of birds remained floating nearby.

The total catch was a combination of nine rockfish and three bluefish. All were over 14-inches, most were closer to 17-inches.

What a blast I had reeling in one after the other.  Then, I remembered my evening dinner commitment. It was 5:23pm. Yikes!

With the rod firmly in its holder, I immediately start the engine and sped my way through the 3-5 foot shallows, fervently watching the depth sounder between Kent Point and the lighthouse, then make the turn towards the Annapolis towers. By 6:15pm the boat was on the lift, hosed down and the only kept striper was cleaned, fileted and bagged.

I got the ‘look’ from my wife when I walked into the house a few minutes later, but was forgiven when I was showered, cleanly shaven and dressed, ready to walk out the door with 30 seconds to spare.

What started out as a painfully slow, frustrating fishing day, ended as a high-speed ‘catching’ day. One that I won’t soon forget.

About Gary Oster

Gary is an avid sport fisherman out of Annapolis, MD, who loves casting, trolling or jigging for rockfish on the bay, chasing marlin offshore, flats fishing for barracuda in the Florida Keys or pulling in monster Halibut in Alaska.

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