Bill May: Picking pockets on the Piankatank

My bowfin took a fluke cast right to him, the only approach that worked.
My bowfin took a fluke cast right to him, the only approach that worked. (Bill May photo)

Our annual trip to the Piakatank River didn’t produce to abundance of fish and variety of species we’d come to expect from this bald cypress-lined river on Virginia’s western shore of the Chesapeake.

We did catch bass, bowfin and snakeheads, the target species, as well as white perch, yellow perch, pickerel and stripers. I fished with Mark Bange on his first trip to the river, guided by Dave Snellings. Veterans Joe Bruce and Rick Boulin fished with Dave’s partner, Mike Starrett, founder of Indian Head Charters.


Their boats were similar — 17-foot aluminum jon boats with 40 to 60-horsepower outboards and 24-volt nose motors.

The weather forecast called for clear skies and light winds, so most of our crew figured we’d escaped the effects of Hurricane Dorian, which passed offshore a few days before. I suspected we hadn’t.


Unfortunately I was correct. Mike did tell us high tide was two feet higher than normal, but we should do well fishing outgoing tides for Saturday and Sunday.

So we began with our usual approach, making long casts working along shorelines with spinnerbaits, 4-inch swimming flukes and hollow frogs.

Mark Bange took this big bass early the first day. Was it a good sign?
Mark Bange took this big bass early the first day. Was it a good sign? (Bill May photo)

Mark, Dave and I began at a stone wall that had been very good to us in the past with bass and stripers. Mark took a bass of about 5 pounds on a spinnerbait within the first dozen casts. It seemed like a good sign; in retrospect it wasn’t. Mark hooked the fish nearly at boatside and never felt a strike, just weight. A deep channel ran along the rock wall. It dawned on me later that that bass was suspended in deep water, and it simply inhaled the passing lure.

We fished our same, time-proven ways most of Saturday, before the true situation dawned on both boats. Even though water temperatures were in the low 70’s, the bluebird skies and sluggish ultra high tides produced conditions similar to cold front conditions. We had to switch tactics 180 degrees.

So here’s what worked and lessons to be applied when facing such difficult conditions:

Accept it ain’t yesterday — or last week or last year. Fish weren’t cruising the banks feeding on bait pulled from the marshy cover by the tides. They were sulking in the thickest cover.

Pick pockets. Cast to every little bit of cover, every bank indentation, patch of shade, hole, bubble trail left, by bowfin or snakehead, any current break, piece of cover cypress knee, cypress trunk, fallen tree, duck blind. You can still work large areas, by slowing picking pockets.

Fish close with short casts and retrieves. Flip, pitch or otherwise make short casts. Retrieve out a few feet. If you feel a bump or see movement, pause. If you miss a strike cast back, maybe several times. If nothing happens reel in and hit the next spot. I took our best bowfin on a backhand cast of less than 20 feet that dropped a swimming fluke between two cypress knees. The fish was on when I tightened the line.

“You need to put the lure in the fish’s mouth as he yawns,” I reported to the group. It was not that much of an exaggeration.

Fish slowly. As Joe Bruce summarized, “You can’t fish too slowly.” Staying focused on your casts and retrieves relieves tedium.

Fish small lures subtly. The best lures proved to be unweighted 4-inch flukes and stick worms (4 and 5-inch Senkos) and 6-inch plastic worms fished with a small bullet weight. All were Texas-rigged. Lures we didn’t try that can be also used in these situations include weedless jigs, small jigheads and worms and Beetle Spin types. Often we let the lure lie on bottom for a few seconds before tightening the line.

Then we’d just lift the lure slightly, drop it, pause and repeat a few times before moving on to the next spot.


The Senko is ideal for this type of fishing, rigged Texas style weighted or unweighted or Wacky or Neko rigged on a weedless hook. In the past we’ve taken some of our best bass and bowfin with this lure in natural colors even on good days as well as in slow times.

Wait to strike then strike decisively. With hooks buried in soft plastics or with hooks with weedguards it usually pays to give the fish time to take the lure. Sometimes they’ll just peck at it, sometimes just pick up the lure and quickly drop it. But most of the time with soft plastics waiting pays. Slowly tighten the line or let the moving fish do it, then strike sharply.

Our medium weight spin rods spooled with 15 to 20-pound braid and short, 20 to 30-pound mono or fluorocarbon leaders is ideal for detecting soft strikes and setting the hook.

Of course, hooks should be carefully sharpened and barbs flattened. Set an appropriately tightened drag on the reel.

Since fishing is often at close quarters the fight can be violent. All three target species can be expected to dive back into cover and/or dive under the boat so be prepared to fight at awkward angles or shove the rod underwater when a fish is at boatside. Keep a net or Boga Grip handy.

Be ready to adjust for change. Late the second day both boats experienced a brief flurry. Fish were still in cover but began attacking baitfish back in shoreline rushes. This phenomenon is not unusual, and we still needed to apply the above tactics. Be ready for such opportunities; there won’t be many.

But, oddly enough, this can be trophy time. I guess the big guys need to eat in any conditions.

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