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Features (Fishing)

The modern rockfishing boat is a high-tech warship

My phone rang early. It was my friend Frank Tuma, calling to invite me on a last-minute trolling sortie in the Bay.
    Just east of the Baltimore Light, we set out the side-planer boards.
    Side planers are built of three one-inch-thick wooden or synthetic boards approximately two feet long and 10 inches wide. The leading edge of each board is cut at an angle to direct their path through the water. The boards are held about six inches apart by a series of stainless steel shafts. They are pulled along each side of the boat. Floating vertically like blades in the water, the boards are forced away and held fast by heavy 300-pound-test tether lines.
    We began trolling two umbrella rigs, some tandem parachutes rigged with soft shad bodies of both six- and nine-inch lengths, a couple of basic bucktails plus a Big Tony Accetta spoon, giving the fish a wide spectrum of baits to choose from. White, chartreuse, yellow and green were represented in the array.
    We finally began marking fish as we approached Love Point. A few minutes after making the first turn around the Love Point Buoy, a distinct pop announced that a line had been pulled free of its release clip, and one of the 10 rods bent over hard.
    The only downside to trolling multiple rigs on planer boards is that the boat cannot stop to fight a fish, which might cause a massive snarl of lines and lures.
    That means that an angler may be fighting a fish that can weigh upward of 50 pounds while moving through the water at four knots.
    Carl, the lucky man closest to the rod, was an old hand at reining in big fish and was soon inching the heavy fighter closer and closer to the boat.
    Everyone yelled at the first glimpse of the striper. It was a nice fish; perhaps too nice. Easing the big rockfish the last few feet, Frank finessed it into the landing net.
    The slot limit put in place this year by Department of Natural Resources dictate that only fish 28 inches to 36 inches or bigger than 40 inches can be harvested. This one was over 28 but uncomfortably close to 36.
    Quickly working the 12/0 hook out of its mouth, we ran a measuring tape along the big body. Then we squeezed the tail together and measured the overall length again to make sure that we were adhering to DNR’s exacting method for defining legal length.
    It’s not often that you wish a fish smaller, but at 37 inches, this spawned-out female went back over the side and disappeared into the depths of the Bay to swim another day.
    We hit four more stripers that day. Three were undersized, but one struck with massive force, fighting even harder than the first. There had been a good initial hook set and our angler was handling the fish expertly until it charged the boat. Getting the slack in the line it needed for just an instant, the fish shook itself free.
    We went fishless but had a beautiful day on the Chesapeake. All of us had pulled on at least one rockfish, and we still had many days left in the season to score.


Conservation News

    Warnings have been issued that the seaweed (or wormweed) used in Maine to pack bloodworms may be carrying invasive species. Anglers are advised to dispose of the weed in trash receptacles rather than dumping it into the Bay.
    Commercial menhaden processors (mainly Omega Protein) have been demanding more access to the remaining menhaden population (also called alewife, bunker and pogy). The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is apparently considering their requests. Drop the Commission a letter and tell them what you think: comments@asmfc.org; 1050 N. Highland Street, Arlington, VA 22201.

Baitfishing by water and from shore

Mike Ebersberger has a strategy for big, early season stripers on the Chesapeake. Not a fan of trolling, he prefers baitfishing the rockfish trophy season.
    His method is simple: “Find a place away from other boats, anchor up on the edge of the main Bay channel in 25 feet of water with a muddy or sandy bottom,” says the manager of Angler’s Sport Center. “Drop a couple big chunks of menhaden, the fresher the better, on two- or three-ounce sinkers. Wait for a big rock to come along and inhale one of them.”
    His favorite areas include the Baltimore Light, Podickery Point, Sandy Point, just south of the Western Shore rock pile below the Bay Bridge, and Hackett’s Bar.
    Ebersberger acknowledges that not all of his friends have followed his recommendations, preferring to take their chances trolling. But those that have followed his lead, he says, have caught their fish on light tackle and with hardly any expenditure of fuel.
    Getting an early start is part of the strategy. This time of year, fishing boat traffic and the accompanying engine noise and wake can stifle an otherwise promising bite. Getting on the water and dropping lines at 5am, the legal opening, greatly improves your chance of getting a trophy-sized keeper before the trolling fleet arrives on site.
    If arising well before dawn or dedicating a morning to sport (instead of work) is a problem, fishing the waning light of evening and into the dark can be almost as productive. Rockfish are light-averse and often prefer to begin their dining in the wee hours of the evening rather than in the full blaze of the sun. And you’ll be more likely to have the Bay all to yourself.

Shore Fishing
    Shore-bound anglers have another tactic for the early season: fishing bloodworms from public access fishing areas around the Bay. Not just any bloodworms, nor pieces of bloodworms, but large, whole bloodworms presented on the bottom on 6/0 to 8/0 circle hooks.
    Using nine- to 12-foot surf rods and spin reels holding 250 to 350 yards of 20-pound mono or 30- to 65-pound braid, anglers are scoring trophies with no more investment than a bit of time and a bag or two of
specially select bloodworms.
    Bloodworms are not found naturally in the Chesapeake region. They are harvested by hand from the saltwater mud flats of Maine and shipped to area sporting good stores. The closest thing to a bloodworm in the Chesapeake is an oyster worm, which, while looking almost identical to a bloodworm, is only about two inches long and much too slender to thread on a hook.
    Our migratory striped bass, however, are fresh from the ocean, used to feeding on the bloodworms of the New England littoral and consider a fat six-incher a tasty treat indeed. Even bigger worms are often available directly from Maine and are even more tempting. Try Luke Delano at bloodwormdepot.com for eight- to 10-inchers as thick as a No. 2 pencil.
    Favorite spots for these live-bait anglers on the Western Shore are Fort Smallwood Park, Downs Memorial Park, the beach at Sandy Point State Park, Thomas Point Park, Mayo Beach Park and Point Lookout State Park. The Eastern Shore sweet spots are at Betteron Park and Rock Hall at the mouth of the Chester, the pier at Matapeake State Park and the Black Walnut Bulkhead on the southern tip of Tilghman Island.
    Find other locations at http://dnr2.maryland.gov/Boating/Pages/water-access/boatramps.aspx.

Fishing College

    Dennis Doyle teaches Chesapeake Bay light-tackle fishing at Anne Arundel ­Community College May 9 (filling fast) and June 5 (AHC 362): aacc.edu/noncredit;
410-777-2222.

Hungry trophy stripers will strike any number of lures

If you’re a Chesapeake Bay angler, the most important day of 2015 came on Saturday, April 18, the opening day of fishing for rockfish and the start of the trophy season.
    Rockfish, or striped bass to the world outside of the Bay, are a migratory fish. Most of the linesides that swim the Atlantic seaboard originate here in the Chesapeake, but the females and a fair portion of the males don’t reside in the Bay for long.
    At about age four these fish leave for a migratory life in the Atlantic, where they grow to much larger sizes. Once in the ocean they swim the coast, sometimes as far north as Nova Scotia and as far south as South Carolina.
    They return to the Bay only once each year, in spring, to spawn. Catches of striped bass over 100 pounds have been recorded in the distant past by commercial netters; today a 60-pounder is big news — and a mighty big fish.
    Trolling big lures through Bay waters gives boat anglers the best chance of scoring on the giant fish. Since arriving in the Bay from the ocean and heading for their natal waters, they are constantly on the move, never staying in one place for long until they at last arrive at the headwaters of their birth. After spawning, the big females return to the ocean. The big males stick around until the females stop arriving. Then they too return to the ocean, the last of them departing by early May.

Lures to Catch Big Fish
    Big lead-headed jigs are the most popular lure to troll in the Bay, especially when nine- to 12-inch soft-bodied plastic shad are added.
    Included in this category are variations like parachute jigs with flaring skirts of nylon hair, the original natural bucktail hair jigs and simple nylon hair-skirted jigs. Often rigged in tandem, they are included in just about all trolling setups.
    These ersatz baitfish are crafted to emulate in both size and color the menhaden, a favorite food of striped bass. Also called bunker, mossbunker, alewife and pogy, these baitfish reach sizes of up to three pounds. Generally found in schools, the swimming baitfish can appear silver, chartreuse, gold, yellow, purple, green and lavender.
    Big spoons are also popular. Available in more colors and sizes than you can imagine, they are also known for producing a significant portion of the really big stripers boated during this springtime season.
    Arrays intended to represent whole schools of baitfish also attract big stripers. These include umbrella rigs, displaying as many as 10 lures (without hooks, by law) on wire arms like an umbrella. One lure with hooks is tied in the center and a bit more distant. Chandeliers are similar but have additional rings of lures and resemble (of course) a chandelier. Daisy chains are in-line attractors that have any number of sequenced lures, usually soft-bodied shad, spinner blades, tufts of hair or shiny tinsel arrayed on one central line with the last lure in the series bearing the hook.
    All of these lures have but one objective: to trigger a strike from a giant ocean-running rockfish.
    This year the limit is one fish. It can be either from 28 to 36 inches or over 40 inches.
    This regulation was put in place to protect the population of big females of a particular age class. Females of this size can carry upward of a half-million eggs and are critical to the rebuilding of rockfish stocks oceanwide.


Conservation Note

    With the opening of rockfish season, Maryland Department of Natural Resources urges anglers to use a new website and smartphone app — www.chesapeakecatch.com —
to record their catch and share data about Chesapeake Bay sport fish needed to make informed management decisions.

It’s been a long roller coaster ride for conservation

We have experienced a wild conservation roller coaster ride during the 22 years since Bay Weekly newspaper first burst upon the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. Our enormous watershed, once considered an inexhaustible source of seafood and wildlife, has discovered itself not so limitless after all.
    Maryland’s rockfish, rescued from the edge of collapse by a complete federal and state moratorium on their harvest in 1985, had been lifted for only two years when Bay Weekly began publication as New Bay Times. That extreme protection effort was an unqualified victory, with fish stocks rebounding to an abundance not seen on the Chesapeake for some time.
    Following that success, however, we soon fell into our old habits of harvesting as many fish as we felt sustainable. It turned out that over the last decade — in part because of commercial poaching — we found ourselves in trouble once again.
    Rockfish numbers have fallen by over 30 percent ocean-wide. Last year, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission lowered catch limits and increased legal fish sizes for the foreseeable future. Once again, the hope is that our favorite fish to catch and to eat will bounce back.
    Bay oysters are another story. Close to extinction for more than two decades, oysters continue to struggle from commercial over-harvest, poaching, disease and pollution caused by agricultural and population expansion.
    It would take almost all of the 22 years from the birth of this newspaper to see the kind of effort and regulation from the state that could result in a chance for that keystone resource’s recovery. Today, with commercial excess possibly reigned in by new and more stringent regulations and the expenditure of funds increased to the levels necessary to provide a chance of success, the first signs of an oyster stock recovery are beginning to show. Lets hope the trend continues.
    The blue crab continues on a roller coaster ride. At times we have had good numbers for this species, celebrated on the table and in print as wildly as the rockfish. But we have also had almost regular population crises.
    The key, it seems, has been the number of females surviving winter and escaping relentless commercial harvest. Maryland Department of Natural Resources has put female crab harvest off limits for recreational crabbers but not for watermen.
    Commercial limits continue to be set optimistically high for female harvest, and the crab population is once again headed back toward the danger zone. Perhaps Maryland officials will wake up.
    The Canada goose, which fills our autumn skies with sound as skeins of these far-traveling waterfowl come our way, has also experienced its ups and downs. Pressured by hunting to the point of collapse by 1991, it too went through a long moratorium, finally lifted in 2001. With more sensible regulations, the species seems to be holding its numbers.
    Chesapeake Bay itself has had its own travails, principally from pollution, but here too is much hope for the future. The necessary laws and regulations to protect the Bay from two major sources of degradation, agricultural and stormwater runoff, are finally being put in place.
    Population growth continues, but that is not entirely bad. Many of the people coming here are drawn by the beauty and the recreation provided by the Bay and its tributaries. These are fresh eyes and fresh expectations that the care and nurturing of the environment and all of its wild creatures should have very high priorities in the coming years. I am all for that.

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Fishing College

    Learn to fish with light tackle on May 9 (filling fast) or June 5, when I teach Chesapeake Bay fishing (AHC 362) at Anne Arundel Community College: www.aacc.edu/noncredit; 410-777-2222.

With white and yellow perch running, you want a rig that works

Casting my rig up underneath the big tree leaning out from the opposite bank of the river, I paused to give my lures time to settle near the bottom. I then began a slow retrieve, starting with a small twitch. Detecting a sudden resistance, I set the hook, and my rod tip surged down. Fish on!
    Actually there were two fish on. The occasion marked my discovery of a new springtime yellow perch hangout, one that would deliver big fish reliably over the next several seasons.
    We were using a two-lure, tandem rig with a yellow-feathered gold Tony Accetta spoon in size 12 on the long leg and a one-eighth-ounce shad dart in chartreuse on the short one. A small three-way swivel joined everything together. Adding a lip-hooked minnow to the spoon and a grass shrimp to the shad dart gave the lures the added scent that pretty much ensured their success, assuming fish were present.
    This rig is the one we use when exploring new water or starting the day from our skiff. Navigating quietly along a shoreline, one of us casts while the other steers to likely looking laydowns and brushy edges. When a fish strikes, we anchor and work the area thoroughly, since perch are a schooling fish.
    The setup also fished well from shore, especially with the addition of a small bobber to keep the lures from fouling the bottom. The only downside  was that the rig is tedious to replace if lost in a snag. But it is so productive that we usually spend the time to retie it.
    The Tony with the minnow moved through the water with a pronounced flashing, undulating action that really drew the strikes. It was the lure the big fish usually hit. The shad dart with the grass shrimp on the shorter section had multiple aspects. If the water was deeper than we anticipated or the current stiffer, we could substitute a heavier dart to get the rig nearer the bottom where the perch always were. Besides being activated by the action of the spoon, the brightly colored lure proved irresistible to any fish drawn to the struggle of a perch hooked on the spoon, resulting in a double hookup. It also worked for those days when the perch (white or yellow) would eat nothing but grass shrimp.
    White perch tend to cruise the shallow river or stream edges during high tide and when they are spawning. Yellow perch seek out flooded shoreline brush or downed tree limbs to hang their accordion-like tubes of roe.
    During low tide, perch tend to hold in the deeper holes or travel the channels. Then, too, the setup works. We simply anchor up in the center of the cuts or up-current of large pools. The current alone induces the spoon’s serpentine action, so we can often set our rods down and wait for strikes.
    The next most productive setup for fishing shallows less than five feet of water is simply one-eighth ounce shad dart under a small weighted bobber rigged so the dart is suspended just off of the bottom. The rig can be retrieved or still-fished. This is one of the most commonly used perch rigs along the Chesapeake and for good reason: It works.
    When a lot of fish are present and competing for food, the setup can be used with just the shad dart. But when prospecting or if the perch are reticent to bite, adding a grass shrimp, a piece of worm or a small minnow can make it instantly more attractive.
    When searching for fish, work your casts out in a fan pattern to explore all around your position. After throwing the rig, let it sit until the water calms. Then twitch it back methodically. Vary the count that you let the lure sit between movements until you find the rhythm that draws the most bites.

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Conservation Alert: Blue Crab Management Strategy

    The blue crab population has been in a nosedive the last few years with numbers indicating another crisis may be at hand. Add your voice to Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Blue Crab Management Strategy Plan: http://tinyurl.com/ntebjb3.
    DNR has set female crab harvest limits for the commercial sector this season at about the same as last year except there will be no season closures. Harvesting female crabs remains illegal for recreational fishermen. Read more at dnr2.maryland.gov/Fisheries/Pages/notices.aspx.

Dress warm to catch ’em by the shore

Rockfish season is still four weeks away, but already a small crowd of dedicated anglers is breaking out gear. Their tackle is rather odd for the coming trophy season. They don’t favor the short, stout-as-a-broomstick trolling outfits used by Bay skippers. These specialized anglers prefer equipment more common among coastal surf fishermen.
    Their rods are nine to 12 feet long with lengthy butts, and they are hung with big spinning or casting reels capable of 300 or more yards of 20- to 30-pound mono or 30- to 65-pound braid. Their terminal setups are 30- to 50-pound leaders and big circle hooks rigged with three- to six-ounce sinkers. Their bait of choice: bloodworms, as big as they can find.
    A hard winter has delayed these early birds, but now they are shore-bound. The first couple of weeks, fishing is catch and release only. But by the season opener, they will have sussed the tempo of the striper migration and will be ready to slide some rockfish giants into their big coolers.
    Sandy Point, Fort Smallwood and Matapeake State Parks as well as Anne Arundel County’s Thomas Point Park are frequented by the cognoscenti. Further south, Point Lookout at the mouth of the Potomac has been drawing larger and larger numbers of anglers willing to suffer the wind, chill and rain.
    This tactic, strangely enough, has developed in only the last half-dozen years or so. Big migratory fish surely have been cruising the shoreline looking for a snack as long as they’ve been returning from the ocean to spawn. Yet most anglers have traditionally pursued them by dragging big lures behind big boats.
    Perhaps it was the economic downturn that forced some to remain shore-bound. Perhaps the successes of a small number of dedicated fishers were finally noted. Whatever the reason, more and more anglers have been showing up in the spring to soak a big, whole bloodworm on the bottom and hope for a 40-plus-incher to discover it.
    When fresh menhaden become available, many anglers will switch to them. Some fanatics will even search out herring or shad that have been legally harvested elsewhere (it’s prohibited to take either in any part of the Chesapeake). But the bottom line is that these guys catch fish, and often regularly.
    Many anglers prefer night fishing, when the big rockfish are more apt to frequent the shallows. But I have also interviewed those who maintain banker’s hours and arrive about 9am and fish through to the afternoon. Their theory is that, as the majority of the fish are unpredictable, one might as well be as comfortable as possible when pursuing them. All of these guys catch fish, sometimes lots of them.
    Enduring the weather is a major part of the early spring fishing experience. Warm boots, woolen socks, windproof, insulated coats, snug hats with ear covering, thick gloves, handwarmers and a thermos full of a hot beverage are almost a necessity, especially at night.
    Many anglers fish multiple rigs. Two or more outfits increase the odds of hooking up and ensure that at least one line is available while changing baits or clearing a fouled line.
    When shoreline fishing, sand spikes firmly set into the ground are a necessity. Casually propping your rod against a cooler risks it being dragged into deep water when a strong fish takes the bait.
    A beach chair is another mark of an experienced angler. Shoreline fishing is characterized by long periods of inactivity interrupted by moments of adrenalin-soaked, fish-fighting panic. Being comfortable during the slower moments makes the wait much more tolerable.

Pickerel don’t mind the weather

The nasty weather variations have made angling difficult. A day of moderate temperature has usually been followed by extreme cold and sometimes even blizzard conditions, weather not conducive to any consistent bite.
    The chain pickerel, however, tolerates wild, frigid weather. When the majority of our Tidewater fish are hiding in deeper water waiting for snow to melt and conditions to warm up — or at least stabilize — the pickerel is still cruising the laydowns. Holding around any available structure, it waits for some lesser creature to make a mistake.
    With its large mouth, needle-sharp dentures and long, lean powerful body, the pickerel is the ideal predator, fast and deadly. It can tolerate brackish water to a high degree, so it thrives throughout the middle to upper reaches of most Bay tributaries and virtually all of our lakes and impoundments.
    The grinning devil feeds on minnows, grass shrimp, crabs, goslings, ducklings, snakes, frogs — any small bird or rodent that happens to fall in the water and just about any sized fish it can trap in its toothy grip. Right now, it is gathering in fresher water to ambush yellow and white perch that have begun venturing up toward the headwaters of our rivers and streams to spawn.
    While the larger, older pickerel (up to eight pounds) tend to be loners, the younger sizes will gather in small schools, the better to round up and feed on the eating-sized fish moving into their areas. Pickerel are also preparing to spawn later this month and early next.
    When temperatures plunge and make fishing for crappie, white perch or yellow perch a losing proposition this spring, you can always count on the pickerel to improve your day. No matter what the temperature, if you can get out on the water, there’s a good chance you can find the water wolf.
    Medium- to lightweight spin, casting or fly tackle are ideal for tangling with the chain pickerel. It got that moniker because of the iridescent-green, chain pattern that lights up its flanks. It is also called grass pike, green pike, federation pike, jackfish, and my favorite, water wolf.
    Since the pickerel’s teeth are grasping teeth (rounded shafts but sharply pointed), a steel leader is not necessary. Any line greater than eight-pound-test will generally get your fish to hand. If you’re lunker-hunting or want to be extra careful, a short section of 15-pound mono spliced onto your lighter test fishing line will ensure against cut-offs.
    A net or fish glove is advisable when landing them, as they have a very slippery coating on their body. Use long-nosed pliers for unhooking. That mouthful of teeth can cause some damage if you’re careless.
    Grass pike like to attack small to medium flashing lures like spinner baits, spoons, brightly colored jigs and silver or gold crank baits. Tony Accetta spoons in sizes 12 and 13, squirrel tail-dressed Mepps spinners in sizes 3 and 4 and Super Rooster Tails in quarter-ounce sizes are my favorites during the colder months. Adding a lip-hooked minnow onto the spoons are especially effective.
    The best crank baits are smaller sized Rat-L-Traps, Rapalas and Zara Spooks. The best flies are sizes 2 to 2/0 Lefty Deceivers in bright colors and Clousers in chartreuse and white or all black. Small and medium poppers will get their attention some days and add some surface violence to the mix.
    As the weather gets warmer, pickerel will move into thicker and thicker cover. During hotter months, try throwing a floating or swimming weedless rigged frog onto lily pads, weed beds, sunken brush and laydowns. There will likely be a water wolf lurking there.

Put your down time to work

Don’t wait for April to begin tackle or boat preparations because by then it will be too late. This weekend if not today, check on your fishing gear. Examine your rods, inspect your reels, check out your boat equipment.
    Which reels need to be re-spooled? Which need maintenance? Turn your reel handles with pressure on the spool. Are your drags smooth? Do they freeze or hesitate before they release? The drag washers may need to be cleaned and repacked with grease.
    Check your reel handles. Do they turn smoothly? Are the bushings and bearings clean, or are they corroded and rough? Check the free spool lever. Does the reel spool disengage freely? Does it re-engage promptly? This one is a show-stopper. If you can’t put your reel back in gear, you will be unable to land your fish, even retrieve your line.
    If your reels need any kind of maintenance, now is the time to send them off. Currently, you can expect them to be repaired or serviced within one or two weeks. But if you wait until just before opening day, you might not get them back for a month or more.
    Closely inspect your rod guides. A cracked guide ring may be difficult to see, but it will shred your line the first time a good fish puts some pressure on your tackle. Rod guides that show corrosion in a joint area or have been bent should be replaced. They can and will collapse at the first inopportune moment. Repairs and replacements can be accomplished promptly now as rod craftsmen are still in a slow period.
    Look over your hooks, sinkers and lures. Are your bucktails and parachutes still in good condition, or are the hair and skirts twisted and deformed from being put up carelessly? If they are, they won’t track or work properly in the water. Now is the time to correct that. Put them in hot water for a soak, then lay them out on a towel to dry.
    Replace any rusted hooks. A rusty hook requires three or four times the force as a new hook to penetrate a fish’s mouth — more if the fish is a big one. File off the rust and sharpen the points on any hooks that can’t be replaced. Wipe them down with WD-40 so they won’t re-rust before the season opens.
    Check out all your boat gear. Are your flares and fire extinguishers still operational and with valid dates? Are all of your life preservers still functional, and do you have enough of them? Don’t be that guy on opening day going from store to store trying to find flares, whistles, throwable floatation devices or an extra PFD for a last-minute guest. You can get a Natural Resources Police citation and be ordered off the water if any of these are missing.
    Check your paperwork. Do you have your boat registration certificate, and is it current? It’s required when you’re on the water. Now is a good time to get your new fishing license for yourself or for the boat.
    Put the license sticker on your bow promptly and be sure to keep the paperwork on-board; that’s also required now by Natural Resources Police officers, though it is not well advertised. Check your hull boat numbers and registration stickers. They can disappear over a nasty winter or may have been stripped off by hard running the previous season. That could mean a ticket on opening day.
    Run a power and cell check on your boat battery; batteries like to go dead over winter and can be difficult, time-consuming and expensive to replace at 5am opening day. Perform an on-site review of all your boat’s electrical circuits. Are all your navigation lights operating and if they’re not, is it the bulb, the wiring or the switch?
    Are your fish finder and GPS fully functional? Does your marine radio still work? Is your bilge pump operating properly? Failure of any of these devices can turn opening day into an experience in frustration or worse.
    Get these jobs done now, and you can relax, confident in the knowledge that all you need to do on opening day is wake up on time and have luck in your corner.

It’s the most important link between you and your fish

Working at sports stores has given me a long-term look at a critical and often overlooked item of tackle: monofilament fishing line. Taking your line for granted can lead to very unfortunate results.
    Monofilament fishing line was developed more than 75 years ago by DuPont Chemical Company as a spin-off of nylon, the first synthetic plastic. Those early efforts produced stiff, springy lines that had too much memory, tangled easily and were brittle.
    Braided lines made of linen (from the flax plant) or cotton were the overwhelming choice of anglers. These braids were strong for their diameter, supple and relatively easy to handle with the revolving spool reels used by most fishers of that period.
    Braided natural fiber fishing lines continued to hold sway over anglers for the next 20 years. Those lines did, however, have two distinct drawbacks: They tended to deteriorate if not dried properly, and they were visible to the fish.
    Eventually chemists solved all the technical problems with monofilament. In 1959, DuPont introduced Stren, a soft, pliable fishing line with excellent strength and very low visibility in the water. Over the same period, spinning reels advanced in popularity. The new monofilament line was embraced by spin anglers as the perfect application for their tackle.
    DuPont’s product was so successful that it was copied by many other manufacturers. Monofilament has been continually improved. It is superb fishing line: inexpensive, with great strength to diameter and with low visibility in the water.
    Its one drawback: It does not last forever.
    The ultraviolet rays from sunshine, fluorescent lighting and more will eventually break down the structure of monofilament, causing it to fail under stress. Knot strength is the first thing to suffer, while the line itself appears unchanged.
    If monofilament is unused and stored in a cool, dark environment it will last a few years. Outside in sunlight or inside exposed to the light of fluorescent bulbs and tubes, its life expectancy is limited. Manufacturers recommend replacing line every season.
    The life of line gets still more complicated. Because manufacturers do not date their products’ creation, consumers have no way of knowing the age of a newly purchased spool of monofilament. Nor do we know under what conditions that line was stored.
    Most tackle shops routinely rotate the inventory, so monofilament lines are constantly refreshed by newly manufactured supplies. But the buyer has to beware. A spool of line that has remained in a store’s inventory for long periods, especially if exposed to UV light, will likely fail under stress. The longer it has been retained, the more likely it is to break down.
    Purchase your line from reputable sporting goods retailers that frequently turn over their inventory. Higher quality lines are going to resist UV deterioration far longer than less expensive lines.
    One simple test of monofilament’s integrity is to tie an overhand knot in the line and give it a good strong tug. The overhand knot is not recommended for fishing because it cuts into itself. Fresh lines with this knot in them will still be difficult to break. However, monofilament compromised by age or UV exposure will fail at a mere fraction of its rated strength.
    Your monofilament fishing line is probably the least expensive component of all of your tackle. But it is the single most important link between you and your fish. Respect and replace it frequently.
    When not in use, store your tackle with reel covers that shield the line from UV rays. Or keep your tackle in a cool, dark room. Remember also that today’s energy-efficient compact-fluorescent bulbs produce UV rays.

Yellow perch are climbing the rivers

The yellow perch run is on. It may seem early, but small male yellow perch have been caught in a number of locations around the state for over three weeks. That can only mean one thing: The bigger fish will show up any time — if not already.
    These yellow neds are on the move, swimming to the headwaters of Bay tributaries to spawn.
    Driven by increasing daylight and temperatures, the scent of their natal waters and mysterious Mother Nature, this species is the first of the year to appear in numbers in the fresher water of the Chesapeake.
    Minimum size is nine inches and the daily limit is 10 fish per day. They are particularly delicious, rivaling white perch for table quality. Fried and paired with sliced tomatoes, simmered greens and corn bread on the side, they make the finest meal you can serve this time of year.
    Light- to medium-weight spin tackle spooled with six- to 10-pound mono will do just fine for tangling with the neds, whose size can run up to 15 inches or more (a citation is 14 inches). They will eat earthworms, bloodworms, grass shrimp, minnows and even wax worms.
    With water temperatures this time of year generally under 40 degrees, the fish do not respond well to artificial lures. But when fish abound, they can be caught on shad darts, small Tony and Nungusser spoons, Rooster Tails, Mepps spinners and small jig heads with soft plastic curly tails.
    My preference is a five-foot-four-inch, light-action spin rod, six-pound line and a tandem rig with a gold number 12 Tony and a lip-hooked minnow on the long leg and on the shorter a 1/16-ounce shad dart tipped with a grass shrimp, all fished under a weighted bobber.
    Casting the rig out toward likely spawning areas such as flooded brush or downed trees in three to four feet of water, I twitch the rig back slowly, continually working over a large area until I locate fish. The bite is generally tide driven, with a falling tide just after the flood the best.
    When fishing a low tide, target the deeper areas in the center of creeks and rivers and fish your baits close to the bottom. Since the fish are constantly on the move, you never know when or where you’re going to find them, so moving around and trying one area after another, either from a boat or from shore, is the strategy for success.
    It is also a good idea to have on hand a big Mepps spinner in size 3 or 4, silver or gold, dressed with squirrel or bucktail. If your yellow perch action suddenly dies off or hasn’t yet materialized, try casting the larger lure. Quite often a large pickerel or two (which follow the schools of yellow perch this time of year) have moved into the area and queered the perch bite. The Pickerel will be suckers for the big Mepps and an exciting addition to your day.
    The Department of Natural Resources website maps a number of locations where yellow perch fish have been caught during the spring run on both the Western and Eastern Shores: http://dnr2.maryland.gov/Fisheries/Pages/maps.aspx.