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A Bay Triple Crown

The last jewel, white perch, returning to the shallows

Just as horse racing has its Triple Crown, with Maryland’s Preakness its second jewel, the Chesapeake has its own Triple Crown: a gourmet celebration of the three tastiest seafoods the Bay has to offer.
    This year two of our three savories — the rockfish and the blue crab — have already resumed presence around the Bay. The third, white perch, had yet to return to their traditional summertime residences.

Fish Are Biting ...

   Silt-laden water caused by agricultural runoff coming down from the poorly managed Susquehanna drainage in Pennsylvania is fouling the Chesapeake and making springtime rockfishing difficult. Chumming is the preferred method emerging already this spring because trolling efforts have been frustrated by the dirty water. Better fishing lies to the south, where water quality is better. But you have to go all the way to the Honga River to find it.
    Yet more rainfall has also scattered early-arriving croaker, though they are still showing up in some shoreline anglers’ coolers. Perch, fat and healthy, are here as well, moving into the shallows to feed. Spot are just beginning to arrive (one or two here and there), but the main body is still weeks away. The early blue crab run is sputtering generally but remains hot in a few lucky areas.

    The stone jetties and long, rocky shorelines I was fishing had been empty of white perch since late November. Once the baitfish left, headed for their deep wintering grounds, the whites followed.
    Easing my skiff along and throwing a small, one-sixth-ounce spinner bait, I was doing some early prospecting without expecting much. Just having ended their spawning high up in freshwater runs of Bay tributaries, white perch had since descended back toward the main stem. But they were schooling and wandering, not yet checked in at their regular haunts.
    My casting was awkward. I was still tackle-clumsy from a long winter layoff and the scant springtime opportunities afforded by our constant bad weather; the necessary timing and hand-eye coordination were just not yet there for me. But my small lure was occasionally plunking down close to where I aimed it.
    Making a toss to a large flat bolder at water’s edge and letting the lure sink for a second, I closed the bail on my perch outfit and started the retrieve. Slow-rolling the lure near the bottom, I tried to keep the spinner blades just turning and flashing.
    The rainfall throughout April and into May has driven the salinity of Bay waters down to record levels. Fish movements have been affected by both salinity and the especially high turbidity that accompanies such influxes. I worried that my favorite pan-fish might remain absent from shoreline shallows for quite some time this year.
    Then finally, and after a long morning’s search, my rod tip surged down, and I felt the tug of a good solid hit. I played the fish gently. It’s not good to lose the first one, and white perch are notorious for slipping the hook.
    Easing the fish near boatside on a light drag and an especially gentle touch, I saw it flash dully in the silted water and confirmed its identity: first perch of the season.
    The fat white was about nine inches, and though a borderline keeper, with what little time was left in my morning and what scant success I had had so far, I thought it unlikely that I could find enough fish for a family meal. So I threw it back. I would soon regret that decision.
    Slowly at first, then with increasing frequency, I caught and released perch after scrappy perch, and more and more were eating size. By the time I caught on, I had thrown back most of a good-sized meal. Then a lovely, near 11-inch fish came on board and I reversed my decision.
    Filling a five-gallon bucket with water, I started collecting fish for eating, though there was not quite an hour left before I would have to leave for home. Anyone who has been in this situation knows what happened next.
    The size of the white perch I was catching dropped. As I tossed back six- and seven-inchers, one after another, the futility of my mission became more apparent. When zero hour arrived and with only four fish finning in my bucket, I capitulated and poured them over the side. Next time, I promised.
    Putting my skiff up on plane and hurrying back to the ramp, I still felt great about the morning. A picture of crispy, fried white perch piled high on a platter filled my imagination. Then the image of steamed blue crabs and broiled rock crowded in for the full Chesapeake Bay Triple Crown. The very thought of feasts to come made my mouth water all the way home.