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The Perfect Cast - Chesapeake Light Tackle

The water was a silent mirror, perfectly reflecting the glittering blush of light in the twilight sky over Elk Neck State Forest. Creig idled my Judge 27CC “Thunder Road” across the glass.  He stopped just short of the up-current side of a shallow underwater trench. I fashioned a rapala knot out of thirty-pound fluorocarbon leader and tied on my favorite top-water plug, a silver and orange off-brand spook that I picked out of a junk box at the Pasadena Fishing Flea Market.  As Creig shut off the engine, I grabbed my spinning outfit, stepped up on the bow, flipped over the bale spring and waited for our drift to slow.  The line felt electric beneath my index finger as I held it tightly against the cork handle and raised my rod tip in anticipation of what would surely be the perfect cast. It was top-water time on the Susquehanna Flats.

“Dish calm.”  That’s the term my friend John Page Williams would use to describe the still waters of the Upper Chesapeake.  My brother and I were right where we wanted to be on this May Day morning.  To say we had planned for it would be an understatement.  For the past two years we hoped for a day like this.  There’s just no finer fishing than top-water casting. Last year, it couldn’t happen.  There were plenty of calm mornings, but the fish were just not there.  For whatever reason, things changed in 2010 and the Flats came alive again with pre and post-spawn stripers.  We fished all week, my son Daniel joining us for a couple of days before he had to leave to perform with his band at the Merlefest music festival in North Carolina.  It took some time, but we eventually identified a productive pattern.  Strong winds kept the top-water plugs out of action though.  So far our best catching had been with jigs, spoons, and slash baits. Finally, the weather was cooperating.  We’d done our homework and felt sure we knew where our chances were best.

My house on Kent Island is a good seventy miles from the Flats by land.  Getting there is not easy.  Our choices were to pull the boat across the Bay Bridge and up through the Harbor Tunnel in Baltimore to Harve de Grace, or to head north up Maryland’s Eastern Shore and wind our way through the Delmarva farm country to a tiny ramp in Betterton.  A third option, making a forty mile run by water, was eliminated by the high winds through most of the week.   We chose the rural route.

Betterton is a tiny village located at the mouth of the Sassafras River.  It was apparently a grand place in steamboat days.  The downtown area is a collection of Victorian hotels and boarding homes once used by passengers who poured into the area from Baltimore and points south to visit the town’s once famous amusement parks and saloons. Betterton’s Main street ends in the Chesapeake Bay at the boat ramp.  When we arrived Saturday morning we could find only one business open in the area, a quaint little country store that made sandwiches and sold ice and fortunately for us, carried Kent County boat ramp permits.

The Betterton ramp is narrow and shallow and was covered with driftwood when we arrived. We cleaned it off as best we could, but apparently not well enough.  Some of the wood had nails in it, and we returned from our first day of fishing to find a flat trailer tire.  On the way back to Betterton the next morning, we had another flat.  Topping off our string of bad luck, the right rear tire on my truck blew out a sidewall on our third trip up the Shore.  Finding our spare flat, we thought we were in big trouble and had started walking when we were fortunate to be assisted by a passing Church Hill, MD Roto Rooter man.  He was nice enough to take the tire away in his plumbing van and bring it back repaired.  Thank goodness for country folk.

We fished on the Flats almost every day this past week, taking a break on Thursday to check out the action south of Kent Island.  The fish were cooperative in the Mid-Bay, but we left them biting because we wanted to take advantage of as much time as possible on the Flats.  The area closes to striped bass fishing the first Sunday of May.  Throughout the week we met several old friends and made a few new ones.  Steve Fogle of Backyard Custom Rods phoned in one morning to tell us he’d located a good bite above Fishing Battery Light.  Tim Campbell called a little later about hot action off Turkey Point. “Wildbill” Schotta helped us out with some good advice and introduced us by telephone to his friend “King George.” Bill called him, “the King of the Susquehanna.”  King George knew his stuff and kept us in the loop all day Friday. We met local fishing expert Joe Yack who was nice enough to offer us a few pulls from his bottle of Old No. 7, and we made several drifts alongside Walleye Pete of Four Seasons Guide Service in his brand new Judge 27 Chesapeake. We owe a debt of gratitude to everyone for the pointers and advice.

With good weather in the forecast, it was inevitable that there would be a lot of fishermen on the Flats for this last weekend of the season.  The fish there are very sensitive to motor noise.  Too many boats will send them packing for deeper water.  I usually don’t talk much about the Flats until the season ends. We knew our best shot for top-water action would be at dawn when the light was low and there would be few boats around.  Unwilling to chance more trailering problems, we decided to run up by boat and spend Friday night on the water.  I always enjoy sleeping on the boat.   My last rig, Crockett’s Reel had a cuddy with soft cushions which made overnighting a breeze.  The accomodations are a bit more primitive on Thunder Road. There’s room for one to crash below the casting deck, but definitely not two.  We fashioned a homemade tent by draping a tarp over a rope stretched from the T-top to the bow cleat.  It was enough to keep the dew off.  We slept well in our hillbilly hotel and woke up before the alarm.

Now this is the part where I’d love to say I pulled the trigger on that first morning cast and hooked into a giant rockfish.  That would’ve been the perfect ending.  It’s exactly what I hoped, even expected to happen.  I might even have said it was inevitable. But, to misquote a line from Robert Burns, the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ fishermen often go awry.  This morning, the fish weren’t there.  As the sky brightened we moved from spot to fishing spot, being careful to idle quietly and looking over our shoulders as more boats appeared on the horizon.  By the time the sun began to peak over Bull Mountain, we had made over a hundred casts between us without a single top-water blowup.

With a sigh, Creig put down his baitcaster and picked up his camera to get a shot of the sunrise.  As the light got brighter it lit up the perfectly still water like liquid gold. I decided to sling my spook right into the gilded-glass reflection to add a little drama to the shot.  I started a painfully slow and slack-lined walk-the-dog retrieve.   The wake behind the lure spread out in the orange water like a giant V.  I was about to say something about how well the plug matched the color of the sun when, KERPLOOSH!

I almost jumped off the casting deck I was so surprised by the strike. Creig and I both shouted out-loud as the big rockfish missed the lure and circled back for another try.  SLAM!  This time, my 12-pound-test monofiliment came tight and I set the hook securely into the mouth of the big striper.  My drag started screaming as the fish lit out across the flat.  One of the thrills of catching big fish in shallow water is incredibly strong runs.  The fish can’t go down, so they bolt.  It’s part of the attraction of fishing on the Flats.  The fish took a lot of line but eventually tired and I started gaining ground. In the excitement of the strike, Creig completely forgot he had the camera in his hands, but he remembered in time to snap some shots as I guided the fish to the side of the boat.

It turned out to be the only rockfish we caught all morning.  After the sun rose higher in the sky and I looked around to count over thirty boats, we decided to head south and chase post-spawn stripers closer to Kent Island. I can’t say our morning was wasted though, not by any means. We had landed far bigger fish on previous days, some in the twenty-five pound class. It also wasn’t the most dramatic fight, the entire event lasted only three or four minutes.  But, there’s no denying it was the most exciting moment of our week long adventure.  Without even knowing I had made the perfect cast. I can think of no better reminder that in fishing, as in life, the best moments come when we least expect them.

Posted Sunday, May 2nd, 2010 at 4:44 pm
Filed Under Category: Fishing Reports
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Responses to “The Perfect Cast”

  1. Creig says:

    A very good summary of a wonderful weekend. Thanks for the great time on the beautiful Chesapeake and another grand time together with rod/reel in hand. I enjoyed every minute and look forward to next time we get back on the water. Until then, take care of the Thunder Road for me!

  2. JOE YACK says:

    Great read… once again I really enjoy this site It was very nice to meet you… the boat is beautiful… Just one thing “I am no expert” just a guy with a sickness… the fish talk to me in my sleep and I am tortured unless I’m fishing… You should be careful as you show all the classic signs of the disease… or maybe you have a more advanced strain… Hope to spend some more time on the water with you…

  3. Jim Windsor says:

    Another great article and photos from one of the Chesapeake’s finest. Glad you had a chance to enjoy your kin and Thunder Road for the week. Keep it tight!

  4. Steve F says:

    Out of all the web sites I visit and read yours is without a doubt the “BEST”. I really enjoy reading about your adventures on the Chesapeake Bay and the fish that you catch and your photos, well they are outstanding. I’m sorry that the fish did not cooperate when you got to me up on the Flats but we did catch a few. It was good seeing you at the Bay Bridge on Saturday also but boy was it a tough day out there. Keep up the great reports and I will let you know how we make out this coming Saturday but I think I’m going to hit the Patapsco River to see if any fish are still there.

  5. RiverCat09 says:


    Great read, and great photography. I’ve been told that I can spin a yarn, but you’re an incredible writer. I liked the historical backdrop of the old town Betterton, and I enjoyed reading about how you got to the ramp.

    Great idea with the lean-too at the bow. I’m going to have to try that with my center console.

    Tight Lines!


  6. Jeff, 240 LTS says:

    You paint a beautiful picture with words.
    I (we) enjoy reading them.

    Saturday morning is the kind of morning that dreams are made of. Fish or not (lucked out with a 37 incher on a Tony just after sun up) that sun rise will not be soon forgotten, simply beautiful.

    I am VERY surprised there were not more boats there. I remember days when there would have been hundreds!

    Keep up the good work,
    Thank you,

  7. Mike B says:

    Very nice. Enjoyed it as always.


  8. Gary Russell says:

    Shawn – thanks for the great stories, pictures and especially the fishing knowledge you share with everyone. You are a Chesapeake treasure. Take care.


  9. jumbo1 says:

    Great read again Shawn….we need to hookup here shortly…this time last year I was finding decent fish under birds at a top-secret location…you may need to be blindfolded for this trip…..On a more serious note…love the pics…

  10. Tim Campbell says:

    Good seeing you and your brother up on the Flats again. It was a pretty good final two weeks of fishing there and I’m already looking forward to next season.
    John Page told me about this recent blog of yours and I’m glad he did. It is a very good read and a delightful account of your trip.
    On another note, I would like to chat w/you regarding an article about careful catch. John Page had Boat US Angler magazine approach him about writing it but he referred the assignment to me. Talk w/you soon.

  11. Greg Shute says:

    Sounds like another great adventure. I am glad to hear Thunder Road has been doing it all from the flats to the big waters of the bay!

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