Chesapeake Charm on the Western Shore

Posted on: November 10, 2015, By: admin

Captain Phil Langley (left) and Mate Rodie Langley display a 20-inch rockfish typical of the 2011 fish class caught aboard the Chesapeake Charm. (Photo Courtesy of Tom Tatum)

Captain Phil Langley (left) and Mate Rodie Langley display a 20-inch rockfish typical of the 2011 fish class caught aboard the Chesapeake Charm. (Photo Courtesy of Tom Tatum)

It’s safe to say that Maryland is ultimately defined by the Chesapeake Bay. After all, the entire state wraps around the Bay on three sides, caressing more than 11,000 miles of shoreline (including tributaries) like a covetous crab hugging a razor clam. These Bay waters further define themselves by the rich variety of marine life that has sustained generations of watermen here, providing them with hardy livelihoods and bountiful harvests of blue claw crabs, oysters, and fish. And, of course, the archetypal fish of the Chesapeake Bay is the iconic striped bass, better known as the rockfish in the Free State, and one of the greatest times to fish for them is now.

That’s why Marylanders like to call the 10th month of the year “ROCKtober” when the robust fall fishery is going strongest. So last week, given the opportunity to visit the Chesapeake’s Western Shore in quest of stripers, I didn’t hesitate. I’ve fished the Bay countless times from Rock Hall and Tilghman Island on the Eastern Shore and the Solomons on the Western. Fortunately for those of us who reside here in Chester County, most of these Chesapeake ports are an easy, scenic drive away. For this trip, accompanied by long-time fishing partner Ralph Haney of West Chester, I headed south past the Solomons until arriving at the folksy little town of Dameron where we met up with a cadre of other outdoor writers including Pottsville’s Doyle Dietz, who arranged the trip, Doyle’s wife Betty, Bedford’s Harry Guyer, Jr., his wife Darla, and Wellsboro’s Don Knause, with his wife Maggie.

Our host was Captain Phil Langley, proprietor of Fish the Bay Charters and one of the most affable and knowledgeable captains I’ve ever encountered. Langley was born and raised on Maryland’s Western Shore and knows the Chesapeake Bay like the proverbial back of his hand. He’s seriously concerned with Bay ecology and conservation as well as the science and politics that help establish the laws that regulate the harvests of marine species. To that end he serves as President of the Maryland Charter Boat Association and sits on the Potomac River Fisheries and Maryland Sportsfishing Advisory Councils. He’s also very involved with the Maryland Marine Fisheries Mid-Atlantic Bluefish Advisory Council.

We arrive Monday evening, lodging at the roomy creekside guest house that Langley,55, maintains on his expansive riparian acreage. The next morning we report to the dock where Langley keeps his two boats: the Lisa S, a 48 foot, wooden charter/tour boat along with the boat we would be boarding that day, the aptly named Chesapeake Charm, a 40 foot, fiberglass charter boat. Also joining us for this tour is Rodie Langley (no relation to the captain) who has served as the Charm’s mate for the past five years.

A little after 7:00 a.m. as a bright orange sun breaks over the Bay, we leave the dock with Captain Langley at the helm, guiding the Charm up St. Jerome’s Creek and into the Chesapeake where a brisk breeze churns the water to whitecaps. We don’t have far to travel from the dock, barely a mile through gently rolling seas, until we anchor over structure that, according to Langley’s depth finder, holds plenty of fish. Langley explains that we are fishing the lower bay at a spot located between Point Lookout and Point No Point in about 25 to 30 feet of water.

After securing the anchor, Rodie rigs our spinning rods with chunks of bunker for bait and starts a chum slick to help draw the fish. The moment our lines hit the water at 7:45, we begin hooking up with hungry rockfish, but all of them fall just short of the 20-inch minimum. “For the last twenty years all of these throwbacks would have been keepers,” Capt. Langley laments, “but this year they raised the minimum length from 18 inches to 20.” Langley also explains that all of the rockfish we are catching are from the class of striped bass spawned in 2011, which was the fourth largest spawning class on record. “Biologists expected the majority of those fish to reach the new legal standard of 20 inches this year,” says Langley, “but only a fraction of them grew that big, apparently due to the heightened competition for food caused by the high numbers of fish.”

This year’s summer/fall rockfish season on the Bay runs from May 16 through Dec. 15 with anglers permitted to keep a daily limit of two striped bass 20 inches or longer. The early trophy season this past spring established a one fish limit with slot fish regulations, meaning anglers could creel either one striper of 40 inches or above, or one slot fish between 28 to 36 inches in length. “Rest assured,” Langley grins, “the regulations next year will change.”

But rockfish aren’t the only fish that roam the Chesapeake. We also boat three keeper bluefish and reel in quite a few undersized sea bass, one tiny flounder, and a big slimy oyster cracker/toadfish. The flocks of sea gulls that constantly hover above, snacking on the chum slick, create a casting hazard, and Guyer manages to snag two of the aggressive birds. Rodie quickly and gently untangles and releases them with no harm done. The most unusual catch that I pull up is a small grouper, a species that normally ranges far south of here. Capt. Langley reports other odd catches this past summer including a number of large cobia, another southerly fish. Some scientists believe the presence of some of these species in the Chesapeake are manifestations of climate change.

By noon the winds calm, the seas lie down, and the fishing improves with quite a few legal stripers coming over the rail. We creel dozens of rockfish ranging in size from 19 to 22 inches with most falling fractions short of legality. By quitting time at 3:00 p.m., almost all of us have boated our two rockfish limits.

According to Langley, every rockfish we reel up is of that 2011 class, and the largest fish we catch are around 22 inches long. However, we do have a flurry of action at the end of the trip where Knause, Haney, and I all hook into heavier fish. Knause and I both lose our respective fish after brief tussles, but Haney manages to crank his weighty opponent to the surface. Then, just as Rodie readies the net, the shank of the hook breaks off and the monster escapes back into the deep. “Biggest fish of the day,” moans Haney.

“I think so,” Rodie agrees. “Like they always say, you should have seen the one that got away.”

Back at the dock Rodie expertly fillets our catch and Capt. Langley grills up a fresh rockfish dinner. Langley’s facility boasts a pier-side pavilion and grill where anglers can relax at the picnic tables and share their respective fish stories of the day’s adventures. For us, the bayside fish fry was melt-in-your-mouth delicious and the perfect ending to a fantastic day on the water.

**** Rockfish season here runs clear through Dec. 15 this year, so there’s still plenty of time to visit the Chesapeake and creel a few striper fillets. For more info about Captain Langley and his operation, call him at 301-904-0935 or visit his comprehensive website at www.mdcharterfishing.com.

This article was written by Tom Tatum and originally featured on Daily Local News.