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Carroll Outdoors: Spillway fishing

A nice mess of black crappie from a Delmarva spillway in early April.
A nice mess of black crappie from a Delmarva spillway in early April. (JIM GRONAW PHOTO, Carroll County Times)

Spillways, tumbleholes, cubbyholes, call them what you will. They are the small, sometimes fish infested pockets that lie immediately below a lake or dam face. They may all but dry up in the summer of get overgrown with vegetation in the heat.

They can turn muddy from heavy spring rains and can change depths every six hours if the tides influence them. But in the spring of the year they can be packed with a variety of panfish and gamefish. Yes, it can be like shooting fish in a barrel, but more often, you'll have to play some percentages and time it right. It's not as easy as it seems.

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My first experience in fishing spillways involved fishing several millponds on the upper Choptank River more than 30 years ago. We would head down to Red Bridges and fish the river where it was not much more than a tiny stream for the annual white perch run that peaked in April. Along the way we would try several spillway pockets below millponds that would cough up a variety of fish to include largemouth bass, yellow perch, pickerel, crappie and shad or herring.

It was always a wonder as to exactly what you might catch. Throughout the progression of spring, almost every specie of freshwater fish that are in our tidal waters will make some kind of an appearance in a small, tidal pool.

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Throughout the Delmarva region there are countless spillways and overflows that can provide exciting, bluecollar fishing. For the most part, I hit the spillways with the intent of catching panfish for the freezer. I'll target crappie as a first choice, but if perch or bluegills are in town then I am just as pleased.

For shear sport, herring, hickory or even white shad may make an appearance, depending on the waterway or river system you are fishing. I like to catch and release these fish due to their shear numbers when their spawning runs are at their peak.

Depending on the progression of the spring 'thaw,' different species move upriver and into spillway pockets at various time stages. Generally, the first action will be from yellow perch, and they can crowd the creeks and spillways as soon as late February, but more often will peak in some tributaries throughout the month of March. These fish are followed closely by white perch, crappies and then the shad species. Throughout April and early may there will be an overlap of several species, and variable catches are likely to occur.

Other game, like bass, crappies and chain pickerel, are year-round residents of the systems and you may catch them throughout the entirety of the spring in the spillways. Bluegills are also available and fall for many of the same tactics for herring or crappie.

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Spawning largemouths will also make their way into spillway and backwater pockets that may have minimal tidal influence. Regardless of your favorite fish, spillways and tidal backwaters below the milldams can offer exciting, bushwhacking fishing for those who have the gumption to give it a go.

My basic gameplan for springtime spillways is simple. For panfish work, I carry an ultra light spinning outfit spooled with quality four-pound test line and a variety of shad darts and jigs in chartreuse, pink, white or yellow. My jigs will weigh from 1/32nd of an ounce to 1/16th of an ounce. I will also carry some as small as 1/64th and fish a pond or backwater that may have some bluegills in it and sometimes these fish prefer the tiny offerings.

I'll carry some small, clip-on style bobbers to suspend these jigs through a run or pool in the spillway. You can quickly change the depth as need as incoming tidal surges may alter the bite or call for deeper, suspended presentations. I will often fish plastic or hairjigs without the bobber and try to maneuver them in and around pockets and undercuts to coax spawning crappie. Bites from these fish are often no more than a slight heaviness at the rod tip.

If shad or herring are in the mix, as they often are during April and early May, then I'll toss 1/8th ounce shad darts on 6 or 8 pound mono with a 6 ½ foot light action spinning rod with a sensitive tip. Hickory shad are great fighters and can sometimes be too much for the ultra-light gig. The heavier option is also a good choice if I wish to worm or fish live baits for largemouths in the pond above or in calmer sloughs.

Some spillways are so far inland on Delmarva that they have little tidal influence. But most will have an ebb and flow that will dictate your fishing. We like to try and time our outing when the tide is at its high stage and just starting to go out. Also, the last two hours of an incoming flow seems to put the fish on the bite. Other factors, such as heavy rain or cold front conditions can shut down a pretty good bite in a hurry.

There are dozens of spillway angling opportunities on the Maryland and Delaware portions of the Eastern Shore. Some of them are easy to get to and others are tucked away and kept in hushed secrecy. Fishing can be hot in one and cold in another just a few miles away.

Here is a few of the ones that we have fished with success over the years. And keep in mind that there are literally hundreds of small lakes and ponds throughout the mid-Atlantic that have spillway fishing available for the spring.

MARYLAND

- Tuckahoe Lake: In the Tuckahoe State Park, it's one of the larger spillways with more room than most.

- Smithville: This fine lake is off of Noble Road south of Denton. The spillway attracts a variety of fish.

- Urieville: At the head of the Chester River above Chestertown, this spillway can yield shad and herring runs.

- Johnson Pond, Salisbury: This larger spillway off of Issabella Street is worth a look. Big pickerel at times.

- Lake Bonnie, near Goldsboro: North of Denton off of Rt 313, the small spillway and ditches yield crappie, pickerel and bass.

DELAWARE

- Wagomons Pond Spillway, in Milton: This is a tributary off of the Broadkill with a new fishing pier and perch, crappie and bass make this one a good early season choice.

- Williams Pond Spillway, in Laurel: Variety here with perch and crappie being the favorites.

- Concord Pond Spillway: Variety again with seasonal hickory shad runs.

- Records Pond, Laurel: This water has a nice pier and is part of the Broad Creek system.

- Trap Pond, near Laurel: A great place for canoes and small craft, the spillway may surprise you with a giant red-ear sunfish.

- Courseys Pond, near Frederica: The fish ladder is to assist river herring to the lake. Other species available.

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