Winter's end on the Magothy
Joe Bruce took the first of our 18 pickerel. (Bill May photo)

"When's the last time you had fishing this good?" asked Chuck Thompson gleefully as he dropped another fat yellow perch into the live well. I just laughed, but I think he missed the reason why.

Fishing was slow the first couple of hours of our abbreviated outing for Magothy River perch. Every time Joe Bruce pulled us into an old, favorite spot on the river via the bow mount electric motor on Chuck's 21-foot Everglades, he and Chuck would reminisce: "Remember that time we got a couple of dozen white perch here in less than an hour?"


Or again, "We once got 15 pickerel from one little spot back in this cove."

And so it went. Finally I chimed in, "Can we leave Memory Lane and move to where we can find some fish?"

Fortunately these two have over 50 years experience with the Magothy and Severn Rivers. So we finally found a cove with an hour of fast yellow perch fishing near dusk. That's why I was laughing at the irony Chuck's "fishing this good" remark versus my earlier "Memory Lane" crack.

I have never mastered counting fish, opting for the strategy of my favorite outdoor writer, John Geirach, by calling any number greater than six "a good day." The Chuck and Joe count was 24 large yellow perch and probably half as many undersized ones, 18 pickerel and four white perch. We kept only enough of the yellow perch for Chuck's family's fish fry.

While our yellow perch fishing was a gift and a return to the "good old days," it likely does not portend the future of this fishery in the Magothy. Maryland Department of Natural Resources biologists project a decline of yellow perch populations there.

On the brighter side those few white perch were a sign of the immediate future. Big populations have already moved into the Choptank and other Eastern Shore rivers and will soon flood into the Upper Chesapeake, Magothy, Severn, and other waters.

That's why spring and early fall are my favorite times to fish these waters. Good numbers of perch are mixed in with the pickerel, and stripers often are also in the mix along with the occasional carp and catfish. Usually we also take a largemouth bass or two on each trip as we venture toward Magothy headwaters. So the next few months will be prime times for these and many Chesapeake tributaries.

The pickerel were a mystery. It was one here, one there throughout the day; we never hit any concentration. Nor did we catch any trophies. Most were 14 to 18 inches, and none were deep-bodied.

We still use the same tackle and techniques — light or medium-light spinning rods, 10 to 15-pound braid, 20-pound mono or fluorocarbon leaders to try to prevent pickerel bite-offs. We use 1/8-ounce jigheads with 1 ½ to 2-inch curlytail plastics in silver, pearl, yellow or chartreuse. Or the jigheads could instead be dressed with short, bucktail skirts in white, yellow or chartreuse.

The jigs are cast against the shore or against structure, such as pilings and retrieved with "the Magothy River crawl."

This is a subtle retrieve where the lure is dropped to the bottom, then slowly lifted off a few inches by bringing the rod up to a 45-degree angle, letting the jig glide forward and drop to the bottom, giving it a couple of gentle twitches, then repeating the lift, glide, drop, twitch routine. It pays to watch the line throughout the retrieve for subtle "takes" and to keep your eye on the lure when you crank it back to the boat for the next cast.

Pickerel are notorious for following a lure, so it's common to see one chasing the lure on the pickup. Slowing or dropping the jig can then often trigger a strike.

But there are variations on this basic retrieve. For example, when we hit that small school of yellow perch, we switched to swimming the jigs in mid water column with the rod close to the water's surface and at a right angle to the line.

In the past I often did well by adding a clip-on, offset spinner to the jighead and grub above and swimming and bouncing the lure along bottom. This usually only works if the retrieve is slowed enough to keep the lure just above the bottom, sometimes hard to do if the boat is moving, since the spinner blade lifts the whole lure. For some reason, this rig has not worked as well as the plain jighead and grub or bucktailed jighead in recent years.


I have also done well with pickerel in the past with a 4-inch Fin-S-Fish in a natural color rigged on an open 2/0 offset worm hook. I fished this with a series of fairly quick twitches. But this lure, too, has not worked as well as the jigs in recent years.

The jigs were again the best lure on this trip, but, when worked along bottom, picked up bottom moss a lot of the time. So, I'm considering some alternatives for the next trip. The first is a dropshot rig with the grub as the lure and the weight 4 to 6-inches below the hook. This should allow the slow retrieve near the bottom, but the weight, not the lure would, pick up the moss.

The second approach, less likely to be as effective, would be fishing the jig below a small float. This would avoid the bottom moss and could be fished slowly but may keep the lure too high in the water column.

I'll apprise you of the results of my research.