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Rockfish Romp on the Chesapeake Bay

A fisherman holding a striper during sunset.

Words by Tim Homa

The end of October is a special time to be an angler on the Chesapeake Bay. The air and water cool. The bait moves. The game fish feast in preparation for winter. Sure, some things have changed, but the thrill of chasing rockfish in the middle bay never gets old. 

That time of year, everything is on the table. Rockfish are available in the shallows, on the surface feeding in open water, or down deep staging on ledges or structure. Our plan was to enjoy a good old-fashioned Middle Bay romp. 

Over the years, since I took up residence at the mouth of the bay in Hampton Roads, my piscatorial pursuits have changed from rockfish to yellow-mouthed, snaggle-toothed critters and copper-colored tug boats. Initially, the move spawned a sour taste in my mouth whenever a rockfish fooled me into thinking I hooked a trophy-speckled trout. 

As time progressed, my uncalled-for disdain subsided. After all, a 31” rockfish at the age of six fueled my obsession with fishing. I make sure to fill a nostalgic void by returning to the fishery that started it all a couple of times every year.  

Rockfish are what we in the Mid-Atlantic call striped bass. It is estimated that more than 70 percent of the rockfish population enters the Chesapeake Bay to spawn. Following the spawn, the breeders return to the ocean and head north to New England. 

An angler holding a rockfish.

A Rockfish Problem

In the Bay, things have changed. According to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), the 2022 Benchmark Stock Assessment for rockfish indicated that the species is still overfished with a below-average report on recruitment (1-year-old fish). There are a lot of opinions on the cause of the decline:

  • Unchecked commercial fishing

  • Omega menhaden harvesting

  • Climate change

  • Over indulgent Invasive species (blue catfish)

  • Poor handling of juvenile fish

  • Lack of catch and release 

  • Pollution in the Bay

Like any contentious topic, people entrench themselves to a sole reason that negatively affects a situation. The truth is, not one of the issues listed above is productive for these iconic fish. We all need to pay attention and advocate. The numbers don’t lie. We all need to do better. End rant.

Chesapeake Bay Staples

We knowingly gambled with the weather by picking an October weekend in advance, but the fish gods blessed us. Unseasonably hot weather greeted us upon arrival in Maryland. The wind was light and forecasted to remain that way. A full moon and approaching cold front had us optimistic to encounter gorging rockfish. 

On the drive up, I stopped at the iconic Anglers Sports Center to pick up bank sinkers, flounder rigs, and frozen squid for our Middle Bay sherpa, Charlie Gregorski (@charlie_gregolfski). Charlie is an intuitive angler adept at mastering anything the Bay throws at him. In this immediate case, a frothy sea bass bite way further up in the bay than their normal range. 

I took the opportunity at Anglers to stock up on Maryland angling staples Bust’ Em Baits (@bustem_baits) Jerk Shads and Geye Jigs (@geyejigs) Rain Minnows. Rockfish love the Bust’ Em Baits Jerk Shads, and they happen to be one of my favorite speckled trout lures, so I stock up anytime I’m in Maryland. The Geye Jigs Rain Minnows are excellent lures for Spanish mackerel and bluefish. They also work really well as vertical jigs, which was my plan to try to entice a sea bass. Geye Jigs makes fantastic jig heads as well. I also stocked up on Natty Boh (@nationalbohemianbeer), a Maryland institution as old as the tradition of chasing fall rockfish on the Bay. 

A fisherman drinking a beverage on a boat.

Sea Bass Fever

Our voyage began midday. Birds flew overhead on the hunt for bait, the water looked clean, and the warmth of the air was comforting. It was exciting to be on this part of the Bay again. 

Stop one, a planned visit to a shallow flat, was brief. No sign of life. Casts returned fishless. We assumed that the warm weather would have the shallows active, maybe once the daylight fades. On to the sea bass grounds. En route, pods of bait visibly disrupted the surface. Birds sat afloat but not active. The scanner showed no signs of predators. 

Sea bass are delicious fish and, in my opinion, one of the coolest-looking fish around. Often, photos don't do them justice. Their bright blue and purple accents are stunning. I had yet to target them this far up in the bay.

A close up of a Black Sea bass fin.

Charlie rigged up his bank sinker and flounder rig and cut up squid strips. I tipped my Rain Minnow with a squid strip, and Ryan did the same with his Fat Cow Epoxy Jig (@FATCOWFISHING). Charlie quickly landed a small sea bass. I got on the board soon after. Disappointed with the size, and thinking bigger fish were around, we moved to the next structure.

The move worked. Ryan got on the board with a keeper, and Charlie followed suit. I put on a fresh piece of squid, and the next drop, the Rain Minnow fooled another keeper. Sea bass tacos secured. Onward. 

Rockfish Glory

There were two shallow water spots nearby on our list to check for rockfish. For sure, this would be our opportunity for topwater action or throwing the fly rod. It was not. Neither spot liked us. Charlie and I were confused, but sometimes nature has other plans. 

a fisherman fishing off the bow of a white boat.

With a couple hours of daylight left, we reserved the remaining time to look for bird shows, aka birds diving on bait with fish going crazy on the surface or, as our brethren to the north say, “a blitz.” 

Besides navigating other anglers, the challenge with chasing birds is finding the schools with larger rockfish. Understanding the migrational patterns and noting areas you previously caught good-sized fish helps. At this point, we just wanted to see a rockfish in the boat. 

After moseying around and investigating a few flustered bait pods with small birds diving, Charlie took us to an area we could jig over top of structure. A couple of passes over the structure, and no fish landed, but we each had our jigs hit. Good sign.

The orange glow of sunset engulfed the area. To the east, the full moon started to show over the horizon. We looked to the north and saw some commotion. Not a full-on bird show but the unmistakable sight of rockfish feasting. 

Casually, in an effort to not tip off the other boats near us, we motored towards the undetected scene. The surface was alive, and the boils indicated a nice class of fish. The sound of rockfish slurping bait was the perfect soundtrack to fuel our casts.

One, two, and three, we all hooked up. We shielded our laughter and could tell by the sound of the drag these weren’t dinks. Two of the three fish made it on the boat. It felt great to see healthy rockfish doing what they were meant to do. Years earlier, I would’ve been inclined to keep these fish, but nowadays, watching them swim away is the reward. 

a fisherman holding a striped bass.

a fisherman holding a striped bass in the water.

The fish surfaced two more times. Charlie landed two more on a jig, Ryan almost stuck one on the fly, and I watched no less than 10 fish try to obliterate my topwater lure. 

Just as quick as we found them, they left, along with the last bit of daylight. Our run back would be guided by moonlight, but not before stopping at one final shallow water spot. This time, the fish were there and eager to hit topwaters in the lunar glow. What a way to cap off an adventure on the Chesapeake Bay. 



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