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Articles by Dennis doyle

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.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of fish

While it’s too cold and windy to fish, use your downtime to get ready to fish. Otherwise, you’re looking for trouble when you hit the water.
    Put fishing line first on your list. If you’re using monofilament, there is no question as to whether to replace the mono on your reel. Do it. Good monofilament can last two to three years, but even with the best of care it won’t retain 100 percent of its qualities.
    Sunlight, salt, friction and stress degrade mono beginning from the very first time you use it. Mono stretches before it breaks (often as much as 50 percent); after stretching, it does not return to the original length.

Fish-finder

Yellow perch have started up their run again after earlier efforts were halted by snow, ice and low temperatures. This time it should be for real. Try the upper Magothy, the Severn, the Choptank, Wye Mills and the mid-Patuxent. Small to medium bull minnows are the best bait, followed by grass shrimp and worms. Minimum size is nine inches; the limit is 10 fish.

    Consequently, 20-pound mono once stressed to its limits (by, say, breaking off on a snag) will no longer test full strength nor have the same shock-absorbing quality. Repeated episodes of extreme tension accumulate and can eventually cause significant degradation.
    Sunlight weakens mono, salt sucks the softening agents out and friction from the guides or dragging the line across underwater structure creates weak spots. Why risk the loss of a good fish or spoiling your first day on the water for such a minor investment? The average spin or casting reel can be respooled with fresh quality monofilament very inexpensively.
    More recently developed braided lines are much more resilient than mono and retain close to their full properties for a number of years. But they are not immune to wear. Strip off and discard the first 20 feet of braided line from each reel at the start of every year. Examine the spool closely. If you see any line fraying further down its length, consider replacing it.
    Braid is made from four to as many as eight strands of interwoven polyethylene. If any one of these strands has suffered abrasion in any particular place, your line test can be affected by as much as 25 percent, while two strands in different places reduces strength by 50 percent.
    Lines used for trolling suffer much more wear than lines on tackle used for casting, bait or bottom fishing. Dragging water-resistant bait setups such as parachutes, tandems, umbrella and chandelier rigs puts a lot of stress on the line over greater length. Add in the fact that the rods are continually flexing and the guides wearing back and forth in the same limited area over endless hours of fishing. Thus, annual replacement should be a minimum standard.
    The second show stopper for a new season is the condition of your hooks. Salt has a way of working its way into the most secure tackle box. Over the winter you may find that your hooks, especially (and perversely) those on your more expensive lures, have acquired a coating of rust.
    A rusted hook, even one lightly affected, requires exponentially more force to pierce a fish’s mouth because of its uneven surface. Removing the rust does not solve the problem; the corrosion has already pitted the steel. Unless you prefer near misses to hook-ups, replace any hook that has even a hint of rust.
    Finally, check your reel drags. Drags can freeze up if they’ve been exposed to saltwater or excessive dust and moisture, particularly if they’ve been put up without releasing the drag tension. Pull out a couple of handfuls of line against the drag to verify its functioning.
    If the drag is frozen or the line pulls out in uneven fits and starts, you need to disassemble the drag, clean out the components, grease, then reassemble them. It’s a relatively simple task and requires few tools. YouTube videos have tutorials on your brand or one similar to yours. If you don’t feel up to the task, seek a professional — promptly.
    We’re just about a month away from the start of rockfish season on April 19. There is no time to waste.

How to catch the first fish of the year

With the end of February news that the yellow perch bite had started, I imagined an immediate sortie. But the next three days brought deep snow and temperatures in the low 20s.
    That ruled out any perch action for now. But following the big chill, a couple of series of days promise to reach the high 40s. That’s the window I want. I plan to hit water the second day in each series.
    At this time of year, if you wait for a fishing report to trigger your outing you will always miss the bite. The day you are hoping for has to be anticipated. By the time you get a good report, that opportunity will have passed. You’ll rarely get more than one good day in any series in March; the weather is just too ­inconsistent.
    Water temperatures this month will often hover only a few degrees above freezing. But a 45-degree (or higher) sunny day can warm just about any shallow water up into the high 40s in a matter of very few hours, instigating spawning. The second day of a short warming spell is as good a time as any to try for the yellow neds.
    Find a place along tributary headwaters with relatively shallow water (two to four feet), good current and submerged structure such as brush, downed trees, rocks or even old collapsed docks. You’ll be in likely ­territory. These are the areas the females will choose for spawning.
    If you are fishing from a skiff, you can target the deeper holes where the fish will collect and hold while awaiting more comfortable temps to arrive.
    Yellow neds are unique in that the females exude their eggs in a gelatinous, milky, accordion-like sheath about two inches in diameter and as long as five or six feet. That egg ribbon is intended to entangle on the submerged structure, keeping it off the bottom until the eggs hatch in two to six days.
    The males come first to the spawning grounds and remain there as long as females continue to arrive and spawn. As individual females begin to exude their milky, egg ribbon, multiple males follow and fertilize the eggs. After the females have emptied themselves of their roe, they return down river.
    Tide is your third critical piece of information. The website www.tides.info gives tide predictions for many locations on almost all the rivers feeding Chesapeake Bay, including prime yellow perch waters like the Tuckahoe and the Choptank.
    Having a flexible plan is essential to harvesting a limit. Knowledge of the approximate tide stages for an area lets you try multiple sites. If you find no action at your first choice, dropping downstream or moving upstream you can anticipate the water levels until you manage to locate fish. Neds tend to move onto the shallows during high water and drop down to the deeper holes as the tide recedes.
    The published tide predictions may not be specific to your favorite (or targeted) spot. But if you can find one listed anywhere on the tributary itself, after a visit or two you should be able to calculate the differential and note it for future estimates.
    Yellow perch can be very selective about bait. My general rule is small to medium bull minnows and grass shrimp followed by bloodworms, then night crawlers. One of those is sure to do the trick. Adding the bait onto a bright lure such as a shad dart, jig head or small spoon can also increase your chances of success.
    The fish are also sensitive to your line size. Heavier mono or braid is, unfortunately, more obvious to them, especially the larger fish. Four-pound mono is my favorite option, though some friends score well using heavier test braid and fluorocarbon leaders.
    The first fish of the new season, yellow perch are delicious, some say more so than their white cousins. After a horrible winter like this one, chasing a yellow ned is far preferable to staying inside one day longer than you must.