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.