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Features (Fishing)

How to freeze your rockfish

We baked a whole, handsomely fat, 34-inch rockfish in a Cuban barbeque box (lacajachina.com) for my middle son’s college graduation. It was delicious. The remarkable thing about that treat was not that the dish came out so well (the barbeque box is simple to use) but that the fish had been stored in the freezer since the middle of last season. It tasted almost fresh-caught.
    Years past, I experienced much disappointment in freezing fish for longer than one or two months. Fish frozen for longer sometimes resulted in strong-tasting and stronger-smelling dinners.
    The difference is that vacuum-packing machines are much better at eliminating all air from the package; contemporary plastic bags also seem to be more durable and puncture-proof. Allowing any air to reach the fish during storage is a sure way to ruin its table quality.
    Preparing whole fish for freezing is a fairly simple affair. The fish should immediately be immersed in ice (but not ice water) after catching. As soon as practicable, it should be thoroughly scaled, eviscerated and the gills and all traces of organs removed. This includes scraping the backbone and inside of the head of all dark meat.
    The fish should then be thoroughly rinsed and dried. Finally rub it, inside and out, with olive oil. The coating of oil further protects the fish from air and allows it to slide into the ­vacuum bags without difficulty.
    Be careful to prevent the many sharp spines of the fish’s fins from puncturing the plastic bag during processing and storage. If the fish is moved at all within the freezer to access other foods, it should be
re-examined for vacuum failure.
    Now vacuum pack and store each fish individually in the freezer — not stacked together — to minimize freezing time.
    Freezing rockfish fillets is even simpler. Again, ice the fish immediately after catching. Fillet and skin as soon as possible. Remove the dark lateral line by incising along each side at a sharp angle, pulling that meat away and discarding. The dark meat is strong tasting, and that taste only gets stronger and migrates to the rest of the fillet over time in storage. The dark meat section is also where toxins tend to concentrate.
    Using the vacuum packer as before, process the flat fillets in quantities that are convenient to use all at once.
    If you don’t have a vacuum machine, fillets can be frozen almost as effectively by placing the pieces in appropriately sized heavy-duty zipper-locking freezer bags and adding water. Wrap the bags tightly against the fish, force out all the air and as much water as possible, seal and place them individually in the freezer. The added water insures that no air will reach the fish during storage.
    Maintaining a cold — at least zero-degree — freezer is also essential to long-term storage. Above that, bacteria can emerge and eventually cause unwanted flavor changes. Commercial fish storage is generally maintained at minus-20 degrees, but a household fridge may not be able to reach that temperature. Use an aftermarket temperature gauge and the lowest possible freezer setting for best results.
    I routinely can keep vacuum-packaged whole and filleted fish up to a year and water-filled frozen fillets up to six months without risking culinary disappointment. However, if the integrity of the vacuum sealing has been compromised during storage, there are only two remedies: thaw and cook the fish immediately or redo the packaging. Attempts to repair holes in the bags with tape or glue inevitably result in poor table quality.

The best time to fish is when they’re biting

The forecast called for rain, but the weather people had proven so inaccurate the last few weeks that we gave the pronouncement little notice. We promised that if Saturday morning broke with anything close to moderate air we were heading out, as we did.
    My buddy and I had also decided to leave the rockfish to the weekenders. A few barely legal stripers were not what we were looking for. We yearned for some sustained pole bending.
    I’d been given a heads-up on good white perch action on the edge of a not-too-distant river channel, and we decided to try that. Perch this year have been surprisingly absent, at least for us. Almost all of our usually reliable spots have been empty of fish of any size.
    We started off working the river shoreline, throwing Rooster Tails and Capt. Bert’s Perch Pounder spinner baits in the shallows, around erosion jetties, docks and next to flooded phragmites, areas that had always been hangouts of at least a few 11-inch blackbacks. We scored exactly one nine-inch perch in an hour.
    Unsurprised we headed out for the deeper channel waters and reached for the worms. Reciting a silent prayer to the fish gods and rigging with top and bottom rigs and flashy size 2 red nickel bait holder hooks, we added an ounce of lead, threaded on generous pieces of worm, and dropped them over the side.
    Our skiff was pushed slowly along the channel edge by a gentle breeze and a barely moving tide. Our rods bent over almost into the water as both of us cranked up double headers of white perch.
    Dropping our rigs back over resulted again in instantly bent rods, again loaded with double headers. Then again and yet again it happened. Our faces were beaming; we were apparently right in the middle of the meat bucket. The now heavily clouded skies could not dampen the glow of great action.
    When a light mist began, we hardly noticed. Though the whities were on the small side and we had lots of throwbacks, the action was non-stop. Gradually our cooler accumulated a few nice keepers.
    The rain soon got steadier and heavier. But with fishing like that, we donned our foul-weather gear and soldiered on. We weren’t sure when the winds would return or these perch would vanish, so we were taking no chances. The best time to fish is when they’re biting.
    The bite stayed red-hot. Even as it poured down hard, we remained enthusiastic. Our count was well past 100 and our hands were sore and torn from the many gill plate cuts and fin spikes in handling the wriggling devils when we at last exhausted our bait supply.
    Later that evening, after a long, hot shower and a glass of brandy, I reflected on the success of the trip, describing to my wife the mad fishing action and the endless downpour.
    She merely nodded her head. When I asked if she thought we were crazy, my spouse replied, “Why no dear, why in the world would anyone think that?”

You never know what’s going to happen on the Chesapeake

I had done well on my last three sorties. Now my first bite came in less than a minute.
    I had hooked a frisky spot of about four inches just in front of the dorsal with a size-4 black nickel treble hook and sent it over the side. It headed straight down to the Bay Bridge piling I had selected.
    A strong fish took the bait as it neared bottom. Setting the hook,    I felt immediate resistance, a strong headshake, then nothing. I reeled my line back and found that I had lost my spot. Hook, leader and swivel had been cut off cleanly as well.
    Either a toothy bluefish had hit the swivel when the fish I hooked started its struggle. Or the striper had run to some kind of bottom structure immediately after taking my spot and fouled my line on something sharp. I opened a fresh pack of trebles, red nickel models, bent one onto a section of fresh 20-pound fluorocarbon leader and replaced the lost swivel connection.
    I had been experimenting with these rather small treble hooks for a couple weeks, finding that they were excellent at mouth-hooking the rockfish eating my live spot baits. I could come tight much sooner than when using J hooks.
    Over the next three hours, however, my bait count got ever lower as I released spot after spot that had become exhausted swimming down in the varying currents. I couldn’t find a rockfish of any size to take my bait.
    Heading to the Eastern Shore, I redoubled my efforts. Drifting and fishing a wide area, I marked few fish but garnered nothing.
    Skunked, I headed back toward the Sandy Point ramps and home. As I passed by the previously unproductive bridge supports on the western side, I decided on one last try. I had just three baits remaining.

Back to Go
    Amazingly, with the first drop at the support where I had started the day, I was quickly fast to a strong, fat and healthy 25-inch rockfish. Netting and burying that fish in ice and with renewed optimism, I prepared to hook my next-to-last bait and send it down.
    At the last moment, that little fish squirmed in reaction to the prick of my treble and squirted out of my hand and over the side. Now I had the last bait at the last moment, back at the same place I started out. This was going to be very poetic or a major disappointment.
    I took extra care with this bait, then flipped it out next to the concrete pier. As it swam down toward the bottom I could feel it spurt ahead in panic. Something was chasing it already.
    The fish below quickly engulfed my bait and started running. I set the hook, and a very careful battle ensued.
    The fight went my way. Eventually easing the net under a powerful 24 incher, I was relieved to have limited out. But when I pried open the rockfish’s mouth to remove my hook, I noticed something odd. My red treble hook was stuck firmly in the corner of its jaw, just as I expected, but on the other side of its mouth was another embedded treble, a black one.
    It was my original hook cut off on that fish I lost, still attached to the leader and swivel.
    You never know what will happen on the Chesapeake.

What kind of doublespeak is that?

Sometimes I feel heartfelt compassion for the very difficult job of Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Many citizens and not just a few commercial entities demand endless access to the resources of the Chesapeake, while the wise conservation and management of these resources are the sole responsibility of DNR.
    The blue crab is one such resource. One of the more desired, the more profitable and most celebrated of the Bay’s treasures, it has also been over the last 20 years or so one of the Bay’s species most often in trouble. I sympathize with the pressures the Department has to constantly endure in attempting to protect the crustacean from over harvest and depredation.
    Then, DNR destroys my empathy with pronouncements that seem to defy credibility, common sense and logic.
    On a recent occasion, officials stated for the record on a local radio program and in a subsequent newspaper article that any form of moratorium would cause the species more harm than good.
    That ranks up there with the Department’s earlier statement “crabbing harvests remain at a safe level for the sixth consecutive year,” while revealing the blue crab population had plunged 70 percent also during that period.
    Is that not doublespeak? DNR’s own safe harvest levels imply proper population protection that has obviously not been happening. In the case of “more harm than good,” how can not killing some 30,000 pounds of crabs hurt the overall population?
    Unlike the successful rockfish moratorium, a crab moratorium wouldn’t work for several reasons, according to DNR: the short life of crabs (three years or so); the diminishing fertility of females over time; and the increased natural mortality of cannabilistic crabs when the population is dense. DNR also cites the economic harm to Maryland’s blue crab industry.
    I can understand the Department’s reluctance. Every cutback affects the livelihoods of not only 4,000-plus watermen but also the bottom line of many restaurants and seafood markets. But don’t try to tell me that continuing to kill off a resource is really helping it.
    I can understand unpredictable natural mortality and how cold-weather kills and how poor recruitment causes unanticipated short-range population swings. But to continue to allow optimistically calculated harvest levels year after year while that population free falls defies common sense.
    The near future looks grim for the blue crab. Local crabbers report very difficult catches, fewer and smaller crabs and a continuing dearth of females, indicating more population trouble for the future. This assessment is not scientific, but it seems to reflect reality better than anything coming out of Annapolis.
    I respectfully request the Department reconsider its basic resource philosophy because whatever we have been doing is not working.
    Insisting on species health and abundance above all seems wiser and more realistic than any maximum-sustainable harvest policy by any name.
    Paying closer attention to the recommendations of scientists from Bay conservation foundations could also be wise, as they are free from most political and commercial manipulations.
    That is if Maryland officials are committed to the conservation of the blue crab and share the belief that a consistently large and healthy population will naturally result in a flourishing commercial fishery, a satisfied recreational sector and a happy consuming public.
    If, on the other hand, our representatives are primarily committed to short-term commercial-industry stability — fulfilling market and political demands — then we’re on the right track.

When fishing is good it is very good; When it is bad, it’s still pretty good

     I’ve suddenly run into a problem I haven’t had in quite some time. I’m having the devil’s own time catching good rockfish. During the long lulls between bites, an explanation has emerged for my difficulties and disappointments.
    I blame it all on last season. Last season was phenomenal. Big fish in quantities rarely seen around the mid-Bay remained all the way through the year. I could rise at 9am, get on the water by 10am and most always have my limit of 10-pounders by noon.
    Last year, the chum bite was astoundingly effective until late June, when live-lining took over and was even better. This year is developing much differently. The schools of big fish that settled all around the mid-Bay are gone.
    Chumming is already dropping off. Live-lining has not developed, what with the dearth of small spot and rockfish being both scarcer and more finicky.
    My attempts to find them where I did last season have wasted a lot of fishing time. Likewise, my insistence on behaving as if they would eventually show up has led more poor performances than I would like to admit.
    Sticking to my schedule of rising late and still expecting to find good fish is proving to be another major error. The summertime heat is apparently shutting down the bite after 10am. My unreasonable expectations (again, based on last season) are causing me unnecessary emotional trauma.
    A smaller quantity of rockfish and the many anglers searching for them means that to be successful one must achieve ideal conditions, fishing better times of day and night plus making it a priority to find where the fish are located. Wait for them to come to you, and they most likely won’t.
    The few rockfish frequenting last year’s traditional locations do not remain long once discovered. Avoid areas of high fishing pressure to get fish in the box.
    In other areas that have proven productive in the past, stripers gather during the dark, quiet hours to feed but flee as soon as the sun rises or boats arrive. Being the first to fish any particular structure or holding area counts.
    To catch fish consistently this year, you’ll want to start very early or very late. I’m talking about being on the water nearer 5am or starting at sundown and fishing into the night. You will encounter more fish at these times, and when you do find them they are much more likely to take your bait or lure.
    If you’re fishing structure by casting or drifting baits, sound discipline is critical, especially in shallow water. Consider electric power or turning off your engine while working an area. Another good tactic is to sit quietly and do nothing for a good five minutes after arriving at the location you intend to fish. You’ll be surprised at the results.
    Fewer fish are in residence this year. The stripers that are here are under heavy pressure, spooked and uncooperative. Anglers will have to be at the top of their game and using every trick in their arsenal when pursuing them.
    On the Chesapeake, when fishing is good it is very, very good, and when it is bad, it’s still pretty good.

Fish recipes from the Chesapeake

Catching a fish from the Chesapeake leads to a seafood dinner beyond the reach of most mortals. The fish has come directly from your own hand. It is fresher than anything available to those not thus connected to the water. Freshness is really the defining quality, the gold standard, of seafood cuisine: same-day catch to table. Buying fish from even the best seafood markets will net a catch that is at its freshest three days old: a day from catch to the dock; another day from wholesaler to retailer, then a day (at the least) to the purchaser and to home. As to later than three days, keep in mind the old Benjamin Franklin dictum: “After three days, a fish and a house guest begin to smell.” Rockfish, the most treasured fish of the Bay, is not at all difficult to prepare. It is a dense, white-fleshed creature that responds exceptionally to herbs and spices, assuming they are not overdone. The distinctly fine flavor of striped bass can be easily overwhelmed, which is why my favorite recipe is simplicity itself. Starting with a boneless, skinless fillet, dry it with paper towels, slather with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and place it in a hot cast-iron skillet until it is well browned on one side. Then turn the fillet over and slide the skillet into a 350-degree preheated oven for 15 minutes. Test with a fork to be sure it’s done all the way through and serve. A simple lemon butter sauce with fresh-chopped dill or fennel is enough to lend rockfish all the sophistication that a fine palate could demand. My favorite accompaniments are Eastern Shore Silver Queen sweet corn and some thickly sliced fresh tomato from the same locale, dressed with olive oil, salt, ground pepper and fresh basil. A bottle of chilled champagne would not be gilding the lily. White perch is another seafood treasure from the Bay. Seldom encountered in area markets, white perch caught commercially in Maryland are mostly sent out of state. Apparently the Maryland markets are skewed toward rockfish. However, if you are even a modest angler you can secure yourself some of the finest frying fish in existence. The perch are small; a 10-incher is a big one. However, they are found in great numbers in the Bay and tributaries and, allowing for three fish per person, the average angler usually can secure a fine dinner in no time at all. Carefully fillet and skin the fish, cutting each fillet into two equal-sized portions. Blot the fish pieces dry with paper towels and dip in a mixture of two beaten eggs, two tablespoons flour, salt, pepper and a bit of beer (enough to create a syrupy mixture). Then roll the coated pieces in a shallow dish heaped with Japanese panko crumbs. Accumulate the prepared fish pieces on a large plate. Then heat a heavy skillet — again I prefer cast-iron — with about an inch of peanut oil (corn oil works almost as well) to about 350 to 400 degrees. With tongs settle the pieces of fish in the hot oil, turning them when they are golden brown. Hold the completed fish in a warm oven while you make a simple tartar sauce from chopped cornichons (about eight or nine), olive oil mayo (I like Hellman’s) and the juice of one-quarter lemon. You can also provide some dipping sauces. Texas Pete Buffalo Wing Sauce is a good one if you like it spicy, lemony vinaigrette if you’re of a gentler palate. I prefer an India pale ale to accompany the meal, but ice tea or a good, chilled white wine will go well. Provide plenty of napkins as this feast invites hands-on dining.

Tie right to stop losing big fish

In the decade-plus I have worked at a local sports store, I have swapped many yarns about losing big fish. The recurring theme is broken lines.
    Odd, I once thought. Of all the fish I’ve lost, and believe me that number is considerable, there have been very few that simply broke me off. Now I’m not counting the rascals that cornered the line across a concrete bridge pier or a barnacle-studded dock piling, threaded themselves through submerged rubble or wrapped off on my engine. I mean fish that broke the line by hard pulling.
    How long had the line been on their reels, I wondered. The short story is monofilament line in use over two seasons is not to be relied upon. The line might still seem stout enough, but knot strength is always the first thing to degrade and the main culprit in any break-off.
    If the line was fresh but the setup had been used a number of times, had landed a lot fish and had always held up, I had an easy answer: Your setup just wore itself out. You can’t expect those knots to last forever. Repeated stress will eventually weaken the line‘s structure. The knots have to be renewed, and the more frequently you stress your line, the more frequently the knots should be retied.
    If the angler had freshly made the setups, I would inquire if the end of the line where it failed had a little curlicue shape, like a pig’s tail. That curlicue is the sign of an improperly tied knot slipping free. If there was a piece of mono handy, I could even duplicate the event.
    If none of the above, I would ask the angler to tie the knot for me. Then I would put the hook in a vice and give the line a substantial pull. The connection would usually fail far below the breaking strength of the line. Or it would simply slip out.

Knot Up
    If your knots are in danger of failing, the solution is simplicity.
    Attempt to learn a dozen good knots at once and you’ll remember none.
    The better way to begin is by choosing just one knot, practice tying it several times and stick with it until you can do it without thinking.
    The knot I suggest for starters is the improved clinch knot, sometimes called the fisherman’s knot. It is the knot I most frequently use for tying my line to hooks and lures, and it is probably the most popular knot in use today.
    Only after mastering this knot should you progress to learning others. I suggest the Palomar next. It is one of the stronger and easier-to-tie connections, but its application is limited. The shortcoming will become obvious as you learn to tie it.
    The next in importance is the barrel knot for tying two sections of line together, a leader to the main line for instance.
    Others knots are useful in certain circumstances, but the point is to learn and master one at a time.
    One more thing: Always moisten the line with saliva (for lubrication) when pulling it tight. Otherwise heat from the friction of the knot tightening will weaken the line.
    Another thing: If you’re intent on landing the next big fish you hook, replace your line often and begin each outing by cutting off the hook or lure, discarding the first 15 feet of line (it gets the most wear), replacing your leader (if you use one) and retying your knots. Examine each bend closely upon completion. If they don’t look perfect, cut them off and tie them again. Your lost fish ratio due to break-offs will plummet. I guarantee it.

When you get your fish, all’s right with the world

When you’ve gone through a long series of skunks — as anyone who has fished much has — you start questioning your skill. Where were you going wrong? What else could you do? Serious uncertainties also creep in: Was the past season’s long string of successes real?
    That’s about the way I was thinking the other day, anchored a bit south of Hackett’s with only one other boat near. The finder screen was lit up like a fireworks display, but once again my baits went untouched.
    After almost an hour, one of the rod tips began to twitch. It stopped. I lifted the rig and moved the bait just an inch or two but felt no resistance. My heart was heavy. It had been a long spring with virtually no success chasing rockfish. Either the weather or the bite — or both — had been consistently horrible.
    The morning had started badly. Having gone to bed with excellent weather and good tides forecast for dawn, I opened my eyes at the appointed hour to the sounds of an approaching jet. Then I realized that it wasn’t airplane noise at all, it was thunder, lots of it.
    Another fishing trip scratched, I feared. Would things never go my way? Then, as if in answer, rain drummed down on the roof as if being poured from a giant bucket.
    I got up, reluctantly, to call my partner to cancel. But by the time I had a cup of coffee and picked up the phone, the skies had cleared and the sun was bright. Could lady luck be smiling at last? Or was she toying with us?
    Once on the Bay, we looked out over calm waters and a nicely moving incoming tide. It was looking good, but I steeled myself for more disappointment, reminding myself that dry spells make the good bites that much more enjoyable. But it was getting to be a very difficult sell.
    Then a rod tipped down with a serious run, the reel chattered as line poured out and all of those dark thoughts vanished. Feeling the weight of a good fish heading off against the drag, I smiled.
    It was a lively fight for a few minutes before my partner slipped the net under the six-pounder — and just that quickly our day had changed.
    As I buried the thick fish in ice and gave my buddy, Moe, a fist bump to celebrate the end of our rotten luck, another rod slammed down hard in its holder, and a 10-pounder took off for the other side of the Bay.
    With a couple of throwbacks and a pulled hook or two, we collected our limits in short order. The summer had officially started, and that miserable series of fishless days receded into the dim and forgettable past.
 

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.

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.