The Sporting Life
by Dennis Doyle
Two Weeks and Counting
Maryland’s Crown Jewel of Sport Fishing opens March 1
Maryland’s Crown Jewel of sport fishing, the Department of Natural Resources calls it.
I couldn’t agree more, and neither will you if you like challenging big fish with light tackle.
The Susquehanna Flats striped bass catch-and-release season opens March 1. There is no better opportunity to hang a giant striper (rockfish to us) on a fly, spinning or casting rod than in this special fishery.
The Flats comprises a large area, about 20 square miles of water averaging one to three feet deep, at the head of the Chesapeake Bay.
Not just the Susquehanna River feeds into it, though that river provides the majority of the water flow. The Elk and the Northeast rivers also pour into the vast shallows that extend south to Turkey Point on the Eastern Shore and Sandy Point on the Western Shore.
All migratory striped bass living on our northeastern Atlantic Coast are anadromous, returning each spring to their freshwater birthplace to spawn. Three out of every four of these fish were born in the Chesapeake, and a substantial portion of them in waters flowing onto the Susquehanna Flats.
Rockfish gather in this shallow expanse to rest after their long journey up the Bay, to feed and to prepare to spawn, in a behavior called staging. Other species gathering on the Flats are also staging.
Hickory shad, white shad, white perch, alewives and blueback herring are making their spawning runs and seeking out the same waters. The hungry rockfish gorge on all of them.
Russ Wilkinson, an experienced Maryland guide who particularly loves this early season, offers more interesting insights about the Flats and the rockfish that gather there.
Fishing the Flats
The key sport-fishing element in early spring is, Wilkinson says, water temperature. When the water is colder than 50 degrees, rockfish primarily feed by taste and smell. They move slowly and deliberately and hold to deeper water.
But when the water temperature rises above that threshold, the stripers’ metabolism accelerates and they strike on visual stimuli, feeding by sight. They become much more active in deeper water and will venture up on the flats in pursuit of schools of baitfish. Flies, plugs, jigs and spoons can all be deadly when presented correctly.
During the first month, finding fish means finding water above the 50-degree threshold. Look for shallows least affected by the river flows, for they will be warmer. Skinny expanses in the southern part of the Flats are also prime territory, particularly on an incoming tide. They tend to be warmer waters as well.
Wind can play a considerable role in the spring fishing scenario. March and April are blustery months, and when it blows, the shallow waters of the Flats become treacherous fast. Be prepared to take advantage of calm weather patterns; they won’t last.
A shallow-draft boat, reliable navigation charts and an auxiliary electric motor are also advantageous. Experienced anglers usually start by fishing along the various channels, following the edges and moving quietly up onto the flats if they see signs of feeding fish: birds, fleeing baitfish or disturbed water.
The Flats has a number of public access points convenient to anglers. Havre de Grace, Port Deposit and North East all have boat ramps and parking. The location, fees and phone numbers of these areas are detailed on the DNR website: http://www.dnr.state.md.us/fisheries/fishingreport/frmapindex.asp Prime lures for the area are large chartreuse-and-white Clousers and Half and Halfs. Big fly-rod poppers and larger surface lures such as the Storm Chug Bug and Smack-It will draw explosive strikes in the shallower water.
The five- and seven-inch Bass Assassin in Albino Shad and Chartreuse Glitter are excellent deep on one-quarter to three-quarters ounce jig heads. Bass Kandy Delights in similar sizes and colors have also become very popular. Other soft-bodied lures like Storm Shads and Tsunamis can be equally effective.
Last year, my fishing excursions on the Flats were only marginally successful. I caught plenty of fish but most of them were in the 17-to-21-inch range. This year, I’m going to redouble my efforts. I know the giants are there. I just have to be around when the water temps are right and the big guys turn on. I hope to see you there.
Fish Are Biting
The fish are here, but the weather is just too cold. My earlier wishes for a more temperate February have obviously been denied by the weather gods. Now I’m praying this will be the last of the nasty stuff. Cross your fingers and get your gear prepped for the Flats.