It was long before dawn on a cold, clear night when Ray Frank and his son Ryan left their homes north of Baltimore to drive to southern Maryland and fish for striped bass that the weekend angler wouldn’t even think were available in December. But now is when well-fed rockfish arrive from the Atlantic Ocean to invade the Chesapeake Bay and gorge on plentiful schools of oily alewife baitfish.
The Franks boarded charter captain Jeff Popp‘s Vista Lady as the first light of day crept across St. Jerome’s Creek. Aboard the charter vessel, Popp gently urged his 15-year-old son, also named Ryan, to remove the dock lines and help push the 32-footer away from the pilings. In icy early-morning weather, the teenager skillfully walked along the boat’s gunwales and did what his father told him.
“He’s learning the trade whenever he has a day off from school,” Popp said. “One day, he’ll be a fine charter fishing captain.”
With that brief comment, Popp described an old Chesapeake tradition. Through the years, I’ve met a good many charter boat operators who followed in the footsteps of their fathers and grandfathers. Most of them began when they were still in their teens; a few even toddled over the typical dead-rise boats’ decks when they were younger than that. In the lower Potomac, Smith Creek’s charter captain Eddie Davis said his sons clambered aboard long before they reached the tender age of 6. Both now are licensed captains.
On the Vista Lady, with the Franks looking forward to a good day’s fishing, Ryan Popp didn’t have time to chat, chewing on the venison jerky that his dad had brought for sustenance. No, he was busy readying 18 - count ‘em, 18 - trolling rods, their reels loaded with 50-pound-test monofilament line. He attached chartreuse or white parachute bucktails to some, large multiple-lure umbrella rigs to the others. The artificial lures would do a fair job of imitating small schools of baitfish.
With dad steering the boat toward an area not far from the southernmost part of Maryland’s western shore, Point Lookout, he alternately kept an eye on his boy and on his electronic depth sounder that could show fish movements beneath the hull. He eventually slowed the craft, smiled encouragingly and told the kid to release two planer boards and put snaps planers’ lines, each of which would carry lures that were tied to the nylon of four rods, spaced 8 to 10 feet apart. Other rigs were released from the transom and the rods stuck into special stainless steel holders atop the boat’s roof.
Popp spotted a large number of seagulls, gannets, even a brown pelican diving frantically onto the water surface, picking up bits and pieces of baitfish that apparently had been ripped apart in a rockfish feeding frenzy only a few feet down. The trolling in 40-odd feet of water had barely begun when the elder Frank shouted, “Fish on!” Indeed, one of the lines that was attached to the planer boards sharply jerked back and forth. Popp’s son picked up the rod, firmly pulled it back, freeing the line from the planer’s rope and clip, then handed it to Ryan Frank.
The 20-year-old pumped and reeled and soon saw a 30-inch striper flip onto the Vista Lady’s deck. That quickly was followed by Ray Frank and a smaller rockfish, although he latched onto a real beauty shortly thereafter. Again and again, the two men were handed rods that had wildly objecting striped bass at the business end of the lines. Ryan Popp carefully removed lures and with input from his dad judged which to keep and which to release alive.
Either way, there would be more than a few delectable fish dinners for the Franks in weeks to come. The trolling soon stopped; the crew was happy, with young Popp reeling in 18 lines and stashing them away, but dad and even the Franks helped. Before you knew it, the boat was back, firmly tied to the docks of Buzz’s Marina.
The striper fishing season ends Dec. 31 in Maryland waters and Ryan Popp is getting better by the minute. If you have any questions, Jeff Popp can be reached via cell phone at 410/790-2015.
Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column Sunday and Wednesday and his Fishing Report on Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: email@example.com. Mueller’s Inside Outside blog can be seen on washingtontimes.com/sports.