Between White Perch and Hickory Shad
Chesapeake Bay’s most common and perhaps least common catches
Sending out a chartreuse shad dart tipped with a grass shrimp toward the dark water of the far bank, I let it sink for a brief three-count before tightening up my line. Almost immediately there came a sharp tap, and I set the hook. My rod bowed as I leaned into yet another lively white perch.
Fish Are Biting ...
The yellow perch run is still happening but only in dribs and drabs as the majority of these fish are spent and have left the headwaters. The white perch run is in full swing, however, with warmer days seeing peaks in activity. The Susquehanna Flats catch-and-release season for rockfish is picking up steam, and shad are beginning to show up in all the right places. Trout fishing is also in full flower. Find DNR trout stocking schedules online at http://dnr.maryland.gov/fisheries/stocking/printversion.pdf
We had been getting these aggressive fish on just about every other cast for almost three hours, and what they lacked in size they were more than making up in their eagerness to attack. What had really begun to interest me now was the heavy boiling current in front of our position on the outside bank of a wide, sweeping curve of the river.
That was because my friend Ed Robinson, who had led me to this particular location on the Patuxent, mentioned that there might be a good shad run starting in the next week or so. The churning rip in front of us looked just like prime hickory shad water.
On my next cast to the perch I missed a good bite, losing my shrimp. Instead of rebaiting, I tossed the bare, one-eighth-ounce dart downstream, well to the outside of the current seam. I let it swing into the deeper zone of roiling water below us, and the dart flitted about for a good 10 seconds, as I swam it slowly through the sweet spot. Then I felt a hit.
Sweeping my rod back, I was rewarded by immediate and heavy resistance. My drag sang out as a good-sized fish flashed just under the surface of the water and headed downstream. Then the hook pulled, and it was gone.
I got just the barest of a glimpse, but I was sure the fish was a hickory. It was too big for a perch, and the pearlish hue that had glinted through the silt-stained current was quite unlike that of the whities we were catching. I worked another half dozen casts through the area but had no results.
Returning to the eager perch, I was eventually drawn back to that pretty piece of shad current and the tantalizing near miss. This time when my dart swung into the heart of the current, my rod tip was slammed down, hard.
The fish stayed deep this time, but I was now sure that it was a hickory. I played it patiently as it surged through the heavy water, first well out into the river, then coming in, still down deep, next to the bank at my feet. Holding my rod as far out as possible, I attempted to keep the unseen fish away from the roots and debris that lined the edge.
Blue Crab Alert
With the 2011 Winter Dredge Survey of Maryland’s blue crab population nearing completion, the early word is that the numbers are very promising for the coming season. The critical question now will be whether DNR will reopen the flood gates for the resumption of an unfettered commercial harvest of female crabs.
The rascal was well hooked. Despite its considerable efforts, I finally managed it onto the steep bank. It was a beautiful, healthy buck hickory shad. Ed snapped a quick photo, and I released the still-energetic fish back into the river to continue its springtime quest to reproduce.
Shad on the Patuxent
I was exhilarated. Not only was this my first hickory shad of the year, it was also my very first from the Patuxent. Shad, which live in the open ocean, return every year to their natal fresh waters to spawn. The spring run on the Pax was once legendary. But over-harvest and regrettable ecological practices — including a significant reduction of the river’s watershed by development — have considerably reduced their numbers.
Shad were once the most harvested species in the Chesapeake (see John McPhee’s The Founding Fish). Its salted meat and rich roe provided substantial nourishment to the citizens of our young colony and nation. Now only a catch-and-release fish throughout Maryland’s Tidewater, shad struggle to recover from depletion.
Hampered by the springtime silt-laden, stormwater runoff that smothers its eggs and by-catch mortality of the spawn-bound fish in commercial pound and fyke nets set along the river banks for other species, the fish may never rebound.
But a small and determined population does return to the Patuxent every year. With wiser resource management and better public awareness, it is possible that their numbers could again grow.
We caught no more Pax hickories that day, though we tried. However, we did plan to return the following week, this time with a canoe that would allow us to more thoroughly explore the Patuxent and perhaps encounter a better number of the flashy hickory shad. They are a great fighter, often quite aerial, and it’s very satisfying to experience a fish that has played such a storied part of Maryland’s past.