“I see birds.”

I could hear the excitement in my fishing partner, Jamie Clough’s voice as he scanned the cloudy Chesapeake horizon with his binoculars.”

“Big birds!”

I slammed my 27′ Judge Center Console into gear and Thunder Road was off to the races. Up ahead, through the misty rain, we could see big herring gulls as they swooped and circled high over the water. As if on cue, a group of six or eight birds plunged toward a swirl on the surface. A savage fight ensued and the victor flew away erratically as the other gulls gave chase. In the lead bird’s beak was a 6-inch long silver fish.

“They’re on big bunker. That’s what we’re looking for,” shouted Jamie.

We bolted toward the spot where the birds were diving with our rods and reels at the ready. Before the boat came to a complete stop, we were both hooked up.

“Fish on!”

How was your fishing this fall? By most accounts, it’s been a great season for light tackle casting on the Chesapeake Bay. One of the reasons why we’re catching more fish than ever this year is that, thanks to recent harvest reductions, there is a lot of bait around, especially menhaden. In the Chesapeake, anglers refer to menhaden as bunker or sometimes (incorrectly) LYs. They’ve famously been called, “the most important fish in the sea.” That’s because menhaden are such a critical link in the Atlantic’s food web. At one time, menhaden made up over 70% of rockfish diets. Now, that number has dwindled to something like 8% because there just isn’t enough menhaden to keep the rockfish fed. In fact, the population of menhaden in the Atlantic Ocean is at less than 10% of historic levels. That’s a big drop and a huge problem, not only for recreational fishermen, but for anyone who makes their living in and around the Bay. Read More!

The night was as dark as a tomb and I was wet and cold. I felt lucky to be alive and I couldn’t believe my good fortune in finding a tattered blanket in this rusted ship’s hold. I pulled it higher over my shoulders and dozed.

We shouldn’t have tried to fish today. The weather forecast called for building winds, but we thought we could get out for a few hours to catch some of the big stripers that always migrate into the Chesapeake Bay in late October. The blow arrived soon after we launched from the Hoopersville ramp. By the time we rounded the Hoopers Island Straits at Nancy’s Point, we were well into the teeth of a full northwestern gale.  We decided to call it off, but just as my friend Phil turned his center console back east, a rogue wave hit us broadside.  The boat rolled hard and I went overboard. Read More!

I got to fish with Dusty Baker. If the name doesn’t mean anything to you then you must be living with the sea bass underneath the reef balls off Tilghman Island. Dusty Baker is nothing short of baseball royalty. He’s the manager of the Washington Nationals, former manager of both the Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants, and All Star outfielder for the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers. I couldn’t hope to list all his accomplishments but the most important statistic relative to Chesapeake Bay fishing is that he’s caught thousands of striped bass and other species. Dusty has fished all his life, on both U.S. coasts and all over the Caribbean as well as in other parts of the world. He’s a pro with a fly rod, a spinning outfit, and a baitcaster.

We caught a lot of fish while he was staying in St. Michael’s, Maryland over the All-Star break, but my most memorable few minutes came while we were sitting in the back of Chuck Castle’s Whaler and reminiscing about fishing with our fathers. Dusty and I found that we have a lot in common in that both of our dads were very active in fundamentalist Christian congregations (his father a Baptist deacon and mine a Church of Christ minister), and that they both loved to fish. As we swapped stories about our younger days, the conversation eventually came around to our fathers’ favorite fish. “Shellcrackers,” we said at the same time. If you know anything about southern fishing and those hard-fighting redear sunfish, that coincidence won’t surprise you at all. Read More!

A lot has been written about the art in fly fishing. There is grace and beauty in a perfect fly cast. What is more satisfying than watching a colorful trout rise from a crystal clear pool to take a hand-tied floating fly? I just returned from Colorado where I had ample time to fly fish in the cold streams of the Gunnison National Forest. I don’t get to fly fish for trout much, but when I do, I’m always struck by the similarities to light tackle casting for rockfish on the Chesapeake Bay. One of the most important aspects of fly fishing is the ability to read the water and cast to where the fish are. Another is presenting the lure naturally so that it moves at the exact same speed as the current. While we don’t hear about it as much, there is comparable art in light tackle casting, even when it’s done with a spinning outfit or a baitcaster.

In my years of fishing both fresh and saltwater, I’ve had opportunities to observe the skills and artistry of some of the finest anglers in the world. As a teenager, I guided some of the best-known bass pros in the country when they practiced for tournaments in my home lakes in Tennessee. I’ve been fortunate enough to wade the pristine streams of the Smoky Mountains with the most knowledgeable anglers in the business, and I’ve fished for bonefish and pompano with the legendary guide families of the Bahamas. Most recently, I was joined on my boat Thunder Road by one of the best-known anglers in the world: the legendary Lefty Kreh. Lefty has been fishing for almost a half century longer than I’ve been alive. He’s forgotten more in his 92 years than I can ever hope to learn.

We caught all the fish we wanted that day, and enjoyed several hours of inspiring conversation. Lefty’s fly casting skills are legendary, but his prowess with a spinning outfit is less well-known. Between hooksets, we talked about casting and jigging techniques as well as patterns and the best ways to approach fishing spots. At one point, the conversation turned to the art in fishing. I’m happy to say that after listening to Lefty’s jokes, advice, and aphorisms refined over his long life of fishing, I came away a better fisherman and, hopefully, a better person.

Here are some of the thoughts I’ve collected about the art in light tackle casting: Read More!

If fishing can be a feast or famine activity, anglers in the Chesapeake Bay region have been eating high on the hog lately. As is typical with April, all good things happen at once. In the past two weeks, I’ve caught shad, white perch, yellow perch, bass, bluegill, crappie, catfish, and stripers. Throw in the walleye and snakeheads my friends are catching, and we’re smack in the middle of a virtual smorgasbord of good fishing. The weather has been spotty, but that hasn’t kept too many anglers off the water. Here’s my report:

Yellow Perch:  It’s all but over now, but we enjoyed one of the best March ring-perch runs in recent memory. Neds ran big this year and they were plentiful. They were also a little earlier than usual. That made it nice for those of us who were just about going crazy with cabin fever. Most of my fishing was in the Eastern Shore creeks and rivers. I fished Tuckahoe Creek and the Choptank River from Denton up to Red Bridges park. Some days it was one fish after another and on other days it was slow. Yellow perch can be finicky at times. When they are spawning they typically move up the streams in waves. If you aren’t catching, stick around because chances are another wave will move through and you’ll start getting bites again.  See my earlier post for more information about the yellow perch run.

White Perch:  I thought the white perch spawn might be over until I got a call from my friend Phil Kerchner last week. He was still lighting up the black backs in the creeks near his place at  Wye Mills. I called him last Sunday and we met on the banks of Tuckahoe Creek. It was one pre-spawn white perch after another for a little while. Our best lures were Bust ‘Em Baits stingers and small twister tails rigged in tandem on one-sixteenth-ounce jig heads. As the tide changed, the bite slowed down, but it picked back up before sunset and we took home a very nice stringer. White perch are my favorite fish to eat. I even prefer them over crappie and I think they’re way better than yellow perch. All things in moderation of course, but don’t feel bad about keeping what you want to eat because white perch aren’t threatened and they reproduce prolifically. They will generally hang around the spawning grounds for a little while after they spawn, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we keep catching them in the creeks for a couple of more weeks. After that, they’ll spread out along the shorelines where they can be targeted all summer long.

Shad:  The shad run is in full swing. I’ve fished the Potomac around Fletcher’s Cove and Chain Bridge twice now and found shad in good numbers both times. Joe Yack is reporting shad  in the Susquehanna now as well. The good news is that hickory shad are running big this year. I’ve seen at least two reports of hicks approaching five pounds. Some anglers mistakenly identify bigger hickory shad as white (American) shad because, when they are fully mature, they lose the spots on their shoulders. The key to identifying shad is to look at the lower jaw. If the lower jaw projects beyond the upper one with the mouth closed, it’s a hickory. I typically cast one-quarter or one-eighth ounce shad darts. It pays to experiment when you’re shad fishing because the same colors and techniques that work one day might not work the next. Last week, my fishing buddy Jay Yesker out-fished me by snap-jigging two quarter-ounce darts on eight-pound-test monofilament. (That’s Jay’s boys in the picture.) The fish were taking on the fall. Since my usual spinning rig is eight-pound-test braid with a similar size fluorocarbon leader, I couldn’t duplicate what he was doing because the force of the snap using the stretchless braid would break my leader. You can bet I was rigged with mono the next time I went out, but wouldn’t you know it, on that day the fish wanted a steady fast retrieve! You just don’t know until you go. The shad run should last for several more weeks, so there’s still plenty of time to get in on the action. Read More!

“It’s the worst winter ever.” Those words might sound surprising coming from Jamie Clough, a fisherman who has caught more forty-inch-plus rockfish in the last three months than most people will catch in a lifetime, but he’s right. It’s been tough. I’m on record for predicting that 2016 will be the best year in recent history for light-tackle striper casting on the Chesapeake Bay. I’m not taking it back, but after the first three months, I feel like I have some explaining to do.

In past years, January, February, and March have been wide-open for fishing in the warm water discharges of the Patapsco and Potomac Rivers and around the power plants of the Mid-Bay. In February 2014, my fishing partners and I enjoyed the best day I’ve ever heard of, going forty over forty. Yes, that’s forty huge stripers over forty-inches long, all caught in one morning. The fishing was so good we were trying to glue two ten-inch Bass Kandy Delights together so we could pull out the biggest of the big fish. In years like that, you can make a lot of mistakes and still catch fish. While I’ve seen some good days since then, nothing like that happened this year. To catch big fish this winter, we had to pull out all the stops. Read More!