I've been wanting to fish for trout in the Casselman River in Garrett County for over a month, but the cold, rain and snow have made the 150-mile trip hazardous.
So finally near the end of March Joe Bruce and I took advantage of the first day of semi-decent weather to take our kayaks to a southern Delaware pond Joe had fished successfully in late February and mid-March. I was anxious to try my new kayak paddle, treated right hand and the articulated connectors Joe had created for lures and flies. All three performed well.
We caught and released 25 pickerel between us, a modest total for five to six hours of fishing each, but there were a good number of fish over three pounds and I took one of four pounds, not near my personal best pickerel but my best in several years.
Needless to say, Joe took most of our total.
Perhaps our limited success was due to our scouting multiple sections of structures in the pond. Weather was also a factor with thick cloud cover for most of the day and winds higher than predicted. Over the years we've consistently experienced poor pickerel fishing on dark days and when the surface is riffled.
But we caught no bass and panfish and no pickerel under two pounds. Maybe this should have told us something. We were both intent on fishing 3 ½ to 4-inch, Texas-rigged flukes with Joe's articulated connectors. The connectors are tied with Icelandic wool in bullethead streamer style with the wool trailing part way down over the fluke (See www.joebruce.net).
Between the action of the articulated joint and the flaring of the wool the lure has terrific action. But the total length of this combination is five inches.
Joe has done well with these lures on three previous trips this year, and most folks would say we had a good day, especially considering the conditions. But I began to wonder on the way home: What if we had tried smaller lures, like flukes alone, connectors with 2-inch grubs or my favorite pickerel and panfish lure, a 2-inch grub on a 1/8-ounce jighead with a clip-on offset spinner. We did see signs of small baitfish during the day but just kept casting our 5-inch lures.
Trout and stripers are notorious for locking in on specific sizes and types of prey, but it's likely other species do this to some extent.
There was another occurrence, one I've seen before, but always makes me wonder. Pickerel aren't school fish but it's common in rivers and especially in ponds to catch a number of pickerel in one small area. This happens with bass, too, but seemingly to a lesser extent. Almost all of our fish were caught in a big, open, largely structureless flat. Had the pickerel herded or were chasing a school of baitfish?
At one point I caught pickerel of 4 pounds, 3+ pounds and 2 pounds on three casts. Another time I paddled up to Joe to tell him of seeing what I thought was an immature eagle crash the water in vain then perch in a nearby low tree and give me a "What're you looking at?" glare. (Kayaks are stealthy.) As I approached Joe I saw he had a fish on so I backed off, made a cast and hooked up. We took twin 3 ½-pounders.
Later I talked to a canoe fisherman using minnows beneath floats. He told me he took six pickerel in a short burst of action, then everything stopped.
One thing I'm finally learning from Joe, and the late Harry Pippin, is the value of fishing open flats. I'm used to fishing this way in salt water where fish seem to cruise more. In fresh water I revert to my bass fishing instincts and pound away at what I consider fish-anchoring structures like breakpoints, pad fields and fallen trees. But bass, pickerel and panfish (and snakeheads) often cruise open flats, and when they do, they're usually feeding.
The trick is to keep moving, covering water with fan casts, vary retrieves and look for "tells" (swirls, flashes and splashes) from predator and prey. After Joe and I thoroughly worked a large bay with no fish where "they should have been," he immediately concluded, correctly: "They're not in here; they must be on the flats."
So we avoided the mistake of telling the fish where they should be. Perhaps we made the mistake of telling them what they what they should be hitting in sticking with those large lures, even though we caught quality pickerel. Joe insists pickerel like large baits.
I took my best pond pickerel, 5 ½ pounds, on a small minnow and shad dart. And it had a 14-inch fish, likely another pickerel, in its gut. The logical conclusion appears to be pickerel are opportunistic feeders.
I hope spring weather arrives soon. I suspect when it does everything will explode and pounding the pads with fly rod poppers and hollow frogs will be productive for pickerel and bass in ponds and rivers.
And I'm hoping the pad field develops in Piney Run.