25 Nov The struggles of 2017
It’s been almost a year since I last wrote. I think the main reason is because 2017 will go down in the books as being one of the worst offshore fishing seasons I have experienced. I would like to think It was just not me, but it sure could have been. I am sitting down at the southern tip of Argentina right now and reading the fishing reports from back home. One boat 7/11 on daytime swords another boat 5/7 on swords another hanging a damn Opah at the dock. That sure gives me an itch to get back home… All those fellas put their time in, it takes a lot of dedication to run to the edge and fish 1 rod all day for 1 bite. Takes a pretty dedicated crew as well. And money, gas ain’t cheap.
Been traveling a lot this year and that took a chunk out of fishing time. I was home for three days in April. We caught our first flounder on April 10th in a 9 ft deep channel near Wachapreague. Had three that day and burned about 4 gallons of gas on the skiff. Simple fishing. I did try to flounder fish twice in late February and never had a bite. Had to try though, we had some very warm temps this spring. Was back out of the country until May 1st.
I try to make sure to be home by then for the start of the spring trophy rock season. It is again simple fishing, and cheap. Lay up on the beach, set a spread of surf poles out. Time the tide 1 hour after low water and soak peelers, simple as that. The trophy striper run was slightly poorer than years past. One main problem for me was that during the week of perfect timing it freaking blew 30 knots every day with rain. We tried to fish it, it was stupid! Casting 16oz of lead only to watch it wash back up on the beach. Tried twice in that week and turned around and came home.
Aside from that week we caught 13 trophy or close to that size rockfish during the 15 day season. Not horrible but not as good as it has been. 2016 we put 30 on the beach. 2015 was 20 for 2015 it was 18 and 2013 we had 14. So that was pretty much on par. Had we had that week without the weather i’m sure we could have worked on a few more. The fish seemed to vanish after they passed Virginia. The MD AI guys were struggling a bit in the spring. Maybe it’s the giant nets laid out along the Virginia beaches. Commercial guy has to make his dollar too I guess.
By May 15th I am ready to get my ass off the sand. Everybody and their brother are trying to get on the beach and by that time and it gets too packed for me. Some nice black drum kept on this spring though. We switched to the boat. There was a really good tog bite this spring, after Virginia closed the season of course. We were busting them on jigs and soft plastics drifting, man that is fun, letting them go while picking at a few seabass. Then the OC boys came down and sat there every day pounding on them, and of course taking boat limits home. It’s a bullshit rule but have to go by what the lawman says. We get a closed season while they motor on down from OC and wipe out all these fish we are releasing. I can’t blame them, a charter boat captain has to make his dollar too, I would prob do the same. If VA opens our winter sea bass up in 2018 (there is a chance) you can bet I will hammering on “their” fish while they sit tied to the dock. But we will never get anywhere pointing fingers at each other. Just look at what VA just passed. An 8% INCREASE in commercial menhaden landings. Over 3000 public comments were submitted explaining on how this fishery is absolutely crushing the Chesapeake, but not a peep from government officials. The bastards just ignore us. I sent comments, emails, my 3000 other friends did as well. Not a voice for us, our pockets are not deep enough as big corp. I guess we need cat food and fish oil pellets, to hell with any kind of stable ecosystem or the MASSIVE revenue a healthy bay brings to the area in terms of recreational spending. Now, there might be a bit of good news in the bay for this. They are required to reduce the amount of menhaden caught inside the bay (North of the bay bridge tunnel) by 42% That is a large reduction. But all this does is push the boats on the other side of the bridge. You can be sure these boat will be sitting right there, and all the way up to the Maryland Virginia line pummeling those bunker. Still, a total increase of 8% now to 216000 TONS of them. That is a lot of fish. Prepare to see the omega boats spending a lot more time off Chincoteague and Wachapreague…
May 28th – Slight warm water eddy slides in deep just above the Norfolk. 62 degrees with a 2 degree break in 500 fathoms. Had a crew with a bad offshore itch so we blast off out there strictly on a shark fishing trip. We pass a load of birds right on the edge in 700ft and drove right on by to the promise land. First mistake. Shark fished two hours without a bite in 500 fathoms before we picked up and ran back inside. Birds were still there, sharks were too. Five duskys and a big hammerhead in the next two hours. We were having a blast with them. We even pulled out a big tuna popping setup with a giant spinner on it. We started hooking sharks on that and it was a blast. You know what happens next. No bites for 20 minutes and then the damn spinning rod lights up. That mako cleared the water about 100 yards off the stern and he was pissed. About a #180 fish, we started going to work. Spinning rod was making out, but was working on the crews back with no harness. It was holding up fine though. I could draw the story out but no need. An hour after hooking him he was 30 feet from boatside when the braid on the spinning rod, well above the 15ft shark leader just let go. It was disheartening. Of course we would have never thought about using that kind of setup if we were tournament fishing or even if we had a different crew. But that day we had guys who like to have fun and bullshit, and test things, that we did, it didn’t work out. Lot of what if’s ran through my mind watching that fish glide away. O well, get back on the horse on keep riding on. I REALLY don’t like coming home with an empty fish box so we hit some very uncooperative seabass on the way in. Busted the big tog again too but they went back to an ocean city frying pan.
A week later we try it again. This time running to the hundred line right where we left the life. We pass birds in 35 fathoms. Strike two for me, kept on going, greener pasture. Well,
2 hours after drifting the edge without a bite we move back to where the birds and life was and guess what, the fish were there too, DUH. Pound me in the head with a bat, “stop when you read the ocean and it looks right”. Shark rigs go out and fresh bluefish come in almost instantly. Fresh bluefish go out (in bloody square form now) and it’s game on with the sharks. A few dusky’s then a cool Tiger who was actually very friendly. All while this is going on there are huge schools of bluefish moving by the boat, cutting water with birds diving. I’m tossing poppers and having myself a blast, there is nothing more I like than a topwater popper bite on anything. Fish box empty, strike two.
Switch over to cobia fishing for a couple weeks, damn we can catch some baby cobia. Now we rarely head down the bay to fish the bridge tunnel. We have caught plenty right close to home. It sure is nice not to have to drive a few hours to fish as well. This year we just struggled to catch keepers!! Little baby cobia everywhere, guess that is a good sign for years to come. We always try to do a bit of casting on the run back from cobia fishing. Caught one nice speck near watts and another on the backside of crisfield and always a mess of baby stripers. Not setting the world on fire. In between cobia trips another offshore eddy rolled in, this time behind the rockpile again in 500 fathoms. This time was different, thank goodness.
June 14th we head to the deep again. Reports of a few tuna fish being caught this time. Plan was to troll the tuna spread and search. One of the few times that we landed on the fish! Set lines and a bluefin took off on a flippy floppy. Now these were no giant fish, but fun size. They were in 65 degree water on the cold side of the break. Strange thing is there were some really giant bluefin mixed in with them, >200# sort of strange to see both classes together. Us and and half dozen OC charters had it to ourselves that day, we never got our big bite but some did. Caught 11 tunafish that day and covered 201 miles. We came hope with a happy wore out crew. I should have parked her in the shed that day and left it there the rest of the summer…
Couple more cobia trips and then we headed back to the deep. Started at the 800/800 on the morning of June 22nd. There was a slight temp break was toward the 461 and we just kept headed east. Pass by some pods of porpoises on the way and arrive to find a dead ocean. Back inshore to the 100 fathom line and work it to the bigeye hole where we see one yellowfin caught and a few whales around. About typical, I pull in, and that is the last bite had by anyone for the day. So we sat there and pounded it out for a while then moved inshore to the tip of the canyon. It was getting late, we had caught 1 damn skippy. So we decided to run to the 20 line and give a bluefin a quick shot. I figured there might be some false albies in there too and get some pullage at least. We dropped lines outside of the hill at lumpy bottom and I was correct on the albys. After a quick cockpit scramble we boxed a half dozen of them. Made two passes over the hill without marking a tuna so we decided to cut up the albies and shark fish for ONE hour. That’s about all I could stand of the boredom. Turns out we hooked one of the biggest duskies I have seen in awhile. We played with him for a bit and let him go. Finally dropped on a little piece of wood wreck on the way in and boxed 5 fish tacos for dinner. The fishing quality did not equal the fuel costs that day.
Three days later needing to catch some fish bad we went floundering on the wrecks. We got our limit but had to work a bit for them. Glad to get some pullage and not spend a fortune in fuel to do it. While founder fishing I hear the guys working on the 20 lumps seeing bluefin. I can’t take much of that so 4 days later we try it ourselves. Started at sams hill then moved over to the lumpy bottom where I started marking fish. These were tuna, perfect marks. Saw a sporty hookup beside us, cool, its real. They quit, they didn’t leave the fish just quit. We had two pretty green guys with us so I opted to pound the lump trolling hoping it would be like old times and we could pull a long line fish if you just worked there long enough. I kept marking, I kept circling I kept not catching. It is mind numbing, I think it was Einstein who said “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” He was right, I guess i’m textbook insane. Our baits were swimming pretty. I dropped over a planer rod with a #8 and drug that right where the tuna marks were sitting. There was nothing I could do to make these fish bite. Hindsight being 20/20 I should have stopped and tried to chunk them, I had the setups and bait on board, just green crew to make a big change. Killed a dolphin after while, poor thing. Damn that red mark on my fish finder…. Spent the next three weeks lost in Greenland, I needed the break.
2 more cobia trips the next week, caught 6 killed zero. Then something interesting happened. There is a bull red drum fishery in deep water that happens every year around Morleys wharf and further south. Well, a good buddy called me and wanted to try something. Why can’t we catch those fish on similar structure 25 miles further north. As far as I know one had tried to target them in our home turf like they do down there. 5pm we were off out of Saxis.
We set up in 23ft and then it happened, we caught a giant stingray… and another… So it’s drifting toward the edge of light in Pocomoke sound when another rod doubles over. This time he fights different. Here he was, a 46” redfish slides over the side of the rail. We really did it, and did not have to leave our ballfield. Another bull red soon follows as the last bit of light fades over Tangier island. So, it worked, once…
I am not sure what makes me want to get back on the fish more, days I do find them or days I don’t catch shit. I love to figure out a pattern, but not catching just makes me try even harder. So of course we have to go back the next day. This time we cobia fish first and catch 3 and kill zero, again.. Move on up to the new “Red Drum hole” and setup. This time we get a nice surprise, and 8.5lb sheepshead! You just never know what is going to come up in the Chesapeake. Never had a drum bite, but ate sheepshead tacos that night.
Took 5 days off and then on 8/11 we made the stars align for a scuba dive spearfishing trip. I have to say there is not much more exhilarating that I have ever done compared to being 90ft under the water in the mid Atlantic and stalking a fish with a spear. Its combining hunting, fishing, adventure and danger all in one. The last two years I have had a teacher to show me the ropes of hunting lobsters, I am far from any good at it yet. We did three dives on this day, the first one on the USS Bone wreck. This is a great one to dive because it is so big and the bottom is sandy so it usually has good vis. Today was no different and we had a solid 30ft vis or more. Everytime I see the hull of this sunken ship it mesmerizes me. This thing is HUGE. It has massive relief with a main structure that towers 30 feet above the bottom. It’s like a giant coral encrusted steel wall. Strange thing about the bone is that it lacks a lot of fish. It has one square area away from the main structure about 15ft x 15ft that always holds the flounder and they are no where else. This seems common on the other wrecks we dive too, they are always in the same place. A few lobsters like to call the south end of the low relief area home. This year there was seabass/lobster pots on it with one small lobster trapped. In fact there was pots on all three wrecks we dove that day and we never saw a lobster outside the pots, they were wiped out, the flounder were not though. The flatfish is a hard one to see lying on the bottom among the flowing sea whips and coral. Eyes, look for the eyes, still I must miss quite a few as my partner seems to double up on me every dive… It’s pretty easy to judge size and usually when you see one he has a few other friends right beside him very close. Now, If you spook him you have to shoot, but if you are slow, you ease up right above him and thrust your speargun right through his head down into the sand. THIS is the way to get them good. Its sure is fun to squeeze the trigger but gigging them is solid. Clip him on your fish clip and repeat. I need to focus on the hunt more than sightseeing when I’m down, but damn it’s a cool place to be. If you ever get the chance to do it, do not hesitate.
As if we didn’t get enough flounder on the dive, two days later we run out again for a quick afternoon trip. We hit some new pieces we didn’t dive and the flounder were snapping. Got our 16 and in before dark, perfect. The next two trips were trolling between 20-30 fathoms, it is not even worth writing about. The water was ultra green and we just plain didn’t catch anything. Both days had me pulling lines in early and running back inside to grab our flounder and a few sea bass. Got to come home with something.. Let the offshore misery contine, it was really getting to me by now.
9/4 an old friend called and wanted to go hit a wreck further offshore just for seabass. He taught me how to jig bass and I learned a lot from him over the years so glad I could repay the favor. We spent all afternoon crushing the big bass and having a great time. Was real nice to have a simple trip where everything worked just right. This was the start of one of the most fun falls I have ever had. And the big boat has sat parked since that trip.
Marsh henning. September 20th. Something I had only heard about before. We had a tropical storm approaching and tides were forecasted to be really high the next two days. I happened to be chatting with one of my Chincoteague friends who mentioned they were going and would let me know how it worked out. I had a basic idea how this game went down in my head, but doing it was just a bit different. They spent that next morning absolutely obliterating the marsh hens. I get the call at lunchtime and he said it was off the hook hunting. I started to get my skiff ready we he just said come with us in the morning. I have to say I was a bit pumped that night for a new kind of outdoor adventure. Before daybreak I was sitting at royal farms sipping my coffee when my two friends arrive with a boat in tow. I was assigned to follow the boat as none of us ever has working taillights or usually even a good tag. Down the eastern shore of Virginia we went. At the boat ramp there was an older gentleman and his dog idling out the creek for the same sport. Another group of local surfers pulled up and loaded their boat to take advantage of the huge swells just offshore. We also got unloaded and waited patiently as the tide ebb’d in quickly. You can’t rush these things, you must hunt by the tide and hope it makes up. There are only a few tides a year when it all comes together and we had the right one. High water was a 9:30am and we still had 2 hours to go. Now a good portion of my friends are pretty wild, the two this morning were none different. I was totally green to this and these guys decided we will start by getting out of the boat and walking a flooded brush line, to “break me in.” I’m in the standard white boot outfit of Saxis island with some long pants on. I watch my buddy slip over the side so I follow, saltwater up to my waist. We move down the line a bit and it just starts going off. The poor marsh hens were stacked up and it was one after another popping up, for him. That morning he was shooting an old browning humpback and I guarantee you that there was not a single shot where a hen did not fall. Damn the old boy had a shot on him. I on the other hand, walking the opposite direction, was not seeing many birds. Finally two of them flushed up in front and I took one, the other escaping 50 yards down range and seemingly waiting for me to approach him again for another shot. Now, up to this point I had not been exposed to the IQ level of a Marsh Hen. I do not think there is a bird which such little brains as a flooded out Hen. These birds were about as dumb as the clams I was stepping on. You could shoot, they would fly 50 yards then they would land and wait for you to repeat the process. That was going along alright except for the fact I had those white boots on with my pants tucked on the inside. The food tide had not only startled the Marsh Hens but also sent all the periwinkle snails and oyster drills crawling up every remaining inch of marsh stalk. There the snails gathered and waited in their clans until I came along. Every step I would disrupt their stalk party and they would seem to dive bomb down to the water’s surface and then sink right into my exposed boot. My damn boots were loading up with the most uncomfortable “rocks” that you have ever felt. It got to the point I couldn’t pursue the birds for dumping out the 50 snails in each boot every few minutes. So after a sack of 3 lowly hens I made my way back to be relieved of the agony of my snail insoles.
We each climbed on the boat and reset the plan. Now the tide was making up right. It was over the main marsh, only small patches of grass were exposed above the water and our boat could drift across the marsh unhindered. We began at what used to be the entrance to a gut, cut the motor and poled along the slightly higher banks. This is what it was all about, it soon turned into a full debacle for the lost Marsh Hens. They would try to hide very unsuccessfully and then pop up like a pheasant when you came to within a few yards. In order to preserve the birds, we would wait and let them stretch out 15-20 yards before taking a shot, it worked, very well. The browning was stacking them double to me but I was having the time of my life. Within an hour we had our 45 bird limit and were motoring back to the dock. Some of the best hunting I have ever done. Another thing I found out, these birds taste GREAT. One of the best eating birds I have had, this will not be the last time I participate in this sport.
Redfish: It started on September 24th and we were late to the party. Our buddies had been catching a few in the marshes for a few weeks but I was having trouble finding the place or time to chase the spot tails. The last time we had a decent run of Redfish in the marsh was 2013, the year that will go down in history for me. This year they were showing up again. Maybe not the numbers in the past, but they were there, and a few of the guys in the know were catching, repeatedly. I had to find them, it became by full time job for the next month. I remember the first one. We were in 8” of water and could see fish and bait pushing. We were blind casting when my partner hooked up, it was that great feeling of success when you set out to chase a species and you get him. It worked, we learned, we applied it. Every trip we would learn a bit more, catch one or two more. These were the perfect size slot 24-25” fish. They fight like no other in that shallow water and are absolutely explosive.
The rockfish and the speckled trout showed up as well, both undersize fish but kept us busy while searching for reds. I learned more, if you are catching the latter two, you are not in the right spot for reds. On my final day before deployment, I got a tip from a friend on where the school was. He was right and what I learned that day will change the way I fish for the reds from now on. He was fishing popping corks with dead mullet. He was catching. What I did not put together until later is that these fish are extremely sound oriented. They are aggressive and they want to simply kill anything that makes noise around them, including his hookless popper cork. We were wasting our time inshore of Chincoteague catch dink rock when I got the call. “Hey are you coming here or what, I have my limit, come take my rods and bait” That was just too good an offer to pass up. 15 minutes later we are rolling up beside the his skiff and taking on two old rods and a bag of mullett. It was not 10 minutes after the wake of his boat left us that I caught the first red. On bait, ehh ok that is kind of cheating, but I will take it. What happened next though was a sight that will live with me. Popping that dumb cork along I see a bulge in the water like a sub coming to surface. That redfish came behind that cord and attacked it with all his might throwing it out of the water. That was all it took, I saw what I needed to see, In came the cork and bait. Sitting at the ready I had a few bass fishing poppers, one got tied on with speed and sent out over the oyster bar. Slug, slug, slug, slow popping along. Second cast, third cast, slug slug slug SLAM! The popper gets engulfed by a terrorized redfish and off he goes. Woohoo! I have to say I was pumped. That topwater bite is what I live for. Fish in the net, and lure back at the ready. This time my buddy decided he want to play in the game. Another popper tied on and both get sent. Slug, Slug over the oyster bars. The reds start competing for them, tail slapping the water, popper being tossed feet in the air. It was pure madness. They would key in on that sound and search it out and attack it. We sat there and worked on those fish until we were wore out. It was the best fishing trip I had all season and we burnt 5 gallons of gas and fished for 2 hours.
While all the glory comes from many miles offshore catching the marlins and tunas, sometime these simple trips really remind you why you do it in the first place. Like going bass fishing after a day of not catching shit offshore. The simplicity can restore you. Since that trip I have been in Argentina in the land of monster sea run trout, where I have not even fished, so damn sad. Here is to hoping the fall and winter can produce some great rock fishing. To finding that ghost bluefin tuna passing along the coast or even a lost daytime swordfish just before Christmas. Then its duck hunting for January, February for fixing all the shit we broke all year and back to the Arctic in March. Until next time.