After a wet winter, spring runoff is sure to cause a few problems underwater.
But fear not, if you watch your fishfinders closely, you'll find plenty of fish will be biting.
photography by John Bildahl
What kind of fishing season can Chesapeake anglers look forward to in 2010? That's not an easy question to answer, especially in light of the record-breaking winter we've had. I don't know about you, but I spent a lot of time this winter throwing around shovelfuls of snow, when I could have been fishing for pickerel in the Severn.
As we get our tackle and boats ready for a new year on the Bay, what will we find out there? Experience tells us that heavy snow and freezing temperatures tend to grind and mill plant material in the Bay's wetlands into a soup that feeds zooplankton (mostly tiny crustaceans) that in turn feed small fish like newly hatched stripers and white perch in the rivers. We won't know how that cause-and-effect scenario has played out until those small fish start turning up in minnow seines this summer, but there is reason to be hopeful.
Unfortunately, there's another side to heavy snow: strong, muddy spring runoff that carries with it three major pollutants that affect the entire tidal system of the Chesapeake and its rivers. Nitrogen and phosphorus will fuel algae blooms and a third pollutant, sediment, will smother underwater grass beds and oyster reefs. The NASA satellite image on page 33 of a muddied Bay was shot on January 31, after the December blizzard and a modest thaw during mid-January, but before February's blizzards. The pollutant-laden runoff from the latter storms will cause water quality problems that we will have to adjust to as we fish the Bay this spring and summer.
That means that, come summer, many of you are likely to see fishfinder images like the one pictured on page 32. It's a screen shot of a 50-foot hole in the Severn River above Annapolis on July 22, 2004, but it could have come from any of the summer seasons since then. The image shows rockfish (the squiggly lines) holding in 6 to 15 feet of 80-degree water, the upper edge of their temperature tolerance. Why are they up there instead of in the cooler water below? Because the dissolved oxygen down there is so low it would suffocate them. That blank screen depicts a "dead zone" caused by nitrogen pollution.
Pollution-driven dead zones have grown fourfold in the past 60 years. Now they swallow up to 40 percent of the Bay each year and last up to six months. They kill crabs, small fish and critters that grow on the bottom to support the Bay's food web. Put it another way: The available warm-weather fish habitat out there is only 60 percent of what it used to be and that takes a big toll on our fish. (For more on the subject, and details on the latest effort to fix it - namely, the Chesapeake Clean Water Act, which is now working its way, or not, through both houses of Congress, see "Don't Get Mad, Get Busy," on page 33.)
Okay, let's get off the soapbox and go fishing. Here are my recommendations for best bets and some sleepers. This year, I've worked from information available in data trends from the 2007-2009 Virginia Salt Water Fishing Tournament citations, a program of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC), from Net Notes and juvenile indices from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) fisheries department, and from the 2009 Fisheries Service Year in Review from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
As always, before you head out, be sure to check the VMRC and DNR websites for the latest fishing regulations. The "Tackle Box" sidebar on page 45 lists web addresses for these and other useful sites. And don't forget the brand new requirement that all Bay anglers must register with NOAA - the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This new requirement (which carries no fee) is part of a national commitment to manage saltwater fish populations.
Click hereto download a PDF of our color-coded chart showing species prevalence by location and season.
Maryland's Best Bets & Sleepers
Rockfish- The catch-and-release season on the Susquehanna Flats will be open by the time you read this and catch-and-release anglers will fish the open Bay for much of April. Both groups are subject to specific regulations about how to release fish gently since many of them, especially in the open Bay, will be large roe-laden females. The Maryland Careful Catch website provides information on release techniques, including new tools - like cradle nets - that help you measure, photograph and unhook a big fish without lifting her from the water.
The Susquehanna Flats season offers fly- and light-tackle anglers the best opportunity of the year to catch a big rock in shallow water. The fishery is susceptible, however, to muddy spring runoff, which may be frustratingly common this year. Both trolling and light-tackle jigging will work in the fishery farther down the Bay. For more on light-tackle jigging, see the "Tackle Box" links to Chesapeake Light Tackle and my February Angler's Almanac article on that subject. Maryland's catch-and-keep season in the Bay's main stem opens on Saturday, April 18. See the link for Maryland Department of the Environment fish consumption advisory.
White Perch- These feisty, great-tasting panfish will school in 20 to 25 feet of water in the Susquehanna upstream of the Interstate 95 bridge. You'll also find them bank-fishing up the Choptank around Red Bridges and in the Patuxent near Waysons Corner and the Route 4 bridge. Grass shrimp are the primo baits.
Hickory Shad- April is the month to wade-fish for these high-jumping, 14- to 22-inch "poor man's tarpon." The fishery remains catch-and-release only, but their numbers are increasing in the Chesapeake much faster than those of their larger cousins, the American shad. The classic streams are Deer Creek on the Harford County side of the Susquehanna, above Havre de Grace, and Octoraro Creek on the Cecil County side, above Port Deposit. There will, however, be good runs in the Patuxent River around Queen Anne's Bridge and in Marshyhope Creek, a Nanticoke River tributary, above Federalsburg. A sleeper is the Potomac's Mattawoman Creek above the Mason Springs Conservancy Preserve at the Route 225 bridge. Use brightly colored shad darts and tiny spoons on light spinning gear or No. 4 to No. 6 shad flies on 4- to 6-weight fly rods with five-foot sink-tip lines.
Virginia & D.C. Best Bets & Sleepers
Mixed Bag Up the Rivers- At Fletcher's Boat House on the Potomac near Chain Bridge, the Falmouth Flats on the Rappahannock just below the Route 1 bridge at Fredericksburg, and atthe fall line of the James at Richmond, April and early May will offer remarkable mixed bags of hickory shad, white perch, rockfish and catfish.Rent a skiff from Fletcher's, learn to wade the Rappahannock with the Falmouth Flats Fly Fishers Club, launch a skiff at Ancarrow's Landing on the south side of the James or contact MikeOstrander of the James River Fishing School. Use spin and fly tackle with bait, darts, jigs andsmall spoons. Release the hickories and rockfishbut keep the perch and smaller catfish for dinner.
Tautog- Hardy lower Bay anglers will find tautog around reefs and wrecks off the Eastern Shore, from the Cell and the Concrete Ships to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. Use chunks of hard crab and stout boat rods with braided no-stretch lines to hook these nibblers. Want a serious sleeper? Try these fish farther up the Chesapeake on reefs built by the VMRC and the Maryland DNR. Locations are listed on the agencies' websites.
Maryland's Best Bets
Rockfish- By mid-May most of the large rockfish will have left Maryland waters, headed for the coast of New England. Now anglers will turn to trolling smaller lures like spoons and soft plastic swim baits or jigging for resident fish.
Speckled Trout and Croakers- In the Honga River and Tangier Sound, cast jigs, plugs and flies into eddies around points and deep holes in marsh creeks. Sweeten jigs with chunks of peeler crab or use scented soft plastic tails like Berkley Gulp Alive and Rapala Trigger-X. You may also pick up a puppy (red) drum or two.
Virginia's Best Bets
Rockfish- Virginia's spring rockfish season runs May 1 through June 15 with the catch restricted to fish over 32 inches through May 15. Trolling will claim the most early fish, but as soon as small spot and soft crabs appear on nature's menu, they'll make prime baits in places like the Northern Neck Reef, the Cell and the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.
Speckled Trout, Puppy Drum and Croakers- When water temperatures reach the mid-50s, these species and the occasional schoolie rockfish will make up exceptional mixed bags for anglers fishing creek mouths, marsh banks and shoreline sloughs on the Eastern and Western shores. Jigs tipped with peeler crab or Gulp Alive and Trigger-X tails will catch all three species, but don't neglect Mirrolures, suspending jerk baits like Rapala X-Raps and walk-the-dog surface plugs early and late in the day for specks. Croakers will offer excellent sport well into the big rivers, especially over shell bottom.
Large Red Drum- The stock of both puppy and large red drum is growing, thanks to strong protective regulations. In Virginia, all red drum over 26 inches must be released, but any drum over 46 inches merits a release citation from the VMRC's 2010 Salt Water Fishing Tournament. The standard technique is to set cut baits of fresh menhaden, spot or croaker on fishfinder rigs over the shoals between the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel and Cape Charles, but the big fish have a habit of wandering the lower Bay so some will also turn up around Watts and Tangier islands, and others will surprise bottom-fishing anglers off places like the Hole in the Wall off Gwynn's Island.
Maryland's Best Bets
Spot, White Perch andCroakers- Look for these tastypanfish on hard-bottom lumps, edges and reefs in 15 to 25 feet of water from the Virginia line north to Tolchester and in all of the river mouths. Bait two-hook bottom rigs with real bloodworms, fake ones from Berkley Gulp Alive and Fishbites, and grass shrimp. Use the lightest sinkers you canhold bottom with and fish movingcurrent if possible. Drift to find fish, then take visual marks (ranges) or set a GPS waypoint. Anchor or concentrate your drifts there. In June a lot of nice white perch will take up station along rip-rap shorelines. Cast small lures like Beetle Spins, Blakemore Roadrunners, Roostertail spinners and Acme Little Cleo spoons. Wade-fishing underwater grass beds with 1/4-ounce gold Johnson Silver Minnow spoonsin the early morning can be surprisingly effective. Add a small twister tail to the spoon.
Rockfish- The season in tidal riversopens June 1. Most anglers will continueto troll smaller lures in the Bay or begin live-lining small spot (see May Best Bets) in areas where they mark fish. Light-tackle jigging will take some fish on lumps in the main Bay and Eastern Bay, but smart anglers will also begin to jig and cast plugs in the rivers and swim jigs around bridge pilings.
Cownose Rays- Want to tangle with a big, strong fish and then grill it? Try fishing for cownose rays.
They are abundant in June and prey heavily on oyster beds, so harvest is appropriate. [For information on catching, safely handling and preparing rays for the table, see Angler's Almanac, June 2009.]
Virginia's Best Bets
Cobia and Large Red Drum-By June, big cobia have finished their usual springtime trek from Florida and taken up station on places like Latimer Shoal, off Cape Charles, and Bluefish Rock on the west side of Hampton. From now into July, they will share some of these waters with big red drum, cownose rays and sand sharks. Use the same fishfinder rigs as for drum, but consider also putting out a chum bag and baiting with live eels. While red drum release citation numbers appear to be rising, cobia citation numbers (both release and keep) are lower and have slid a bit since a peak in 2007. Nonetheless there will be fish available for those willing to work for them.
Spadefish- These surprisingly strong and tasty fish will also arrive from the south and hang around shoals, reefs, bridge-tunnel sections and lights. The largest fish will come first. Bait up with tiny chunks of hard clam and anchor precisely so your baits will drift back to the fish, which may well be visible. You may find it easier to keep the baits in the strike zone with bobbers. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel and the Cell are well known spots, but spadefish spread out broadly all the way up the Bay into Maryland. Enterprising anglers will find unheralded spadefish jackpots.
Speckled Trout and Puppy Drum- The fishery described for May will endure through the summer for Virginia anglers in love with fishing shallow waters.
Flounder- Anglers can find big flounder eating large baits on rough bottom from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel to the Cell. Size limits are high, but strict conservation regulations seem to be helping the stock increase.
Pier Fishing Mixed Bag- Look for great mixed bags of croakers, spot and flounder on Virginia's fishing piers. See the "Tackle Box" for information. Most of the piers damaged by Hurri-cane Isabel in 2003 have been rebuilt better than ever. They offer great, low-cost fishing with plenty of friendly regular anglers to help newcomers.
Cownose Rays- They are plentiful in the lower Bay too. Learn their ways and you'll be surprised how much you enjoy them.
Maryland's Best Bets & Sleepers Bluefish and SpanishMackerel- For the rest of the summer, schools of bluefish and Spanish mackerel will terrorize small baitfish - especially bay anchovies - from the Virginia Capes up to Annapolis. The blues will school according to size, with larger fish (five to eight pounds) ranging from the Southwest Middle Grounds at the mouth of the Potomac north to the mouth of the Choptank. From there up to the Bay Bridge, the blues will be tailors (two to three pounds) and snappers (1/2 to one pound).
Anglers will find some blues feeding on the surface, their numbers and frequency increasing toward the end of summer. More will bedevil folks live-lining small spot for rockfish. These blues are great sport when caught jigging and casting metal spoons and jigs on light spin tackle and they are much tastier than their larger kin. Spanish mackerel will mix in with schools of tailor blues, making their presence known by free-jumping. Troll small spoons fast (over six knots). Occasionally, you'll hook one on a quickly retrieved jig.
Rockfish- Summer live-lining will be tricky this year. Watch your fishfinder screen carefully for images like the one shown on page 32, with fish suspended over oxygen-depleted empty water. Make sure your valuable baitfish stay above that zone or they will suffocate. Bobber rigs deployed from long rods and set in the upper part of the water column may be the ticket. Let the rockfish tell you the depth for the bait. If you're working jigs, concentrate on low-light, cooler times of day.
Panfish- Whether baitfishing on oyster reefs and lumps or wading grass beds, fish early and late in the day. If bottom fishing, pay attention to your fishfinder and don't fish dead water. The maximum depth the fish will hold will be around 20 feet in the rivers, 25 feet in the open Bay.
Virginia's Best Bets & Sleepers
Cobia- At the peak of summer and into September, cobia move from lower Bay shoals to buoys. Veteran cobia anglers will explore these spots and, based on what they find, set up routine "milk runs" along specific lines of buoys. They approach these markers carefully, sight casting a live eel, large jig or fly to cobia hanging there.
Bluefish and SpanishMackerel- Look for both species this summer in Virginia waters, including some blues up to 10 pounds around the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. If you plan to eat your catch, be sure to bleed the fish when they come aboard and ice them down well.
Spadefish- The average spadefish will be smaller in the summer months, but the fish will continue to be available, especially when current is moving around the obstructions where they school up. Look for them close to the surface early and late in the day.
Flounder- Look for keepers indeeper main Bay water, especially south of the Rappahannock Shoal, where there is generally more dissolved oxygen than farther north. Fish large baits, like a fresh fillet from a three-pound bluefish, on braided no-stretch lines and three-way rigs with short, lighter monofilament droplines for the sinkers. Bounce the rigs along rough bottom from the Cell and Wolf Trap down to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel tubes, staying in touch with the sinkers to minimize snagging them. This won't be easy fishing, but the doormats will be there.