- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 22, 2006

It was still dark when Doc Malnati ambled down a steep forest lane, holding onto the handlebars of a four-wheeler. He saw me leaning against a large gum tree as his all-terrain vehicle’s headlight illuminated the woods and adjacent Port Tobacco River. “Are you ready?” he asked.

I bid him good morning, snatched up three fishing rods and a small box filled with various rockfish lures and off we went.

Malnati, a successful Charles County veterinarian, is well into his 70s, but you wouldn’t know it from watching him scamper about on his dock and electric boat lift. A young angler couldn’t have kept up with him as he loosened ropes here and there and secured a huge tarp. Before I knew it we both were inside his broad-beamed 18-foot-long aluminum SeaArk, the outboard firing up at the first turn of the key, and he headed toward the Potomac River.

October is rockfish hunting time in the Chesapeake Bay’s Maryland feeder rivers, including also the Patuxent, Choptank, Chester, Pocomoke and Nanticoke, as well as Virginia’s Rappahannock and James rivers. It sometimes gets so good that the locals call it “Rocktober.”

In Doc’s case, what with him living a stone’s throw from the Potomac, the choice was easy. Not long ago, he’d found a long underwater oyster bar that turned up striped bass up to 24 inches long.

We arrived just as a hint of pink sky showed up in the East. Doc slung a -ounce blue-and-chrome Rat-L-Trap lure toward the shallow side of the bar and began his retrieve. Nothing happened. I did the same and had similar results.

However, by the fourth cast Doc’s rod suddenly bent sharply. It was a rockfish, albeit one that needed to be returned to the river since it measured a little less than the required 18 inches.

Then it was my turn, but my striper also failed to meet the 18-inch mark.

I figured that if smaller rockfish had invaded the long bar to feed on shiners and bull minnows, perhaps the down-sizing of lures was called for. I chose what I consider to be the most productive tidal river lure ever made: a 3-inch-long avocado color Mann’s Sting Ray grub. Longtime readers of The Washington Times know of my fondness for the rubbery lure that looks pretty much like a bull minnow (also known as fat-head minnow or mummichog). When fed onto a round-headed 1/4- or 3/8-ounce jig hook it can be deadly in any water where the little baitfish are a major food source for predators like the rockfish.

I dipped the Sting Ray into shad-flavored Smelly Jelly and cast it toward the dropoff on the right side of the bar. Bang! A juvenile bluefish struck it. It was released and of course the plastic grub had to be replaced, what with the blue’s needle-like teeth having made mincemeat of the soft lure.

On a subsequent cast a fat white perch struck the fake minnow, followed by what I believed to be another rockfish, but it got off after just a few reel handle turns. Then my Sting Ray was again attacked by a bluefish because after receiving a jolting hit all I got back was half a lure — the blue got the rest. I hope he didn’t get an upset stomach from it.

The sun crept over the trees and Doc said, “They’ll really bite now. Over the past four or five outings I had the stripers bite under a full sun.”

Although that goes against every rockfish truism ever told, Doc was right — for about 20 minutes. He caught one of 23 inches and another one that measured the required 18 inches. I latched onto a channel catfish and that was fine with me because every day over the following week I’d already planned to be close to that oyster bar, casting Sting Rays and rattle baits with abandon.

If the rockfish cooperate, so be it. If not, well, there’s always another day.

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

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