Winter Fishing Around the Bay

     Chesapeake rockfish season has closed, but other species can continue to keep your angling interest as well as grace your table — if you don’t mind the winter chill.

     Catfish are active, and they fry up awfully well, particularly the blues, though the channel cats run a close second. No minimum size and no possession limit for these interlopers. 

     All of our tributaries, particularly during the last two years, have had a plentiful supply of Mr. Whiskers since the current deluge descended upon us from the Susquehanna River. Shore anglers might try the Bill Burton Pier in Cambridge. 

     Worms of any kind, a piece of chicken breast, chicken livers, shrimp or a chunk of menhaden, frozen or fresh, will do the job just about anywhere there is 20 or more feet of water.

    Sweetwater crappie are also a favorite of chill-time sports. As a bonus, cold weather kills off much of the algae and other aquatic growths in our creeks, ponds and lakes that can make warmer weather angling such a chore. 

     Small minnows, worms and small jigs of all types — but particularly those tipped with marabou — will take these famed scrappers.

     They’ll be schooled tight, so you’ve got to search for them. Look around all the same structures they liked in warmer weather, though a little deeper. Be gentle hauling them in, as their delicate mouth structure will not tolerate a lot of stress and they’ll easily tear free. No minimum size and a generous limit of 15 fish for these guys, as their fecundity can quickly overpopulate an area with stunted fish.

    The chain pickerel is the species that reigns supreme in even the coldest of spells. Low temps seem to invigorate this toothy predator. Long and slim, it is an ambush hunter and lurks around any kind of structure from docks and piers (the older the better) to submerged brush and even floating piles of leaves. They’ll be found everywhere the water is a bit fresher.

     A bull minnow under a weighted bobber on a 1/0 hook or so is the traditional bait fished just about any way you’d care, even slow trolling from a canoe. If you like casting, try a No. 13 Tony Accetta with a lip-hooked bull minnow fished at an easy pace. Its undulating path is irresistible this time of year. 

     A short section of 10-pound fluoro or mono is enough leader for these guys. Pickerels’ prominent teeth are needle sharp but of the holding rather than cutting variety. You’ve got to be careful handling them, but they won’t often sever your line. Still, check it occasionally for abrasions. And use a net; they are very slippery fellows. 

     Spinner baits, particularly safety-pin types, are excellent lures this time of year and will resist snags in the cluttered structures that they prefer. Roll them slow near the bottom. If you’re a traditionalist, a gold quarter-ounce, squirrel tail Mepps will be your cup of tea. It will tempt even the big guys. A 25-incher is a citation, and they are not rare. Minimum size is 14 inches, and the limit is five.

     Most anglers release pickerel because of their many small bones. However, if you’ve the patience and are aware of their delicious, sweet, white meat, try beheading and eviscerating them and cutting them into chunks. Steam for 20 minutes, then let them cool.

     After peeling off the skin and fins, breaking the chunks down and picking out bones is a leisurely activity best accompanied by adult beverages. The resultant bone-free pile of meat makes fantastic fish balls, rolled in Panko crumbs and browned in peanut or corn oil.

     Trout fishing can also be a singular winter pursuit for fly rod aficionados. While I’m not much of a cold-weather trout angler, many of my friends claim to dote on the wintertime black fly hatch on the Gunpowder River. Drifting tiny (No. 14 and less) black midge flies on a gossamer tippet and a light flyrod can while away a still day like few other pursuits. It’s catch-and-release, of course, but that shouldn’t be a problem with wild trout. They’re far too valuable to tangle with only once.

     The last fish on my cold water list is also my favorite, the white perch. Any day that’s calm and warm enough to enjoy this time of year (and for me that’s now no wind and the mid 50s), you can find a school of white perch in the deeper waters of the Chesapeake.

     Bloodworms on a hi-lo rig and a two-ounce sinker will get the job done in the deeper waters (40 to 60 feet) off of the Eastern Shore and Western Shore rockpiles as well as the mouth of the Eastern Bay. Deeper waters (over 20 feet) along a shoreline can also hold some for the landlocked. Wintertime is prime time for this species, and they will be fat and firm and well worth the effort — that I guarantee.


Conservation Alert

      Maryland Department of Natural Resources is contemplating a number of changes to increase the rockfish population, which has fallen precipitously the last five years. Check with the DNR website ( for more information and to comment.

Fish Finder
     Rockfish season is closed on the Chesapeake and its tributaries but remains open in the ocean year-round. There the slot size of 28 inches to 38 inches and any fish 44 inches or greater, limit is two fish. Catch-and-release for rockfish remains open on the Chesapeake Bay with the appropriate gear and lures under current regulations. However, significant changes are intended and anglers should stay informed as to the legality and restrictions of catch and release.
     Your best fishing on the Bay is white perch, and their table quality is at the very top. Schooling around the Bay Bridge, Eastern Bay and off of Bloody Point at depths exceeding 40 feet, they will take bloodworms, earthworms, clams and shrimp.
      Action in the estuaries is limited to pickerel in skinny water and catfish in the deeper holes, though some early yellow perch may show up in the mix. Pickerel and perch are suckers for a lip-hooked minnow under a bobber fished around structure or trolled near docks, piers and jetties. Catfish will eat just about anything, including chicken breast, chicken livers, night crawlers, shrimp, pieces of menhaden and bottled baits.
Hunting Seasons
Migratory Canada geese, limit 1: Dec. 20-Jan. 4
Rabbit, limit 4: thru Feb. 29
Sea ducks, limit 5: thru Jan. 10
Squirrel, limit 6: thru Feb. 29