--by John Page Williams
It's time to dust off the tackle box and do a little spring reprovisioning. Here's how to outfit your tackle without breaking the bank.
Open your mailbox this time of year and what do you find? Probably a thick catalog from at least one of the big national tackle dealers: Bass Pro Shops, Boater's World and Cabela's. This is also the season for fishingshows, where local dealers get to show off their wares.
Between the hefty catalogs and the big shows, Chesapeake Bay anglers will be tempted by a wide array of tackle. And while there is plenty of expensive gear available--some of which will do amazing things--it's helpful to stay anchored in reality in the midst of this wonderland.
When buying tackle, take a tip from the experts. Charter captains and private skippers who regularly take out groups of friends must carry large inventories of tackle, so they have to be pragmatic about how they spend their money. They choose their gear to fit the kind of fishing they do. Then they look for rods, reels and line that can do those jobs at reasonable prices. They know the key to the process is to think through their needs carefully, decide what level of quality they require and from there they begin to build their inventories. Very few of these folks go out and buy everything at one time. So take a cue from the pros: Take your time and enjoy it.
The Right Rod
Rod catalogs from manufacturers such as All Star, G. Loomis, St. Croix or Shimano feature all sorts of specialized sticks for casting jigs, soft plastic jerk baits, spoons and top-water plugs. You'll notice that the rods are rated for power (resistance to flexing) in four categories: medium-light, medium, medium-heavy and heavy. They are also rated for action (where the rod bends) in three classes: medium-fast (in the mid-section), fast (in the top third) and extra-fast (in the top quarter). There should also be listings of ranges for line test and lure weight. If your techniques are getting increasingly specialized, you may want to consider these nuances to optimize your ability to bring a particular lure to life.
On the other hand, it's not difficult to select versatile tackle that will handle several techniques reasonably well. Remember to think through how you want to use it. If you're bottom-fishing for spot, croakers, white perch and the occasional rockfish in summertime, your rod and reel must handle bottom rigs and sinkers weighing 1 to 4 ounces. You'll be simply dropping the rigs to the bottom instead of casting them, however, so you can use a rod rated for lighter weights. A good rule of thumb is that a rod can handle a bottom-fished sinker up to about four times its maximum casting weight (for example, a 4-ounce sinker for a rod rated for 3/8- to 1-ounce lures). The rod will also be rated for line of about 8- to 17-pound test. Rod sensitivity is important for this fishery. Since spot and perch are notorious nibblers, use a graphite or graphite/glass composite rod.
With the same rod, you may also want to be able to cast metal lures like Kastmasters to schools of breaking bluefish chasing bait on the surface--or poppers like Storm Chug Bugs if you're casting to bridge pilings and marsh banks for rockfish. Such a rod should also work well for "LTJ" (light tackle jigging), in which you'll swim jig heads with soft plastic Bass Assassins, Bass Kandy Delights or Berkley Gulp! Jerkbaits around underwater lumps and current rips. In these instances, your rod should flex well enough to cast lures easily, but it should have enough back-bone in the lower part of the blank to set a hook. (That sentence pretty much describes a fast-action rod.) The same combination of rod flexibility and strength will also suit live-lining juvenile spot for rockfish, but be careful to lob live baits gently if you have to cast them. Those characteristics also fit fishing bits of hard clam for spadefish from the Cell down to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.
So how much will a multipurpose rod like this cost? If you watch the sales from large retailers, you'll find bottom-of-the-line graphite rods as inexpensive as $25, but I can't recommend them. They often have weak blanks and poor quality guides that break. If your budget keeps you at $40 or under, the best quality comes from Shakespeare: Ugly Stiks ($30) and Ugly Stik Lite inshore rods ($40). These are super-tough graphite-fiberglass rods with good quality handles, reel seats and guides. You'll give up a little sensitivity but gain durability.
Go up to between $50 and $120 and the selection gets much broader. "Inshore" rods have become big business in the tackle market, with manufacturers responding to growing fisheries in bays, lakes and sounds on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. A durable, sensitive $50 alternative that has served me well is Shimano's line of Carbomax rods, which combine multilayer graphite construction with good quality Fuji reel seats and guides. All Star, Bass Pro Shops, Boater's World, Cabela's, Daiwa, Fenwick, Penn and Shimano all offer several levels of good rods in this price range.
Spinning vs. Bait-Casting
Both spinning and bait-casting tackle work well for the fishing techniques described earlier. Some experienced anglers prefer bait-casting, but it requires practice and the reels tend to be more expensive than spinners. The basics of a spinning rig are much easier to learn. Most people can pick them up in a few minutes.
Either way, the reel should have a smooth drag to help you fight a hooked fish. Although you're most likely to catch pan-size fish, at certain places and times surprises come along. A tough, abrasion-resistant 10-pound monofilament line like pink Ande Premium or Berkley Maxx is adequate for this fishing, as well as for casting. If you do decide to go with a bait-casting reel, consider 14- to 20-pound test super-braid like PowerPro or Berkley Fireline.
As with rods, it's tough to find a reel for less than $50 to $70 to hold up to this range of Chesapeake techniques. Most of the major manufacturers have saltwater-ready spinning reels that perform well for these uses. Time-tested models include Daiwa's Black Gold BG15, Okuma's Epixor EF30a and Shimano's Sahara SH4000FB and Spheros SP3000FA. If you're springing for a pair of outfits, make them the same brand and model so you can interchange spools and other parts if necessary. If the reels don't come with extra spools, consider buying one for each and spooling it with line that's within 2 pounds of what's on the original spool. If you expect to be doing a lot of live-lining, consider a reel with a free-spool feature like Shimano's Baitrunner BTR3500B.
Many anglers remain loyal to inshore bait-casting tackle because it allows them to feel the lure's action, sense bites and strikes, and enjoy the fish's fight as they cup the rod and reel together in one hand. The rods cost about the same as corresponding spinning rods, but the reels generally cost $70 to $130. Good examples of "round" reels include Abu Garcia's Ambassadeur C4, Okuma's Induron, Pflueger's Trion and the Cardiff and Corvalus from Shimano. All fit the hand well, offer good bearings and provide backlash protection through centrifugal brakes. Proven low-profile reels, which fit the hand even better, include the Daiwa Coastal Inshore Special, Pflueger Contender SS, Quantum Accurist PT and Shimano Citica and Cruxis.
If you are buying a rod and a reel at the same time, a "combo" could save you money. Bass Pro Shops, Boater's World and Cabela's all offer combos at significant price reductions, generally including their house-brand inshore rods. You may be able to find combo prices from independent tackle shops, especially as preseason specials.
Beyond the Basics
The spinning and bait-casting rigs described above will cover a lot of Chesapeake fisheries, but more specialized gear will do some jobs better. Short, lightweight graphite rods can be more fun when bottom-fishing for panfish or jigging. Longer but still light graphite spinning rods do well for swimming small feather and bucktail jigs around marsh points and rock jetties. Bait-casting rigs are great for working surface lures and larger jigs.
If you fish much, you'll find that these other situations tempt you to acquire more equipment beyond the basics. By all means do so, but consider your needs carefully beforehand. That process is the best test for making a purchase. It's also a good antidote to late-winter cabin fever.
The tackle box
Here's an abbreviated list of sites to assist your search:
• Abu Garcia, www.abu-garcia.com
• All Star Graphite Rods, www.allstarrods.com
• Bass Pro Shops, www.basspro.com
• Boater's World, www.boatersworld.com
• Cabela's, www.cabelas.com
• Daiwa, www.daiwa.com
• Fenwick, www.fenwickfishing.com
• G. Loomis, www.gloomis.com
• Okuma, www.okumafishingteam.com
• Shakespeare, www.shakespeare-fishing.com
• Shimano, http://fish.shimano.com