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Regulars (Sporting Life by Dennis Doyle)

Many virtues make it my favorite sweetwater fish

This is a special time of year for me. There have been a number of 80-degree days, trees are filling out nicely and the strawberries in our garden are ripening. The day lilies are blooming, brightening the landscape, and birds are busy, singing their songs and building nests just about everywhere.
    Our freshwater ponds and lakes are also awakening. Water lilies are reaching up and extending their green pads and white blossoms above the surface. The frogs are croaking and peeping amorously, and along the shallow, tree-shrouded shorelines, saucer-sized beds are beginning to be scraped out of the bottom by a small but mighty fish.
    Each spawning site will be guarded with singular ferocity by a brightly colored male. His profile is as saucer shaped as the spawning site he has just created, and the little bull is relentlessly intent on attracting a mate. These fish are bluegills. A good-sized fish is only 10 inches long, but it is my favorite species in all of the sweetwater.

Hooked on Fishing
    Perhaps it’s because the bluegill was the first fish that ever pulled on the end of my line. I was about six years old and remember that tug as if it was yesterday because it was followed immediately by a bigger tug. Then the small, bamboo pole I held bent over in an acute arc.
    It was all I could do to hold it upright as my heart raced like never before. Somehow managing to get the brightly colored fish up onto the old wooden dock, I watched as the furious rascal beat a reckless tattoo on the weathered boards.
    My father was careful to subdue it without getting spiked by the critter’s sharp fins, and we soon had it back in the water on a stringer, which I checked every 30 seconds for the remainder of the trip. I didn’t catch anything else, but it mattered not a bit to me in my first flush of piscatorial victory.
    For the next two days, I paraded that bluegill about the neighborhood on the stringer, eventually boring all but my mother with repeated descriptions of the grandeur of the moment. The ’gill was a big one, I was told, and without anything else to compare it to I accepted that judgment unequivocally.
    By the end of the second day my parents convinced me to give the deceased a proper burial, explaining that it was gathering an odor and we had perhaps waited a little too long to serve it as supper. But I knew there were others out there, and I solemnly dedicated myself to their pursuit. I have held to that promise for over 60 years.
    These days I have exchanged the simple cane pole for a fixed line; a hook and a red worm for a light graphite fly rod adorned with a small black reel, a floating line and a little popping bug.
    In years past I have consumed at least my share of the tasty devils, but lately I have taken to releasing almost all of them. Each of my catches, I have come to realize, are either too small to eat or too large and grand to kill.
    Over the years, pursuing these bold swimmers while wet wading, from the shoreline, from canoes, kayaks, skiffs, bass boats, dingys and even inner tubes, I have found all of the experiences the same: fantastic. There is no other fish as willing to do battle, as eager to strike in hunger or defending its territory and as energetic and resolute in continuing the fight all the way to my hand.
    These fish are a model of life lived to the fullest. Each time I pursue them, I feel blessed to experience their fiery hearts and exceptional attitudes. My rod and reel are standing at the door as I wait for the wild springtime winds to die down. The ’gills are on the beds, I have an old promise to keep, and I can’t wait to fulfill it yet again.

The female harvest is the ­tipping point

Maryland’s favorite crustacean is in serious trouble, according to Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ 2013 Winter Dredge Survey for blue crabs. Once again, the species is teetering at the edge of collapse.
    The numbers approach population levels in 2008, when the feds labeled the fishery a disaster.
    DNR reads this year’s numbers differently: “crabbing is at safe levels,” according to a recent press release. “The crabbing harvest remained at a safe level for the sixth consecutive year.”
    That interpretation begs comment.
    During the six-year period of presumably safe harvest levels, the overall crab population plunged by at least 70 percent. Is that not alarming?
    Commercial and recreational harvest limits are the primary management tools for controlling crab populations. But they went virtually unused for six straight years.
    Anson Hines, senior scientist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, confirms fears about continuing difficulties with Chesapeake blue crab populations.
    In the 2008 crisis, part of the problem was harvest quotas based on flawed science. DNR had long claimed that the female blue crab spawned only once in her lifetime, so any size mature female could be taken without reducing the species’ ability to reproduce.    
    When that science was revisited, it was found that mature females spawn again and again. The overall female population, quite possibly, was the key to blue crab stability.
    By then, crab numbers were so low that the natural resources departments in both Maryland and Virginia — plus the Potomac River Fishery — began cooperating to rebuild the devastated species for the first time ever.
    In 2008-2009, winter dredging of dormant females in the Virginia portion of the Bay was halted. Maryland attempted to reduce fishing of females down the Bay in the fall. These actions achieved unprecedented protection for females throughout the Bay.
    These moves were a particularly big deal for Virginia because the crabbing industry in the lower Chesapeake depends significantly on female crabs. As the females prefer the higher salinity of the southern waters, their numbers are densest there. That’s also where all blue crabs spawn. This sparsely populated area relies on commercial fishing for jobs and income. Most of the cost of the fishery reduction was absorbed by Virginia watermen.
    The cutback led to a swift and extraordinary population resurgence. Within two years, the blue crab population rebuilt itself. The Bay saw some of its best recent crabbing seasons.
    But with that population build-up came commercial demands for renewed access to the females.
    During all of these periods of crisis, harvest of females continued under varying degrees of limitation throughout the Bay.
    The harvest of immature female blue crabs by the soft crab industry has never abated. Tens of thousands of small (three-and-a-half-inch minimum size), immature, never-spawned peeler and soft-phase females are harvested with scant control over limits.
    Just four years ago, recognizing at some level a population decline in progress, DNR made keeping female hard crabs by recreational crabbers illegal.
    That move generally transferred that portion of the recreational harvest over to the commercial sector. DNR did little else to abate the harvest of the sooks. What followed was the ecological crisis of 2014.
    This situation points to a serious and continuing shortcoming in the philosophy and management of the species. Based on DNR’s own statistics, from 1990 to 2000 the population of reproductive females in the lower Bay declined by more than 80 percent during the spawning season. The population remained at record low levels until 2008 and triggered the declaration of disaster.
    Now again in 2014, populations are back to seriously low levels, quite possibly because of the continuing and substantial commercial harvest of female crabs. Is that policy wise?

It shouldn’t be hard to outsmart a creature with a brain the size of a marble

The gentle temperatures of May were welcome after April’s cold winds and rain. But then a friend and I fished all day Friday under near-perfect conditions, chumming with fresh menhaden that tempted hardly a single bite.
    I tried to rationalize the failure by reminding my partner that bait fishing is frequently unreliable while the rockfish remain in spawning mode. But reports of fellow anglers boating keepers to our south (we were up around the Baltimore Light) only emphasized the odor of a second straight skunk this trophy season.
    I’ll be gearing up again, and my hopes remain high to score a couple of trophies on light tackle before the big migratory fish are gone. Reports of egg-bearing female stripers continue to dominate, so it’s a pretty good guess that we’ve got two to three weeks yet to get a few big ones in the box.

Well-Equipped
    I had gone over much of my tackle during winter, giving the bearings and drags of my reels some much-needed maintenance and replacing all of the lines. Both my buddy Moe and I switched to fluoro-coated monofilament for our bait fishing this season.
    Last year full fluorocarbon lines produced a slightly better bite than mono, but after a couple of weeks the fluoro lines turned stiffer, had a lot of memory and were not pleasant to use. I’m hoping the coated lines deliver the more reliable softness and low memory of mono while retaining the reduced underwater visibility of fluoro.
    We’re sticking with sliding fish-finder rigs, two-ounce sinkers and 7/0 J-hooks for most fishing days. But we’re prepared to jettison them for circle hooks the minute undersized throwback fish appear.
    For the first time, we’re also experimenting with chumming high and low, a bag sunk to within a dozen feet or so of the bottom and another bag at surface level. That should attract the rockfish cruising higher in the water column this time of year as well as those hunting the bottom contours. We have to drift a bait back weightless, or nearly so, to fish the upper waters. It will be interesting to see how many rock (if any) we score that way.
    Both my friend and I continue to use the round Abu Ambassaduer 5600 four-bearing casting reels, equipped with line-out clickers. The extra control of a revolving spool, the superior drag and the handiness of the line-out alarm overshadow the irritations caused by an occasional backlash.
    Six-foot-six-inch medium and medium-heavy rods remain my favorites for both chumming, live lining and jigging.
    Despite our poor start this year, I am hopeful for the balance of the trophy season. The motto I follow is Find out what makes you come alive and do it because what the world needs is more people who have come alive. For me that means being on the waters of the Chesapeake and trying to outsmart a fish with a brain the size of a marble. Even though the fish continue to win that matchup an embarrassing percentage of times, the adventure of the activity never wears on me. Even after two skunks. Really.

Learn what you need to know, take what you need to have

If you don’t have some type of watercraft — be it canoe, kayak, skiff, sailboat, sailboard or motor yacht — you’ll miss out on enjoying our largest public playground: the vast, 4,500 square miles of the Chesapeake Bay.
    A boat is your magic carpet for roaming the Bay and its tributaries while fishing, sailing, crabbing, clamming, oystering, photographing or cruising and paddling about in the natural beauty of the Chesapeake.

Fish-finder

  The rockfish trophy season is following its traditional schedule. Opening week was great. But springtime weather and the stripers’ natural inclination to elude anglers have taken a toll. Larger rockfish continue to move on their own spawning-driven, immutable and impossible-to-anticipate timelines. In better weather, good trophy fish have been taken all around the Chesapeake. But no one location or pattern has emerged to help anglers concentrate efforts. The spawn is especially late this year, evidenced by the high percentage of roe-laden females boated. So the migratory giants will, in all likelihood, remain available well into May.
  The white perch run is mostly over, as is the hickory shad run. The hickories will be running back to the ocean, while the white perch will wander slowly downstream, then school up and head back to their accustomed hangouts. Some will return to reside in shallow water structures of the Bay and its tributaries, others to the medium depths of the Chesapeake where they will all feed up to regain the body mass lost during spawning. Until the weather warms up and the perch settle down, they will be difficult to locate.
  A few more sunny, 70-plus-degree days will be needed to get the bass and bluegill on their spawning beds. That is sure to happen soon. If you haven’t caught a bluegill (or a bass) on a fly rod and a popper in shallow water, you haven’t lived your angling life to its fullest. This is a good time to correct that oversight.

    But being on the water is not without risk. Every year people are injured and lives lost. Safe boating depends on proper preparation. Step one is following the rules, requirements and guidelines set out by the Department of Natural Resources for boating safety.
    Find Maryland’s recreational boating safety equipment requirements at www.dnr.state.md.us/boating/pdfs/recreationvessels.pdf. Or call DNR and request a copy of the Boat Maryland textbook.
    The most imperative requires that every watercraft of every type, size and location — Bay, pond, creek, river or lake — must have a wearable life jacket or personal floatation device (PFD) of appropriate size for each person on board. All children under the age of 13 must wear their PFD while aboard any craft less than 21 feet in length.
    Boats of 16 feet and over must likewise have, readily available, a type IV floating, throwable device (for man-overboard situations) such as a certified floating cushion or life ring.
    Finally, to operate sailing or motorized craft, all boaters born after July 1, 1972, must take an eight-hour Maryland Basic Boating Course and possess and have on their person a Maryland Boating Safety Education Certificate.
    Classes are listed in Bay weekly’s 8 Days a Week calendar of events. Natural Resources Police Safety Education also lists classes: 410-643-8502; www.dnr.state.md.us/boating/safety/basiccourse.asp.
    You can also find online courses at:
• www.boatus.org/onlinecourse/
Maryland.asp
• www.boat-ed.com/maryland/
• www.BOATERexam.com/usa/
maryland
    Find a handy checklist of all boat-safety items required under Maryland law at the DNR website or on page 21 in the Boat Maryland textbook. Failure to possess these required items while operating your boat can cost you a significant fine plus, in some cases, being ordered off of the water until the shortcomings are rectified.
    There is also a list of suggested items that make a lot of sense. These include a VHF radio, cell phone, extra fuel, a boat hook, charts and a compass, a flashlight and batteries, food and water, mooring lines, tool kit, spare anchor, binoculars, extra clothing, foul weather gear, a searchlight, sunscreen, insect repellant, hand towels, a First Aid Kit and a spare paddle.
    If you venture into distant, sparsely populated areas, consider an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) and a satellite phone.
    Squalls, thunderstorms and other violent weather conditions — as well as mechanical breakdowns and unavoidable accidents — are always unpleasant possibilities on the water. Keep the DNR emergency response hotline on your speed dial or, at least, in your list of phone contacts: 410-260-8888 or 877-224-7229.
    If you spend enough time on the water, eventually things will get dicey. If you’re prepared, the incident will only result in a good yarn. If you’re unprepared … well, don’t let that happen.

The big fish are here, with anglers on their tails

As our boat, Downtime, approached the Bay Bridge spans, I glanced back at the trolling setup just in time to see the portside rod slam down hard in its holder. Tim Levandoski, an eager angler visiting from upstate New York, rushed to grab the straining outfit. He could barely hold it vertical while line poured off the reel against the drag.
    Welcome to the Chesapeake, I thought, as a broad smile illuminated the face of an angler accustomed to the pull of the five- and six-pound freshwater bass of his home state. Fifteen minutes later, but only after considerable effort, he hoisted up a muscular 36-inch, 20-plus-pound rockfish for some photos.
    That handsome catch was made the last practice day before trophy rockfish season. A stellar opening day followed on April 19. The last half-dozen years, opening day has been plagued by nasty winds and wretched seas. This year’s version was sunny and calm, and the catches impressive.
    Success spread over a wide area including Love Point, the Bay Bridge, Gum Thickets, the mouth of Eastern Bay, Bloody Point, over to Hackett’s and down to Chesapeake Beach, then to Solomons. Our waters are full of migratory stripers, and they are hungry.
    Early reports included a couple of 50-plus-pound fish. A 47-incher (that took a white bucktail) was caught by Jim Aherns on the Pollyann to win the 13th Annual Boatyard Bar & Grill Opening Day Tournament.
    Nice-sized fish seem to dominate the storyline all over the Bay.
    Angler’s Sport Center has weighed in quite a few hefty stripers for citation (40 inches or over), more than I ever remember, and I’ve heard of no throwbacks.
    Trolling typically dominates the early season tactical scenario with boats working the main stem of the Chesapeake. Larger lures such as parachutes rigged with nine- and 12-inch sassy shads (white or chartreuse) are taking large fish, while big umbrella rigs in the same colors have accounted for a few giants.
    Fishing the top 20 feet of the water column is key during the early season, but dragging a few baits deep for insurance makes sense. Working across the cavernous shipping channels all the way past the shallower edges and keeping trolling speeds to under three knots are also part of the drill. Early morning hours are usually heavily weighted with success as daytime boat traffic eventually scatters the fish or drives them deeper.
    Bait fishing is taking increasingly larger numbers of trophy stripers as well this early season as the method continues to become more popular. Fishing fresh-cut bait or bloodworms on the bottom has been surprisingly effective in the same areas that have traditionally been productive only later in the year. The most productive spots are around the mouths of the major tributaries for boat anglers; Matapeake and Sandy Point state parks, or any accessible shoreline on the Bay proper, for land-based sports.
    The opening day of Maryland’s Rockfish Trophy Season is designated by state law as the third Saturday in April. The timing is planned to avoid large female fish still trying to reproduce.
    The result of our unusually long and cold winter, however, is that many of the trophy-sized females landed so far this season are still bulging with roe. Because of the unusually low water temperatures, the spawn has been delayed and extended.
    Prudent anglers will refrain from harvesting these gravid fish, releasing them and choosing to take only the males and spawned-out females. Returning big roe-bearing fish — easily carrying a half-million eggs — to the Bay to complete their spawns will benefit future rockfish populations.

It’s a shame to let April end with no pickerel

Long, lean and equipped with a mouthful of needle-sharp teeth and a nasty attitude, the chain pickerel, sometimes called the water wolf, is the acknowledged king fish of winter. Most other Tidewater species become sleepy and lethargic at lower temperatures. The water wolf seems energized by the chill.
    This past winter season was so frigid and foul that I never managed a single dance with these sly devils. I remedied that recently on the first decent day in months.
    With the water still cold, the fish are grouped to feed on spawning perch and herring. As the water warms, the pickerel will spawn, then spread out in singles and melt into thicker cover.
    We fished the Eastern Shore, but you can find pickerel higher up in most of the tributaries and creeks around the Chesapeake.
    These members of the pike family are ambush predators. You’ll sometimes encounter them cruising in open water, but this time of year it’s more productive to target trees fallen into the water (laydowns), submerged brush, piers, the shorelines of coves, the edges of floating debris, jetties and rocky edges.
    We were using a small gold spoon with a lip-hooked bull minnow. The flash of the spoon — plus the undulating action it gives the minnow as you slowly retrieve — draws smashing strikes. Pickerel will hit either a minnow or a spoon alone, but the two in tandem are especially deadly. As another benefit, the metal spoon generally keeps your line away from the teeth of the fish so you don’t need a leader. Anglers also employ spinner baits such as large Rooster Tails, Mepps, smaller sized Rat-L-Traps and similar crank baits. Our gear was light, six-foot spinning rods with four- and six-pound line.

Give and Take
    We had action as soon as we hit the water. My buddy Moe had the first fish, a big one, right next to us after a considerable battle. During the fight, it managed to open the small snap securing Moe’s lure. With a couple of headshakes at boatside, the fish escaped with my friend’s six dollar spoon sparkling from the edge of its smile.
    Mine was the next hookup, and it felt like a real giant. It came away from the shore pulling deep with steady pressure and passed by us, unconcerned, on the way out to open water. I wasn’t sure it knew it was hooked.
    I increased the drag tension as the fish slowly pulled out line. Only then did it shake its head for the first time. My line went slack. Retrieving my spoon and ravaged minnow, I could only surmise that my hook point had never penetrated the fish’s mouth. When the beast suspected deception, it had simply spit out the offending morsel.
    We kept at it through a subsequent slump, finally hitting pay dirt an hour later while working submerged brush. After landing three nice fish, we keyed on similar structure along the shoreline and drew regular strikes and frothy battles over the next four hours.
    The iridescent green rockets occasionally went airborne, clearing the surface and giving us a good look at their lethal profiles and fearsome dentures. Our fish that day averaged about 20 inches; we stopped counting after 15 splashing encounters.
    A 24-inch pickerel is citation-size and gives an outsized battle. A 14-incher is rather lightweight though still a legal keeper.

Your Turn
    Chain pickerel will continue to haunt submerged structure and cruise the tributaries and impoundments until the end of April, or as long as the white perch runs last, so you can still get in on the action.
    Take a net as pickerel are impossible to handle without one. They are also extremely slippery. You can control them somewhat in the boat by gripping them by the eye sockets (it doesn’t harm their eyes). It’s probably best to leave them in the net until they’re unhooked and ready for release. Never forget about their teeth, which are needle-sharp and abundant.

A Poor Meal
    The down side to the pickerel is in its table quality. It’s got lots of bones, many very fine. The fish are far more valuable swimming than in the frying pan.

Persistence conquers all.

–Benjamin Franklin

Trollers are the majority of trophy-season rockfish anglers, as they should be. There is no surer way to seek out and hook a giant migratory striper than by working the deep-water shipping lanes with large lures and heavy tackle.
    But there are anglers who march to a different drummer in the spring season. They do not hear the rumble of an engine, nor do they smell engine exhaust. Chumming from an anchored boat or fishing cut bait from the shoreline can score big fish. However, the challenges these anglers face are considerable, and only patience and persistence can ensure success.
    The principle problem is anticipating where rockfish might be. Over the next month, rockfish will be on the move, driven by spawning instincts no one can anticipate. Reproduction is the prime motivation of every striper now swimming the Chesapeake.
    There is no way of predicting where a rockfish will be from day to day. Some will be moving up the Bay to spawn, others spawning, some leaving the Bay having finished but pausing at times to feed and regain lost weight. Trollers broadly target anticipated lanes of movement. Bait fishers can only pick a spot and hope the fish will eventually show up.

Trophy Fishing the Hard Way
    Make your tackle a bit stouter. The fish targeted during trophy season are the migratory giants. A minimum-length 28-inch keeper is going to weigh about 10 pounds; a 45-incher as much as 40 pounds. Fish of this size can put considerable stress on your tackle.
    Choose a rod with a good amount of backbone. From a boat, a six-and-a-half-foot medium-heavy to heavy-powered stick, spinning or casting, is the minimum to get the job done. Your line should be fresh and test out at 20 pounds at the minimum with no less than 150 yards spooled on a reel with a good-quality drag that has been recently serviced. A boat angler fishing from anchor should always have the anchor line fitted with a float so that it can be cast off to quickly follow after the fish.
    If you’re fishing from shore, you’ll need a stout 10- to 12-foot rod to get your bait out where the big ones cruise looking for a bite to eat. Shore-bound anglers may also want to upgrade to 30-pound mono or 30-50 braid, all on large capacity reels (300 yards or more).
    Hooks sizes should be substantial. A 7/0 is about standard, and leader material (I suggest fluorocarbon) should be no less than 30 pounds; 50 is better. There are going to be a lot of pyrotechnics, so you’ll need the toughness of such a leader to protect against cut-offs from hull or rock abrasion.
    Your summertime landing net may also be grossly inadequate for the trophy season, and there is no worse time to realize that than with a 45-incher rolling alongside. More big fish are lost in landing efforts than at any other part of the battle.
    The baits used should be as fresh as possible and changed every 20 minutes. With water temps below 50 degrees, rockfish find food by smell. Menhaden (also known as alewife, bunker and pogy) are one of the most popular and successful baits. Use big chunks, both to attract larger fish and to reduce the chance of an undersized fish swallowing the bait.
    Bloodworms are particularly effective this time of year, but always use circle hooks with the worms and come tight as soon as you notice the fish taking your bait to reduce the chance of deep hooking.
    The last essential rule is that all knots should be tied fresh, carefully lubricated with saliva and drawn up with a firm pull. Inspect all of your efforts carefully. If the knot doesn’t look absolutely perfect, cut it off and retie it. You don’t want to blow a single opportunity with one of these great fish.
    Daytime can be productive for anglers this time of year, but the pre-dawn and post-sundown hours will probably score more keepers than any other time of day.


Fish-finder

    White perch have finally started running, and the Tuckahoe is seeing a few good fish caught. Beachwood Park on the Magothy is also producing some nice whities, as is the Choptank.
    Pickerel are really heating up as they are keying on the perch. Herring are moving up the rivers while beginning their own spawning run. Shad are mostly a no-show, but they should be making a move in the near future. Saturday, April 19, is the start of trophy rock season and an unofficial holiday on the Chesapeake.

Saturday, April 19, is the 13th Annual Boatyard Bar & Grill Opening Day Rockfish Tournament. It’s a catch-and-release competition, with proceeds going to Bay charities. Prizes and a party with food, drink and good music lure a thousand-plus Bay enthusiasts: http://tinyurl.com/l8duuvn.

Trophy-size fish arriving daily

Very large migratory stripers are arriving in the mid-Bay, setting the scene for the opening of Trophy Rockfish Season in just two weeks. Big-fish anglers — sports who are willing to spend 10 frigid hours or more at a stretch jigging for a single photo op with just one enormous cow — are posting pics of multiple big fish caught and released from The Rips at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant up to the warm water discharge at the mouth of the Patapsco.
    Despite grim news last year from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission of a 25 percent decline in overall striped bass stocks, the Chesapeake, especially the mid-Bay, experienced a striper-fishing bonanza last season. Devoted fishers are hoping for a repeat this year.
    Scuttlebutt overheard from commercial netters over the winter indicates an unusually big population of larger-than-average fish holding on wintering grounds in the mid-Bay. We are all hoping these fish will remain with us, especially at the beginning of the season.
    Two weeks from now, we’ll get on the water officially and settle all the conjecture. Finally, the cold we’ve complained about the last two months will be working in our favor. There’s a better than good chance that the low temps have delayed this season’s spawn, which will in turn keep more big fish in the area longer.
    Early on, big trolling lures such as parachutes with nine- to 12-inch soft shad in the traditional colors of white, yellow and chartreuse, will compete with the more trendy hues like John Deere green, sparkle purple and jet black. Whatever the color, the big rigs should be dragged to tempt the giants.
    Umbrellas, chandeliers and other multiple-lure setups that create lots of water noise and disturbance to attract big fish remain popular — and work well. Big fish? Big bait. The old mantra is as true today as ever.
    The best areas to troll this time of year are the deep-water channels that the migrating stripers tend to use (the tides are stronger) to come up the Bay (usually on the eastern side) and to leave (usually on the western side). Of course, choosing which side to fish is not so simple when you also have to take into account wind direction, forage fish location, time of year, time of day and boat traffic. The only rules that don’t change are to fish the warmer top 15 feet of the water column (unless there’s heavy boat traffic, then fish deep) and always plot a zigzag course to cover more water.
    Chumming with bait fishing was once uncommon during the trophy season but is gaining adherents every year. One reason is that it lets anglers tangle with really big fish using lighter tackle. Another reason is it has been surprisingly effective
    Most boat anglers fish the channel edges and set their baits (fresh menhaden is best) on the bottom. Others will fish some of their baits shallow, under floats, or at intermediate depths with little weight. There is a strong belief that stripers found up off of the bottom in springtime are traveling and not eating. But you can never tell.
    Quite a fishery has also evolved over the last few years off of the beaches of Sandy Point and the pier at Matapeake State Park, where anglers using bloodworms and fishing long surf rods to get their baits out away from the shoreline have been scoring great catches (for release) from mid-March through mid-April, especially before dawn and after dark. The opening of trophy season means they’ll finally be able to keep one fish if it’s over 28 inches.
    The most important aspect of both chumming and bait fishing from shore is using circle hooks. The odds of catching a throwback (under 28 inches) are very great this time of year. Half of all released deep-hooked fish of any size die within two hours, an extensive DNR study has found. Every angler should use circle hooks to keep from gut-hooking these fish.

I went 1,000 miles for this catch

By the time I got the 20-pound-class rod out of its holder, our mate was urging me to reel and reel fast. A fish had just taken a live herring bait, throwing lots of slack into the line. Winding madly, I eventually felt some tension. When the line came tight, I set the hook hard. That might have been a mistake.
    My rod jerked down, and the spool blurred as something strong tore out line against a firmly set drag. The centrifugal force created by the whirling spool threw out a wet mist dense enough to cloud my sunglasses. Some 150 yards away, an iridescent royal blue and silver missile launched out across the water’s surface. Voices behind me yelled sailfish, sailfish!
    I could do little but watch my line disappear. Large ocean swells generated by stiff overnight winds rocked our 42-foot sportfisherman, and I wedged my feet into the deck and leaned into the gunnels for stability. It was a sunny 80-degree morning and we were already having an awesome day.

Miami, Yes!
    Florida in March has some great angling. The weather can be wet and windy, but temperatures are in the 80s.
    My oldest son and I were on the first day of a week-long adventure exploring Miami waters. This was our first stop, blue-water action for billfish and dolphinfish.
    We and another father-son team, Allen and Chris Young, had chartered a day with Captain Jim Thomas and his brother Rick on their classic 42-foot sportfisherman, the Thomas Flyer out of Bayside Marina in the heart of Miami.
    The Gulf Stream — that incredibly fertile warm ocean current that runs north from the Gulf of Mexico up along the Atlantic coast all the way to Newfoundland and then to Europe — comes within two miles of the Miami coast. With it comes one of the greatest densities of pelagic (off-shore, surface-dwelling) game fish in the world.

Back to That Sailfish    
    It took more than 20 minutes to persuade my sailfish to the side of the boat. Wrapping the leader in his gloved hand, Rick leaned over the side and planted a tag in the fish alongside its large, graceful fin, then clipped the line close to the hook. With a sweep of its scimitar tail, the handsome fish vanished back into the deep blue.
    That was the third sailfish of the day, with more to come including one big fella of over 60 pounds that had Allen down to bare spool twice before we chased it down. The smallest that day was maybe 40 pounds.
    Interspersed with the sailfish were schools of hungry dolphinfish (mahi mahi) to 15 pounds.
    With a final tally of some five sails, all tagged and released, and almost two dozen delicious mahi marked for some serious dinner parties, we headed for the marina.
    Later that week my son and I would hook up with a Florida legend, guide and author Steve Kantner, who came out of semi-retirement to acquaint us with Florida’s springtime spinner shark run. Fishing 10- and 12-foot surf rods with our feet in the warm, sandy beach, we tangled with over a dozen of the 90- to 120-pounders in a long afternoon of excitement.
    The last day was spent stalking Miami’s freshwater canals for their famed peacock bass with longtime guide Alan Zaremba from his 17-foot Florida flats boat. The fish were in spawning mode and attacking anything that approached their nesting sites. Sight casting and pitching small jigs, we lost count of the numbers that we battled.
    Two days later, arriving back at home, mild 50-degree temperatures greeted us. But as we awaited our baggage, a weather broadcast warned of another snowstorm coming to Maryland.

Or two ... Or three.

The single best general-purpose fishing rod for Chesapeake perch is a six-foot-six-inch medium-power, medium-light-action spinning rod rated to cast one-eighth to one-half ounces of weight. Arm that with a light, good-quality spin reel that can carry approximately 100 to 125 yards of six-pound-test monofilament or an equal amount of eight- to 12-pound braid. That’s a great perch stick.
    This outfit can easily cast lip-hooked minnows or grass shrimp on a small shad dart suspended under a weighted bobber. This bobber and dart rig is right for the spring runs of both yellow and white perch. It’s also the traditional setup for most perch fishing in shallower Bay and tributary water the rest of the year.
    The tackle is likewise robust enough for deeper waters in the summer with a hi-lo rig with No. 2 or No. 4 hooks, a one-ounce sinker and blood worms, grass shrimp or — better yet — small pieces of peeler crab. Using the ultra-thin braided line to get deeper easier is the most productive technique in hot weather months when the fish are schooled in 15 to 30 feet of water throughout the Bay. In this deeper water, you’ll generally be fishing over shell bottom.
    That one setup will generally get the job done just about anywhere on the Chesapeake. Still, many dedicated perch anglers prefer very different tackle. One of my favorite outfits is designed for throwing small spinner baits around jetties and piers. It’s a short five-foot-four-inch extra-fast-action spin rod with an all-cork handle rather than a screw-type reel seat.
    The thick cork handle is especially comfortable to hold, even when wet, and the shorter rod allows me to shoot flat, underhand casts beneath docks and piers to reach the shaded areas that white perch love during the daytime.
    The setup is also ideal for working shoreline in the early morning when distinct shadows cast by overhanging trees tend to concentrate fish seeking shelter from the rising sun. In spring fishing on small creeks, the short rod also avoids overhead foliage and allows an angler to drop a bait precisely into very small openings.
    I fish strictly four-pound-test mono on this outfit for its stealth factor and the challenge of handling bigger fish. To tempt strikes, I rely on one-sixth- to one-quarter-ounce Super Rooster Tail spinner baits in Clown Coach Dog and Chartreuse Coach Dog colors. The short rod accentuates the stubborn fight perch give when the tackle is matched to their size. The extremely light setup makes an all-day casting marathon much easier on the arm.
    When I want to target citation-sized whities that hold on structure in the shallows starting in early June, I will often go to a seven-foot, light-action finesse casting rod with a Chronarch 50e reel spooled with 10-pound Super Slick Power Pro and a six-pound fluoro leader. With this rig, I can stand off at a distance to avoid spooking the older, smarter fish (a 12-inch perch is often 10 years old) and throw quarter-ounce Rat-L-Traps, Cordell Super Spots and No. 13 and even No. 14 Tony Accetta spoons.
    Larger perch like to key on bigger baitfish, such as young menhaden and yearling spot, so lipless crank baits like these and the Tony spoons are ideal imitations. The larger size of the lures also means you won’t waste a lot of time reeling in and releasing undersized perch because they can’t get the lure in their mouths.
    Coincidently, our Bay perch are a very under-rated fly-rod species. Try a four- to six-weight fly rod of from seven to nine feet, a floating line and throw a small Clouser Minnow in sizes 2 through 4 in just about any color, but especially chartreuse over white or olive over white. You can have a wonderful and productive day fishing the skinny water.
    Keeping a long-handled crab net on board during any of these sorties is a good idea. It’s perfect for scooping up any big perch that you hook. It also avoids the agony of losing a lunker trying to lift the fish into the boat with just the rod. It only takes the escape of one citation-sized fish to convince you of the value of this tip.
    White perch are the most numerous fish in the Bay, and Maryland anglers harvest more of them than any other species. They are superb on the table, and, if you use tackle matched to their size and strength, you can make each and every catch more memorable and a far richer sporting experience.