- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 13, 2005

More than one Virginia and Maryland angler wants to know where all the hefty rockfish have gone. We’re not talking about the current, temporary feeding forays by large ocean stripers that have entered the Chesapeake Bay. No, this is about river boaters, even river shore or pier fishermen, who during the early and mid-1990s found a steady supply of striped bass in the 8- to 15-pound range in the middle and lower parts of the Potomac River. It also applied to the Patuxent, the Eastern Shore’s Choptank and Virginia’s Rappahannock.

Nowadays, rockfish trollers and lure casters often are grateful if they hook just one 18-inch keeper during nearly daylong outings.

To be sure, there are lots of juvenile rockfish in the rivers and numbers are what the biologists care about. As long as the numbers are good, sizes don’t seem to matter. Yet I have a feeling they know where the larger resident river rockfish went. If you said they ended up on beds of crushed ice in fish markets up and down the Middle Atlantic states, you’re probably right.

I recall the days when we’d look for a few catch-and-release stripers around the Morgantown power plant in the winter. The barbs on our lure hooks were pinched down to keep from injuring fish that would be released. Then the commercial netters would move in and before you could spell Potomac River, our catches came to a screeching halt. Wonder if there’s a correlation between tons of fish being netted and us suddenly not finding a willing bite anymore? What do you think?

The top fishing spots on the Potomac during the coolest days of the year were the pilings and abutments of the Harry Nice Bridge (Route 301) that connects Charles County, Md., to King George County, Va., and the aforementioned Morgantown power plant’s warm-water discharge sector.

Other productive river hangouts for stripers included the Port Tobacco River mouth at Buoy 6 just as it emptied into the Potomac, as well as Mathias Point’s Buoy 5 rocks and adjacent deep water, the Hawk’s Nest’s Buoy 8 rockline and nearby dropoffs, also the lower Cedar Point, Wicomico River mouth, Swan Point, Kettle Bottom Shoals, even winter waters as far north as the Mattawoman Creek.

All of those places could give up memorable catches. But now read what long-time Potomac angler Ernie Rojas found after he and a friend launched their boat inside the tributary Wicomico River at the Chaptico landing. Rojas’ experience is multiplied hundreds of times every day by other river rockfish fans.

“Before we got out of the Wicomico we saw some [feeding] birds, so out came the light tackle and we got three or four small stripers in a few minutes. Then the birds took off and the bite stopped,” he said in an e-mail.

“We proceeded to the middle of the Potomac River and started trolling, [dragging] everything but the kitchen sink. We trolled over lumps, humps and lots of water. Our only results were a lost Stretch 25 lure and a lost tandem rig with a big weight. Darn those crab pots. But no fish.

“Then the wind laid down and the river got real nice. We continued to troll the rest of the afternoon but still nothing. I headed for Swan Point and we found some birds working the shallows and guess what else? About 25 stripers in an hour. All the 15- to 17-inch fish we caught were fat, fat, fat.”

Since Maryland and Potomac River Fisheries Commission law says that a rockfish has to be at least 18 inches long before you can keep it, Rojas’ outing ended with one 20-inch keeper. That was it for the man’s mighty effort.

Meanwhile, Potomac River bass guide, Dale Knupp, fished with me in the upper tidal parts last week and while slowly working a 3-inch Mann’s Sting Ray grub across the stone-filled bottom near Wilson Bridge, he set the hook to a 22-inch rockfish that apparently was joining the local largemouth bass population in its hunt for bull minnows.

My Port Tobacco River neighbor, Dr. Peter Malnati, called a few nights ago after he caught and kept one 18-inch striper while casting the river’s jutting land points with bucktails, Rat-L-Traps and Sassy Shads.

“You might want to do a story on this,” he said, tongue-in-cheek. “I believe that rockfish was the last one in the Port Tobacco. There aren’t any more.”

Yes, the days of ready supplies of heavy stripers in the Potomac and other tidal rivers that are heavily netted are just a memory now. I cringe everytime I pass a fish market.

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

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