- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 1, 2002

VARINA, Va. — What do you do when a friend calls and says, "Let's go to the James River and catch a bunch of rockfish," and you know it makes little sense because we both already live in the middle of what some people believe to be rockfish heaven, the lower Potomac area.
My frequent fishing partner insisted we go anyway, saying that at this time of year this Virginia tidal river's stripers a k a rock, striped bass, and a host of names not suited for a family newspaper when one breaks a rod or strips a reel would almost predictably be in a wide open, shallow water area not all that far south of Richmond. A body could have a ball casting a variety of lures to the powerful fish.
"Besides," he said, "Donald has been catching rockfish in the James for several weeks now. He said he would take us to them."
The reference was to Donald Satterfield, a boat-owning fishing fanatic from Woodford, Va., who will go anywhere, anytime primarily to catch bass. But even he agrees that a striper can make a largemouth bass look like a wimp when it comes to fighting ability and strength.
Satterfield volunteered to take us to a place on the James known as the Barge Pit. It's a large cove not all that far south of Richmond. Over the decades, the Barge Pit became a repository for worn-out river barges and small ships that were dragged into the cove and left to rust and rot, along the way becoming a sanctuary for largemouth bass and crappies. However, during the fall when massive schools of alewife baitfish swim up the river, entering various oxbows and side pockets to feed on plankton, there most always are hordes of striped bass that follow the oily morsels. Of late, the Barge Pit's many 4- to 10-foot-deep sectors have been wonderful staging grounds for striper feeding forays.
The run from the public Osborne Landing to the Barge Pit was brief, but even Satterfield, a James River expert, slowed to a near crawl as he entered the ships' graveyard. In the peculiar dialect of southeastern Virginians, he said, "Unng, wtch de birds, deyken tell yo' weng rock adere."
Fortunately, my Maryland pal, Andy, has learned to decipher Satterfield's strange-sounding tongue, and he interpreted for me: "Donald said to watch the birds behind you because they can tell you when the rockfish are there."
Whew! I'd have been up the river without a paddle had Andy not been present.
Satterfield, who is a magician when it comes to reading the water and anticipating the presence of the stripers, looked toward the shoreline that was some 100 yards away and after suitable interpretation from Andy passed along word that he'd spotted some baitfish literally flying from the water in their attempt to escape what probably was a large, open mouth directly behind them. Seagulls began to hover above when Andy suddenly saw all kinds of splashes, sprays and general mayhem in the cove ahead of us.
"There they are," he said, and Satterfield reacted by quickly steering the boat toward the fray, shutting down the outboard long before he reached the commotion. He slipped a bow-mounted electric motor into the pit and quietly maneuvered into casting position.
The three of us had tied -ounce or -ounce jig hooks to our monfilament lines (typically 12- to 17-pound test), with plastic, 4-inch-long chartreuse or white-with-black-back Sassy Shad bodies slipped over the hooks. The rubbery lures were sailed out and steadily retrieved.
Andy struck first. A 4-pound striped bass inhaled his chartreuse model, and the fight was on. Satterfield quickly unraveled a landing net as Andy's rod bent sharply, line straining, and soon the silver-with-black-stripes body of a rockfish was clearly visible under the surface. Then came Satterfield's turn, and mine, and Andy's again.
Then the stripers quit their chasing of the alewifes in an instant. Silence reigned once again, and the watching of the water resumed.
It didn't last long. "There they are," was the shout, and more rockfish were seen going after bait far to the left of where we'd started, tearing into them, delighting seagulls who now were able to pick up a free snack as some of the little fish lay dead or stunned on the pit's surface.
We caught our share, laughing, clowning around with our friend Donald Satterfield, hoping he wouldn't be upset over our good-natured ribbing of his dialect. He wasn't. In fact, Satterfield reminded us that Rat-L-Trap lures, even spinnerbaits would work some days.
We kept a few of the rockfish (two per angler are legal fare), most of them in the 20- to 24-inch class, and eventually called it a day.
The ride to the Varina area of the James better known for its fine blue catfish catches was an easy one: south on I-95 to the I-295 bypass and a turn at the Varina exit (Route 5 west) to Osborne Turnpike, which leads to the public Osborne Landing. A good map of the tidal James River is a necessity if you've never been there. Get in touch with GMCO Maps, toll-free 888/420-6277, and ask about a tidal James River chart. Then do some homework because the James, like all tidal rivers. can present a wide array of shallow and deep water. Caution is called for, particularly if you enter the Barge Pit, because at high tide you might run across a sunken craft that is only inches below the water's surface.

Look for Gene Mueller's Outdoors column every Sunday and Wednesday, and his Fishing Report every Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: [email protected]


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