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Outdoors: Pounding the pads for pond pickerel

Unlike less enlightened anglers, like some hard core bass fishermen, our little gang of kayakers love pickerel fishing. Pickerel are plentiful in the restricted waters of Loch Raven Reservoir and in some Chesapeake Bay tributaries like the Nanticoke, Magothy and Severn Rivers. These are primarily cold weather, fall through spring fisheries, with Loch Raven being closed during winter months.

Fortunately for us, pickerel, as well as bass, crappie and bluegill/sunfish species, can be taken in most of the numerous Delmarva ponds year-round, as long as waters are not roiled from rain or iced over. In the large majority of these ponds, pickerel are the predominate species.

So, for the last two months our gang has been hitting various Delmarva ponds, as holes in windy, cold, and rainy/snowy weather allowed. The season got off to a promising start in early March when Joe Bruce and Alan Feiken took 35 pickerel between them in a short day.

Since then we’ve had mixed results. Pickerel catches have ranged from a few to 20-plus per fisherman per day, with a lot of single-digit days. There has been no problem with the quality of the fish, with a high percentage in the 2 ½ to 3 ½-pound range. Fortunately on most of the really difficult days, we’ve been able to target panfish with small flies and make good catches of bluegill, shellcrackers (red ear sunfish) and crappie.

Because of weather, some of our trips have been on weekends, and we’ve had to work around other fishermen. This hasn’t been too much of a problem, since most were fishing from larger boats and targeting bass and panfish in deeper waters. Especially as the waters warm we kayakers have been working shallower waters where these anglers won’t or can’t go.

We also have a tentative thesis for how and where to target the pickerel. In the early trips, before the lily pads and spatterdock began to emerge, we found the pickerel “in the wood,” in fallen trees along the shoreline and mostly in shady spots protected from the wind. They were not on the flats and along the breaklines where we did so well last fall. So we began to wonder if pickerel, like snakehead, do not like wind-riffled water and also want “a roof over their heads” giving them cover from preying birds, like Great Blue Herons, and ambush points for bait that seek the same cover. We also noticed that slow retrieves worked best in the cold water; often flies did better than lures, and the “dying” type of Super Flukes did better than Swimmin’ Flukes, both with little or no nail weights.

On my first trip, Joe Bruce came around an island just as I released a 3-pound pickerel. “They’re not on the flats, they’re on the wood,” he advised. We were both right: My pickerel hit right where I fluttered my fluke through the shadow of a log angled about 30 degrees above the water on a large flat.

As waters began to warm and pads began to emerge, pickerel became active in the pad fields. This was a mixed blessing. We knew the fish were in the pads, but which pads? Most of these ponds have dozens of large pad fields. So the game switched to moving quickly from one pad field to another, probing by fancasting to corners, holes within fields, channels near fields, woody structure within fields and looking for movement, swirls, strikes.

Some areas produced nothing, some had random fish here and there, and occasionally we found pods of pickerel with strikes occurring nearly every cast for brief periods. Spinning tackle with nail-weighted flukes was the tool of choice for this cover.

On my last trip, a couple of weeks ago, Joe Bruce, Billy Zeller and I encountered extremes of a pattern that we’ve hit all spring — missed strikes. I had two fish bite off my 20-pound leader material, had tails chopped off a half-dozen flukes, and lost a good majority of the fish that hit, often after explosive strikes, either becoming unhooked or tearing off after diving into the pads.

Billy and Joe had similar results. Some of these failures are expected fishing these lures in this kind of cover; why it’s so extreme this year is a mystery. Sometimes when a fish misses the lure or fly, immediately casting back with a different lure or fly triggers a strike. But it’s all fun and exciting. We release all fish anyway, but we do like to see what we’re dealing with and get some pictures.

For now, the best approach for fly fishermen is using 7-weight fly tackle with floating lines, 8-foot leaders, 20-pound tippets and Bullethead Darter or Bendback streamers, size 1, in chartreuse over white. Spin fishermen should use 6 to 7-foot, medium action rods, 12-pound monofilament or 15-pound braid with 20-pound monofilament or fluorocarbon bite leaders. We like Super Flukes and Swimmin’ Flukes in the Jr. sizes, about 31/2-inches long, Texas-rigged on 3/0 hooks with a 1/16th-ounce nail weight inserted in the fluke. “White ice” and pearl colors often work well, but more natural colors like Bait Fish and Houdini have often done better this year.

The strategy outlined above — probe areas of cover by fancasting and moving until you find fish — is the best approach. As the waters warm, weedless spoons, surface lures and weedless-rigged frogs walked through pad fields will produce exciting action with pickerel and bass.

See these sites for lists of Delaware and Maryland freshwater fishing ponds by county:

P.S. Before the storms hit, hickory shad returned in force to Deer Creek and the Susquehanna River. Fishing should be good for the next few weeks. 

Bill May is a Times outdoors writer. His column appears every other Sunday. Reach him at 410-857-7896 orsports@carrollcountytimes.com.

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