Perhaps no other fishery in the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay meets with more anticipation than the Spring Trophy Rockfish Season. Generally starting in mid April it affords Bay Anglers their best opportunity to land a true Trophy. In March waves of Rockfish leave their wintering grounds from the coastal waters off of Virginia and North Carolina and start the annual migration to the spawning areas of the Chesapeake Bay. A full seventy percent or more of the East Coast population heads for the fresh water lines up the Bay and in it’s tributaries. Rivers like the Potomac, Chester, Choptank and the head of the Bay wait for the spawning runs of the Rockfish as well as Herring and other forage species. For the Bay it’s like an awakening. Not only for the inhabitants under the water but for the fisherman who can’t wait to get on the water.
In March and April countless Anglers rummage through their "Stuff" to try and get organized for the new season. Boats are readied. Rods and Reels are cleaned and relined. Tackle is put back in order. And Anglers try and remember what was the "Hot Lick Lure" for last season.
If you think about what the Rockfish are doing this time of year it helps with the preparation. Basically they are migrating to the spawning grounds. As they follow the edges of the channel heading north they encounter schools of herring and other forage heading for the same areas. The fish generally are from the thermocline, about 35 feet deep, to the surface. Arguably the best way to target these fish is trolling. This allows one to fish different depths and cover a lot of area. Last year 25 feet seemed to be the ticket. The bait that these fish encounter in April is usually large. Lures should match the bait. Large bucktails, Spoons and Parachutes seem to work the best. Weights to keep them in the Strike zone may also be needed.
This is an overview. Everyone has a little different technique. And some work better than others. So this is how I fish the Trophy season. For lures I tend to fish double parachutes with stingers and Shads and Silver #18 Tonys. I rig the Parachutes so that each pair match. White with white and Chartruese with Chartruese. I like dark heads. One is twice the size of the other. The smaller one is rigged on 12 feet of 80lb mono. The heavier one is on 6ft of 80lb mono. I crimp or use a loop knot for all connections. The lures are rigged to a 3 way swivel. Tonys are rigged with 20ft of 50lb mono to a 4 to 12 ounce trolling weight. Check connections after each fish. Hard wear can rub the loops to the breaking point.
For gear I use medium sized custom trolling Planners on 125ft of 300lb mono. My rods are 6 and 6’6" St Croix and OB Custom Rods. Since I use 80lb Power Pro the butt guides and tips are rollers. Penn 330 GTI’s are my reels. I like the level winds. At the end is a Sampo clip so I can easily change rigs.
I generally troll at 2.5 to 3.2 knots. Faster with current and slower against. I constantly am adjusting my speed since I tend to troll zigzags across depth changes until I find which depth the fish seem to be at. Watch the tide. Even though the fish are constantly moving they do seem to feed better at the changes of tide. I put my boards out at about 75 feet. Longer if there are few boats and shorter if, as they say in Top Gun, "The Pattern is Full". My boards tend to run even with my transom and are let out from amidships. I run two sets of lures off each board and three from the stern. My stern lines are out the shortest. From 30 to 50 feet. My board lines are generally out 80 to 100 feet. My thought is that as the boat runs over fish they move off to the side or go a little deeper. When I run close to the boat from the stern I use heavier weighted rigs to get the lures down. I am constantly adjusting my patterns, though I do tend to put my lighter rigs on the boards. Tonys I generally fish deep and close to the boat. The reason for this is I can judge my speed by the way the Lure bounces the rod and because if a Tony, or any spoon, fouls it creates a real mess.
As the season progresses I switch to larger and then smaller bucktails. By June we are down to trolling 2 and 3 ounce bucktails. Last year we had good success with the doubles that Captain Chuck Fischer makes. The short firm artificial hair he used fouled and stained much less than natural Bucktails. For me the color didn’t much matter. It was just getting the baits in front of the fish.
Since quite a few fish are caught and released during the Trophy Season we need to practice careful catch and release. And rather than go into it here I would encourage you to check out Keith Lockwood’s article. While you are at the DNR sight you can look up any new regulations and season openings for the Trophy Season. They also have a map of the areas you can fish. Also something to think about. I generally use seven rods. If the fishing is good why use any more? It can be a zoo out there and more rods means more confusion if you get pinned in by another boat. Fewer rods also gives you the opportunity to slow down or stop and actually fight a large fish. Good luck out there.
Capt. Mark Galasso runs Explore Delmarva Guide Service . Capt Mark is best known for running his Tuna The Tide Guide Service doing fishing charters throughout the Chesapeake Bay and along the Mid Atlantic Coast, however he also offers hunting expeditions in the Chesapeake Region. He runs both a large charter boat and a center console; he can accommodate trolling, bottom fishing, light tackle and fly fishing anglers. You can reach him via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org .