"I hope we have a mild winter. Fishing is going to be great," Joe Bruce enthused.
Chuck Thompson and I agreed. (The weather forecasters don't.)
We were fishing the Magothy River last month aboard Chuck's 24-foot Everglades, and the white perch and yellow perch were coming aboard at a steady clip, with the process punctuated regularly by chain pickerel and occasionally by small stripers plus one bluefish. We usually catch a few largemouths on these trips but not this day.
These perch and pickerel trips are a fall, winter and early spring ritual with Chuck and Joe, and I'm an occasional guest. These fish feed actively all winter, so, with today's effective winter clothing, the only limit to this fishing is weather, specifically high winds or ice. (Maryland regulations mandate a closed season for keeping pickerel in tidal waters between March 15 and April 30.) The white perch, yellow perch and pickerel fishing just seems to improve the colder the weather, while bass and stripers depart. But every year is different.
Chuck, Joe and I release everything we catch but make an exception sometimes for meals of white perch. These fish present the least hazard of ingesting heavy metals, plus, it seems, they are even more delicious coming from cold waters.
In the fall Chuck launches from Sandy Point, heads north up the Chesapeake while scanning the horizon and depth finder for stripers. If we see breaking fish or promising blips, we cast bucktails or metal jigs with our medium-weight rods kept on the ready in the boat's rod holders. Otherwise or after striper action we turn into the Magothy and break out the lighter tackle.
After years of experimenting with "panfish" rods I have now settled on 7-foot, medium-light spinning rods, matching reels with top quality 10-pound test braid and/or fusion lines and 5 to 7-foot 20-pound fluorocarbon leaders to try to prevent cutoffs from the toothy pickerel. Some cutoffs occur despite these heavy leaders.
Our preferred lures are 1/8-ounce, wire hook, unpainted jigheads, dressed with either bucktail skirts or thin, curlytail, minnow-shaped plastic grubs in natural colors. Sometimes we attach a clip-on, small offset spinner in silver or gold to the jighead.
The technique is simple. We quietly approach coves off the mainstem river with the gas motor then maneuver around piers and pockets along shorelines and rip-rap walls with a bow electric motor. Pickerel are shallow water ambush feeders, so think accordingly, and perch are in all kinds of waters. Look for dropoffs along open shorelines, the backs of coves, fallen trees and piers –- anything with cover and/or a breakline. Cast right up against the shoreline and retrieve slowly back to the breakline, often the most productive perch and pickerel water. If that doesn't work, move deeper. Pilings and piers provide prime cover, and always work creek mouths, backeddies created by tides at the bend of the river and deeper waters near boathouses.
Pickerel are also known for following a lure or bait, so it pays to fish all the way back to the boat. Often strikes come right at boatside as the lure or bait begins to lift, but the pickerel usually followed it out from shallow water.
Joe and Chuck fish the jigs with "the Magothy River crawl" retrieve, basically slowly dragging and hopping the jig along bottom with the rod tip pointed down to keep the jig on bottom. Sometimes we hang up the jigs, but usually a steady pull will open up the wire hook to free the lure. Then the hook can be bent back to shape with thumb pressure or with fishing pliers.
We were pleased with the large numbers of fish but also with the types and sizes. About a third or more of our catch was yellow perch. Could they finally be making a comeback? A good percentage of the white perch were 10 inches or more, and the majority of pickerel were in the 2-pound range.
The Western Shore rivers of the Magothy and Severn have a nostalgic appeal to Chuck and Joe; they've been fishing these rivers since they were kids. But this fishing is not just for big boats, big waters, Western Shore rivers or even rivers.
In September, Joe began "returning to his roots," fishing Eastern Shore rivers from his kayak. Joe said he kept detailed records of trips with his old fishing buddy, now deceased, fishing from a 14-foot boat. "We would start with perch in the fall. The, as the season progressed we would see more stripers, and as the cold weather set in, some of those were sizable fish."
Leeds Creek is one of Joe's old places. He and I fished there in September in our kayaks. As advertised, when we found clear water over weeds we started catching white perch with some undersized striper mixed in. We used the same tackle as above. I am not recommending cold water kayak fishing to anyone, repeat anyone; sea worthy boats 14 feet or more could be safe choices.
There are lots of places like Leeds along the Eastern Shore. The branches and coves of the Wye River are another of Joe's favorites. The Nanticoke and Choptank Rivers are two of mine. Delmarva ponds and even Loch Raven Reservoir, open on weekends through November, provide this kind of fishing. For tidal fish, pick a period of moving tide. Typically, as when we fished Leeds, you'll encounter few, if any, other anglers.
Safety and weather are prime considerations. Avoid ice. Do not launch when ice is on the ramp or try to break through iced-over sections of the river no matter how thin the ice. Wind may be a factor depending on the boat. Obviously the boating gear must be in good working order, adequate for the waters fished, with all safety equipment available, and the fishermen must dress for the cold weather.