chesapeake bay

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I quit rockfish. Yes I did. Well, at least for a while. I haven’t fished for striped bass since December 6, 2017. That was the day we landed three huge stripers including a 50-incher just below Poplar Island. It seemed like a good stopping point.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I haven’t quit fishing, nor have I given up rockfish for good. In fact, I’ll be back on them next week. I just decided to spend the winter/spring of 2017-2018 fishing for perch, crappie, and shad.

You know what? I’ve had a blast!

I can’t resist the call of the creeks. I dearly love striper fishing, but the hours I’ve put in polishing my rockfish techniques add up to only a fraction of the time I’ve spent in my life-long pursuit of panfish. They are my first love. After over fifty years of fishing, my favorite fish remain bluegill, crappie, perch, and shad.

The longer I live and the more I fish, the more I long for simplicity. To me, panfishing is therapy; a welcome counter to the competitive and frequently fast-paced world of run-and-gun striper fishing. I can stand on the creek bank for hours casting for perch or crappie. It makes me feel like I’m connected to nature, not only as an observer, but as a participant. When I’m panfishing, I never think I’m wasting a minute. In return, panfishing has enhanced my striper fishing skills. The pursuit of perch has made me a better rockfisherman. 

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UPDATE:  This post appeared earlier on ChesapeakeLightTackle.com. It has been reprinted due to recent proposals to require circle hooks year-round for bait fishing in Maryland.

It’s spring in the Chesapeake Bay and time for big migratory stripers. Some of the biggest striped bass in the world are caught in Maryland in the early spring. A few fishermen are already using circle hooks to catch & release big fish on the points near the rivers using bait such as bloodworms and cut menhaden. Circle hooks aren’t just a good idea for bait fishing in the Chesapeake Bay, they’re required by law. Maryland fishermen have been slow to see the advantages of circle hooks. I think that’s because most of us haven’t used them enough, but there’s also confusion about what circle hooks are and how they work. I recently had an opportunity to travel to Providence, Rhode Island to attend a FishSmart conference sponsored by NOAA about catch & release techniques. I came away with some interesting information.

According to extension agents working with Florida Sea Grant, circle hooks have been used for decades in their state by both recreational and commercial fishermen who appreciate their ability to efficiently catch fish. The principle behind the hook is simple. After the hook has been swallowed, the fisherman applies pressure to the line, pulling the hook out of the stomach. The unique hook shape causes the hook to slide towards the point of resistance and embed itself in the jaw or in the corner of the fish’s mouth. The actual curved shape of the hook is intended to keep the hook from catching in the gut cavity or throat.

The advantage to the fisherman is that hooking is automatic. No hook set required. All we have to do is let the fish swim off with the bait then pick up the rod and start reeling. Circle hooks are a fool-proof way to catch stripers when fishing with bait, but do they work to protect the fish?

According to Maryland rockfish scientist Rudy Lukacovic, most of the time they do. Most fishermen will tell you that they still see gut-hooked fish occasionally. That’s one of the drawbacks to bait fishing, but there’s also another problem. There is unfortunately no industry standard as to what makes a circle hook. In fact, some of the hooks you buy off the bait shop shelf may not be circle hooks at all. Just because it says circle hook on the package doesn’t mean it is. There are impostors. 

On a true circle hook, the tip of the hook points back toward the shank of the hook. If it points toward the eye, it’s not a circle hook no matter what it says on the package. Confused?  Then try this: Curve your index finger around the contour of the hook shank and press down a little. If you feel the tip of the hook pricking your finger, it’s not a true circle and won’t work right. The tip of the hook should curve away from your finger.

Circle hooks can be roughly divided into two types, offset and non-offset. The offset refers to the amount of deviation in the plane of the hook point relative to that of the shank. Most of the hooks you see on the store shelves are offset. That means when you lay them down on a table, they won’t lay completely flat. A true non-offset hook will lay perfectly flat on the table. Offset circle hooks are more likely to gut-hook your fish.

Since there can be confusion about what constitutes a true circle hook, some tournaments are specifying certain brands and types as tournament legal. Unless the industry responds by standardizing descriptions, state resource departments and lawmakers may also have to be more specific. Maryland defines a circle hook as:  A non-offset hook with the point turned perpendicularly back to the shank. Circle hooks used in bait fisheries should be “non offset”. That is, if the hook is laid on a flat surface, all parts of the hook lie flat on the surface.

 


Here are some tips for using circle hooks to catch striped bass: 

Keep it limber – Use a slow, limber fishing rod with a lot of bend in the tip. A stiff, fast-tipped rod is more likely to pull the hook out of the striper’s mouth when you pick it up. Ugly Stix fans, this is your cue!

Don’t bury the hook in the bait – If you hide the hook, it is less likely to catch the corner of the fish’s mouth when you start reeling. If you use live bait, hook the bait through the nose or lips so the hook is completely exposed and the gap isn’t blocked. Stripers won’t see the hook and your bait will look more natural.

Crank, don’t yank – Just set your reel to free spool, wait for the fish to take off and start reeling. If you’re live-lining, count to ten before you start. Don’t set the hook.

No need to sharpen – Sharpening a circle hook will damage the tip and make less likely to hook the mouth but more likely to hook the fish’s stomach.

Stay away from stainless – If a fish breaks off, the stainless hooks don’t rust. That means it will stay in the fish’s mouth longer. If a fish swallows a stainless hook, it will probably die.

Go big or go home – Don’t be afraid to use a big hook. A 8/0 or 9/0 hook is great for stripers. Take a look at the big rockfish in the picture below. It takes a wide-gap hook to get over those thick lips! Hooks with a gap that are too small are more likely to gut-hook the fish. For big fish in the spring, use 10/0 or even bigger. Also, pay attention to the quality  of the hook because you don’t want a hook that will bend or straighten.

Catch & Release Tips

Be Prepared – If you aren’t used to using circle hooks, it might take a little longer to remove the hook from your fish. Keep your pliers, de-hooker, measuring device, and camera beside you and ready to use. If the fish swallows the hook, just cut the line as close as you can to the hook. Don’t try to pull the hook out if it’s embedded in the fish’s stomach.

Do you really need a net? – It’s a lot easier just to reach down and lip the fish with wet hands or wet rubber coated gloves. Nets cause you to lose fish and they injure them by removing slime. If you must use one, find one that has a fine, rubber coated mesh. You might even consider a a cradle net since that will let you measure your fish in the water.

Handle With Care – If you plan to release a big fish, be sure to support the body weight with both hands. If you have to lay it down to remove the hook, do it gently. Try not to drag the fish through the mud or sand because this can injure it and remove slime. Get the fish back in the water as fast as you can.

In a nutshell, circle hooks are good for the fish because fewer stripers are hooked in the stomach or in other vital organs, and they’re good for the fisherman because they increase hook-ups and reduce missed strikes. Good for the fish, good for the fisherman – that’s a winning combination.

Did you know?  Circle hooks have been around for centuries. Archaeologists have recovered stone circle hooks that are tens of thousands of years old from the grave sites of indigenous cultures. J hooks came about relatively recently because they are easier to make. Once again, modern-day anglers are recognizing the benefits of circle hooks for both efficiency and conservation. This fishing technique, like the hooks themselves, has come full circle.

 

 

 


By now, you’ve probably noticed that many Chesapeake Bay light tackle anglers are using skirted jig heads when they fish with soft plastic lures. Jigs with silicone skirts are becoming extremely popular in the Mid-Atlantic region and there’s no doubt that they make deadly baits for big striped bass. A skirt on a lead jig head with a soft-plastic bait increases action and creates a wider profile in the water. Skirts also provide color and contrast, two essential big-fish strike triggers.

Skirts on lures aren’t anything new. They got their start in the mid 1920s in Akron, Ohio where Fred Arbogast worked for the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. He and his fishing buddies experimented with slicing thin rubber sheets into narrow strips and attaching them to their spinning lures. They caught fish. After Arbogast won several fishing competitions, he took out an ad in the June, 1926 edition of The Hunting & Fishing Magazine. His lures caught on quickly so Fred quit his job at Goodyear to form the Arbogast Lure Company. Read More!


The night was as dark as a tomb and I was wet and cold. I felt lucky to be alive and I couldn’t believe my good fortune in finding a tattered blanket in this rusted ship’s hold. I pulled it higher over my shoulders and dozed.

We shouldn’t have tried to fish today. The weather forecast called for building winds, but we thought we could get out for a few hours to catch some of the big stripers that always migrate into the Chesapeake Bay in late October. The blow arrived soon after we launched into the Honga River from the Hoopersville ramp. By the time we rounded Nancy’s Point into the main stem of the Bay, we were well into the teeth of a full northwestern gale. We decided to call it off, but just as my friend Phil turned his center console back east toward the river, a rogue wave hit us broadside. The boat rolled hard and I went overboard. Read More!


I got to fish with Dusty Baker. If the name doesn’t mean anything to you then you must be living with the sea bass underneath the reef balls off Tilghman Island. Dusty Baker is nothing short of baseball royalty. He’s the manager of the Washington Nationals, former manager of both the Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants, and All Star outfielder for the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers. I couldn’t hope to list all his accomplishments but the most important statistic relative to Chesapeake Bay fishing is that he’s caught thousands of striped bass and other species. Dusty has fished all his life, on both U.S. coasts and all over the Caribbean as well as in other parts of the world. He’s a pro with a fly rod, a spinning outfit, and a baitcaster.

We caught a lot of fish while he was staying in St. Michael’s, Maryland over the All-Star break, but my most memorable few minutes came while we were sitting in the back of Chuck Castle’s Whaler and reminiscing about fishing with our fathers. Dusty and I found that we have a lot in common in that both of our dads were very active in fundamentalist Christian congregations (his father a Baptist deacon and mine a Church of Christ minister), and that they both loved to fish. As we swapped stories about our younger days, the conversation eventually came around to our fathers’ favorite fish. “Shellcrackers,” we said at the same time. If you know anything about southern fishing and those hard-fighting redear sunfish, that coincidence won’t surprise you at all. Read More!


A lot has been written about the art in fly fishing. There is grace and beauty in a perfect fly cast. What is more satisfying than watching a colorful trout rise from a crystal clear pool to take a hand-tied floating fly? I just returned from Colorado where I had ample time to fly fish in the cold streams of the Gunnison National Forest. I don’t get to fly fish for trout much, but when I do, I’m always struck by the similarities to light tackle casting for rockfish on the Chesapeake Bay. One of the most important aspects of fly fishing is the ability to read the water and cast to where the fish are. Another is presenting the lure naturally so that it moves at the exact same speed as the current. While we don’t hear about it as much, there is comparable art in light tackle casting, even when it’s done with a spinning outfit or a baitcaster.

In my years of fishing both fresh and saltwater, I’ve had opportunities to observe the skills and artistry of some of the finest anglers in the world. As a teenager, I guided some of the best-known bass pros in the country when they practiced for tournaments in my home lakes in Tennessee. I’ve been fortunate enough to wade the pristine streams of the Smoky Mountains with the most knowledgeable anglers in the business, and I’ve fished for bonefish and pompano with the legendary guide families of the Bahamas. Most recently, I was joined on my boat Thunder Road by one of the best-known anglers in the world: the legendary Lefty Kreh. Lefty has been fishing for almost a half century longer than I’ve been alive. He’s forgotten more in his 92 years than I can ever hope to learn.

We caught all the fish we wanted that day, and enjoyed several hours of inspiring conversation. Lefty’s fly casting skills are legendary, but his prowess with a spinning outfit is less well-known. Between hooksets, we talked about casting and jigging techniques as well as patterns and the best ways to approach fishing spots. At one point, the conversation turned to the art in fishing. I’m happy to say that after listening to Lefty’s jokes, advice, and aphorisms refined over his long life of fishing, I came away a better fisherman and, hopefully, a better person.

Here are some of the thoughts I’ve collected about the art in light tackle casting: Read More!

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