For trophy rockfish, patience pays off
Setting out to build his own charter boat from scratch back in 1973, Tom Ireland realized the epic task would require plenty of patience. But working from just a stem pattern and rib pattern and relying on Juniper Cedar from North Carolina to serve as planking for the hull (later coated with fiberglass) Ireland ultimately launched his 42foot craft, a Chesapeake Bay Deadrise design boasting a 15½ foot beam, in 1975. The product of Ireland’s two year labor of love, which he justifiably christened “Patience,” has been a mainstay of the Solomons, Md., fishing scene ever since.
Ireland, who became a licensed captain in 1973, served as a Maryland State Policeman for 25 years before retiring in 1989. Tobacco farming is also a major part of his professional resume and he still lives on his 66 acre spread in Huntingtown, Md., just outside of Solomons on the Chesapeake’s Western Shore. The 74 year-old Ireland, a lifelong resident of Calvert County, Md., began piloting his first boat, a little skiff, when he was just 12, and his love of the Chesapeake Bay never faltered.
It is my pleasure to meet Captain Ireland when I report to the docks at the Calvert Marina at 5:30 a.m. last Wednesday to test my luck on the Chesapeake’s trophy rockfish. Joining me are a cadre of other anglers including members of the MasonDixon Outdoor Writers Association – Harry Guyer, Dana Troutman, and Mike Klimkos. Also aboard is Heather Skyrm of the Calvert County Department of Economic Development who arranged this angling adventure.
Truth be told, we had originally boarded the Patience early Tuesday morning, but super snotty weather kept us tied to the Back Creek dock as the well-seasoned captain cautiously assessed our chances. A few other impatient boats swaggered out toward the bay, but, despite their initial bravado, just as quickly pulled back. Blustery winds would make fishing with planer boards virtually impossible this day, so we would patiently and prudently postpone the trip until tomorrow.
On Wednesday morning a rainy drizzle persists beneath overcast skies but the winds and seas have significantly calmed. At 5:30 Ireland fires up the collective 900 horsepower of the Patience’s twin Cummins diesels and, ably assisted by veteran mate Bobby Thomas, shoves off toward the Patuxent River. Fifteen bumpy miles and forty minutes later we arrive at our Chesapeake Bay fishing grounds near the Gas Docks. There Thomas goes to work letting out two planer boards, each attached to 75 yards of cable on either side of the boat. With the craft chugging along at trolling speed, Ireland appoints Troutman to man the helm while the captain helps the mate set out 23 fishing lines, most of them clipped to the planner board cables.
The 80-pound test lines are run out at various distances and depths with terminal tackle consisting of green or white nine-inch shad baits along with a few umbrella rigs. By 7:00 a.m. the lines are set and, with Ireland back at the helm, we are trolling at 2.5 to 3.3 miles per hour in 50 feet of water.
Two hours pass by as the rolling seas settle down and Guyer cheerfully serenades us with too many choruses of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” But despite one exciting false alarm when a tangle of branches snags one of the rigs, we have zero fishing action. “The tide’s running hard,” notes Thomas, who works for the Calvert County Water and Sewer Maintenance Department when he’s not on the water. “That’s not good, but we’ll wait it out.”
While Thomas blames the strong tides for our lack of rockfish action, Ireland cites poor manage-
ment of the fishery. “Rockfish numbers are down thanks to commercial fishermen who are hammering them up and down the coast year round,” he laments. “It’s been pretty slow so far this year. Some days we get close to our limits, other days we’ll get just one fish. Right now there are about twenty boats fishing out here and so far they’ve caught just one fish between them.”
Although Marylanders call this species rockfish, the angling fraternity outside the state knows them as striped bass or stripers. Maryland’s trophy season on these fish always opens the third Saturday in April (this year that was April 15) and runs through May 15 on designated bay waters. Each angler is permitted to keep a limit of just one fish of at least 35 inches in length. From May 16 through May 31, anglers may keep a limit of two fish, both 20 to 28 inches, or one that length and the other larger than 28 inches on designated bay waters. Those same regulations apply to the entire Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries from June 1 through December 20 this year.
We patiently await our first rockfish encounter of the morning and it finally comes at 9:45. Since
Heather Skyrm has never caught a rockfish, the gentlemen agree to a “ladies first” policy. So Thomas hands Skyrm the rod and coaches her in the fine art of battling a hefty rockfish. After a bit of a struggle, Skyrm manages to crank the fish to the boat. As Thomas prepares to grab the leader, Ireland is there to man the net and haul a nice 38-inch rockfish over the rail. “That just made my day!” exclaims a mildly exhausted but genuinely excited Skyrm. Hoisting the fish, she poses for the requisite photo shoot as our collective cameras click away like paparazzi at a Kardashian sighting.
The rest of us are relieved that we won’t be skunked, but we needn’t have worried. Some 45 minutes later a second fish hits. I’m next up and I work the reel as Thomas and Ireland team up to boat the fish, a nice legal rock that stretches to 41½ inches. Five minutes later, another fish strikes and, following a lengthy tussle, Guyer is rewarded with a 37-inch fish. “The tide’s slacking and the fish are turning on,” grins Thomas.
The fishing action slows a bit but a few ticks after 11:00 we hook up again and Klimkos pulls in a nice 40-incher on an umbrella rig. Based on their size, Ireland judges the stripers we’ve boated are 2003 and 2005 class fish.
By noon much of the Chesapeake fleet has joined us, fishing just north of Cove Point. The sun breaks through, the weather warms, the action slows, and Guyer treats us to a few more versus of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” Troutman remains the only angler aboard that hasn’t scored his rockfish limit. After another two hours passes, he resigns himself to a fishless fate.
But Ireland hasn’t named his boat Patience for nothing. The determined captain keeps on trolling until, at long last, another rockfish hits - and it’s a big one. Troutman takes the rod from Thomas and cranks until his arms start cramping. The battle rages on as Troutman eventually coaxes the fish to the transom where Ireland scoops the fish into the boat. It’s a whopper, around 42 inches long, about the same as my fish, but much fatter. “About 25 pounds!” estimates Thomas.
“Well worth the wait,” nods a rubbery-armed Troutman. It’s 1:30 in the afternoon, time to break down the rigs, reel in the lines, pull in the planer boards, store the rods, and head home. Back at the docks, Thomas, a life- long resident of Calvert County who’s been fishing these waters for 37 years, expertly cleans our catch as we fill our coolers with delicious rockfish fillets. Thanks to Captain Ireland and Mate Thomas, we’ve enjoyed a fantastic day on the water and successfully limited out on trophy rockfish. All it took was a veteran captain, an experienced mate, and, of course, a little patience.
IF YOUGO>> Boasting worldclass hospitality, Solomons is one of my favorite fishing ports. In addition to a thriving waterfront and countless angling, crabbing, and oystering opportunities, there’s plenty else to do. If you go, check out the Drum Point Lighthouse, Calvert Marine Museum, the Annmarie Sculpture Garden and Arts Center, Flag Ponds Nature Park, and the Calvert Cliffs where you can find fossilized shark teeth. From our neck of Penn’s Woods it’s about a three hour drive. I’ve stayed overnight a number of times at the Holiday Inn Solomons which offers quite a few amenities including a backyard marina. There are also plenty of great restaurants to recommend. Among my favorites are the Ruddy Duck where they brew their own craft beer, Stoney’s Kingfishers Seafood Bar and Grill which features an awesome display of wild bird carvings and soft crab sandwiches to die for, and the Charles Street Brasserie boasting an incredible selection of seafood entrees and appetizers. For more about Solomons, check out their website at http://www.solomonsmaryland.com/. For info about Patience charters visit http://www.patiencefishing.com/.
Successful anglers aboard the charter boat Patience show off their limits of trophy rockfish caught last week in Solomons, Md.. Left to right is Dana Troutman, Mike Klimkos, Harry Guyer, author Tom Tatum, and Heather Skyrm.