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Last Afternoon on the Flats

Always worth the gamble

I got word that the Susquehanna Flats catch-and-release season had been extended a week. Up to that point, I had been a victim of time and weather: When I had the time, the weather was awful; when the weather was good, I didn’t have the time.

Now I had both, so Dave Posner and I decided to give the Flats a go. It was the last chance we’d have this year to experience this great striped bass fishery, but we both knew the odds were long. The Flats is an inconsistent bite, especially toward the end of the season. But at its best, it is truly the very best. That makes it worth the gamble.

We launched in my 15-foot skiff from the Eastern Shore side at about four in the afternoon, heading west toward the shoreline of the Aberdeen Proving Grounds at the southern limit of the catch-and-release area.

The rolling echo of a substantial explosion somewhere inland greeted us. Then we were hailed by a U.S. Army picket boat waving a red warning flag. Aberdeen was involved in a live-fire exercise, and the part of the Flats we were planning on fishing was temporarily off limits. We waited.

About 20 minutes and two or three severe detonations later, a message came over Channel 68: “All fishermen waiting for access, you can come on in now. The firing exercise is over.”

Fish Are Biting

Before the monsoons closed in on us, a good croaker bite was developing at Sandy Point and Matapeake parks, especially in the evenings. This is early for these tough and tasty fellows, and we can only hope that the incursion of fresh water doesn’t send them scurrying back south. Trophy rockfish are getting scarcer by the day, but the length limit will drop to 18 inches on May 16, which should make getting keepers easier. White perch are schooling in the creeks and tributaries. Anglers working rocky structure, docks and piers picked up some nice-sized fish. All we really need now is the return of some decent weather.

As the message cleared, over a dozen fishing boats materialized from all directions. They appeared to be manned by experienced hands, however, as everyone quietly eased into the shallow water without crowding one another. If the fish were there, they hadn’t been disturbed for hours, save for the occasional big bang, because of the Army cordon. Things were looking good.

Fishing on the Flats

Giant stripers smashing bait on top in four feet of water is my idea of Nirvana, Valhalla and heaven all rolled into one. We switched to the electric motor and cruised in toward the shoreline. The previous week there had been a superb bite at the spot where we had chosen to begin.

We tied on our best top-water plugs. Dave was throwing a big Stillwater popper with a bright green top, gold sides and fire-orange belly that was supposed to have been the killer lure last week.

I was hurling a Captain Karl Special by AM Lures ( Similarly hued, this one had been crafted by a local angling artisan especially for the Flats. It threw like it had rocket assist and on retrieve spit water three feet in the air.

Totally prepared and all systems working, we just lacked fish. Scanning the waters, we noted the fleet still well scattered and fishing intensely. If any big stripers were lurking, we would know it soon. But an hour later, there were no bowed rods and no nets being brandished.

A lone gannet approached, and every eye in the fleet locked onto it. The gannet is a big-fish bird and often follows the schools of heavy rock as they migrate up and down the Bay. These ocean flyers feed on the same bait that the trophy rockfish do: big bait. But it flew on, never hesitating and oblivious to the unspoken pleas from below.

A solitary eagle cruised by, the eyes in its regal, white head staring straight ahead, aloof and fixed on something inland. Fish of any size were obviously not on its mind.

Soldiering on, we threw our plugs, worked the retrieves and told bad jokes. Our eyes strained for a glimpse of herons, gulls or any shore bird that might indicate baitfish trapped by feeding stripers, but the beaches were vacant. As we eased down the island, the day slowly waned — along with our expectations.

Finally with darkness approaching, our options exhausted and the number of boats surrounding us rapidly thinning, we elected to pull out. We had given it a fair shot, but it just hadn’t happened.

The long drive home was comfortably quiet. Munching on the sandwiches that we had ignored while we fished and sipping on cold drinks, Dave and I felt surprisingly relaxed and at ease with the outcome.

“Well, we were ready for them,” I finally commented.

Dave thought for a second then replied, “Sure beats sitting at home.”

Sometimes that’s enough.

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