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Regulars (Sporting Life 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.

As daylight and temperatures drop, fish alter their feeding habits

     Fishing, especially for rockfish, is about to get better. Decreasing temperatures mean that baitfish of all types —peanut bunker, silversides, anchovies, spot, yearling white perch and baby croaker — are moving toward deeper water.
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Don’t give up on that missed strike

      I sent the Rat-L-Trap sailing out over the water in the longest cast I could manage. Pausing for a slow four-count to allow the lure to sink near the bottom, five feet down, I began the retrieve with long upward sweeps of my rod, followed by brief pauses to allow the lure to descend back toward the bottom.
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Turns out it’s complicated

     I was casting to a rip-rapped, Bay shoreline laden with the remnants of an aged dock. There were multiple piers, railings and decks, long fallen into total disrepair. Curiously, there were no nearby buildings of any kind that explained the structure’s presence. It was, however, a white perch playground.
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Don’t set your watch by a fisherman

     We had timed our launch to take advantage of the tidal current change. As it usually takes about an hour after the scheduled low for the current to gradually stop, then another hour for the incoming current to become noticeable, we intended to exploit that two-hour period of slower water. That made our launch time about 8am for targeting the Bay Bridge.
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I’ve found an anchor I can depend on

      Running out of options, I had one card left to play.
     Over the last few hours, I had fished a different areas without success. My plan to chum up a pair of fat rockfish for a weekend dinner was coming undone. The wind had freshened and the tide was running stronger than I preferred. But I had still to try one spot that had saved me in the past.
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Where else can you be when ­nothing goes wrong?

There is nothing like an early June morning on the Chesapeake.
    A bit of smoky haze was still rising off of the Eastern Shore in the far distance as we cleared the ramp and eased out of the channel onto  glassy Bay surface.
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Hunting these game birds is only half the fun

The pheasant erupted through the standing corn like a Poseidon missile. This rocket was sheathed in psychedelic feathers of blue, green, red, white and ochre. Announcing itself with a raucous, crowing scream, it forced itself up on thundering wings through the seven-foot-tall stalks and into a clear blue South Dakota sky.
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Learn to work a chum slick

Our fish box contained three fat and healthy rockfish from 27 inches down to 24 inches. We had released a half-dozen smaller fish — and we had been fishing for only two hours. With one more fish to fill our limit, we were being pretty selective about who was good enough to keep. Ed Robinson and I had decided that it had to be over 30 inches, just to make it a challenge. Anything under would be unhooked and thrown back.
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