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Regulars (Sporting Life by Dennis Doyle)

The catching is still good if you can stick with the search

We were almost back home when the fish hit.
    Gulls wheeling about and feeding are the single best indicator of rockfish surface action. Having seen not a single bird — much less any stripers — for more than three hours, we were packing this trip in.
    Fishing farther south or north was out of the question, for the wind was kicking up high, wet whitecaps in both directions.
    In a last desperate stop before the marina, we trolled small white bucktails while hugging a lee shoreline. The trip seemed all but over until the rod right next to my head went down with a strike.
    I grabbed it and set the hook. From the force of its fight, I guessed that it was not a giant, perhaps not even a keeper.
    I lifted and cranked the fish slowly and steadily toward the boat with the short spinning outfit that we had put into play as a trolling rod. Assuming we had a schoolie on the line, I was a bit casual about rod handling — until the fish broke water behind the boat.
    The bright black-lined sides of a striped bass were the sight I expected. So I was stunned when a broad, deep olive flank flashed in the light of our overcast sky. It was a white perch and a big one. Spotting the fish at the same time, my two companions yelled in surprise.
    Frank Tuma, a good friend and the captain of Down Time, the 29 foot C Hawk charter boat we were prospecting from, readied a net. But by that time the fish was alongside, and I could see that it was well hooked.
    That big little devil caused more excitement than a 30-inch rockfish. We laid it out and measured it at 13.25 inches, over citation size. Since big perch have become scarce around the mid-Bay the last two years, it was quite a satisfying catch.
    Circling back, we fixed our attention on the finder and saw a tight school of impressive marks about where the big one had hit. Breaking out some light rods, we rigged them with small jigs. We came up with nothing. The school had apparently moved as we had readied our tackle. Try as we might we couldn’t locate it again.

Back for More
    Rotten weather and busy schedules kept us off the water for almost a full week. When Frank and I finally did more prospecting for that school of perch, our effort paid off.
    Our first pass over the lucky area resulted in four big black-backs, all over 11 inches. Subsequent passes netted more brutes. A four-gallon bucket was filling with those mouth-watering white perch.
    When the bite dropped off after an hour or so, our bucket was over half full. Satisfied, we headed toward the Bay Bridge in search of birds and breaking rockfish.
    Gulls were screaming and circling low around a middle bridge support. We tossed jigs and top-water lures into the melee. These stripers were numerous but just undersized.
    But on the fish finder, Frank noticed suspicious marks deep beneath the breakers. Drifting with our perch outfits, we again scored on black-backs. Ten-inch white perch came up and over the side one after the other, and within half an hour we had filled our bucket.
    Cleaning them back at the marina, we had to admire our great luck. We had located not one but two nice schools of the best-eating fish that swims the Chesapeake. What’s more, we had caught enough for a number of wintertime fish fries.
    Colder weather has signaled an end to the Chesapeake’s more comfortable days. But the catching is still good if you can stick with the search. And the fish, when you find them, are fatter and more delicious than at any other time of year.

The fish gods may just deliver

I was re-exploring some old territory higher up in one of our broader tributaries when the strike finally came. Working a quiet shoreline in the early morning, I cast out a half-ounce Saltwater Chug Bug near the broad entrance to a tidal pond.
    With just a soft twitch, the lure spit a bit of water, then sank from sight. I wasn’t sure it had been taken by a fish until my rod tip dipped and the line moved up current. Coming tight, I cinched the fish up, and the surface erupted, removing all doubt.
    Launching my skiff earlier that morning, I made a vague and silent promise of especially good personal behavior if the fish gods would only grant me a few rockfish. Later I realized I should have been a little more explicit.

Fickle Fall
    “It’s not all that difficult to catch a rockfish,” a friend of mine once opined. “What is difficult is catching them the way you want to catch them.” He was talking about top-water fishing in the shallows, and his words are ringing especially true this season.
    Surface fishing in the skinny water is a fall activity and generally best at high tides in early morning or evening. Rockfish don’t feel comfortable feeding around a shallow shoreline unless they have low light and a little extra water under their bellies.
    But my recent efforts had been complicated, and mostly thwarted, by wind, too much of it for comfort or consistently from the wrong direction. If the weather was fishable at all, the stiff autumn breezes tended to either hold up an incoming tide (leaving too little water), push it out too early (same effect) or thrash the area too much for working surface plugs.
    Additional complications were the wild temperature swings and the recent full moon. Those two forces seemed to scatter both the bait and the feeding game fish, making finding them difficult. All of these conditions combined for more or less the same results: very few fish, especially top-water types.

Answered Prayers
    This morning, luck seemed heading my direction. Playing the striper gently, I led it to the side of the boat, lifted it in and took its picture. It was my first landing in days, and I wanted solid proof.
    Throwing back out to the same place resulted in an immediate and enthusiastic reception, but I missed the hook set. Working back to the other side of the inlet, I let the area rest a few minutes before throwing another cast back into the sweet spot. It was rewarded by an instant attack and a fish much bigger than the first.
    This guy zigzagged all over the place, throwing water and raising a ruckus before I won. Then I gave the inlet a good 10 minutes to calm down. Suspecting a good gathering of fish, I didn’t want to flush them out with too much activity all at once.
    That proved wise, as after a decent interval I hooked another fat rockfish, then another. I spent a pleasant time on that one site, hooking a striper, fighting and landing it, then waiting until things calmed down before I resumed casting. Six fish landed and three lost seemed like an excellent return as well as one of the more productive outings I’ve had this fall.
    After the morning’s shallow-water bite died off, I kicked the boat up on plane and headed out to deeper water to find some channel edges to fish.
    In my early morning prayer, I had asked to catch rockfish, and indeed I did. The fish measured only 12 inches, the smallest five.

The fishing is great; the ­dangers of hypothermia grave

Finally I had to face it; with morning temperatures in the low 50s, socks are a necessity. With regret, I moved my fishing shorts and warm-weather shirts into winter storage last week. Hauling my insulated long-sleeved undershirts and heavyweight long pants from the back of the closet broke the final link with summer. It’s going to be pretty much a cold-weather game from here on out.
    The good news is that the fishing is getting more exciting. With rockfish and bluefish gathering and feeding up for the winter, breaking schools are going to become more and more common. Tossing lures into a cauldron of feeding game fish always provides exciting memories to hold us over until next spring.
    However, there is a serious downside to the colder weather, especially on the water. Hypothermia is a medical term that describes the condition that occurs when your body begins losing heat faster than it can produce it. It’s a dangerous condition. About 1,000 people in the U.S. die from hypothermia every year.
    We are warm-blooded mammals, and our bodies operate under an optimal temperature of approximately 98.6 degrees. Our internal organs — particularly the heart, liver and blood vessels — generate and regulate heat. But if our core body temperature drops more than three degrees, we experience physical and mental dysfunction. From lethargy and confusion, eventual unconsciousness and even death can follow.
    The very old and the very young are at particular risk of hypothermia, the elderly because their bodies have lost some ability to regenerate and regulate heat, the very young because their small body mass can lose temperature rapidly. Extra care must be taken when they are on the water during cold weather.
    During summer months the spray blowing onto us from a moving boat is a refreshing way to cool off, but in the winter that experience invites trouble. The body loses heat much faster when it becomes wet, 25 times faster when immersed.
    A sudden rainsquall in October is no longer just inconvenient and uncomfortable. It now becomes dangerous. Worse is falling overboard. Immersion in 45-degree water can result in loss of dexterity and onset of confusion within five minutes, unconsciousness within 30 minutes and death within an hour — if the victim has not drowned first.
    Waterproof, windproof and heat-retentive clothing are our primary defenses against hypothermia. Foul-weather coats and pants are not only proof against rain and sleet; they are also protection from the wind and help retain body warmth. Fleece, synthetic insulators and wool are ideal heat retainers. Down should be avoided because once it becomes wet, it loses its insulating qualities.
    Don’t ignore gloves and footwear. Although our extremities are not critical to our inner core temperature, getting cold hands or feet is extremely uncomfortable. Both neoprene and wool are excellent materials in harsh marine environments. Always wear a warm hat. It is a myth that the body loses 90 percent of its heat through the head — but not if that’s your only unclothed part.
    Warm beverages give our inner core an extra shot of warmth. Hot cocoa, coffee, tea or plain hot water are effective antidotes to the onset of chill. Avoid or minimize alcohol intake. Alcohol actually promotes body cooling by dilating blood vessels, while giving the illusion of warmth.
    Bring extra clothing on board. When a person gets wet, get them immediately into warm, dry clothes. A Mylar or space blanket is an inexpensive, compact and effective item in your cold weather emergency kit. The blanket is waterproof and significantly reduces heat loss.
    Once ashore, the quickest way to restore the body’s core temperature is a warm (not hot) bath or shower. Avoid exposure to any form of extreme heat. The skin becomes very insensitive during episodes of hypothermia, and burn injuries are much more easily incurred than they would be otherwise.
    Cold-weather fishing on the Chesapeake is often fantastic, even better than in more temperate periods. Go prepared for good experiences and great stories. Ignore the accompanying danger at your own peril.

It takes a full palette to size up circumstances correctly

When surface-plugging for rockfish, I like to have at least two rods ready and rigged with contrasting colored lures so I can switch back and forth without interruption. This way I can immediately cast back to the spot of a missed strike with a different color, giving the fish two different looks.
    Over the years, my box of poppers has expanded to hold about 25 lures of at least a dozen different colors. Over many seasons, each lure has at one time or another been a special producer.
    As a general rule when fishing shallow (less than six feet) top water, almost any color floating lure can induce a fish to strike — when fish are there. Once you’ve established the presence of stripers willing to strike, you will also notice a color preference.
    You see this truth clearly when fishing with a partner offering a different color than yours. One of you will catch more than the other. If the low man switches to the more successful color, that difference will be greatly reduced.
    About four seasons ago, we rarely took a fish over 23 inches that wasn’t caught by one particular lure. That year’s favorite sported an iridescent green-and-black back, flashing gold sides and a bright orange belly. That one was the giant killer. Other lures may have taken more fish overall, but all the big ones fell to Mr. Orange Belly.
    Another year, all-black was the top dog for catching big aggressive rockfish. I always switch to black under poor light and heavy overcasts. That season, black was the best color by far under every condition. Last year, white was the most productive. This year has yet to be determined.
    You can guess forever about why the preferences change year to year or even day to day. It’s one of the mysteries of angling.

Color Is a Changing Phenomenon
    A menhaden doesn’t display the same colors dead or even freshly out of the water as it does when it is cruising with its brethren along a rocky shoreline. Often young ones flash silver, while older, bigger bunker will have a golden hue. A live eel free swimming shows different shades of lavender, not the black we expect eels to be.
    White perch are generally light or silver colored, especially when swimming around lightly colored bottoms. They can also take on a much darker, virtually black, appearance when they are over a dark bottom or ensconced among weed beds or downed trees.
    Those aren’t the only baitfish a successful fisher has to emulate. If the stripers are keying on silversides, they will be looking for a different color than when they’ve been munching on bay anchovies. Yearling mud shad will sport a much different look and shade than a peanut bunker. Yellow perch are much more colorful than white perch. I have caught rockfish stuffed fat with jet black mad toms (baby catfish).
    Rockfish also love blue crabs, soft ones when they can find them though they’ll eat small hard crabs as well.
    All of these prey species are different colors, and these colors alone can trigger strikes under the right conditions.
    Your lure doesn’t have to emulate the exact item the rockfish are eating. If the color is close to the one the fish are expecting to see, they will attack.

Testing the Waters
    Faced with a full color palette, I went right to basics starting with an all-black Smack-It Jr. on one rig and a plain all-white variation on my second outfit.
    My partner had tied on a silver plug with black details that suggested a more realistic baitfish.
    As we moved along the calm shoreline, his lure drew an uncertain swirl behind it. As he threw back into the same area, I shamelessly dropped my all-black popper just a dozen feet upcurrent of his.
    Apparently my offering was closer to what the fish wanted. I was soon fast to a fat and explosive striped bass that turned the water to froth.

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.

Live-line a spot

     We started our drift with just a touch of worry. The tide was falling faster and the wind, in the same direction at about 12 knots, was pushing up some uncomfortable waves. Hooking one of our few bait spot just in front of its dorsal fin and dropping it over the side, I was not confident.
    “I’m not sure this is going to work out,” I said to my buddy Moe. “That’s one of the joys of no Plan B,” he answered. “Keeps things simple. If it doesn’t, we go home.”
    By dropping the motor into reverse from time to time, we slowed the drift and kept our baits reasonably close to the boat. Monitoring our fish finder, I called out the occasional marks as they passed under us. We stuck with this routine for an hour with no success.
    “Looks like they stopped eating, ” I said.
    We had gotten two fish in the mid-20s earlier in the day. Then nothing. Until the fish finder screen lit up with a solid mass of hard arches from five feet down all the way to the bottom, some 20 feet below.
    “Get ready,” I warned. “If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen now.”
    At once, something took my bait and moved off.
    “Got a run,” I said.
    “Me too,” Moe replied.
    A few seconds later, I put my reel into gear. When the line came tight, I set the hook. My rod bent over down to the corks, and line peeled out. I heard my friend grunt up in the bow and out of the corner of my eye I saw him struggling with a hard-pulling fish.

Live-Lining: August’s Best Bet
    Right now, live-lining spot is one of the deadliest methods on the Chesapeake to seduce big rockfish onto your hook. The better fish are still mostly holding in small schools in open water cruising for baitfish, making conditions ideal for dropping a live spot down into their midst.
    Getting the bait is the biggest problem. The most desirable Norfolk spot — from three to five inches — are scarce. Perhaps last year’s fingerlings, which would be the proper size right now, were victims of our hard winter. Or perhaps it was just a disastrous spawn in 2013. For whatever reason, right-sized baits have been hard to catch this season.
    Lucky for me, the sports store where I work part-time has a consistent supply, and I have taken full advantage. But this morning when we swung by on the way to Sandy Point at 7am, they were almost all gone. We only managed to score a few.

Don’t Count Your Fish until It’s Boated
    It took five long and intense minutes until I had one big beautiful striper showing on the surface some 10 feet away. I reached for the net. The fish, however, took one last hard run — and the hook pulled. I watched that heavyweight vanish back into the depths.
    Soon Moe’s fish was alongside, and I did get that one in the net. It measured over 34 inches, fat and healthy, the virtual twin of the fish I had just lost. We ran back up current and dropped again over the school, managing a 32-inch prize into the boat. That limited us out for the day, and just in time. We were out of spot.
 

Sweet fish swim in sweetwater

     Rockfish, bluefish, perch, spot and croaker dominate the summertime fishing news when it comes to recreational species in Maryland. But almost half of all the fishing licenses sold by Maryland Department of Natural Resources are purchased by sweet-water anglers.
    We have at least as many largemouth bass anglers as any other group of devotees. They have a considerable number of bass-specific waters to choose from. The lakes, ponds and impoundments harboring bucketmouths in Maryland number over 100. Most host good populations of sizable bass plus their numerous cousins: the bluegill, crappie, perch and pickerel.
    The headwaters of the Chesapeake and up into the Susquehanna River also provide great bass fishing, as do the higher reaches of the notable big tribs such as the Choptank, the Monocacy, the Potomac and the Pocomoke among at least 25 others listed in DNR inventories. All are prime, non-tidal, large-mouth destinations.
    Trout fishers also swell the ranks of freshwater habitués. Their opportunities are considerable as well. The upper Gunpowder is a blue-ribbon tailwater trout stream. The low temperatures from the regulated water flow of the Prettyboy Dam have resulted in a self-sustaining native trout stream that provides excellent fishing.
    Other trout waters, such as the Savage River (excellent), the Youghiogheny River (almost as good) and the well-rated Casselman as well as another 50 recognized trout streams provide considerable stretches of fishable streamside.
    Jabez Branch off Severn Run is the only self-sustaining native brook-trout fishery in the state, though these gorgeous fish are also released in the Gunpowder and Savage.
    Surprisingly, Baltimore’s Patapsco River births two great trout fishing locations, a three-mile stretch below the Daniels Dam and the Avalon area in Elkridge.
    Over 200 publicly accessible sweet-water environs provide excellent habitat for a multitude of species including brown trout, brook trout and rainbows as well as largemouth, smallmouth and rock bass, walleye pike, chain pickerel, muskellunge, northern pike, yellow perch, black crappie, white crappie, warmouth, bluegill and red-ear sunfish plus flathead and channel catfish.
    Now we can add to that considerable list the infamous and storied snakehead. This invasive reputedly has an excellent table quality. It fights, too, taking top-water lures (especially frog imitations fished among the lily pads) with an extreme violence that has to be experienced to be appreciated. The Potomac River offers the best chances of tangling with these guys.
    Another introduced species — long available just about everywhere there is a body of water — is the common carp. A food staple of Asia, this fish has an established fan base including, most recently, fly anglers. Maryland has also recently added the blue catfish to their list of piscatorial interlopers. Both the carp and the blue cat can approach 100 pounds, which translates into some epic battles. Those who know how to prepare them for the table harvest quantities of excellent eating.
    So if saltwater fishing on the Chesapeake is becoming discouraging there are other options. To loosely paraphrase Bill Waterson’s Calvin character in his memorable last installment, “It’s a wonderful sweetwater world out there. Maybe it’s time to go exploring.”