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Features (Fishing)

Proper preparation prevents poor performance

You can never trust Maryland’s March weather. Another certainty is the march of time, which puts us only a couple of weeks from Trophy Rockfish Season, opening April 15. Cold or warm, snow, sleet, rain or sun, the striper season is fast arriving.
    So don’t make opening day your first day on the water. I take at least a week for a shakedown cruise or two plus scouting trips to get ready. That means now is the time to get going.
    My first act of preparation is to remove all my reels from their rods and examine them. Over a long winter, grease and oil can congeal, making the mechanical functioning of the reel stiff and uneven. This can also be true of drag operation. Check each reel and correct any problems.

The Scoop on Line
    Next I take all the reels spooled with mono to a sporting store and have the line replaced. The trophy season brings us into contact with the biggest rockfish of the year. Some of these guys will top 50 pounds. If this is my season to hook a fish of that size, I don’t intend to handicap myself with a line that may have been dragged across rough bridge piers, jetty rocks or pilings last year.
    I prefer to use fluoro-coated monofilament lines. There are all sorts of scientific explanations for fluoro’s superiority, from its invisibility to its superior hardness. I don’t believe any of them. If I can see the line in the water, it’s not invisible; nor will a harder finish keep a line from parting when a 30-pounder wraps you around a barnacle-encrusted piling and keeps on going.
    What I do believe is the test results of an old experiment. Berkeley Fishing Line Company strung a number of samples of mono- and fluoro- lines in a massive aquarium populated with large fish. The purpose: to count the number of times fish bumped into the mono lines vs. the flouro lines. The results counted twice as many collisions with fluoro as with mono.
    I’ve also found on my own when chumming that I can still catch fish with fluoro lines when the tidal current slows or stops. I rarely can get rockfish to bite in those situations with mono, and almost never with braid.

Tie a New Knot
    The next critical item on my opening day list is to cut off all knots in all lines and leaders and retie each one — carefully. If you wait till you’re on the water, the temptation to immediately begin fishing will be too great. Broken knots are the number one cause of losing big fish. A knot tied sometime last season is a prime candidate for failure.

Recharge Your Batteries
    You’ll also want to recharge all marine batteries. Then check them again the next day. Winter temperatures can be hard on battery cells. They may briefly charge to full capacity, but the faulty ones will lose that charge rapidly. Checking your batteries 24 hours after a full charge should identify the weak ones and save you from getting stranded out in the middle of the Bay.

White perch make good sport and better eating

March brings a springtime treasure that almost makes up for its treacherous weather: white perch. These tasty fish have just begun to show up in the creeks, though the winter storm that tormented the Northeast coast might delay the bulk of their numbers.
    A close cousin of the striped bass, white perch (Marone americana) are the most numerous fish in the Tidewater as well as the species most often caught by recreational anglers. They can reach 18 inches in length, but due to Maryland’s largely unregulated commercial netting in the Chesapeake, not many taken by hook and line are over 10 inches.
    The largest white perch on record anywhere was caught in 2012 in a Virginia private pond by Beau McLaughlin of Virginia Beach. It weighed three pounds two ounces and measured 17 ¾ inches. The previous record of three pounds one ounce was taken in 1995. The current record for the Chesapeake is two pounds 10 ounces.
    Living 15 or more years, white perch is a particularly prolific species. The male fish move upstream toward fresh water and await the arrival of females. The females arrive next, usually on an incoming tide, and move into the warmer shallows when they feel the urge to spawn. Each gravid female produces 150,000 or more eggs as she releases her roe in stages in tributary headwaters over one to three weeks from mid-March through May. The males follow, broadcasting their milt over the roe. The eggs will hatch out in one to six days. Fingerlings remain in the shelter of the headwaters for a year or two before descending to bigger Bay waters.
    Finally spent of eggs, the females return downstream to Bay waters while the males stay on station until the females stop arriving. After the spawn has been completed. The fish then regroup and move out to their preferred haunts. Some gather near the Bay shorelines or over shell bottom flats in about 10 to 15 feet of water, others prefer moving back into the estuaries in two- to five-foot depths.
    Fishing for white perch in the springtime is generally a shallow-water experience. A light-action spin rod with six-pound test mono is the optimum tackle. Tipped with a small, weighted casting bobber and a shad dart, a grass shrimp, a minnow or a piece of worm as enticement, the rig is cast out from the shoreline and worked back in a slow, twitching motion.
    When fishing from a boat, target shallow shorelines during the flood tide, particularly areas near submerged brush, fallen trees, rocky edges and around docks or bulkheads. As low tide approaches, the fish tend to retreat to the deeper water. Then a top-and-bottom rig with a one-ounce sinker is a better producer for both shore and boat anglers.
    There is no minimum size nor possession limit for white perch, but a fish much under nine inches lacks enough meat to warrant harvesting.
    Their table quality is unequaled, whether baked, broiled, fried whole or filleted, rolled in panko and crisped in hot peanut oil. If you haven’t tried them, you’re missing out on a Bay treasure.

If an extraordinary day comes your way, grab your gear and get fishing

Friend and neighbor Frank Tuma and I were enjoying a combination shakedown cruise and yellow perch outing on the Magothy River. At Beachwood Park, we noted a number of anglers milling about with about as much success as we were enjoying, which was none. No one seemed to care. It was enough to get out on the water.
    Tossing minnows, spinner baits and small spoons separately and in combination, then just about everything else in the tackle box, we worked over shoreline spots thoroughly. Targeting fallen trees, derelict docks, jetties, groins and anywhere either of us had ever caught a fish, we exchanged stories of successes and disasters.
    I worked my two favorite outfits. One is a five-foot-four-inch, extra-fast-action Loomis GL2 spin rod with a Shimano Sahara 1000 reel spooled with six-pound P Line. The other is a six-foot St Croix medium-power casting rod paired with a Shimano Calcutta 1000 DC-level wind reel, spooled with 10-pound Power Pro.
    My buddy, ever the more practical and pragmatic of the two of us, used his trusty six-foot-six-inch, ultra-light spin rod of unknown provenance and a mystery spinning reel spooled with 10-pound Spider Line. Frank caught all the fish.
    After working the Upper Magothy to little effect, we explored the nearby creeks lower down the river, trying to rescue the day with a pickerel or two. At about noon, Frank hooked up with a real scrapper on an orange-and-yellow spinner bait with a lip-hooked minnow. I assisted by netting the flashing pickerel for a quick picture.
    Quite near the same spot, Frank then had another smashing strike. His rod bent over, and I could hear his reel grudgingly giving up line in fits and starts as the fish refused to come closer. The battle went on for long minutes, and the water boiled as the fish came near the surface again and again — Never close enough, however, to identify except as a big one.
    Guessing a really big pickerel, then perhaps an early-spawning rockfish, Frank worked the fish gradually closer while I threatened him with disgrace if he lost it. As it finally neared the boat and I leaned over with the net, we caught a flash of a brown and orange flank. Then it was gone. The hook had pulled.
    After a moment of anguish we laughed. This was what fishing was like — and we would have let the rascal go anyway. Now we were free to interpret the brute anyway we felt. It could have been a big channel cat, or perhaps a thick and powerful carp heading to spawn. I suggested a wayward cobia. That was preposterous, but it had been a long day and we were both getting a bit addled after such a successful late-winter’s day on the water.

Yellow perch are the first panfish of the emerging spring season

My rod tip was arced over so hard that the tip entered the water off to the side of the skiff. The drag on the tiny spin reel was groaning as it released a few yards of four-pound-test mono into the current and an unseen fish made its best effort at an escape. I pushed my slender stick up high to avoid fouling the line on the brush tips poking out of the water where the fish was heading.
    The water boiled as the fish neared the surface at the far shore. A glint of gold flashed against the morning rays of the sun. Bingo, just what I was hoping for. A yellow perch was on my line. Then another broach and a pair of flashes. Bonus: Two yellow perch were on my rig.
    Yellow perch are closer to gold or brass than yellow. They are also known as ring perch, neds or yellow neds. No one I have ever spoken to has an explanation for the ned part of the name. The ring aspect is due to six to eight, vertical, bright-olive stripes along the flanks of the delicious fish that give it the appearance of being ringed. In other parts of the country it is known as the raccoon perch, the lake perch, the American perch and the ringtail.
    Whatever you call it, the fish is the first panfish of the emerging spring season. It was once significantly more numerous than today and far more popular with anglers. But the Bay population has suffered over the years from commercial overfishing and the silt and lawn chemicals released from residential and commercial developments around the headwaters where they spawn. Of late, their numbers have been recovering due to Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ efforts at restricting commercial harvest so that our 300,000 recreational anglers could be apportioned half shares with the three-dozen or so netters that continue to harvest them.
    In February, yellow perch begin ascending the Bay tributaries, seeking to spawn in the freshwater sources where they were born. They feed on worms, insects, larvae, grass shrimp, minnows and other small fish and live in the more brackish waters of the Chesapeake during most of their life.
    This fish has a unique spawning characteristic. It releases its eggs encased in a long accordion-like membrane designed to hang up on rocks, brush or any stream structure that ensures the roe do not settle to the bottom. If the egg sacks do not remain suspended, they are far more likely to become covered with the silt and chemical residue that washes into the streams in the spring rains and much less likely to hatch out.
    The traditional angling method for ring perch is a light spin rod armed with a shad dart or two suspended under a casting bobber and tipped with grass shrimp, worms or small minnows. Four-pound test mono is just right for the task, but an angler can get away with up to eight-pound in a pinch.
    Fish the first of the flood around the shores of the headwaters or the last of the ebb at the deeper holes. Or fish whenever you can as the runs of perch during the spawning season are unpredictable.
    There is a nine-inch minimum size limit with a possession limit of 10. The citation size is 14 inches, and the state record is two pounds three ounces for tidal areas and three pounds five ounces for non-tidal.
    Scaling, eviscerating and beheading the fish will result in the tastiest preparation, but filleting the fish makes the end result boneless. Baking, broiling or breading and frying all result in a great meal. The traditional approach is a crispy coating and hot peanut-oil frying.
    The results are all the same: a delicious treat made all the more tasty because it’s the first fish dinner of the coming spring season.

Alex Perez knows how to reel them in

There is an old axiom in fishing that is as true today as when it was first coined, probably centuries ago: Ten percent of the anglers catch 90 percent of the fish. Those words came to mind as I canvassed local fishermen.
    Few anglers have caught consistently over the past month, but some who did reported not just a fish or two but exceptional catches. They also had the pictures to prove it. Among the notables is Alex Gallardo Perez, an accomplished Chesapeake Bay angler at just 22 years old.
    Beginning at the age of five at his birthplace in Wilmington, North Carolina, Alex was schooled in the angling arts by his dad, Candelario. Alex angled extensively for redfish, seatrout and flounder along the Atlantic seaside, but his first fishing memories are of Acapulco, Mexico, his father’s birthplace, where he and his family vacationed summers.
    Surf-fishing the Pacific with a light eight-foot rod, young Alex tangled with ocean panfish, snook and roosterfish on almost every trip. His first trophy fish was a 150-pound yellowfin tuna hooked off of Acapulco when he was a boy of nine. He fought the fish to boatside by himself, but his dad and uncle had to help him get the beast into the boat. Alex has been an almost fanatical angler ever since.
    After the family moved to the Annapolis area about 14 years ago as his dad expanded his construction business, Alex began to pursue rockfish (best so far, 43 inches), white perch (a 13-plus-incher), yellow perch (15 inches and over two pounds) and largemouth bass (seven pounds). His biggest catch to date is a sand tiger shark of about 111⁄2 feet and 400 pounds, caught and released two years ago in Ocean City.
    These days Alex fishes almost exclusively from his 12-foot Hobie Outback kayak, as it gives him excellent access to most Chesapeake waters as well as enabling him to fish well up in the tributaries and launch just about anywhere he can see water.
    Alex lure-fishes for all the Bay species, casting and trolling crank baits and spinner baits as well as jig fishing and, occasionally, live bait. He also competes in freshwater bass kayak tournaments with the Mid-Atlantic Kayak Bass Fishing Series. His first full season, just last year, Alex won the Rookie of the Year award.
    He attributes his success to consistency and determination, fishing from morning till dark on his free days and even before and after work at Anglers Sports Center in Annapolis. He explores the waters thoroughly, often finding concentrations of fish overlooked by more experienced anglers.
    “People get used to fishing the same areas the same ways and forget that fish can change their habits from year to year and begin showing up where they once didn’t frequent,” he says. “An angler has to remain flexible and innovative and never take anything for granted.”

Once upon a time, this fish meant food and sport in early spring

Mention the word gudgeon to any Bay angler, and you’ll usually get a quizzical look. It was not always so.
    The gudgeon (Gobio gobio) is a small (up to five inches) schooling fish of the carp family that lives in our brackish waters but spawns in fresh water. They will sometimes appear in good numbers in our tributaries in early springtime, sprint to more lonesome areas to procreate, then disappear to whence they came.
    Francis F. Beirne, a Maryland historian, documented the gudgeon runs in his 1951 tome, The Amiable Baltimorean (reprinted in 1984), as a long-ago springtime obsession. Describing schools of the little fish in the “tens of thousands pulsing up the Gunpowder watershed” in the early 1920s, he noted crowds of waiting anglers, armed with slender cane poles, sewing thread for line, a small bobber and a tiny hook baited with a pinch of worm.
    The catches were often in the hundreds. Cleaned, dusted with seasoned flour and fried a crispy brown, along with red-skinned potatoes, the gudgeon were a gourmand’s treat. Over intervening years the runs have fallen with the quality of our waters.
 

    The presence of gudgeon each springtime is not limited to the Gunpowder River; the fish can be found in most of our freshwater tributaries. Their timing is impossible to predict, but most schools appear coincidently with those of the herring and hickory shad. Dogwood blossoms predict the peak of the season.
    The fish are rarely caught accidentally because of their small size and smaller mouths, so an angler has to be fishing for them purposefully with hooks originally designed for trout flies (size 22 through 14), lightly weighted and fished off the bottom, usually with a tiny bobber. Rarely these days, the schools can be spotted nearer the surface circulating through the swifter waters, awaiting the proper conditions to continue upstream to spawn.
    Approaching the fish with a fly rod, a floating line and a tiny, bright-colored silver or gold fly can also be an effective method of catching them. Hildebrandt Lure Co. makes a small, Flicker Spinner fly rod lure in size 0 (1⁄32 oz.) that may be effective and can also be used with a light spin rod with a small bobber for casting weight.
    Maryland Department of Natural Resources does not regulate gudgeon specifically. It is considered in the same vein as our other common minnows and can be harvested similarly. For hook and line or dip net, there are neither limits nor closed seasons. Keep in mind, though, that their numbers are limited, so if you happen upon a good concentration of them, moderation is prudent.
    It may seem like an outsized labor to catch such a diminutive fish, but it connects us to an old Maryland angling and dining tradition.

Thick and blue is tried and true; thin and crispy is way too risky

Shivering, I resettled my stool, a plastic five-gallon pail, and reached for the skimming spoon. Easing over to the two holes we had spudded in the six-inch-thick ice an hour earlier, I scooped the already thickening slush threatening to close them. Meanwhile, I hoped that my mother hadn’t noticed her favorite slotted spoon missing from its peg in the kitchen.
    That long ago late January, temperatures were in the low teens as a friend and I perched, cold and uncomfortable, on the middle of the solidly frozen Presque Isle Bay. The sheltered piece of water is formed by a sandy 3,200-acre peninsula about halfway between Cleveland and Buffalo on Lake Erie.
    We were keeping a close eye on the tiny ice fishing poles perched at the edge of the two ice holes. Around us were scattered the trophies of our angling efforts: yellow perch, crappie and a few bluegills, frozen rigid within minutes on the ice.
    It takes at least four inches of the hard stuff before it is safe to venture forth. (Thick and blue is tried and true; thin and crispy is way too risky). When that happens, you are in a mesmerizing environment.
    The problem with Maryland winter, from my perspective, is that temperatures usually don’t remain low enough for long enough to support winter sports, like ice fishing.
    Except for one spot: Deep Creek Lake State Park. The largest lake in the state with 69 miles of shoreline and an average depth of 25 feet, Deep Creek is in Garrett County at the southern edge of Meadow Mountain in the Allegheny Highlands, where it frequently gets cold enough, long enough, to fish through the ice.
    Yellow perch are one of the more common catches there, fat and muscular in readiness for their impending spawn. Big crappie, too, often over 12 inches, plus large bluegills and occasionally some walleye, pickerel and northern pike.
    Garrett Hoffman is a recognized ice-fishing expert there, fishing the area since he was nine years old. A DNR-certified guide, Hoffman also has the specialized equipment to enjoy the sport to its fullest.
    Tip-ups are small ice fishing outfits designed to be placed right in your 10-inch diameter fishing hole. A small attached flag springs up smartly when you get a bite. The springing action also produces enough tension to set the hook, so all you have to do is reel in your catch.
    Small (24-inch) specialized spin rods are also available for jigging, one of the more productive methods of enticing the slow-moving fish, swimming in 33-degree water, to bite. Fathead minnows are the best bait, but wax worms and maggots work too.
    From a comfort standpoint, the most important gear for ice fishing is the fishing shanty, a pop-up shelter comfortably seating two or three anglers, keeping them warm if not toasty and protecting them from all but the wildest windstorms.
    Hoffman also has the proper ice auger to drill fish holes and strainer spoons to keep the holes ice-free. He is also the only ice guide in the area — if not the state: 301-616-6232.

A triumph of hope over experience

The 18th century English writer Samuel Johnson got it as right about New Year’s resolutions as about his original subject, marriage. That thought struck me as I attempted to set personal goals for the New Year, hoping these meet with more success than usual.
    I’m going to have to exercise to increase my energy and endurance throughout the winter if I am to mount the kind of fishing campaign I intend to begin in just four short months.
    Resolution Two is to simplify my tackle. Over the years I have accumulated an excess, to the point of hindering my activities. An angler does not need to choose from 100 lures when on the water. A dozen will do. I know many an angler who excels with less than half a dozen.
    Divesting myself of all of these lures is not without pain. I’ll have to find someone who wants them, for I can’t throw them away, and there is no practical market for used fishing lures. And I must do it well before the next season begins so there is no temptation to hold on to them.
    Resolution Three is to cull my outdoor clothes. My wife pointed that out just last week as she gathered used items for a Purple Heart collection. A lucky fishing shirt is difficult to resign to the rag bin, even if its elbows are holed. A significant portion of my many ball caps suggest they may also be well past their due date. I must send them all off without pity.
    Last comes the most painful resolution of all. I had some great angling successes last season but also some disappointments. I told myself that the brutal August heat dampened the bite for the following months as well. I was wrong.
    I have come to acknowledge my reluctance to rise early in the morning as the reason my later season fell off.
    Six o’clock may be early in the spring when the water temperatures are in the 50s and the bite will only get better as the sun brings more warmth to the depths. But from mid-August on, the fish will be on the move at the first blush of light when the water is at its coolest and most comfortable for them.
    That means rising at no later than 4am — and not just one or two mornings, when I feel conditions may be perfect, but every morning to give all of my sorties a better chance of success. The thought of that early hour brings tears to my eyes. But again, it must be done in 2017 or my freezer will be empty again next winter.

Fly south for angling adventure and comfort

Icicles hang off my skiff, parked on its trailer in the side yard, as leafless tree limbs thrash the skyline and an icy rain falls, mostly sideways. It’s a grim picture, unless you adopt a southern perspective.
    With crude oil under $50 a barrel, airlines are reviving some sweet deals for an angler with a yen for warmer climes and gamer fish. Florida has some fares under $70 (Fort Lauderdale, each way). Even San Jose, Costa Rica, can now be economically reached, often for under $300 round trip.
    Both locations offer awesome fishing in the next few months. Boynton Beach and Deerfield Beach, just north of Miami, are hot for king mackerel, snook, seatrout and redfish from both the piers and beaches, as well as offering an excellent chance to tangle with 20- to 30-pound Jack Crevalle, one of the hardest-fighting gamefish that swims the Atlantic.
    Vinny Keitt (www.pier-masters), who introduced me and two of my sons to some excellent fishing around Boynton Beach, has an enthusiastic outlook for January and February. Vinny teaches how to catch the fish in his neighborhood as well as guiding (on foot) at the many public access beaches and piers for whatever is biting best at that moment. It’s 85 degrees and sunny down there right now.
    January and February will also bring great sailfish action to both Florida and Costa Rica. You’ll find affordable packages online for multiple locations around the Miami area (I recommend Rick and Jimbo on the Thomas Flyer, thomasflyerfishing@gmail.com. The Costa Rican Pacific Coast, particularly the Quepos/Jaco areas, features vast numbers of the glamorous billfish.
    If you don’t mind shopping on foot a bit at the marina, local Costa Rican skippers with open 23- to 25-foot outboard-powered panga boats can put you onto the sails, only minutes offshore, for about $200 a day.
    Fly anglers dreaming of encounters with the legendary light-tackle skinny-water bonefish also have opportunities. Baltimore to Cancun, Mexico, air connection is direct and about $300 round trip if you can select your days. There are bonefish just north of the Cancun resort area for fishers who’ll rent a car and wade-fish the shoreline flats.
    For a guided experience for the grey ghosts, make arrangements on-line for fishing from Cancun south all the way to the Ascension Bay (Punta Allen) area.
    For do-it-yourselfers, driving down the coast from Cancun to Punta Allen, stopping at local motels and wade-fishing the shoreline flats, can also result in some very inexpensive and rewarding fishing adventures.
    All of these areas are among the safest in Mexico, but you do have to use common sense when deciding where and when to explore.
    Anglers hoping to tangle with heavier-weight offshore fish also have some economical options. Direct flights from Baltimore to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, on the southern Pacific Coast are available for under $400. January, February and March are the peak of the striped marlin season (100 to 250 pounds). Again, local fishermen operating 23- to 25-foot open pangas are available for hire quite reasonably, as are the larger, sleeker sport fishing boats at higher prices.
    Multiple billfish days are the norm there this time of year. Your only limitation is how much excitement and fish-fighting exertion you can handle. Accommodations range from expensive waterfront luxury to simple fish-camp-quality motels at much more affordable rates.  If you’ve a yen to travel a bit during Maryland’s winter, an adventurous angler has a great many options.

Sure-to-please choices

You’ve tried to choose a gift for the sport in your life, the dedicated angler, canoeist, hiker, shooter or sailor. And you’ve failed.
    The look in an aficionado’s eye on opening a present naively intended to enhance the enjoyment of a particular sport is a dead giveaway. Just what am I going to do with this? Next — but too late to mask the eye movement and expression of astonishment — come effusive explanations of just how special the gift is and how much it is appreciated.
    Here’s how to do better this year. If you are not dead certain that the gift is indeed unique and desirable within the context of that sport —almost impossible if you don’t share the passion — give a gift certificate.
    A certificate for a favorite restaurant is an excellent choice, as is one from a good sporting goods store. If the person in question is keen, sartorial-wise, a certificate from one of the better area clothing stores will may be the ticket. For those impossible to anticipate, I note that liquor stores are beginning to sell holiday gift cards.
    But if you must choose a sporting gift, try something like this. For boaters, a new piece of technological boating gear has recently arrived in retail stores to satisfy a safety requirement of the U.S. Coast Guard, the Weems and Plath electronic flare and emergency SOS light.
    Flares are required to be onboard any craft larger than 16 feet that intends to go on big water or operate at night. Flares inevitably have an expiration date (usually three years hence) and are inherently dangerous to operate.
    This new electronic flare never expires, is safe to use and is superior in terms of visibility and effectiveness of operation. All boaters will eventually possess one of these new devices in lieu of the incendiaries. If you want your skipper to appreciate your thoughtfulness, and to keep safe at the same time, giving one of these new devices is a sure avenue to success.
    LED flashlights are also an ideal gift for the sports inclined, especially the small units with high light output (1,000-plus lumens). These devices can be lifesavers in emergencies. Every car, motorcycle, boat (or other floating or moving conveyance) should have one somewhere onboard.
    They’re also handy for non-sporting occasions as they thoroughly illuminate any dim, dark walks back to an automobile and can effectively (though briefly) blind and ward off anyone who threatens to approach uncomfortably close. The better ones are the size of a small candy bar.
    Another unique LED creation is the Larry Light, a small, inexpensive, bright stick of lights that is directional and magnetized so that it can be attached anywhere there is metal for hands-free illumination of dark recesses. They’re also handy for casual photographic applications.
    The incredibly efficient Yeti brand coolers have become quite popular of late despite their hefty price tags. Yeti also offers hot/cold drink cups and thermos bottles that are unbelievably efficient as well as more affordable. They make an ideal gift for almost anyone.