During the winter, any idea involving a boat seems plausible. My idea was to troll for mammoth striped bass on my Cal 27 under sail. Easy, right? Also known as rockfish, the striped bass is king of the Chesapeake. “Rock” are a protected resource, but for a few weeks each spring, Maryland allows you to target big migratory bass, 28 inches and above. If you fish the Bay, trophy striped bass season is a big deal. You troll with a minimum of five rods, with multiple lures tended by multiple anglers. You have to travel at a constant speed to generate strikes and in a straight line to avoid tangles.
"I sail slowly well. I stocked the boat with beer. We couldn't miss."
Not the best idea for a sailboat? Nonsense, this was boating and applicable standards are lenient.
In February, I went to the Saltwater Fishing Expo in Annapolis (sponsored by PropTalk) and heard two lectures on catching big striped bass. First, I needed lures, enough lures to create a school of fish — I’m not exaggerating — behind my boat. I stopped off at the Spankin’ Shad booth at the show.
I bought nine goggle-eyed lead jigs. Four of the five rods deployed would have one pound sinkers, tandem parachute rigs (hair tied on backwards so it springs out), tandem “stinger” trailing hooks (these are nasty), and nine-inch chartreuse plastic fish bodies, called “shads.” Here is your school of fish spread out 85 to 125 feet behind the boat. The fifth rod, with the largest lure, is trailed 185 feet behind.
This is the key rig. It is the big dumb fish trying to catch the rest of the school, the fish the stripers go after. I had to convince my fisherman buddies that we would catch more fish under sail than trolling with an engine. Fish hear and sense vibrations, and a stealthy approach has to yield more fish, okay?
Catching fish requires slow trolling, about 2.8 knots. Here was the clincher. I sail slowly often. I sail slowly well. I stocked the boat with beer. We couldn’t miss. There was Ken and his son Young Mullet, Great Leader, the Mike, and I. It was the weekend of the Annapolis NOOD races to make things interesting.
We removed the bimini and the solar panel, put junk into the car (there were five of us spending the night). It took two hours of shore side discussion to mark the lines at the correct distance, question my mental competence, and rig up the five rods. We motored into the Severn, past the exclusion area — no trolling — and into the Bay. Young Mullet yanked the mainsail up, and we waited for the wind. Nothing.
We motored (so much for the stealthy approach) until the engine died. Under sail, we weren’t moving fast enough to keep the sinkers from dragging the bottom. After much debate, Great Leader put out one rod anyway and we sat. We sat some more. The boys were getting restless. The wind picked up. Another rod out, then three, four, and the final fifth rod. At 2.5 knots, the lures began to stream aft. Speed to 2.6, then 2.7. We got a hit. The Mike grabbed the rod. Fish off. Great Leader berated my ability to steer straight and keep the lines parallel. We crossed into the channel pulling “the school” into deeper water. Bam. The Mike jumped up again. The fish was on.
I thought we had snagged a horseshoe crab, but that was the fish’s mouth. The Mike reeled. Great Leader got the fish up to the side. Discussion ensued about the lack of a net. A lucky jerk of the line, and into the boat it came. A big striper. Great Leader measured 40 inches. It was a citation fish. We lowered it back into the water, and it blasted away. The lines went back into the water. The wind picked up, and I had a hard time keeping the speed below 3.5 knots. No other hits.
We had a wonderful sail into the West River. We did catch one more fish. With the outboard running, you get some water on the cockpit sole. A minnow swam in through the cockpit drain. The Mike bagged our second fish, also released. About 1000 feet off the pier the engine, sensing a head wind, died. We drifted into the moorings at Galesville while I commented seamanlike on the mechanical monster. Ken and Great Leader got the mainsail up.
One thing about Cal boats, they really sail. A call to Hartge Yacht Harbor secured us a berth. I rounded up, way too far away, Ken took the sail down and we drifted sweetly in. A typical day of trophy striper fishing under sail.
About the Author: John Hoffman sails Velero out of Whitehall Creek.