The Dream: To Catch a Big, Honking, Rockfish. Here’s How it Happened.

These are the huge ones that come up the Atlantic coastline for a few weeks every spring. They hang a left turn at the mouth of the bay, swim the 200 or so miles to the headwaters into the Susquehanna flats to spawn. Once the job is finished, the Rockfish head back down the bay, take a hard left and make their way to Maine for the summer.

My goal was to catch at least one big one each time. I took my 26-year-old, 21-foot Stieger Craft, Albert C (the boat is named after my dad) out fishing. The boat spent nearly all winter at Smith Marina getting retrofitted, upgraded and rigged for serious angling (she was being converted from a simple, bottom flounder boat to a fully rigged Chesapeake Bay rockfish machine).

At the same time, I was planning, reading, studying and attending evening/weekend fishing seminars hosted by MSSA (Maryland Saltwater Sportfishing Association). There was the acquisition of rods/reels, lures, tackle and talking to ‘experts’ at any fishing expo or show I could attend.

I think I am ready.

April 19th — It was opening day of trophy season, and as I was leaving the Severn River entering Chesapeake Bay I got a weird feeling. I was on the boat with my friend Mark, we are in the hunt for big fish and for the first time I am nervous about what I am about to do.

You see, I have never done this before. Sure I have been rock fishing on a charter boat before with my buddies, but the captain did all of the work. He supplied the equipment, boat, bait, tackle and 30+ years experience. He knew where and how to search and what equipment to use to successfully bring home his limit of fish to the dock. And if his luck was not good, he called his network of fellow charter captains; constantly chatting back and forth on the VHF radio or cell phone, establishing where he should go next. He caught fish, lot’s and lot’s of fish.

Me? I am all alone…a rookie.

No decades of experience, no network of charter captains, no one to call, no one to check if what I am doing is right. After all, I am a nothing more than a textbook rock-fishing student.

Even though the boat is running great, I believe I have all the right equipment, the weather is cooperating, the wind is nonexistent, the water is calm, the tide is perfect, I am nervous. Very nervous.

While Mark keeps us on a steady, 2.8 mph course across the bay heading towards Matapeake, I begin splashing the first of 8 rods, set-up with big 12″ shad-parachute tandem rigs (white and chartreuse) or umbrellas. I was talking out loud to myself, making sure I had the right weights, whites on the port side, chartreuse on the starboard, 50’, 75’, 100’, 150′ out the back of the boat. I must have looked and sounded ridiculous and it seemed to take me forever to get the first few lines out.

Then with only four lines out, one of the reels starts singing, spooling line like crazy and the rod is bending like a flexing arm. CRAP, I I must have put too much weight on that line, must have snagged the bottom — what a rookie move. Then I ask Mark, “What does the fish finder say our depth is?”

He replies “45 feet”. Weird, that line shouldn’t be deep enough to snag anything on the bottom. The rod is now pulsing up and down, so I pull it out of the holder, now I know what happened. There is a fish on the line. Unbelievable!

As I start pumping the rod and cranking the reel, there isn’t a lot of fight like I have experienced with marlin, shark or halibut. Just a steady, pulsing resistance. By now the rod had over 175-feet of line out, so this would take some work. Mark and I recited and reconfirmed who would do what in the event we caught any fish. The rule was NEVER touch the net until the fish is spotted and never unless it is within 20’ of the stern (yes fisherman can be superstitious).

When I saw the fish break the surface and then I saw the size of the mouth of the fish, I screamed “GET THE NET!!!”

The next minute went by in a blink. When the leader’s barrel swivel touched the rod tip, Mark grabbed the it and began pulling hand-over-hand, I put the rod down, grabbed the net and in a perfectly recited (but never practiced) move he lifts the fish partially out of the water as I synchronize a scoop of the net, then we both lift it up and onto the deck with a thud. As we stood there staring at each other I am thinking OMG, we just landed a big honking rockfish. It measured over 40-inches long and weighed 25.2 pounds.

I was shaking like a leaf.

Was it the adrenaline rush, the excitement, my twitching muscles or just pure disbelief? Less than 45 minutes from departing the dock, less than 20 minutes from the start of putting lines out we had a trophy onboard. Beginners luck for sure.

Gary's first trophy-sized Rockfish
Gary’s first trophy-sized Rockfish

During the next few weeks, with each successive trip, I got better and faster at putting lines out. My son, Garrett, surprised me with an early father’s day present by making me a set of planing boards which let Albert C troll 12 rods, enabling my eight-foot wide boat to fish a lure array that was over 160-feet wide.

Garrett caught his first trophy the week after me.

Garrett brings in a 33-inch Rockfish
Garrett brings in a 33-inch Rockfish

I was also able to take care of other family members who wanted to boast ‘big fish’; my brother-in-law, his father-in-law from England and his uncle all boated trophies. The most unfortunate story was that my 84-year-old dad hooked a nice fish that he had brought within 20-feet of the boat and ‘snap’. The brand new 50-pound test line broke. Ugh! We all looked at each other in total disbelief, but as my wife LisaMarie would say, that is why they call it ‘fishing’ instead of ‘catching’.

Brother in law with rockfish
Brother-in-law happy with his big, honking, 38-inch Rock
78-year-old Uncle Larry pleased with his catch
78-year-old Uncle Larry pleased with his catch

This spring season, (the boat) Albert C caught trophies, while the captain and visiting crews all advanced their technical skills and knowledge. No doubt about it, this was an incredible rookie season.

The Steiger Craft is a little boat that fishes big
The Steiger Craft is a little boat that fishes big
A good day for a rookie
A good day for a rookie

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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