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Articles by Dennis Doyle

Crappie are at the head of the class, followed by yellow perch

The winter solstice, officially the first day of winter and the shortest day of the year, is already two weeks behind us. This annual planetary event is in another way the beginning of the end of winter. From here on out, daylight hours are growing longer and springtime ever closer.
    That also means the blooming of the new fishing season since the fish, their instincts triggered by this change in the amount of sunlight, begin moving out of their deep water holes to migrate toward shallow water to spawn.
    The first species to react to the sunlight change is crappie, also called specs or calico bass. Crappie are schooling and moving up the tribs into fresher water to reproduce. It’s a bank fishing expedition you’ll need to mount to catch them, with Eastern Shore tributaries being the destination for most everyone chasing these tasty critters.
    However, Patuxent River anglers favoring freshwater impoundments (with their insider info of springtime honey holes) should also begin harvesting slab crappie within days if they haven’t already.
    In the very near future, yellow perch spawning will begin.
    The young males of all fish species are first to show up in the shallows, where they remain the whole of the spawn. The slab crappie and lunker perch generally come later and in surges. There is no way of predicting when. You just have to keep trying.
    Recently, Ed Robinson (a.k.a. The Scout), tortured me with an account of a 100-plus fish day on Dorchester County’s Transquaking River. Though there weren’t a lot of keepers in that crappie bonanza, it is a strong indicator that the new season is exploding.
    Joining in on this first of season fishing is not a difficult task. Arm yourself with a light to medium spin outfit, a few bobbers and some small shad darts in various colors plus a few bottom rigs setup with No. 4 hooks and one-ounce sinkers. Baits can be as exotic as wax worms or as mundane as red wrigglers, minnows and grass shrimp. Rubber boots and warm clothing are an absolute necessity.
    Anglers of all experience levels can choose their destination from the DNR website: www.dnr.state.md.us/fisheries/fishingreport/ypercheast.html for the Eastern Shore; or www.dnr.state.md.us/fisheries/fishingreport/yperchwest.html for the Western side.
    Early season fisheries are not limited to these two fish. Soon after the yellows, white perch will begin to stir and move up into these same areas. Then the hickory shad and the herring. The latter two species are protected from harvest, but as they suffer little mortality from being hooked this time of year, they are available for catch and release.
    One other aspect of the sport of early season fishing is also critical to continued success. When the commercial fyke nets and fish traps are set by watermen each spring, they will shut down an upper tributary’s recreational fishery faster than an acid spill. If a promising start suddenly dies, head downstream to get below the nets.
    Over all of these first few months, chain pickerel will continue to prowl the same waters. An excellent game fish, they follow the schools of spawning crappie and perch and feed off them, gaining fat and preparing, eventually, for their own reproductive run in March and April. Chain pickerel are a firm, white-fleshed fish and, though they are filled with fine bones, if they are filleted correctly they produce an excellent meal.

Some days, everything’s wrong but the fish

It was cold on the Bay, colder than we wanted to endure. But it had been a long time since either of us had caught a rockfish. So there we were in mid-morning in my 17-foot skiff off the mouth of the Severn in about 35 feet of water with temperatures barely above freezing.
    At least the winds were mild, as were the seas. But the skies were stalled in a dark overcast. I could feel the fingers of cold, damp air trying to creep under my expedition-weight fleece unders. Shivering, I tightened my foul-weather coat.
    As a bit of current is essential for the chumming expedition we had in mind, we had timed our arrival to coincide with the beginnings of a falling tide. Moving water would carry our chum bits out and establish a long, broad scent path for cruising stripers to follow right back to the tasty fresh menhaden baits at the end of our lines.
    The boat swung gently at anchor. I was pleased that the first part of our plan was unfolding as intended. But when I finally looked up from preparing my tackle, I saw that instead of facing south, our stern was pointed toward the distant Bay Bridge. The flood tide was not starting to fall. It was still coming in.
    We quickly baited up, casting out four lines as I dropped the chum bag over the stern to capitalize on the last few minutes of incoming current. We weren’t so lucky. In minutes, our lines sagged as water movement stopped. Off our transom, we watched the chum dropping straight to the bottom.
    It would be an hour or more before the outgoing current would make up. Until then, nothing would happen; rockfish are loath to feed in still water. The prospect of doing nothing but shivering was not inspiring.

Catching a Fluke or Three
    We’d marked a few pods of fish in the area where we’d anchored, and I noticed in the distance some big boats grouped up in deeper waters.
    “Maybe we should pull the anchor and do a little more reconnaissance while the tide is slack,” I said. “It looks like those guys over there may have found something.”
    “Okay,” my partner said, “but you’ll have to wait till I get this fish in.”
    I turned to confirm his jest only to see his rod bent in a hard arc, the drag humming as line poured out.
    “I can’t believe you hung a fish in this mess,” I said, looking for the net.
    When we finally got the rockfish on board it was winter fat, shiny and big enough that there was no need to measure it.
    “Nothing wrong with a keeper in the first five minutes on a slack tide,” I said.
    But I knew it was a fluke. That’s when one of my outfits bent over in its holder and line went peeling off the reel.
    That fish was even bigger than the first, about 26 inches and equally wintertime fat. Soon after, my friend hooked up another. It was a good looking keeper about the same size as his first fish, but we threw it back, deciding that the way things were looking we could afford to raise our standards. We agreed on nothing less than 24 inches.
    “I can’t believe we’re catching these fish in dead water,” I repeated. When I glanced at our electronic finder, the reason became clear. The screen was lit up. Crimson arcs and blobs steadily moved across the four-color LCD. We were sitting in the middle of a school.
    Our stern had barely swung south with the ebb by the time we had managed the last of our four brawny keepers into the ice chest.

Lessons in tackle, bait and reading the water

    Live-lining is one of the best light-tackle techniques for rockfish throughout the Bay this time of year. You’ll need a medium- to medium-heavy-action rod and the means to keep small baitfish alive while you are on the water.
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It’s never too cold to eat

I had been pushing through the brush, briars and a foot of snow for about an hour, short of breath and dumb from the cold. I couldn’t feel my face or most of my fingers in spite of the hand warmers clutched in each of my gloves. Then the baying hounds turned in my direction. Fingering my 20 gauge, I turned to face the dogs and froze. I mean that in every sense of the word.
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When you can’t fish, shop

Winter will probably continue to sweep its foulness down on us, at least for the next two months. That means we probably won’t be getting out for much leg stretching. One good thing about this time of year is that there are fishing tackle bargains, and many of them are on the Internet.
    I’ve found a number of sites with good deals on quality tackle. But be warned: Shopping on a foul-weather day can become addictive.
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Learn to tie flies or fly-cast with this open-to-all club

The morning temperature was well below freezing on my home’s weather gauge as I grabbed my coat and fly boxes. It was way too cold and windy to be on the water, so we were headed for the next best thing: tying some flies and talking about fishing.
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Stuff their stocking with a good book or video

The dedicated outdoorsman or woman is, by definition, equipped. The few things such a person might lack are likely so specialized as to be a mystery to outdoors outsiders.
    Books and movies, however, fall into a safe-gift zone. If you’re intent on pleasantly surprising an outdoors lover with your gift, the following suggestions might help.
    Kayak Fishing (Sportsman’s Best www.Florida
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John Page Williams honored for 40 years of conservation

John Page Williams, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s senior naturalist, has been made an Admiral of the Chesapeake by decree of Governor Martin O’Malley. The rank, which dates back to the middle of the last century, recognizes a lifetime of environmental contributions.
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Trap is a great diversion when it’s too cold to fish

Rising early, I looked out the window to check the tree line. Stiff winds had kept us in for days, and I was eager to get back on the water and after the big ocean-run stripers arriving of late. I lit up as I saw that the skyline was not just still but dead-still.
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November’s fish have fattened in the ocean

I cast the wriggling spot close to the bridge piling, leaving the reel out of gear with my thumb lightly pressing on the spool. As the spot swam toward the bottom I could feel it taking line. It paused and meandered, unafraid, following the tidal current away from the concrete structure.
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