The First Fish of a New Year

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.