- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 14, 2008

HILLTOP, Md.

At 4 a.m., without the benefit of a bright moon, the local Nanjemoy Creek can be one of the darkest places on Earth. The simple act of launching Ol’ Blue, my 18-foot-long heavy-duty aluminum johnboat, is an adventure in itself. If you’re alone, you first must tie a rope to a pier railing, then back up the trailer in pitch darkness while praying that its wheels don’t come too far back and drop off the edge into a mud pit.

Such things happen in tidal creeks where no two mornings are ever the same. But one day last week, all went well until I slowly idled away from the boat launch, stern and bow lights illuminating a bit of the dark water around me, and there it was: an unlit buoy, a white float that used to be a cat litter container. It belonged to a crabber who must have wanted to be the first trotliner in the creek. He sat in the dark, several hundred yards away, the only visible light coming from a match he used on a cigarette.

A little farther down the creek, near the bend that leads to the wide Potomac River, was another early-bird crabber, but he carried proper lighting on his boat. All of a sudden in the darkness a large boat loomed before me. It was a big catamaran with a light atop its tall mast that resembled a candle stub. It couldn’t be seen until you were practically on top of the boat.

The catamaran sat in the middle of the creek, only yards from the main stem of the Potomac. It easily could have been “parked” off to the side, out of the way of incoming and outgoing traffic.

At a long sand spit on the outskirts of the Blossom Point Naval facility, I began to cast a loud surface popper lure toward the shallows in total darkness, working it back erratically. In years gone by this always had been a productive spot before the sun rose. Only a few weeks ago I visited near dawn and hooked a well-fed striped bass that gave me a fit. When it came near the boat I figured it to weigh 15 pounds or more, but it suddenly sounded and busted a 12-pound monofilament line. It was my fault because I tried to slip the fish into a landing net long before it had tired and before it lost much of its ability to fight.

Nothing happened on the sandy point and I eventually motored around the Blossom Point side, destination Mathias Point, Va., and the well-known No. 5 river marker that sits on tall spider-like legs and is surrounded by shielding rocks to keep away winter ice or wayward boats.

It’s the big boulders around the sides of No. 5 that over the years always attracted white perch that feed on various marine life inside the rock crevices, including fat-head minnows, also known as mummichogs. The perch, meanwhile, must not stray too far from their sanctuary because there are rockfish that cruise around the stones, mouth agape, ready to inhale anything that appears to be edible.

As the morning light slowly showed itself, with only a hint of red visible to the east above the Port Tobacco River, I picked up a rod that had a 1/2-ounce blue/chrome Red Eye lure tied to the nylon. The Red Eye serves the same purpose as similar lures known as Rat-L-Trap or Sugar Shad. While you reel in the line quickly all of them do a fine job of imitating a fleeing, crippled baitfish.

With a steadily decreasing tide two casts into the water-surrounded rocks produced nothing, but after the third cast the lure received a strong hit. I ripped the rod back to set the hook, but didn’t set it hard enough. The fish got away; I was sure it was a striper.

Moments later I felt another hard strike, and this time whatever it was stayed on. It pulled, jerked and fought like a creature that might weigh 20 pounds, but instead it turned out to be a barely legal 18 1/4-inch rockfish. I continue to be amazed at the strength these fish possess.

Subsequent casts resulted in more stripers, but none of them met the minimum requirement of 18 inches. In between catches of throw-back rockfish I’d occasionally hook tiny bluefish, none of them longer than 10 inches and quite a lot shorter than the unexpected catch of a channel catfish. The catfish would provide a good meal for my Southern bride, while I’ll devour the two fillets that will be removed from the striped bass.

As quick as the fish catching began, it stopped. After a fireball sun rose over the treetops and turned the water into a glistening sea of light, the stripers disappeared. They probably headed for deeper, darker water.

It was 7:30 a.m. and time to head home.

cLook for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column Sunday and Wednesday and his Fishing Report on Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washingtontimes.com

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