The Secrets Of Liberty Reservoirís Giant Rockfish
by C. C. McCotter
Maryland anglers have a lot to be thankful for this year.
The Chesapeake Bay rockfish stocks have made a remarkably fast recovery. The Potomac River, despite intense commercial and private development, is amazingly still full of 1argemouth bass. Western Maryland rivers like the Savage draw flycasters to excellent trout opportunities. And now there is a remarkable trophy landlocked striper fishery within an hour's drive from Baltimore and the District.
Get ready to rig up for line-snapping, rod splitting, reel-frying rockfish, members of the Free State, because your very own Liberty Reservoir is now producing some of the biggest landlocked stripers in the region.
Liberty's Record Setting Stripers
Just ask Jerry Sauter, one of a select group of local anglers who have spent years studying Liberty's rockfish, and now setting new state records almost quarterly.
Fifty-seven-year-old Sauter of Catonsville, Maryland is one of these admitted "reservoir rats". In fact, he is one of the best. Something he politely disagrees with when so labeled. A look at his experience reveals he is humble to-a fault. Sauter has held the state record for landlocked rockfish on and off over the years as well as the state record for largemouth bass at 10-1 and the state record smallmouth at 6-7.
Two years ago he broke the old state landlocked rockfish record with a 36-1/4 pound fish then broke it with a 37-1/2 pounder. This was bested last year by Travis Henkins with a Liberty rockfish weighing 41-6. This fall Sauter just missed-a new mark, landing a pair of stripers just over 40 pounds and two just under.
On the recent run at the record with Liberty fish, Sauter has a few predictions; it won't happen until March 1st. (Liberty closes to boaters December 1). A boater will catch the record. (Sauter's logs show 99 percent of the rockfish over 30 pounds are caught from a boat.). And it will continue for a good while.
On what does Sauter base his last prediction? Years of communication with Maryland Department of Natural Resources biologists, mainly Ed Enamait.
"From 1981 through 1984 Ed Enamait told me the DNR stocked 39,000 stripers in Liberty. He also said "Cut this in half and then subtract what has been caught, and you will have the number of fish in the lake that could have reached 30 pounds by now. If this is what is left, then there are still thousands of 30-pound plus fish left," notes Sauter. They are going fast though. Two or three years ago there really weren't that many people fishing for rockfish with a rig set up to fish the entire lake. Each year this changes, however, says Jerry, as more and more anglers catch "striper fever" and get outfitted to pursue the record.
How Did They Get So Big?
That this 3,100-acre reservoir in fact holds Maryland's next state record rockfish is not in question. According to Enamait, a bruising 45-3 cow striper was collected during a recent electro-shocking survey. Think that is big? Sauter thinks the fish could easily reach 50 pounds in the years to come.
So why is such a small lake producing such big fish? There are two main reasons, and each makes Liberty a special lake. Incredibly, the reservoir is one of a small number of lakes throughout the country that landlocked stripers successfully reproduce.
While the true giants, anglers are now catching, are not the naturally reproduced natives, there will be plenty of fish for years to come, thanks to extensive stockings of Chesapeake Bay strain rockfish from 1981 to 1984 that are now reproducing. Liberty's unique water density and a high oil content that surrounds the egg sac of Bay strain rockfish allow for what biologists once thought impossible - the actual reproduction of rockfish in a small reservoir.
It is from original stockings, though, that recent monster catches have arisen. The 40-pound fish anglers are now pursuing are over 14 years old! Now that is a lot of bluegills, perch and crappie, down the gullet, right? Wrong and here's why.
Yes, these mega-fish are eating plenty of hard-finned fish to get so big, however there is another more closely guarded reason they have grown so large, especially over the past few years.
It is a little-known fact that Maryland DNR officials have been quietly stocking rainbow trout in Liberty in hopes of establishing another fishery. You probably have heard about the giant largemouth bass in California lakes that grow to 20-pound weights eating stocked trout? Well, Sauter says nonchalantly, Liberty stripers have developed an affinity for trout too.
Sauter's Reservoir Rig
While he honestly admits that he did just fine fishing for years out of an old jon boat, after retiring last year, Sauter splurged and bought a 17-1/2" stick steer, aluminum Express boat. Then he had $ l, 700 worth of aluminum work done allowing him to store batteries in the middle of his rig and better distribute their weight.
To sneak up on Liberty's monster stripers, Sauter uses a 48-volt MotorGuide foot controlled 2.5 horsepower trolling motor. To propel his boat up and down the 14-mile electric-motor only reservoir, he uses a Ray 48-volt electric outboard.
This new boat is certainly nicer than the regular jon-boat I had for many years. While I do give up a bit of speed with such a heavy rig, it is quite comfortable and luxurious." Safer, too, when it gets nasty on the reservoir," adds Sauter.
The final addition to the rig was a Lowrance X-70A up front where Sauter can check constantly for signs of stripers.
Techniques and Tactics "It is truly my belief that if you want a big fish, you use big lures. Big plugs specifically," says Sauter. He also adds that there is a sacrifice involved; "You must be willing to give up eight and 12 pound fish."
The gear Sauter uses for landing 30 pound plus rockfish is specialized, refined from years of trial and error. After trying various makes and models, he is sold on the Shimano Charter Special, calling it a "special reel" for Liberty Reservoir fishing.
"The Charter Special is what I use. I have seven of them and they are outstanding reels that feature an adjustable lever drag system on a level wind design," notes the 40-year veteran of Liberty. This unique design allows an angler to set the hook on large fish softly hitting trolled and casted plugs.
Sauter spools the reels with clear 30-pound Trilene XL and/or 30-pound Ande line. Approximately 300 yards goes on each spoo1 with no backing as 40 yard first runs are not uncommon. The reels are then coupled with a 7-foot PC3811 medium action Penn Powerstick rod.
Lures and Techniques For The Record "Plugs that I really like include the seven-inch shallow diving Redfin, the MirroLure model 113 and the Rebel Jawbreaker."For guys just starting out, if they use these plugs they have as good a chance at catching a state record as me," Sauter assures.
Unbelievably Jerry swears he is catching his big fish mostly casting his oversized plugs. Something that only makes sense when one considers the presence of 8-12 inch trout in certain parts of the lake and big stripers in the same area.
If you haven't yet invested in a reservoir boat or don't plan on it any time soon, donít worry, you can still catch Liberty rockfish. Each year plenty of anglers catch stripers fishing from the bank. While these are not the 30-pound plus fish Sauter is after, he notes shoreline anglers do have specialized and reliable tactics they use on Liberty.
"Chicken liver fished on the bottom is deadly and shiners are good, too, for guys fishing from shore," the reservoir veteran explains. In fact, during the spring, Sauter remembers many days when bank anglers would yell "Duck" to passing boaters as they hurled lines baited with hunks of gooey chicken liver out into the water.
Areas of the Lake To Target
The key to catching a trophy rockfish from Liberty is understanding their annual movements, says Sauter, "Once you understand this movement, you can focus on the larger fish, " he advises.
What took him a few years to understand was that Liberty stripers will actually give up their food source to get to the coldest water in the lake. This is directly supported by DNR fish tracking studies locating fish in the deep water in front of the dam during the summer. In fact, the tracking studies revealed that when the fish decided to head back up lake it didn't take long to get there. The 15 miles from bottom to top can be traveled in two days.
For this spring's trophy hunt, Sauter will focus on the annual rockfish spawning migration, and here's his plan of action. Liberty rockfish follow the old river channel that is often 80-100 feet deep. Sauter simply locates a river channel point and waits for his quarry. He says fish stay up lake usually until the first week in June when the lake begins to heat up and they head back down to the dam.
When Liberty fish spawn, they do so in the upper reaches of the lake in two small tributaries crossing under Route 32 and Route 140. The depth of water they spawn in is only 2-4 feet here so finding the 30-pounders in such skinny water is easier. Sauter saw this first hand observing a DNR electro-shocking survey and described watching the biologists hauling out the cow rockfish as "awesome".
Reservoir Hours and Information
Liberty Reservoir is open to bank anglers year around and closed to boaters December 1 through March 1. Even during open season, boat anglers are still at a disadvantage with fishing hours from sunrise to sunset. So much for getting on the lake before sunrise and fishing after the post-sunset period.
For more information on Liberty Reservoir rockfish call Liberty Hunting & Fishing at 410/5215245 or Old Reisterstown Bait &Tackle at 410/526-6500.