June 2007

Tangling with Tangier Sound Stripers
By Charlie Petrocci

At right: Ted Petrocci, Antone
Petrocci and the writer hold some
early season Tangier Sound rockfish.
In the background is
Captain Butch Tawes of the
Crisfield charter boat Capt Rocky.

With the spring trophy rockfish season now finished, most anglers can look back and say it was a pretty good year in the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay. Wind and weather caused some problems, but hey that’s spring fishing. When we do get a good blow, the big water areas around the main shipping channels are tough to work in. This is where most of the big rockfish like to hang out, in those deep water migration corridors. For many savvy lower Eastern Shore charter captains, Tangier Sound has been producing some good sized fish during the last several years. So its somewhat protected waters can make for a good trophy season rockfish location alternative.

I had a chance to sneak out for opening day of the rockfish season with Captain Butch Tawes of the charter boat Captain Rocky. Based out of Crisfield. Captain Butch has been a charter captain for many years. He knows the waters of Tangier Sound well, and knew that if conditions get right, there is no need to hustle out and burn gas probing for big rockfish out beyond Smith Island. Thus was the day we spent trolling the relatively deep waters of the sound in the vicinity of the Hook of the Bar.

The Hook of the Bar sits astride the deep water channel area that runs between the number 8 and 9 markers, located just off Janes Island State Park. The water goes from about 20 feet to over 90 feet in some areas. This channel funnels water from the Nanticoke, Manokin and Big Annemessex rivers down the shoot, and migrating rockfish use this area as an underwater highway to access those rivers.


Antone and Ted Petrocci with two nice Tangier Sound rockfish that hit daisy chain rigs pulled in about
35 feet of water.
The Nanticoke River is a legendary Chesapeake spawning area for striped bass, and for fish to access it, they must run the line up into the sound from below the island of Tangier or through Kedges Straits above Smith Island. Regardless, the Hook of the Bar is on that water world road map of migration. Sure anglers may not get consistent shots at really big fish like those found out in the main channels of the Bay, but Tangier Sound stripers are quality fish. And with striper populations up, many secondary rivers, such as the Manokin and Big Annemessex are also hosting spawning fish. Thus when the migration is running right, there are plenty of rockfish in Tangier Sound.

We started the day trolling back and forth across the channel in about 60 to 80 feet of water. For Butch it was practice day for the spring season to come. On board were the mate Junior Bernard and my two brothers, Ted and Antone. “I needed to get the kinks out of the gear and run the boat. Its been a long winter and I wanted to get in at least one day of spring training,” said Butch. He knew he had a number of spring rock trips lined up, and the bottom fishing game was to follow, so rockfish opening day was the dry run for the season. We volunteered for the tough assignment. Well spring training started off quickly, since it wasn’t 20 minutes into the trolling run that we had our first fish, a nice 33-inch rock. The next fish hit just as we were about the net that kick-off fish. And it was an absolutely beautiful day to boot.

We worked the channel methodically; crossing it back and forth on imaginary transects. Running at about 2 knots, we barely made a wake in the flat sound waters. Butch doesn’t like to use planner boards. Instead he pulls about a dozen rods from the stern and cabin hood rod holders. “I like to keep things simple. We may not get as big a spread as other boats, but out here there’s not much other traffic, so the fish aren’t as spooked,” he said. Matter of fact we only saw five other boats out trolling that day, so there was plenty of room to spread out.

On this fine morning we pulled an assortment of gear, all fished anywhere from 50 feet to 150 feet off the back of the boat. Rigs included bucktail tandems, parachutes and the ubiquitous umbrella rigs.

“My go-to lures for rock have been daisy chains, in white and green. I find they are easier on the angler, since they allow for a nice fight with the fish. Plus they are not as complicated to drag through the water column,” added Butch. He knew his stuff since the third fish we caught, was the second to fall for a daisy chain rig, and it was the biggest of the bunch. This spring it seemed the hot colors for rock lures were white with a purple head. Sure chartreuse caught a pile of fish, but many captains said they scored more morning fish on the white/purple color combo.

Though we had another knockdown, there were no more hook-sets. So by 11 am we were done. We had three nice healthy looking fish in the boat box and it was a quick way to kick off the rockfish season. When we came back to re-fuel we had only burned about 36 dollars in gas! Now that’s budget fishing at its finest.

Captain Butch is now bottom fishing Tangier Sound for croaker, spot, trout and flounder. “I feel very lucky to be close to an area that produces a lot of quality fish throughout most of the year. Tangier Sound has been good to all the charter boats in this area. I’d rather fish here than anywhere else on the Bay,” he said.

Since we got back to the dock early, we had plenty of time to clean fish and get them ready for the BBQ that evening. Marinating a whole side in garlic, olive oil and wine, along with a handful of crazy spices, we feasted. Chased by good wine and followed by cheap cigars, we also felt lucky to have had the chance to catch some beautiful early season stripers, only a 15 minute boat ride from the Crisfield harbor entrance. I’m sure those fat, healthy rockfish will be back in Tangier Sound again next spring.

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