Several hours before we set our gaze skyward for the eclipse, five young anglers, Nate the First Mate and I swung our legs out of our kayaks and began walking the shallows. We swapped fishing rods for seine nets, and while the kids cruised the shoreline I went on a little walk-about myself, roller net in hand. The prospect of a soft crab dinner, however remote, was foremost in my mind.
I quickly spied a doubler and began to stalk them. The jimmy scooted off defensively, and every time I thought I had him (and her) corralled, he'd shimmy and shake and lose my tail. I closed the gap once more, careful not to cast my shadow into his line of sight. Step by step, inch by inch. Eight feet…six, four, then two.
Then, out of the corner of my eye I caught a glint of metallic copper shooting past me like a scalded cat. From out of the patch of widgeon grass, it lit out for the safety of deeper water with several beats its broad caudal. Perhaps two feet long, its bronzy-golden flanks appeared then vanished, ghost-like. I don't who was more was more surprised, me or the fish. But a puppy drum it was. I shot its tail end a mental "Arnold" retort—"I'll be back!"—then resumed my camp leader duties. (As an aside, overall the kids hooked and netted nine fish species, including ubiquitous silversides and anchovies as well as killifish, gobies and blennies. We even saw what was possibly a clear-nosed skate.)
While there's little question waters around the lower Chesapeake Bay's barrier islands hold the larger percentage of specks and puppy reds that venture into Maryland waters every summer, it isn't uncommon in some years to catch both in more locale waters. Each summer fishermen in the lower Choptank and its little brother, Patuxent's mouth and Eastern Bay register catches. In fact, over the past two weeks I've taken several reports from anglers who've hooked quality drums in both the speckled and red varietal, including some impressive bull reds. Perhaps you've caught one or two yourself. A handful of specks and black drum have also come over the gunwales recently at and above Annapolis.
When targeting puppy drum, soft plastic shad tails of 3 to 4 inches are probably my preferred lure in our home waters, though topwater are more fun. Weedless soft jerkbaits should also be rigged and ready, especially when fishing around grass beds or craggy structure. Lure choices are ample — D.O.A., Z-Man, Strike King, Gulp! Bass Assassin and Yum Money Minnow are but a handful. Colors resembling minnows, mullet and peanut bunker infused with glitter catch, as do smokey white, pearl, or bone, with or without bright, color-contrasting tails.
Generally, I prefer clear water with current when fishing for puppy drum and specks. That's not always possible, of course. For whatever reason reds seem more accommodating than specks in muddled waters. If the water is stained, go dark: copper-and-orange, root beer, electric chicken and other contrasting color combos are a better choice. Crab and shrimp imitations sometimes do the trick, especially in high pressure areas or when worked on a popping cork rigged a couple feet above the bait.
Normally, I use a 12-pound outfit loaded with braid; superlines have better sensitivity than mono, especially when casting light lures. If fly fishing, it'll be an 8-weight outfit, and crab patterns or small Deceiver style flies.
If you're not getting hits on the spine gear, lighten it up. Bump down to 6-pound braid (or 8- to 10-pound test mono) with a 10-pound fluorocarbon leader. Try light-wire hooks, or a finesse rig. Usually I fish lures targeted for reds more slowly than I would for rockfish, pausing and twitching to ensure sure the lure hits the bottom. On the drop, when the lure "plays dead," is often when you'll get the strike that sticks. I haven't a clue if that red I jumped is still around. But I aim to find out.
Note: On a more somber tone, one of the most memorable reds I ever caught was in 10 inches of water, fishing out of the Redfish Lodge on Copano Bay in Rockport, Texas. My thoughts go out to those folks along the Texas coast as they deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
KID'S FISHING DERBY: On Saturday, Sept. 9, young anglers ages 4-13 have a chance to improve their skills while having fun, thanks to members of the Pasadena Sportfishing Group. Their annual Kid's Fishing Derby takes place from 7:30-11:30 a.m. at Fort Smallwood Park for children. There is a $5 pre-registration fee per child, but that'll be refunded at sign-in. Reminder: No walk-ins the day of the event, though entry into the park that day is free from 7:30-8:15 a.m. PSG members will provide bait and lessons, and food, drinks and snacks will be provided. Prizes and awards follow the morning's fishing. For more information, visit pasadenasportfishing.com or call (410) 439-3474.
Sept. 6: Free State Fly Fishers meeting. John Scarborough on fly fishing around State College, Pennsylvania. 7:30 p.m. at Davidsonville Family Center, 3727 Queen Anne Bridge Road, Davidsonville.
Sept. 9: Pasadena Sportfishing Group "Fishing Derby." 7:30-11:30 a.m. at Fort Smallwood Park. Ages 4-13. The $5 pre-registration fee will be refunded at sign-in. No walk-ins. Info at pasadenasportfishing.com or call (410) 439-3474.
Oct. 4: Free State Fly Fishers meeting. Capt. Chris Karwacki presents "Fly and Light Tackle Fishing the Flats of Tangier Sound." 7:30 p.m. at Davidsonville Family Center, 3727 Queen Anne Bridge Road, Davidsonville.
Oct. 5-9: US Sailboat Show, Annapolis Harbor. Details on annapolisboatshows.com.
Oct. 12-15: US Powerboat Show, Annapolis Harbor. Details on annapolisboatshows.com.
Oct. 7: "Rod & Reef Slam," Anglers for Oyster Restoration, sponsored by CBF, CCA-MD, Maryland DNR. Fishing hours are 6:45 a.m.-2:30 p.m., party and awards from 3 p.m.-7 p.m. at Lowes Wharf Marina Inn, Sherwood, Md. Anglers will fish on three restored oyster reefs. More information & registration at cbf.org/slam.
Nov. 1: Free State Fly Fishers meeting. Jesse L. Iliff, the South River keeper, will discuss the South River's "Score Card." 7:30 p.m. at Davidsonville Family Center, 3727 Queen Anne Bridge Road, Davidsonville.
Nov. 4: Fish For a Cure, Eastport Yacht Club, Annapolis. Money raised supports cancer programs at Anne Arundel Medical Center. Register at fishforacure.org.
Nov. 11: Rocksgiving Tournament, sponsored by Devils Backbone Brewing Company. Register at rocksgiving.com.
Nov. 17-19: MSSA "Fall Classic" rockfish tournament. Register at mssa.net.