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Features (Fishing)

Dress warm to catch ’em by the shore

Rockfish season is still four weeks away, but already a small crowd of dedicated anglers is breaking out gear. Their tackle is rather odd for the coming trophy season. They don’t favor the short, stout-as-a-broomstick trolling outfits used by Bay skippers. These specialized anglers prefer equipment more common among coastal surf fishermen.
    Their rods are nine to 12 feet long with lengthy butts, and they are hung with big spinning or casting reels capable of 300 or more yards of 20- to 30-pound mono or 30- to 65-pound braid. Their terminal setups are 30- to 50-pound leaders and big circle hooks rigged with three- to six-ounce sinkers. Their bait of choice: bloodworms, as big as they can find.
    A hard winter has delayed these early birds, but now they are shore-bound. The first couple of weeks, fishing is catch and release only. But by the season opener, they will have sussed the tempo of the striper migration and will be ready to slide some rockfish giants into their big coolers.
    Sandy Point, Fort Smallwood and Matapeake State Parks as well as Anne Arundel County’s Thomas Point Park are frequented by the cognoscenti. Further south, Point Lookout at the mouth of the Potomac has been drawing larger and larger numbers of anglers willing to suffer the wind, chill and rain.
    This tactic, strangely enough, has developed in only the last half-dozen years or so. Big migratory fish surely have been cruising the shoreline looking for a snack as long as they’ve been returning from the ocean to spawn. Yet most anglers have traditionally pursued them by dragging big lures behind big boats.
    Perhaps it was the economic downturn that forced some to remain shore-bound. Perhaps the successes of a small number of dedicated fishers were finally noted. Whatever the reason, more and more anglers have been showing up in the spring to soak a big, whole bloodworm on the bottom and hope for a 40-plus-incher to discover it.
    When fresh menhaden become available, many anglers will switch to them. Some fanatics will even search out herring or shad that have been legally harvested elsewhere (it’s prohibited to take either in any part of the Chesapeake). But the bottom line is that these guys catch fish, and often regularly.
    Many anglers prefer night fishing, when the big rockfish are more apt to frequent the shallows. But I have also interviewed those who maintain banker’s hours and arrive about 9am and fish through to the afternoon. Their theory is that, as the majority of the fish are unpredictable, one might as well be as comfortable as possible when pursuing them. All of these guys catch fish, sometimes lots of them.
    Enduring the weather is a major part of the early spring fishing experience. Warm boots, woolen socks, windproof, insulated coats, snug hats with ear covering, thick gloves, handwarmers and a thermos full of a hot beverage are almost a necessity, especially at night.
    Many anglers fish multiple rigs. Two or more outfits increase the odds of hooking up and ensure that at least one line is available while changing baits or clearing a fouled line.
    When shoreline fishing, sand spikes firmly set into the ground are a necessity. Casually propping your rod against a cooler risks it being dragged into deep water when a strong fish takes the bait.
    A beach chair is another mark of an experienced angler. Shoreline fishing is characterized by long periods of inactivity interrupted by moments of adrenalin-soaked, fish-fighting panic. Being comfortable during the slower moments makes the wait much more tolerable.

Pickerel don’t mind the weather

The nasty weather variations have made angling difficult. A day of moderate temperature has usually been followed by extreme cold and sometimes even blizzard conditions, weather not conducive to any consistent bite.
    The chain pickerel, however, tolerates wild, frigid weather. When the majority of our Tidewater fish are hiding in deeper water waiting for snow to melt and conditions to warm up — or at least stabilize — the pickerel is still cruising the laydowns. Holding around any available structure, it waits for some lesser creature to make a mistake.
    With its large mouth, needle-sharp dentures and long, lean powerful body, the pickerel is the ideal predator, fast and deadly. It can tolerate brackish water to a high degree, so it thrives throughout the middle to upper reaches of most Bay tributaries and virtually all of our lakes and impoundments.
    The grinning devil feeds on minnows, grass shrimp, crabs, goslings, ducklings, snakes, frogs — any small bird or rodent that happens to fall in the water and just about any sized fish it can trap in its toothy grip. Right now, it is gathering in fresher water to ambush yellow and white perch that have begun venturing up toward the headwaters of our rivers and streams to spawn.
    While the larger, older pickerel (up to eight pounds) tend to be loners, the younger sizes will gather in small schools, the better to round up and feed on the eating-sized fish moving into their areas. Pickerel are also preparing to spawn later this month and early next.
    When temperatures plunge and make fishing for crappie, white perch or yellow perch a losing proposition this spring, you can always count on the pickerel to improve your day. No matter what the temperature, if you can get out on the water, there’s a good chance you can find the water wolf.
    Medium- to lightweight spin, casting or fly tackle are ideal for tangling with the chain pickerel. It got that moniker because of the iridescent-green, chain pattern that lights up its flanks. It is also called grass pike, green pike, federation pike, jackfish, and my favorite, water wolf.
    Since the pickerel’s teeth are grasping teeth (rounded shafts but sharply pointed), a steel leader is not necessary. Any line greater than eight-pound-test will generally get your fish to hand. If you’re lunker-hunting or want to be extra careful, a short section of 15-pound mono spliced onto your lighter test fishing line will ensure against cut-offs.
    A net or fish glove is advisable when landing them, as they have a very slippery coating on their body. Use long-nosed pliers for unhooking. That mouthful of teeth can cause some damage if you’re careless.
    Grass pike like to attack small to medium flashing lures like spinner baits, spoons, brightly colored jigs and silver or gold crank baits. Tony Accetta spoons in sizes 12 and 13, squirrel tail-dressed Mepps spinners in sizes 3 and 4 and Super Rooster Tails in quarter-ounce sizes are my favorites during the colder months. Adding a lip-hooked minnow onto the spoons are especially effective.
    The best crank baits are smaller sized Rat-L-Traps, Rapalas and Zara Spooks. The best flies are sizes 2 to 2/0 Lefty Deceivers in bright colors and Clousers in chartreuse and white or all black. Small and medium poppers will get their attention some days and add some surface violence to the mix.
    As the weather gets warmer, pickerel will move into thicker and thicker cover. During hotter months, try throwing a floating or swimming weedless rigged frog onto lily pads, weed beds, sunken brush and laydowns. There will likely be a water wolf lurking there.

Put your down time to work

Don’t wait for April to begin tackle or boat preparations because by then it will be too late. This weekend if not today, check on your fishing gear. Examine your rods, inspect your reels, check out your boat equipment.
    Which reels need to be re-spooled? Which need maintenance? Turn your reel handles with pressure on the spool. Are your drags smooth? Do they freeze or hesitate before they release? The drag washers may need to be cleaned and repacked with grease.
    Check your reel handles. Do they turn smoothly? Are the bushings and bearings clean, or are they corroded and rough? Check the free spool lever. Does the reel spool disengage freely? Does it re-engage promptly? This one is a show-stopper. If you can’t put your reel back in gear, you will be unable to land your fish, even retrieve your line.
    If your reels need any kind of maintenance, now is the time to send them off. Currently, you can expect them to be repaired or serviced within one or two weeks. But if you wait until just before opening day, you might not get them back for a month or more.
    Closely inspect your rod guides. A cracked guide ring may be difficult to see, but it will shred your line the first time a good fish puts some pressure on your tackle. Rod guides that show corrosion in a joint area or have been bent should be replaced. They can and will collapse at the first inopportune moment. Repairs and replacements can be accomplished promptly now as rod craftsmen are still in a slow period.
    Look over your hooks, sinkers and lures. Are your bucktails and parachutes still in good condition, or are the hair and skirts twisted and deformed from being put up carelessly? If they are, they won’t track or work properly in the water. Now is the time to correct that. Put them in hot water for a soak, then lay them out on a towel to dry.
    Replace any rusted hooks. A rusty hook requires three or four times the force as a new hook to penetrate a fish’s mouth — more if the fish is a big one. File off the rust and sharpen the points on any hooks that can’t be replaced. Wipe them down with WD-40 so they won’t re-rust before the season opens.
    Check out all your boat gear. Are your flares and fire extinguishers still operational and with valid dates? Are all of your life preservers still functional, and do you have enough of them? Don’t be that guy on opening day going from store to store trying to find flares, whistles, throwable floatation devices or an extra PFD for a last-minute guest. You can get a Natural Resources Police citation and be ordered off the water if any of these are missing.
    Check your paperwork. Do you have your boat registration certificate, and is it current? It’s required when you’re on the water. Now is a good time to get your new fishing license for yourself or for the boat.
    Put the license sticker on your bow promptly and be sure to keep the paperwork on-board; that’s also required now by Natural Resources Police officers, though it is not well advertised. Check your hull boat numbers and registration stickers. They can disappear over a nasty winter or may have been stripped off by hard running the previous season. That could mean a ticket on opening day.
    Run a power and cell check on your boat battery; batteries like to go dead over winter and can be difficult, time-consuming and expensive to replace at 5am opening day. Perform an on-site review of all your boat’s electrical circuits. Are all your navigation lights operating and if they’re not, is it the bulb, the wiring or the switch?
    Are your fish finder and GPS fully functional? Does your marine radio still work? Is your bilge pump operating properly? Failure of any of these devices can turn opening day into an experience in frustration or worse.
    Get these jobs done now, and you can relax, confident in the knowledge that all you need to do on opening day is wake up on time and have luck in your corner.

It’s the most important link between you and your fish

Working at sports stores has given me a long-term look at a critical and often overlooked item of tackle: monofilament fishing line. Taking your line for granted can lead to very unfortunate results.
    Monofilament fishing line was developed more than 75 years ago by DuPont Chemical Company as a spin-off of nylon, the first synthetic plastic. Those early efforts produced stiff, springy lines that had too much memory, tangled easily and were brittle.
    Braided lines made of linen (from the flax plant) or cotton were the overwhelming choice of anglers. These braids were strong for their diameter, supple and relatively easy to handle with the revolving spool reels used by most fishers of that period.
    Braided natural fiber fishing lines continued to hold sway over anglers for the next 20 years. Those lines did, however, have two distinct drawbacks: They tended to deteriorate if not dried properly, and they were visible to the fish.
    Eventually chemists solved all the technical problems with monofilament. In 1959, DuPont introduced Stren, a soft, pliable fishing line with excellent strength and very low visibility in the water. Over the same period, spinning reels advanced in popularity. The new monofilament line was embraced by spin anglers as the perfect application for their tackle.
    DuPont’s product was so successful that it was copied by many other manufacturers. Monofilament has been continually improved. It is superb fishing line: inexpensive, with great strength to diameter and with low visibility in the water.
    Its one drawback: It does not last forever.
    The ultraviolet rays from sunshine, fluorescent lighting and more will eventually break down the structure of monofilament, causing it to fail under stress. Knot strength is the first thing to suffer, while the line itself appears unchanged.
    If monofilament is unused and stored in a cool, dark environment it will last a few years. Outside in sunlight or inside exposed to the light of fluorescent bulbs and tubes, its life expectancy is limited. Manufacturers recommend replacing line every season.
    The life of line gets still more complicated. Because manufacturers do not date their products’ creation, consumers have no way of knowing the age of a newly purchased spool of monofilament. Nor do we know under what conditions that line was stored.
    Most tackle shops routinely rotate the inventory, so monofilament lines are constantly refreshed by newly manufactured supplies. But the buyer has to beware. A spool of line that has remained in a store’s inventory for long periods, especially if exposed to UV light, will likely fail under stress. The longer it has been retained, the more likely it is to break down.
    Purchase your line from reputable sporting goods retailers that frequently turn over their inventory. Higher quality lines are going to resist UV deterioration far longer than less expensive lines.
    One simple test of monofilament’s integrity is to tie an overhand knot in the line and give it a good strong tug. The overhand knot is not recommended for fishing because it cuts into itself. Fresh lines with this knot in them will still be difficult to break. However, monofilament compromised by age or UV exposure will fail at a mere fraction of its rated strength.
    Your monofilament fishing line is probably the least expensive component of all of your tackle. But it is the single most important link between you and your fish. Respect and replace it frequently.
    When not in use, store your tackle with reel covers that shield the line from UV rays. Or keep your tackle in a cool, dark room. Remember also that today’s energy-efficient compact-fluorescent bulbs produce UV rays.

Yellow perch are climbing the rivers

The yellow perch run is on. It may seem early, but small male yellow perch have been caught in a number of locations around the state for over three weeks. That can only mean one thing: The bigger fish will show up any time — if not already.
    These yellow neds are on the move, swimming to the headwaters of Bay tributaries to spawn.
    Driven by increasing daylight and temperatures, the scent of their natal waters and mysterious Mother Nature, this species is the first of the year to appear in numbers in the fresher water of the Chesapeake.
    Minimum size is nine inches and the daily limit is 10 fish per day. They are particularly delicious, rivaling white perch for table quality. Fried and paired with sliced tomatoes, simmered greens and corn bread on the side, they make the finest meal you can serve this time of year.
    Light- to medium-weight spin tackle spooled with six- to 10-pound mono will do just fine for tangling with the neds, whose size can run up to 15 inches or more (a citation is 14 inches). They will eat earthworms, bloodworms, grass shrimp, minnows and even wax worms.
    With water temperatures this time of year generally under 40 degrees, the fish do not respond well to artificial lures. But when fish abound, they can be caught on shad darts, small Tony and Nungusser spoons, Rooster Tails, Mepps spinners and small jig heads with soft plastic curly tails.
    My preference is a five-foot-four-inch, light-action spin rod, six-pound line and a tandem rig with a gold number 12 Tony and a lip-hooked minnow on the long leg and on the shorter a 1/16-ounce shad dart tipped with a grass shrimp, all fished under a weighted bobber.
    Casting the rig out toward likely spawning areas such as flooded brush or downed trees in three to four feet of water, I twitch the rig back slowly, continually working over a large area until I locate fish. The bite is generally tide driven, with a falling tide just after the flood the best.
    When fishing a low tide, target the deeper areas in the center of creeks and rivers and fish your baits close to the bottom. Since the fish are constantly on the move, you never know when or where you’re going to find them, so moving around and trying one area after another, either from a boat or from shore, is the strategy for success.
    It is also a good idea to have on hand a big Mepps spinner in size 3 or 4, silver or gold, dressed with squirrel or bucktail. If your yellow perch action suddenly dies off or hasn’t yet materialized, try casting the larger lure. Quite often a large pickerel or two (which follow the schools of yellow perch this time of year) have moved into the area and queered the perch bite. The Pickerel will be suckers for the big Mepps and an exciting addition to your day.
    The Department of Natural Resources website maps a number of locations where yellow perch fish have been caught during the spring run on both the Western and Eastern Shores: http://dnr2.maryland.gov/Fisheries/Pages/maps.aspx.

Solunar theory predicts fish and animal activity cycles

‘Fishing Charlie’ Ebersberger has spent as many days on the water as any angler in Maryland and arguably acquired more knowledge in his constant conversations with like-minded customers at his store, the Angler’s Sport Center.
    How was the Solunar watch working out? I asked as the instrument celebrated its first anniversary on his wrist. Seems that its predictions of fishing success based on peak times for fish activity are much better than either of us expected, according to the story he told.
    We were after marlin off of Ocean City and had not had any action for quite some time. Our electronic finder was indicating that we were over some good marks but nothing was eating.
    How many fish do you see now? one of the party called out.
    The question wasn’t directed to the finder screen but to my Solunar watch. Its display showed from one to four fish symbols depending on how active the bite was forecast at any particular time. Three to four fish mean a good bite.
    It’s beginning to show three, I said.
    Just then one of the starboard lines went down and fish on, fish on began ringing out from the stern. A few minutes later, my watch face moved into the four fish category. For the next three hours the action was hot and constant.

John Knight’s Solunar Theory
    The Solunar theory of the most productive fishing times was developed almost 90 years ago by an avid angler, John Alden Knight. After years of keeping logs of his frequent fishing efforts, he was perplexed at his inability to predict the best times to fish. He decided to apply scientific analysis to all the information he could gather.
    Starting with over 30 factors that seemed relevant, he eventually eliminated all but three as worthy of further examination. The prime factors, he eventually deduced, were sunrise, sunset and moon phase.
    Tidal phases and currents (caused by the moon moving in orbit around the earth) have long been thought the critical factors in saltwater fish feeding times. Knight discovered it was actually the relationship among the sun, earth and moon that was essential.
    Moonrise and moonset proved to coincide with intermediate or moderate phases of fish and animal activity. Most influential were the meridian periods when the transits of the moon crossed the earth’s line of latitude. High moon and low moon produced the most intense levels for the longest periods.
    Knight eventually worked out Solunar tables based on his theory to predict peak activities when fish (and game animals and birds) would most likely occur for any particular place and time.
    There are, however, mitigating factors that can negate or degrade the Solunar effect.
    A falling barometer generally precedes a period of poor fishing (as well as animal and bird movement) as do high winds, hard rain or snowfall and significant temperature fluctuations. These conditions, of course, are impossible to predict beyond the very near future. Still, they do have to be taken into account.
    Knight’s Solunar Tables have been in constant publication since their debut in 1936. Watches and time clocks have also been developed based on the Solunar formulas to make interpretation of the predictions ever easier.
    Using his Casio Pathfinder, Charlie has confirmed the accuracy of Solunar theory on the Chesapeake over the past season, not only by his own experiences but also with the help of many of his customers.
    “When they ask me what time of day is going to be best, I consult the watch. Whenever I could identify periods showing three to four fish, it was uncannily reliable that the time period predicted would result in up to three hours of great action.”
    If you’re looking to get an edge in the coming fishing season or need one now in hunting, Solunar predictions may be for you.

Early-spawning crappie already on the move

The new fishing year is blossoming before us. Since the passing of the Winter Solstice (the shortest day of the year) on Dec. 21, 2014, our daily dose of sunshine has grown. January 8 gives us eight hours and 11 minutes, a trend in the right direction. We might not notice the accumulation of extra sunlight every day, but the fish do. It is one of the prime drivers of their urge to spawn.
    Crappie (properly pronounced with a broad a) are generally the first fish in the Tidewater to feel that stirring and start to move to the shallows. They are also known as calico bass, speck, speckled perch and, because of delicate mouth structure, paper mouth. That’s a point of anatomy to be considered when making the decision whether to derrick a hooked fish up out of the water or land it with a net.
    One of Maryland’s most overlooked fish, crappie are also good eating. Therein lies part of the problem of finding good crappie water: Their fans are loath to share that information. However, I can offer a few tips to get you headed in the right direction.
    Now is not too soon to start looking. Any day temperate enough to tempt you out will be a good day to try. Crappie tend to bite early and late in the day, so that’s the first thing to take into consideration. I recommend scouting sites starting in the early afternoon (when it’s warmer) and fishing early mornings only on locations that has proven productive.
    Light to medium-light spin tackle with six- to eight-pound monofilament will be sufficient. Specs will take minnows of all types, but smaller ones are usually best. Try to harvest the minnows yourself with a dip net or a baited minnow trap, particularly from areas close to where you’re fishing. Fish the baits under a bobber or on high-low rigs. Concentrate on water 10 feet or less in depth.
    Since crappie have a larger mouth than most pan fish, any hook size from a #6 to a #1 will work. Thinner diameter wire hooks are superior because they are easier on the smaller minnows and keep them lively longer. No leaders are necessary.
    Night crawlers and red wigglers are two more fine crappie baits. Fish them the same way you would the minnow, under a bobber or on high-low rigs. Crappie are schooling fish. When you hook up one, there should generally be others in the immediate vicinity.
    Concentrate along shorelines of the fresher areas of local tributaries, targeting downed trees, submerged brush or tangles of floating debris. Bridges, piers, docks and other constructed water structures are also prime holding areas. Target deeper water during low tides when fish tend to congregate in the river’s holes and pools. When the water warms up past 50 degrees, these fish will be more likely to take a lure. For now, live bait is best.
    Crappie are widely distributed in Maryland. On the Eastern Shore the Wye Mills impoundment — as well as the stream (and bridge) below the spillway — is a good place to look for big crappie. The Tuckahoe River is also a prime location, again both the impoundment and the waters below it.
    The Upper Choptank is a particularly good tributary for a hot bite in early springtime. Greensboro is a great place to try, especially if you have a small boat. Going upstream and targeting laydowns, tree stumps and submerged brush will generally get you some nice fish. Higher up the river at Red Bridges can also be excellent for shore-bound sports.
    The Pocomoke River near Snow Hill can be outstanding. One of the better fly and light tackle guides on the Chesapeake, Kevin Josenhans specializes in fishing that river just for crappie this time of year. Check out his blog at http://josenhansflyfishingblog.com/ for an early season report.
    On the Western Shore, the Patuxent is one of the better rivers. Starting at Wayson’s Corner and up to Queen Anne’s Bridge and Governor’s Bridge, you’ll find good spec territories somewhere along the way. Also try the Jug Bay Wetlands area for good fishing and scenery.
    Almost all of the upper reaches of the Western Shore tributaries can hold crappie, but these fish have a low tolerance for salinity so you will not find many farther downstream.
    There are also a multitude of freshwater impoundments in Maryland where crappie lurk, especially Urieville and Unicorn Lakes and spillways. Find a full listing of all the inland waters available plus listings of the species that frequent them at http://dnr2.maryland.gov/fisheries/Pages/hotspots/index.aspx.

The new fishing year is blossoming before us. Since the passing of the Winter Solstice (the shortest day of the year) on Dec. 21, 2014, our daily dose of sunshine has grown. January 8 gives us eight hours and 11 minutes, a trend in the right direction. We might not notice the accumulation of extra sunlight every day, but the fish do. It is one of the prime drivers of their urge to spawn.
    Crappie (properly pronounced with a broad a) are generally the first fish in the Tidewater to feel that stirring and start to move to the shallows. They are also known as calico bass, speck, speckled perch and, because of delicate mouth structure, paper mouth. That’s a point of anatomy to be considered when making the decision whether to derrick a hooked fish up out of the water or land it with a net.
    One of Maryland’s most overlooked fish, crappie are also good eating. Therein lies part of the problem of finding good crappie water: Their fans are loath to share that information. However, I can offer a few tips to get you headed in the right direction.
    Now is not too soon to start looking. Any day temperate enough to tempt you out will be a good day to try. Crappie tend to bite early and late in the day, so that’s the first thing to take into consideration. I recommend scouting sites starting in the early afternoon (when it’s warmer) and fishing early mornings only on locations that has proven productive.
    Light to medium-light spin tackle with six- to eight-pound monofilament will be sufficient. Specs will take minnows of all types, but smaller ones are usually best. Try to harvest the minnows yourself with a dip net or a baited minnow trap, particularly from areas close to where you’re fishing. Fish the baits under a bobber or on high-low rigs. Concentrate on water 10 feet or less in depth.
    Since crappie have a larger mouth than most pan fish, any hook size from a #6 to a #1 will work. Thinner diameter wire hooks are superior because they are easier on the smaller minnows and keep them lively longer. No leaders are necessary.
    Night crawlers and red wigglers are two more fine crappie baits. Fish them the same way you would the minnow, under a bobber or on high-low rigs. Crappie are schooling fish. When you hook up one, there should generally be others in the immediate vicinity.
    Concentrate along shorelines of the fresher areas of local tributaries, targeting downed trees, submerged brush or tangles of floating debris. Bridges, piers, docks and other constructed water structures are also prime holding areas. Target deeper water during low tides when fish tend to congregate in the river’s holes and pools. When the water warms up past 50 degrees, these fish will be more likely to take a lure. For now, live bait is best.
    Crappie are widely distributed in Maryland. On the Eastern Shore the Wye Mills impoundment — as well as the stream (and bridge) below the spillway — is a good place to look for big crappie. The Tuckahoe River is also a prime location, again both the impoundment and the waters below it.
    The Upper Choptank is a particularly good tributary for a hot bite in early springtime. Greensboro is a great place to try, especially if you have a small boat. Going upstream and targeting laydowns, tree stumps and submerged brush will generally get you some nice fish. Higher up the river at Red Bridges can also be excellent for shore-bound sports.
    The Pocomoke River near Snow Hill can be outstanding. One of the better fly and light tackle guides on the Chesapeake, Kevin Josenhans specializes in fishing that river just for crappie this time of year. Check out his blog at http://josenhansflyfishingblog.com/ for an early season report.
    On the Western Shore, the Patuxent is one of the better rivers. Starting at Wayson’s Corner and up to Queen Anne’s Bridge and Governor’s Bridge, you’ll find good spec territories somewhere along the way. Also try the Jug Bay Wetlands area for good fishing and scenery.
    Almost all of the upper reaches of the Western Shore tributaries can hold crappie, but these fish have a low tolerance for salinity so you will not find many farther downstream.
    There are also a multitude of freshwater impoundments in Maryland where crappie lurk, especially Urieville and Unicorn Lakes and spillways. Find a full listing of all the inland waters available plus listings of the species that frequent them at http://dnr2.maryland.gov/fisheries/Pages/hotspots/index.aspx.

A different rockin’ new year

We are going to have a good year in 2015. That’s what I’m predicting, despite continuing reports of rockfish population problems.
    I must disclose, however, that when it comes to predicting what Tidewater anglers can expect in the year to come, the last few seasons I’ve built up close to a 100 percent accuracy rating — 100 percent wrong.
    My prediction for 2013 was for a disappointing year for rockfish. That season turned out to be the best in memory, with lots of big fish that stayed around all season. Catching was phenomenal.
    My prediction for 2014 was based on the falling rockfish population scenario, soon confirmed by an Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission survey. I was sure a mediocre season would follow. But Bay fishing again proved excellent.
    Making a prediction for 2015 in light of these failures posed a real challenge. The Commission has officially confirmed falling rockfish numbers as well as anticipating a spawning female population crisis. Thus a 20.5 percent harvest cut for the Chesapeake has been mandated for 2015. How can Tidewater anglers have another great year in the face of that pronouncement?
    I was again tempted to go with the science-based opinions that we are bound for a disappointing year in 2015. Then I consulted an old friend, one of the more knowledgeable Bay watermen I’ve known.

Leo James’ Prediction
    Leo James has been fishing the waters of the Chesapeake almost daily for over 71 years.
    “The problem with government officials figuring the rockfish numbers is that the fish have fins. They can move miles from one day to the next,” he explained.
    “Early last April, setting my nets for white perch day after day, I caught so many six- and seven-inch rockfish that had to be released that I stopped setting. Now where did those little rock come from? They couldn’t have been spawned that year; they were too big. [A six-inch rockfish should be about six months old.] There were thousands and thousands of them.
    “All these government officials that say they know what’s going on out there are full of it. Especially about the Chesapeake. They really don’t know what’s happening; they’re just guessing and they can guess wrong. I can tell you from what I know and what I’ve seen, the Bay is going to have a good season in 2015. There’s plenty of fish out there.”

He’s Not Alone
    Some DNR officials may agree with James, at least about a portion of the rockfish problem. In arguing against the Commission’s 20.5 percent reduction for the Chesapeake rockfish harvest to protect the spawning female stocks, DNR argued in part that our Bay fishery is primarily for male stripers. Most of our females become migratory and leave for the Atlantic. Perhaps our Bay numbers are better than Marine Fisheries Commission data indicate.
    James offered one caveat: “I can tell you another thing from my 71 years of experience. There has never been two years in a row that have ever been the same. They are always different, and usually way different.”
    So my final prediction is that we’re going to have another good rockfish season in the coming year, but it won’t be anything like last year. So be ready to adjust your game.


Welcome Back to Fishing

    Maryland Department of Natural Resources wants to woo back Marylanders who have not bought an annual nontidal or tidal fishing license since 2011. If that’s you, buy before Jan. 31 and save 50 percent.

Fishing in a chill rain is better than not fishing

As my cast settled, the streamer curved down and across the dark current. As the line straightened out at the shadow line, an unseen rockfish slammed the fly hard. I struck back and lifted. My nine-foot rod bent all the way to the cork handle, and my line came tight to the reel. “They’re here,” I informed my friend up in the bow, “or at least one of them is, and it’s a good one.”
    The night had turned cold, a lot colder than I expected. Drops of icy rain had begun to splatter my foul-weather coat, and that wasn’t expected either. George Yu, an old fishing buddy, and I were taking a long shot, trying to get in one last bit of action before rockfish season closed. It looked like our effort — and discomfort — just might pay off.
    Our skiff was anchored a long cast up current of one of the piers of an area bridge, a reliable rockfish hangout in seasons past but one we hadn’t visited in a while. It was a nighttime-only bite and dependent on tidal current, moon phase and a fair bit of luck.
    We had decided to try it earlier in the day. One problem, originally, was the moon. It was close to full, and that much light at night almost always scatters the fish. Near total darkness is necessary to allow the bridge lights to cast a distinct shadow line. There the rockfish like to concentrate and ambush bait.
    However, a good, solid overcast had formed and was projected to remain heavy throughout the night. The 10-day forecast promised few other chances at catching a last fish before the season ended. We decided to chance it.
    The next problem was timing. My friend couldn’t get out of his office until late, putting us on the water at 8:30pm, well after dark, with a tidal current predicted to slacken at 10:30. That left a pretty short window for success.
    To make the effort more difficult, we were using fly rods and hi-density sinking lines to try to coax the stripers into eating. We’d been successful using this technique before. But it did mean we would be dealing with a right-hand wind.
    A right-hand wind tends to push the backcast (assuming a right handed caster, like myself) across behind the angler’s body. Hence, the forward cast can easily stick the fly’s hook through your ear. Only a slight breeze had been predicted. But if you put much faith in a marine wind forecast you haven’t fished the Bay much.
    The first fish, when it came, proved a spirited fighter. I had forgotten how much colder water enhanced a striper’s ability to resist capture. I expected to see a 23-incher come alongside as I struggled to bring the fish near the boat. This one measured scarcely 18 inches, though it was as winter fat as a football.
    “We can do better than this,” I said, slipping the fish back over the side. By then my partner was hooked up and struggling with his own fish.
    “Get the net,” he called out.
    “It’s going to be smaller than you think,” I replied. “Relax. It’s not going anywhere.”
    When the fish broached alongside us, I scrambled for the net. It wasn’t a giant, but it was definitely a keeper. A few minutes later George slipped the heavy 21-incher into the fish box. In another couple of casts, I was tight to its near twin.
    Deciding to endure our good fortune, we hooked and released small and just-keeper rockfish for well over an hour, holding out for a pair of heavier critters to reach our limit. Then the current began to die and the wind picked up.
    “I think I’ve enjoyed about as much of this as I can stand,” I said after too many minutes of no fish, my teeth chattering and my fly whistling too close to my ear.
    “Anytime you’re ready, I’m ready,” George said. “We got in one last trip.”

I’m dreaming of Florida fishing

Rockfish season ends December 15, just days away. That is also the end, at least for the next few months, of the focus of my sporting life. Since last April, my schedule has been planned largely around the hunt for stripers and related marine forecasts, the timing of proper tides, desired wind direction, the 10-day outlook, the maintenance of my skiff and for the last few weeks, favorable temperatures. All of that will be over soon.
    But wintertime fishing is not hopeless.
    Lately, I’ve been considering some bad-weather traveling. There is always a good bite somewhere. Travel far enough south, and good things can happen.
    Since my oldest son and his family have moved to southern Florida, I’ve become acutely aware of the winter sailfish run that starts every January just off Miami. Some sailfish have been hooked from local fishing piers. Miami is just the focal point; the bite extends quite a distance both north and south.
    It was improbable to me that an exotic pelagic fish that rarely gets any closer than 30 miles off the coast of Maryland would be cavorting within almost a stone’s throw of a more southern city. But the warm, northward flowing Gulf Stream Current that closes with Florida’s southeastern coast does just that. It also brings dolphinfish (mahi mahi), wahoo, king mackerel and various species of tuna. These are just the sorts of finny critters that can help a serious angling addict through Maryland’s two most intemperate months.
    Last year I sampled this fishery on board the sportfisherman Thomas Flyer out of Miami. Within a half-hour, we hooked up our first of five sailfish for the day. A little later, we were slammed by a number of mahi up to 10 pounds. We lost one or two much bigger fish sight unseen. I immediately wanted to do it again.
    Florida has plenty of charter boats and fishing guides as well as public boat ramps all along the coast. The salty (and delicious) Gulf Stream gamefish are often found so close to the coast that, assuming a judicious selection of wind conditions, a relatively small craft of 18 feet or so, trailered down or rented onsite, is enough to get you to the fish.
    The technique for hooking is simple: slow trolling (also called bump trolling) live baits. Pinfish and pilchards can be bought at tackle and bait shops or caught by jigging Sabiki rigs resembling small bunches of tiny shrimp. These baitfish often concentrate around navigational structures just off of the shoreline; look for early morning charter boats gathered for the same purpose.
    With a supply of live bait on hand, the usual strategy is to stream your lines with the baitfish hooked through both jaws out behind the boat and move at the slowest speed that keeps the baits trailing to the stern but doesn’t allow them to wander very much to one side or the other (and tangle with other lines). Search youtube.com for bump trolling for more information.
    You won’t need heavy blue-water tackle to tangle with the critters; most will be under 40 pounds. Any medium-heavy six- to seven-foot rod with a good quality reel with at least 200 yards of 20-pound mono will be adequate.
    Sometimes, though, you might hook up a behemoth (there’s the occasional blue marlin at more than 500 pounds) that will strip your reel of line and break off. That possibility only adds to the excitement.
    Even if the fishing is slow, you’ll be warm. Temperatures in southern Florida during January and February average in the mid 70s.
    Winter action for sails, wahoo and mahi usually lasts into early March.