The Mid-Atlantic Rockfish Shootout presented by Bass Pro Shops finished up last weekend in Virginia Beach, Va., with some trying conditions and even a rescue.
With more than 170 boats, and one jet ski angler, battling for $140,000, sub-freezing temperatures hit the region and pushed large groups of striped bass offshore, past the three-mile line and into the closed waters of the EEZ.
The first day of competition saw "wide open fishing," tournament director Mike Standing said. Some boats caught as many as 50 fish before they migrated east due to cold and making it more difficult to find fish on day two and three.
Each winter, 90 percent of the striped bass, also called Rockfish, mass in a 25- to 35-square-mile portion of the Virginia coast. When air and water temperatures remain in the 50s, fish actively feed on a more northerly to southerly route along shoreline beaches, within three miles of land.
However, when air temperatures plunge below the freezing mark for extended periods of time, schools of fish drop offshore and feed on a westerly to easterly pattern; ultimately pushing schools of striped bass into the protected waters of the EEZ as bait and fish seek warmer, more consistent water temperatures.
The few fish that will remain in the frigid waters along the coast forced all competitors to get creative with their presentations as they hunted down fish, further separating the men from the boys.
In recent years, fishing in the closed waters of the EEZ during this tournament has been such a problem that the tournament had to remedy.
Each participating vessel was outfitted with Garmin hand-held GPS units.
"This was the first year that Garmin supplied a hand-held GPS so that each participant could be tracked, ensuring that no one exceeded the three mile line," said Brian Lockwood, also known by locals as Jet Ski Brian. "Hopefully the GPS units will keep that from happening and eliminate any doubt."
Standing thought the GPS units served their purpose.
"I was very exciting to partner with Garmin," Standing said. "The use of this GPS device by each competitor leveled the playing field, and I am very happy with the acceptance by the competitors."
Anglers still might have been tempted as there was shoreline ice and cold water temperatures inside the Chesapeake Bay and adjacent confluences, making conditions difficult.
"Normal high air temperatures this time of year are typically 48 degrees," said Capt. Harry Svenson of Cheap Shot Fishing Charters, who took third place in the Open Division and finished first among Calcutta entrants. "This year, we have been lucky to break 32 degrees and today it is 19 degrees."
"Water temperatures have been as low as 36 degrees, shutting down the eel bite and forcing us to troll Parachute Rigs (also called Mojo Rigs) south of Virginia Beach."
Parachute rigs got their start along the Virginia coast many years ago. Now, they are used all along the striper coast.
Boats targeting striped bass on the troll in Virginia and North Carolina must knife through heavy water currents when targeting deeper sloughs. Downriggers were formerly used for precise depth control situations but an unknown southern angler determined that a giant lead ball outfitted with a hook offered one more opportunity to catch that tournament winning fish. Now, this rig is commonplace.
Svenson trolls several rods covering all sections of the water column. As fish attack his spread, he adjusts his rigs and color patterns accordingly. It is not uncommon for Svenson and others to troll a half-dozen Parachute Rigs at one time while using 50-pound class tuna gear and 150-pound braided line.
Svenson's trolling spread consists of a 48-ounce Parachute with a three-way swivel up the line 5 feet from the Parachute lure itself. From the swivel, Svenson attaches 10 feet of heavy fluorocarbon leader and a bunker spoon.
If Svenson feels that big bass are feeding on herring, he'll replace the spoon with a 9-12 inch swim shad. The two corner rods along the motor are the same rig but with slightly lighter Parachutes outfitted with different lure colors.
The port rod is a 24-ounce Parachute with an umbrella rig outfitted with one lone 12-inch Swim Shad trailer off the rear of the umbrella rig. Once the deep lines are deployed, Svenson and his crew deploys a series of flat-line rods outfitted with lures including a Mann's Stretch 25, large Swim Shads and other large swimming plugs aimed at fish feeding near the surface.
Anglers are then looking to troll 3-5 mph while targeting structure and open water fish feeding on bait balls.
The event even included some high drama, but the team from Bass Pro Shops, which also sponsored the event, came to the rescue.
"During the event, the Bass Pro Shops team boat was the first on the scene of a sinking, non-competing boat," Standing said. "The vessel was rapidly going down, but not before the crew of the Bass Pro Shops boat plucked the anglers from the water as rescue crews were in transit."
"First class guys from a first-class operation."
For more information on the 2011 Mid Atlantic Rockfish Shootout and to compete, please (757) 319-5146 or visit their Web site at www.midatlanticrockfishshootout.com
Editor's note: Capt. Chris Gatley can be found with his fishing clients chasing striped bass in front of the Statue of Liberty, or heading offshore to the Atlantic Ocean canyons off the NJ/NY coast for tuna. His articles on cutting-edge fishing techniques can be found in The Fisherman Magazine, and he's a regular presenter at key sports shows during the winter months (when he's not pursuing whatever he can find in East Coast rivers).