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Volume 16, Issue 48 - November 27 - December 3, 2008
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Wintertime Fishing

Rockfish and white perch and pickerel — oh my!

Though the winds continue to blow and the temperatures keep dropping, this year’s winter fishery promises to be one of the best ever. The 2008 rockfish season, extended until December 31 under a recent ruling by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, has already proven unusually productive for anglers managing to get out on the water in the prevailing weather.

There are a number of ways to get in on cold-weather angling, but staying warm while doing it is one prerequisite. That means good foul-weather gear that includes waterproof clothing, both coats and pants, and insulated layers underneath. This is not just a matter of comfort: Getting cold and wet can be quickly fatal this time of year. Warm footwear is also critical. Freezing feet can spoil an otherwise pleasant day of wintertime angling.

Now That You’re Dressed

The most popular method of rock fishing during the late season is trolling large lures. Umbrella rigs, parachutes, tandem-rigged bucktails, big spoons or large surgical hose are sure to attract trophy-sized fish. With most of the smaller baitfish gone from the upper reaches of the Bay, wintering rockfish are keying on big menhaden, perch and eels. Imitating these is the surest path to a trophy-sized hook-up.

Light-tackle striper fishermen can also get a piece of the rockfish action this time of year. Live lining, which was at its best throughout the earlier summer months, is becoming effective once again. Dropping live eels near fish-holding structure like the Bay Bridge, or near channel edges where wintering rock are schooled, is deadly. White perch are also good bets for live-lining, and smaller perch will be quickly gobbled up when dropped on a hungry group of cold-weather stripers

Fish Are Biting

But the weather is uncomfortably cold. These low temperatures and the brisk winds have been keeping all but the larger fishing craft in port. However, anglers who are managing to get out are finding trophy-sized rockfish that are willing to eat. If the weather breaks soon — and it is bound to: this is Maryland — look for some incredibly good angling opportunities throughout the Bay and its tributaries.

Low water temperatures do cause one difficulty however; striped bass metabolism slows down as the mercury drops. Whatever speed you trolled or otherwise moved your baits during the summer, slow it down for wintertime fishing. Slow it way down. The fish are not eating as often as they were during warmer weather, so more patience must be exercised waiting for the bite.

These considerations go for white perch fishing as well. The wintertime will find many large perch, often called blackbacks, gathering in the deeper holes of the rivers and the Bay. These tasty rascals will be thick with winter fat and holding in tight schools, so when you do locate a fish there will be more close by.

The white perch season is open year round, and in cold weather bloodworms and bull minnows right on the bottom are the surest approach to filling a cooler. But if you like, jigging small shad darts or bright spoons down deep will trick many into biting as well. Be patient and use a slow hand; the whities have become more lethargic with the cold just like the rockfish.

One particular game fish, however, seems to be enlivened by lower temperatures. It’s the chain pickerel, and Maryland has more than its share of this handsome fish. Called chained lightning by many in its fan club, the pickerel is a cold-water demon.

Pickerel can be located in our fresh water impoundments and in the upper reaches of nearly all Bay estuaries. Pickerel prefer lurking near structures such as piers, downed trees, old docks, pilings or even a floating raft of leaves. These toothy devils are always waiting in ambush for some unsuspecting baitfish. One of the better producers is a simple shad dart tipped with a bull minnow rigged under a bobber to keep the bait up off of the bottom.

Anglers who insist on using artificials will be happy employing a Number 4 Mepps dressed with squirrel tail. It’s prime medicine for cruising jackfish. Another approach, and one of my favorites, is a small spoon, such as a number 12 Tony, tipped with a lip-hooked bull minnow, cast and slowly retrieved near any structure that looks like it could harbor these cold-water barracudas.

Any of these three wild species of the Tidewater will provide cold-weather entertainment for the angler who can’t bear to sit at home for the next four long months.

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