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Volume 16, Issue 9 - February 28 - March 5, 2008

It’s Time to Go Big on The Flats

March 1 begins the finest light-tackle fishing for large rockfish — anywhere, anytime

Called the Crown Jewel of Maryland Sport Fishing, Susquehanna Flats Catch and Release Season is anticipated by many as the finest light-tackle venue for large rockfish. It opens March 1.

The Flats is the broad expanse of shallow water at the head of Chesapeake Bay. It covers over 20 square miles and averages three feet deep. It is fed by the Susquehanna, the Bush and the Northeast rivers.

Fly anglers live for a good day on The Flats, but every dedicated light-tackle angler prominently notes the first of March on their calendars. The anticipation of this opener is all that gets many of us through the winter.

Big rockfish congregate on The Flats. They’re staging there, awaiting the right temperatures and water conditions to ascend the tributaries to spawn. Ocean-run migrators that passed the 40-inch mark a decade ago will be there in numbers. Spunky, smaller stripers will teem the waters as well, but it is the giants that mark the season.

For many of us it will be the best opportunity of the year to target these masters of the North Atlantic surf. Born here in the tributaries of our Bay, most striped bass leave after four years for life at sea. They only return for a few short weeks every year to spawn before resuming their ocean wanderings.

Springtime brings not only the stripers up into the tributaries but also alewives, river herring, hickory shad, white shad, yellow perch and white perch. And that’s a good thing because big stripers have big appetites, and they need a lot of food to sustain the energy they expend on their way to their natal waters.

Fish Are Biting

The yellow perch run is on right now. Numerous males and a few large females are being caught in many of the Bay tributaries’ headwaters on grass shrimp and small bull minnows. Pickerel are also showing up in the same areas as they start feeding on the smaller perch. It may be cold and stormy, but for Maryland anglers spring is here. Don’t forget to get your 2008 fishing license.

Catching ’Em

So if you want to tangle with the big guys, you’d better be ready to throw a big bait. Smaller white and yellow perch can be represented by five- and six-inch plugs and jigs, but they are also the more likely to be eaten by some eager 20-inch schoolie rockfish cruising by. Meanwhile, the larger critters conserve their energy and wait for something worthy of attention.

The surest way to hook up with a giant is to throw a lure representing what they are used to eating: big baitfish. Magnum and Super Magnum Zara Spooks are the type of attractors that will do the job. At seven and eight inches respectively, they throw a lot of water and attract large attention. Big Al’s Popper, designed and built specifically for The Flats by a local Marylander, Allen Mracheck (AMLures.com), is another big surface plug coming on strong.

Rapala Lures makes a magnum swimmer that emulates a bulky bait, and the larger sizes of the Magic Swimmer by Se’bile are so lifelike in appearance and motion that male herring and shad will actually try to spawn with them. Salmo Lures, handcrafted in Poland but becoming available in the U.S., is another maker of a sizeable plug that’s becoming popular.

Fly anglers have long keyed on fly size as the secret to consistent hookups with the giants. Big, bulky streamers such as Bush Pigs, The Groceries, Big Fish Deceivers, outsized Bucktail Deceivers and similar designs, tied with synthetics as long as 12 inches, are becoming more and more common on the skinny water.

Local commercial fly tiers Tony Friedrich (tieflies@gmail.com) and Joe Cap (joec@friend.ly.net) can hardly keep up with the demand for their big stuff right now, and with good reason. It’s the key to huge fish on the fly.

Correspondingly, it takes some sturdy gear to throw these deadly big fish baits. A nine-foot 10- or 11-weight fly rod is just about right for the bulky streamers. For spinning enthusiasts, a stiff seven-foot rod with 20-pound monofilament or 30-pound braid is a good match-up. Fast action bait-casting rods come into their real comfort zone in this lure bracket, and you can fish long casts all day long on this gear without wearing yourself out.

So now is the time to go to the big stuff (light tackle-wise) and get on the Bay’s world class headwaters. There won’t be a better opportunity to tangle with a giant.

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