- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 27, 2009

PORT TOBACCO, Md.

It’s no fun launching a boat in the pre-dawn darkness without helpful lights nearby to let you know how far a pickup truck can be backed down a ramp before the exhaust pipes gurgle ominous tunes.

Eventually, my broad, almost flat-bottomed, aluminum craft sat in the black water, stern and bow lights flickering. Far across the Port Tobacco River, I soon was able to spot a tiny hint of pink sky, which can spell bad luck for a buoy-hopping rockfish hunter. Shallow water stripers hate the bright sun, and this day promised to bring plenty of that.

The plan was to reach one or two of the Potomac River’s navigation lights that are shielded by massive boulders intended to protect them from ice or wayward ships. (In past years, the metal platform of the river’s No. 8 buoy, also known as the Hawk’s Nest, was struck by the inebriated driver of a cabin cruiser. He knocked the structure down.)

For me to enjoy a fruitful morning, I had to start casting my lures before the sun climbed high enough to penetrate the often shallow waters that abut the river channel’s edges.

A strong, bow-mounted, electric trolling motor would allow me to quietly maneuver around the outer sides of the rocks while casting a 1/2-ounce lipless rattle bait known as a RedEye. My favorite is one that has bright red eyes with a shiny chrome body and a blue back. It resembles a small blue-back herring. Local stripers often attack such lures quicker than my 6-year-old grandson can tear open the wrapper of a candy bar.

When I arrived on the upstream side of Mathias Point’s Buoy No. 5 near the Virginia shoreline, I stared at a picket line of cormorants that sat on the guano-covered rocks. The birds clumsily took flight in the semidarkness when I slipped the trolling motor into 6-foot-deep water along the edge of the stones. I picked up my casting rod.

Two casts later, a striped bass rolled atop the water, wildly objecting to the rattle bait’s hooks that had lodged in its lower jaw. With the help of needlenose pliers, the lure was quickly removed and the fish was set free because it measured only 17 3/4 inches. To keep a striper, it must measure at least 18 inches from snout to tail. The young rockfish apparently cruised around the piles of stones looking for a quick snack of white perch, perhaps alewifes or shiners, or maybe small crabs.

My next catch was a blue catfish. It wasn’t one of the river’s behemoths that might weigh 60 or 70 pounds when fully grown. This one weighed perhaps 5 pounds, and it would provide a delicious dinner for the family.

As I slowly went around the buoy structure, a steady number of barely legal rockfish went after the RedEye lure. All were released unharmed - all with the exception of a 24-incher that hammered the baitfish fake. It was quickly put on ice in the cooler.

A small spinning outfit and a 1/8-ounce Silver Buddy blade bait resulted in several white perch.

But when the sun rose high, the fishing stopped. Under a cloud cover or a soft autumn rain, it would have continued. For now, I had to pack it in and plan on future outings, which will include the Hawk’s Nest No. 8 buoy, or Buoy 33 down below the Route 301 bridge, perhaps even the 1W marker, surrounded by rock piles, at the mouth of the Wicomico River.

You can do the same in any of the places I visit or head to Maryland’s Patuxent, Choptank and Nanticoke rivers, as well as Virginia’s Rappahannock and James rivers. As far as gear is concerned, any rod and reel can do as long as it smoothly handles at least 12-pound test line. I mentioned RedEye rattle baits, but if you prefer to use a Rat-L-Trap, Cotton Cordell Super Spot, or a Sugar Shad, go for it. When the rattle baits fail you, be sure to carry along some 3- and 4-inch Shadalicious or Sassy Shad plastic food fakes. On a 1/4-ounce ball-head jig hook they can also produce very well.

Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column every Sunday and Wednesday and his Fishing Report every Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: mueller@washingtontimes.com. Also check out Mueller’s weekend fishing report and his Inside Outside blog at washingtontimes.com/sports.

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