It was our first drift. My two youngest sons, both still in their teens, were holding medium-weight spin rods poised over the side, awaiting action. Spooled with 12-pound line and baited with pieces of common grocery-store shrimp, with an ounce-and-a-half sinker, the rig dropped right to the bottom where the fish were — without overpowering the twitching tips of their six-foot sticks.
Fish Are Biting …
Larger trophy rockfish landings are becoming much more common, though foul weather has continued to keep most small boaters in port. Matapeake and Sandy Point shoreside anglers, using bloodworms, are getting a fair share of big stripers as well as the early May surprise of some very nice croakers. The hickory shad run exploded last week with many anglers experiencing 50-plus fish per outing. White perch are continuing to be caught in upper estuary locations in good numbers as well. The final plum in the first May report is that blue crabs are emerging early again this year. Watermen are getting pots full of Jimmies in just 12 feet of water, while recreational crabbers and waterfront residents are finding a surprising number of the delicious critters in their traps and pots on warmer days.
Rockfish Cow Alert
The ultimate downside of this year’s inclement trophy season is that well over half of all the big cows being brought on board are pre-spawn fish. With recent years’ poor reproduction trends and overall resident Bay rockfish numbers down by about 30 percent, I’m guessing we’ll be seeing a change in the trophy-season calendar next year. In the meantime, whenever possible, release females bearing roe.
Learn Light Tackle Fishing
You hear me singing the praises of light tackle fishing almost every week. Here’s your chance to learn all about it. Saturday, May 14, I’m teaching Light Tackle Fishing for the Chesapeake at Anne Arundel Community College.
It took all of 10 seconds for the blitz to begin. First one rod bent hard over the gunnel, then the next. I hadn’t yet got my rig into the water, so I just laid it down, reached for the net and watched the drama unfold.
The looks on the boys’ faces were priceless. Used to easily pulling up numbers of white perch at this location off of Podickery Point, they didn’t expect this intense pull at the end of their lines. I just smiled as they struggled to hold their rods from slamming down onto the gunnel.
Grunting mightily and slightly embarrassed at their failure to outmuscle a mere panfish, they lifted and cranked, lifted and cranked — then watched helplessly as the line they had just recovered disappeared off their reels as the fish headed back to the bottom.
Laughing, I urged them on and chided them for their apparent lack of strength. Eventually — though it cost them a great deal of effort — they got their quarry to the surface. I netted the muscular devils in fits of white water and fish grunts louder than those the boys had produced.
“What are they?” my kids asked in awe, never having heard a fish make noise before. I unhooked the 16-inch twins and dropped them into the iced cooler.
“Croakers. Tough fighters aren’t they?”
“Yeah, that was great.”
They rebaited and dropped their rigs over the side again. Before I could get to my own tackle, they were already hooked up and fighting fish that appeared even larger than the first two.
It was almost 30 minutes before I could get my own rod in the water and join the melee. Within a short time my wrists were aching as much as my sons’ were. It was great croaker fishing with awesome numbers often up to 18 inches — not to mention the superb eating that followed.
Just Our Luck
This scene took place some four or five years ago and continued the whole of that season. We haven’t seen another like it since. Until now.
Croaker usually arrive later in May or even June, preferring warmer waters with a higher salinity than we are currently experiencing. Yet they are already on both shores of the mid-Bay in good numbers and excellent size. Romancoke, Matapeake, Eastern Bay, Sandy Point, Severn River Bridge, Thomas Point, Hackett’s and Tolley are all experiencing what’s looking like a banner year for croaker.
Atlantic croaker, aka hardhead, are a member of the drum family and closely resemble their much bigger cousins the redfish or channel bass. They are also kin to the gray weakfish, spotted sea trout and Norfolk spot.
All of these fish make a distinct croaking sound (described as drumming when made underwater) by manipulating the air in their swim bladder. When croaker arrive from the ocean they will eagerly take squid strips and subsequently shrimp, bloodworms, clams and even pieces of chicken. They are particular suckers, however, for a small piece of soft crab or peeler.
Shore-bound anglers will fare best in evenings and throughout the nighttime into early morning. Angling from a boat is also best during low light, though croaker can be caught drifting the deeper Bay throughout the daylight hours, especially on a receding tide. Just be sure to get your baits right on the bottom and use nothing larger than a No. 2 hook for their small, under-slung mouths. Minimum length for croaker is nine inches, and the daily limit is a generous 25 fish per person.
Light-spin and fly-tackle anglers can get their share of hard combat from these fish by concentrating their efforts in the evening when hardhead will venture into water as shallow as five to six feet to feed. They will take small jigs and dark, weighted flies hopped just off the bottom. Be sure to keep a tight grip on your rod. These guys do not go gently.