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Volume 15, Issue 21 ~ May 24 - May 30, 2007

Fish Music

Their singing is one more reason I like croaker

If you’re out on the waters of the Chesapeake on a still evening this time of year and you are fortunate, and if you listen closely, you may hear their music. It is a soft, low thrumming that seems to float up out of the water. At first you may think that you are hearing things, but it is really just the fish, singing.

It was June on a very still, half-moon evening a few years ago. The whisper of the tidal current against the hull of my small skiff was barely audible as my brother Bill and I drift-fished a six-foot shoal just off of Podickery Point.

In the easy nighttime silence, our two rods were softly flexing with the gentle contours of the sand bottom as we coasted along with the tide, our baits trailing out below

Then both rods’ tips began the sharp staccato vibration that indicated we had started over an oyster bed. We tensed. Bill had the first hit this time. His tip dipped once, twice; then the rod shaft nearly slammed down onto the gunnel as another unseen but quite powerful fish bulled away with a hook in its jaw.

Next, my own rod was nearly wrenched from my hand as the tip was pulled down to the water. The drag complained in short angry fits, and I leaned back, my thumb on the spool, trying to halt the fish’s surge back to the bottom.

Through the straining rod I could feel the vibration of the shells grinding against my 20# leader as the clever rascal rubbed his mouth into the oyster reef below, trying to rid himself of the offending tether.

Fish Are Biting

Rockfish are starting to school in good numbers. Fish from 24 to 34 inches have been encountered at Podickery, Hacketts, Love Point, Thomas Point and around the Bridge. Chumming is beginning to be productive, and it shouldn’t be long before live-lining is as well. Perch, having departed their spawning sites in the smaller tributaries, are schooling in the main Bay; good-sized croaker are often among them.

After extended tug-o-wars, both of our fish grudgingly started up. My brother’s made at least two trips back to the bottom on his light spinning gear before we managed the pair safely into the boat.

Glistening brassy-green in the moonlight and issuing loud croaks of displeasure, the muscular fish were handsome. It was also obvious where they got their name, Atlantic croaker, and these noisy, 18-inch twins, were nice ones.

We were the only boat on the water. The day-tripping fishing fleet had long since departed home, leaving the Chesapeake to us — and of course the croaker. We were loving it.

As we quietly lowered our baits back into the depths and resumed fishing, my brother paused, then cocked his ear toward the water with a quizzical look on his face and whispered, “What’s that?”

I could just make it out as well. Softly, over the barely rippling surface, a low-pitched drumming sound drifted.

We couldn’t identify its source. Then we realized that there were croaker all around us, and the sound we were hearing was their muted grunts joined into a vibrating chorus that carried up through the water to our ears. Fish music.

I had pursued these tough-fighting rogues for years, but that was the first time I had ever heard their underwater nocturne. The effect was enchanting. We sat for a long moment, mesmerized in our solitude.

All in the Family

The Atlantic croaker is an ocean-wandering fish, spawning on the Continental Shelf and migrating every spring into brackish estuaries from New Jersey to Florida. Though it is a regular in the lower Chesapeake from May through August, the larger fish don’t always grace us in mid-Bay.

The last good run of big croaker to our area was four or five years ago when my brother and I lucked upon them. Since then, they’ve been scarce, but this year is starting well, and my hopes are high.

Croaker, often called hardhead, are of the drum family along with other familiar gamefish such as seatrout, redfish and black drum. All of them can make the croaking or drumming noise by vibrating their swim bladders.

An abundant fish, they are highly regarded as tough fighters and great table fare. They feed almost exclusively on the bottom in four to 40 feet of water on marine worms, mollusks, crustaceans, cephalopods and small baitfish.

Possessing a small, under-slung mouth, they are mainly built for rooting their sustenance out of the bottom marl. But they will often pursue small lures when presented at their depth. They tend to be more active toward evening and will feed aggressively throughout the night.

Their bait preferences are peeler crab, soft crab, bloodworm, shrimp, clam and squid, generally in that order. An encounter with some good-sized croakers is a memorable experience. It will definitely test your arm strength … and if you’re lucky, and very quiet, you may even hear them sing.

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