Out­stand­ing Ch­e­sa­peake fall rock­fish keeps the worm turn­ing

The Southern Berks News - - SPORTS - By Tom Ta­tum

Worm. It’s a nick­name that stuck after lit­tle sixyear-old Drew Payne started col­lect­ing earth­worms for his fish­ing ven­tures as a child on Mary­land’s Western Shore. Decades ago he tended his own mod­est worm farm and was so ded­i­cated to his wormy pas­sion that his young bud­dies sim­ply be­gan call­ing him “Worm.” Then, when his fa­ther joined the cho­rus, “Worm” be­came a moniker that would en­dure for a life­time. Now 51 years of age and buoyed by 30 years ex­pe­ri­ence nav­i­gat­ing the fer­tile wa­ters of the Ch­e­sa­peake’s western shore, Cap­tain Worm’s ex­per­tise is renowned among those who chase the cov­eted rock­fish out of Ch­e­sa­peake Beach, MD.

It should come as no sur­prise that Payne chose to chris­ten his ini­tial char­ter boat the “Worm.” Years later, when Payne con­tracted the con­struc­tion of a sig­nif­i­cantly more spa­cious char­ter boat, the Big Worm ar­rived on the scene in 2017. A 52-foot Mil­le­nium Marine brand boat with a broad 16-foot beam and cer­ti­fied to carry up to 49 pas­sen­gers are cre­den­tials that eas­ily rank the Big Worm among the burli­est ves­sels now prowl­ing the rock­fish rich wa­ters of the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay.

So on a brisk sun­soaked morn­ing late last month, I ea­gerly re­port to the Big Worm’s dock for a fall rock­fish foray where I’m greeted by Payne and mate Josh Low­ery. Joined by fel­low out­door writ­ers Harry Guyer of Loys­burg and Doyle Di­etz of Or­wigs­burg as well as Bed­ford’s Dana Trout­man, we all look for­ward to a suc­cess­ful and pro­duc­tive day on the wa­ter.

With mate Low­ery at the ready, Payne fires up the 900 Scanyon sin­gle diesel engine a few ticks be­fore nine that morn­ing. At dead low tide and with a sub­stan­tial north­west wind, Payne guides his sturdy ves­sel through the shal­low har­bor, a del­i­cate dance that he per­forms with­out run­ning aground be­fore turn­ing into the wind-driven white­caps of the Mid­dle Bay.

After a mod­est seven mile trek from the ma­rina, we soon ar­rive at the fish­ing grounds on the western side of the chan­nel and within spit­ting dis­tance of the famed Calvert Cliffs. Low­ery makes quick work of rig­ging the gear and set­ting out the lines. To­day we will es­chew the pop­u­lar planer boards in fa­vor of eight deck rods. For bait we’ll for­sake the earth­worms of Payne’s child­hood and opt, in­stead, for Hula Chutes and Rub­ber Bugs, now the cap­tain’s lures of choice. Each line boasts two baits with a 25 foot leader for the lighter lure and a 20 foot leader for the heav­ier one. Low­ery feeds out from 60 to 100 feet of line with dif­fer­ent in-line weights to min­i­mize tan­gles. Trolling in around 31 feet of 61 de­gree wa­ter at about 2.5 to 3.2 mph it doesn’t take long for the morn­ing’s first rock­fish to strike.

It’s just past 9:30 when I crank in our first catch of the day, a lit­tle guy that doesn’t mea­sure up to the 19-inch le­gal min­i­mum, so Low­ery quickly re­leases it. Our out­ing takes place on the morn­ing of Oct. 24 dur­ing a sea­son that runs through Dec. 15 where, as Payne ex­plains, reg­u­la­tions per­mit two fish of at least 19 inches in length per an­gler per day. In­ci­den­tally, for the un­in­formed, the fish that Mary­lan­ders call rock­fish are uni­ver­sally known out­side the Free State as striped bass. Also re­ferred to as rock, stripers, and linesiders, these prized game fish, by any other name, are fe­ro­cious fight­ers and ex­cel­lent ta­ble fare.

In any case, my first throw­back sig­nals an on­slaught of ac­tion. While Payne is mark­ing plenty of fish on his depth finder, thick hordes of gulls feed­ing on the sur­face also in­di­cate large num­bers of rock­fish below vo­ra­ciously shred­ding through am­ple schools of peanut bunker, a fa­vored bait­fish. As the gulls keep busy snap­ping up frag­ments of wounded bunker, our team of an­glers stays oc­cu­pied dur­ing that first flurry of hun­gry rock­fish with nu­mer­ous si­mul­ta­ne­ous hookups. Mate Low­ery earns his tip money while fever­ishly un­tan­gling fouled lines, un­hook­ing and re­leas­ing un­der­sized fish, and keep­ing the baits in the wa­ter.

By the time the ac­tion slows around ten o’clock, three nice keep­ers re­side in our cooler.

It isn’t long be­fore an­other striper school cruises through, keep­ing our rods bend­ing with an­other steady flurry of mostly un­der­sized fish in­clud­ing a num­ber of dou­ble head­ers. On a typ­i­cal trip, the Big Worm will host from 12 to 18 an­glers at a time, so with just four an­glers on board, we all en­joy plenty of el­bow room. It isn’t long be­fore we run into some larger rock­fish, again with mul­ti­ple si­mul­ta­ne­ous hookups. Low­ery mans the net and hoists the larger fish over the rail. Photo ops en­sue as more hefty keep­ers are added to the morn­ing’s to­tals. Low­ery is get­ting a hec­tic work­out, but it’s a job he clearly loves to do. And, with so much non-stop fish­ing ac­tion, Payne rou­tinely aban­dons the helm and re­ports to the stern to lend his mate a hand.

Be­fore noon we’ve al­ready col­lected our nine fish boat limit (two rock­fish per an­gler along with one ad­di­tional for the cap­tain and mate com­bined). Pool fish hon­ors go to Di­etz with a rock that stretches to about 32 inches. By the time Payne points the Big Worm back to­ward the docks, we’ve caught over 60 rock­fish all told; that’s an av­er­age of 15 fish apiece over the course of just three hours of fish­ing. It’s been an in­cred­i­bly event­ful morn­ing and, at long last, Low­ery can re­lax and take a breath. Guyer sa­vors a puff on his pipe and pauses to de­clare, “Best rock­fish trip ever!” It’s a pro­nounce­ment that will get no ar­gu­ment from the rest of us.

It’s been a great day on the wa­ter, but for Cap­tain Worm, such suc­cess has been con­sis­tent all sea­son long. “We’ve pretty much been lim­it­ing out ev­ery trip,” he smiles. “We fish eight days a week. That’s 220 trips each year with two each day, morn­ings from 6:00 a.m. to noon and evenings from 1:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.” While rock­fish fish­ing out of Ch­e­sa­peake Beach rep­re­sents Payne’s bread and but­ter busi­ness, in a few weeks the Worm will turn south to Vir­ginia Beach and the port which will be­come Payne’s late sea­son base of op­er­a­tions. There he’ll fish for sea bass, floun­der, and tile­fish un­til the first of the year.

But it’s not too late to book a trip for rock­fish as a spec­tac­u­lar fall striper run re­mains strong in the Ch­e­sa­peake. For more info check out www.worm­char­ters.com or call 410-4744428. And for more on Calvert County’s out­doors op­por­tu­ni­ties, go to https:// www.choose­calvert.com/.

Ta­tum with nice rock­fish caught aboard the Big Worm char­ter boat this fall on the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay’s Western Shore. (Courtesy Tom Ta­tum)

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