Gene Mueller: Stripers aplenty

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On an overcast day, with southwest winds blowing up to 26 knots, the captain of the broad-beamed, 38-foot-long Southern Belle was determined to find the striped bass that he knew were within spitting distance of the marina where he keeps his charter fishing boat.

Skipper Mike Sadler and boat mate Dan Crawford finished readying the gear for a morning outing within sight of the Bay Bridge, while Sadler’s wife, Cecilia, cleared away the breakfast dishes and coffee cups. (If the fishing customers want it, Mrs. Sadler cooks up a sumptuous onboard breakfast in a squeaky clean ship’s galley then departs when the boat is ready to head out into the Chesapeake Bay.)

The Southern Belle eventually headed west into the bay, Capt. Sadler intently watching a depth sounder. When he reached a channel north of Bloody Point that showed water depths up to 100 feet, he slowed his vessel and Crawford began to release starboard and portside planer boards that would carry trolling lines far out to the right and left of the boat, away from engine and propeller noise.

Crawford and the captain quickly released parachute bucktails and umbrella rigs with Sassy Shad lures tied to the nylon of 15 trolling rods. The preferred lure color was white, but there were some chartreuse parachutes as well. “I’ve caught more rockfish on the white lures this spring,” Sadler said, “but you never know; things can change at any moment, so I make sure some other colors are out there as well.”

The stripers Sadler was after were large adult specimens that had been in the northern parts of the bay, spawning - the females depositing their roe, with males following behind to provide life-giving milt. When they are done, the sun and rising water temperatures do the rest, incubating the eggs. The rockfish, as locals call them, head back down the Bay and eventually return to the Atlantic Ocean. However, Sadler and several dozen of his fellow captains fully intended to intercept some of the southbound stripers.

By the time the trolling in white-capped seas began in earnest and an hour or so passed of fruitlessly dragging the lures along, fears set in that this day might turn out to be a waste of time. Sadler only smiled. “Rockfish like overcast and rough conditions,” he said.

The words barely left his mouth when Crawford shouted, “Fish on!”

One of the starboard rods shook mightily in its chrome-plated holder and Crawford pulled it out, made sure the fish was firmly attached by sharply lifting the rod, while Capt. Sadler fastened a “fighting” belt around the tiny waist of my wife, Margaret, who recently complained that she’d never been given the chance to hook a trophy striper because her husband usually fishes with male friends and acquaintances. She probably thinks I’m a chauvinist.

This time, however, things were different. With the rod butt firmly seated, she had her hands full, grimacing when the fish strongly jerked the line, along the way being coached by Crawford, who told her to keep a tight line, lift the rod and not take in any line until she lowered the rod. She quickly caught on to the pump-and-reel style of fishing and soon Sadler was able to slip a huge, custom-made cotton net under the fish and pull it up into the boat.

Margaret’s catch was a beautifully marked 37-inch-long striper. Not long ago, this rockfish came up the bay to answer the ancient call to reproduce. It finished the job and now was one of few that would end up providing luscious dinners for us.

Once again the shout “Fish on” was heard and now it was my turn. It was a 35-inch male that fought strongly, perhaps angry because a fuzzy-skirted bucktail fooled him into thinking it was food.

So it went all morning long. To the west sat the Thomas Point lighthouse, with Kent Island looming to the east, and between the two the rockfish of the Chesapeake Bay held court.

This time of year Capt. Sadler keeps the Southern Belle in the Kentmorr Harbor Marina, which is a short ride from the eastern base of the Bay Bridge. When the action slows in his home waters Sadler follows the fish wherever they might go. That means he’ll eventually end up in St. Mary’s County waters. He’ll troll, or live-line baitfish, or drop lures and baits to the bay’s bottom to catch a variety of species.

One thing is guaranteed. Sadler is an expert fisherman and he’s a delight to be with.

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