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Rockfish Rockstar

Rockfish Rockstar
Atlantic Coast striped bass, also known as rockfish are a sport anglers dream catch, and they also offer tremendous table fare with limited harvest options.

Following the Bassmaster Elite Series event at Lake Murray, the mid-point of the season found Bryan Schmitt sitting in 39th in the Angler of the Year standings. That means he’s inside the cut for next year’s Bassmaster Classic.

Not bad, but back home in Maryland, Schmitt’s a rockstar. Specifically, he’s established himself as a reliable charter captain who keeps the rods bent with chunky rockfish.

According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Chesapeake Bay comprises the primary spawning and nursery habitat for 70% to 90% of the Atlantic Coast striped bass (aka “rockfish”). Running the Miss Ashleigh, a 42-foot Evans out of Deale, Maryland’s Happy Harbor, Schmitt makes the most of the rockfish opportunities by connecting clients to a fish with a lot going for it.

Bryan Schmitt holding a big striped bass
Professional bass angler Bryan Schmitt loves chasing large Atlantic Coast striped bass between Elite Series tournaments.

“I think the appeal is an incredible fight, they’re a cool looking fish and they eat well,” Schmitt said of his spring-summer targets. “The average fish is 4 to 8 pounds, but the migratory fish get up to 40 to 50 pounds.”

There are plenty of “eaters” in the bay, but he often finds legit tanks traversing the Chesapeake’s waters. Here’s the rundown.

The Season

As Schmitt explained, it’s all about the spawning migration. You’ll find smaller rockfish in the bay year-round, but the larger oceanic fish make a spring run that bolsters the smaller residents’ spawning activity.

“The rockfish come in from the ocean and spawn in Chesapeake Bay to the top of all tributaries, like the Potomac River; they go to the tippy tops of all the tributaries,” he said. “After the spawn, the large mature fish, 8 years and older, migrate back to the ocean. Until they’re about 8 years old, they’ll stay in the Chesapeake until they’re mature enough to make this migration.

“They’ll spawn in multiple areas. Which tributary has the bulk of the fish changes from year to year, depending on water quality and other variables, but there will be rockfish spawning in almost every tributary.”

Recreational anglers can keep one rockfish per day (within the 19- to 24-inch slot) between May 16 to Dec 10, with a couple of notable points. First, January through March is catch-and-release only, but the tributaries are closed April through May 31 and targeting rockfish is prohibited.

Late in the year, Maryland again prohibits fishing for rockfish July 16 through 31 (no possession). This protects the species during the hottest time of the year, when catch-and-release can prove dangerously stressful. At year’s end, Chesapeake Bay rockfish harvest closes Dec. 11 though 31.

Find the Fish

Describing his rockfish search, he said: “In the main bay, I’m targeting any type of bottom structure—humps, ledges, the intersection of the main stem and a tributary forming a point. They are nomadic sometimes in open water following menhaden schools. It’s easier to find them on structure.

huge atlantic rockfish
Giant rockfish are common along the Atlantic Coast during certain times of year. Multiple wildlife and fisheries agencies work together to protect these amazing fish, while offering limited fishing and harvest timeframes.

“Once the tributaries open, it’s the same thing. The only difference is that they’ll start to favor spots with deep water. So, start at the last available deep water in the back and then work your way out. Once summer arrives, they’ll often fall out to the main bay.”

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Not unlike his Elite Series efforts, Schmitt pays close attention to his electronics. Sonar plays a big role in identifying promising areas, but radar also proves strategic.

“A lot of time, we just ride around and look for bait,” he said. “Mapping and all of these (technologies) are important, but one of the biggest tools we have on the charter boat is radar.

“That technology is used to see other boats when it’s foggy, or at nighttime, but it’s a huge tool in finding birds. I’ll look for a bunch of sea gulls tightly grouped up working an area where there’s some bait or some fish splashing. I might see that from 8 miles or out.”

He likes a sunny day, as it helps predators see better in the bay’s often stained water. Also, he finds his best action on the tidal swings, especially the last of the outgoing because it pulls everything out of the shallow and concentrates bait and predators in predictable areas.

What They Like

While it’s hard to beat freshly netted menhaden, especially during spring and fall months, he also catches a lot of rockfish on spots—a small croaker with a distinctive black mark on its back. Spinning rods and sabiki rigs will gather enough spots for a day and for these or menhaden, Schmitt fishes his natural baits on 12-pound fluorocarbon and a 6/0 circle hook.

“If we see the fish sporadically on sonar we’ll drift, but if we see an active school, we’ll anchor up,” he said. “The hope is to get on top of the fish.

“Like ledge fishing for largemouth bass, if you can get one or two rockfish to trigger, it gets the whole school fired up. When that happens, you can’t get in the water fast enough.”

Casting hair jigs, spoons, and topwaters also produces.

Fight Well

Favoring medium heavy spinning gear, he said it’s all about balancing fish-whipping strength with a sporting engagement.

“We like to let the customer enjoy fighting the fish, so we don’t overdo it with the tackle,” he said. “These fish are resilient, as long as some care is given. Try not to drop them and when you get into the heat of summer, you have to be a little more careful.

04-rockfish-04
Rockfish, or saltwater striped bass, offer incredible angling opportunities. Fun for the whole family!

“My advice: When that fish is pulling, don’t reel. When that reel stops spinning, then you can turn the handle. Don’t try to over power a rockfish because you never know how big it is until you see it and you might break off a big one.”

He also has a suggestion for enjoying the firm, mild rockfish filets. Cut the meat into little cubes, coat in your choice of batter or breading, deep fry, then toss in buffalo sauce.

Chesapeake Bay rockfish regulations




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