Fishing with the Boys
Croaker in the cooler makes for good eating at the table
My young sons were doing their best to emulate my actions as we drifted bloodworms over a hard shell bottom in a gently moving tide that June evening. My one-ounce sinker sent a tic-tic-tic flicking up the line on my light casting outfit. The rod tip was twitching right in rhythm.
Harrison’s rod suddenly arched. He struggled to keep the rod from being pulled over the side while avoiding the hard gunnel.
The croaker bite continues to expand, but most anglers are still chasing the surprising numbers of nice-sized rockfish to 30 inches that linger in the mid-Bay. This despite both the May worm hatch, which can make the bite inconsistent, and the appearance of cownosed rays. Get in on the action while you can; the better fish will be leaving for the ocean soon.
JP’s rod did the same. I would have chuckled at their desperate efforts, but my own stick was nearly wrenched from my hands. It bent into a deep U as an unseen and very powerful fish pulled the rod tip all the way down to the water.
Our struggles lasted for some minutes. As the first blunt-nosed, bronze-hued fish was scooped up, a loud croaking sound emanated from the net’s folds. My sons were astonished. It was the first time they ever heard a fish speaking. Croakers are full of surprises. Not the least surprise was the size of that catch, measuring some 19 inches.
Also known as hardheads, croaker are one of the hardest-pulling fish to visit the mid-Chesapeake. For reasons still not understood, their population is wildly cyclic.
The year my sons and I caught those fish was a banner season for croaker. They could be hooked almost everywhere in the Bay from the Patapsco down to Crisfield. Not only were the fish numerous, many were over citation size, 18 inches. My boys and I caught a lot of them up to 20 inches that summer. Since that great year, they’ve been scarce.
This season, however, gives early indications that the hardheads are on a big upswing. Large schools, with some of the fish quite sizeable, have been reported in the Eastern Bay, especially toward the Choptank and also at Podickery and Hackett’s. Angler’s Sport Center reports fish checked in over 19 inches with some coolers bulging with full limits.
Atlantic croaker or hardhead are in the drum family and cousins to the black drum, red drum (or redfish) and both spotted and gray sea trout. All possess a large swim bladder that holds air within the bodies to control depth. The bladder can be manipulated with their internal muscles to produce a drumming sound underwater and a croaking noise above.
Hardhead are long-living, prolific bottom feeders. Specimens to 15 years have been documented. They spawn in the Chesapeake from August through October, as well as off the Atlantic continental shelf during the winter. Their fingerlings find their way well up into the Bay tributaries where they fatten themselves on worms, mollusks, small crustaceans and small fishes.
A great light-tackle fish, they are very strong and can be taken on bloodworms, shrimp, squid strips and minnows. Their favorite food of all is a chunk of soft or peeler crab.
Moving tides later in the day and into the night are best, and the fish can be found over shell bottom in waters up to 30 feet deep. They can also be encountered in areas of light boat traffic in shoal waters of two and three feet deep as they search for crabs and shrimp. They will hit soft plastic jigs such as bass assassins, weighted flies and small spoons. The minimum legal size in the Chesapeake for croaker is nine inches with a generous bag limit of 25 per person per day.
On the table, they have quite a following. A softer-fleshed fish, they are best fried. Filleted and cut into strips, then rolled in breadcrumbs and plunged into 400-degree peanut oil until they are golden brown, the fish are quite delicious. Spicy dips such as Texas Pete’s Buffalo Wing Sauce or Goya’s La Botanera Salsa Picante can give the fish fingers an extra zip.
My family has enjoyed many such meals, another reason my sons have grown up to be fishermen.
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Omega Protein, the single major harvester of the keystone forage fish of the Atlantic Ocean, menhaden, laid off 20 people last year and retired a net boat, attributing the acts to the 20 percent harvest reduction demanded by Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. The reduction was necessitated by evidence of severe overfishing of the species in past decades. Not six months later, along with pronouncements of record profits in last quarter operations, Omega also disclosed the commissioning of two new state-of-the-art fishing vessels to be added to their Reedville, Virginia, netting operation. Something seem fishy here?