If the next 51 weeks of 2012 go as well as the first one, this promises to be a very good year for light tackle fishing on the Chesapeake Bay. I’ve fished four times and caught a Diamond Jim qualifying citation fish on each trip including three rockfish in the mid 40-inch range. I’m chalking it up to a little experience, some insider information, and a lot of luck.  My son, “Big Fish Cory” has been visiting. Although he didn’t catch any trophies this time around, he still brought along his lucky horseshoe.  Chesapeake striped bass fishermen have two basic winter options.  One is to fish deep holes – either in the main stem of the Bay or up in the outside bends of the rivers – and the other is to work the warm water discharges. Since we’ve had a very mild winter so far, the warm water discharges have been inconsistent.  I decided to split the difference and fish the last four days close to home off Kent Island.

One of the best places I know of to jig up deep water rockfish is the Bay Bridge.  Two- and three-year-old-stripers and white perch survive the cold winter by stacking up around the Bay Bridge rock piles. They’ll stay there until the spring freshet washes out their warm water comfort zones. Even though they are readily apparent on a fish finder, they aren’t always easy to catch. To coax a strike out of deep-water stripers you just have to aggravate them until they bite.  You can jig for hours and not get a single strike, then, snap – the fish will turn on and you’re catching every cast.

When fish are deep and sluggish, my strategy is to throw brightly-colored jigs with a lot of contrasting colors and scents. I start with either white, light purple, or chartreuse soft-plastic jigs, then dip them in contrasting colored garlic dye.  Since the current is strong at the Bay Bridge and I want to bang the bottom on every cast, I use ounce-and-a-half or two-ounce jig heads with a wide gap barbless hook.  Winter Bay Bridge rockfish feed at very specific spots.  On page 228 of Chesapeake Light Tackle – The Book, I say exactly where. A huge bonus is that an occasional trophy-sized fish will stop by the Bay Bridge.  I hope you’ve tied good knots and have a reel with a smooth drag, because if one shows up when you have a lure in the water, you’ll need them!

I’ve also tried some of the warm water discharges over the past four days and caught exactly three fish.  It’s way too early for a consistent bite at the WWDs because ambient water temperatures in the Bay are still in the 40s.  It takes a dramatic temperature break to turn the fish on in the outflows and surface temps are still way too warm. Nevertheless, a few very nice fish are showing up, so an exploratory trip might be worth the effort.

Fishing for chain pickerel is one of my favorite cold-weather pastimes.  Last Sunday afternoon, Cory and I decided to take a break from chasing trophy rockfish to try for winter chainsides.  We hit a couple of my favorite spots in one of the western shore rivers.  Although we got a few bites here and there, we couldn’t develop a consistent pattern.  That’s when I hit on the idea to return to one of my old stomping grounds.

When I first moved to the Chesapeake Bay I lived in a little riverside house in Arnold, Maryland. Our cottage sat on a little peninsula. We could see ship traffic in the main channel from our front deck, but the back porch looked out on a little spring-fed tidal lake.  Sometimes in the evenings after work, I would walk out and cast off the community dock for perch and pickerel.

Over the three years we lived on the Broadneck Peninsula, I refined my shore-casting techniques to where I was pretty sure I could catch fish on any given evening.  On most winter days the little lake was completely iced over, but warmer water from the spring sometimes opened up an area in the middle that was just big enough to cast toward. Though trial and error I learned that I could cast my lure well past the open water up onto the ice, then reel it in so that it gently plopped off the edge.  As it fell, I knew there was a good chance of an attack by a gator-mouthed pickerel.

I caught a lot of hammer-handle size pickerel using that method, but I knew there was a bigger fish in that hole.  I almost had him one snowy day in February.  After setting the hook I felt the unmistakable deep body bends of a long, heavy fish, but the hook straightened and he was gone.  A few weeks later I saw him again when I was reeling in my lure and he followed it right up to the dock.  Despite hundreds of subsequent casts, I never got close again.

Until Sunday.

Cory and I arrived at the little lake about 3:00 PM.  On the way into the narrow entrance, we passed the little community beach that once seemed like part of our yard . Some of the neighborhood kids saw the Thunder Road and came over to say hello.  They were two years older than the last time I saw them, but I recognized them and knew their parents.  They asked if we were catching anything and we had to say, “no.”

We moved into the little lake and started casting.  I was happy to see some ice around the edges.  After a couple of casts, Cory hooked up a respectable pickerel.  The fish jumped and threw the hook quickly, but that told us all we needed to know; there were chainsides here. I repositioned the boat to keep our drift clear of the docks and made a long cast back downwind toward the ice.  I was throwing a Super Rooster Tail safety pin style bait that I bought at Angler’s Sports Center.  About a foot above it, I attached a dropper loop and tied on one of my buddy Woody’s custom made Maryland Tackle feather flies.  I put a chartreuse grub on the fly and threw it toward the edge of the ice and waited for it to sink.

Countdown, one, two, three, WHAM!

The fish took the lure going away.  There was no need to jerk the line, the ferocity of the strike set the hook.  The deep body bends of a 24-inch chain pickerel will dip a light rod every bit as much as a 45-inch striper.  I let the fish run, then took up the line slowly as I worked it around and behind the motor and close to the side of the boat. I don’t carry a net, and I wasn’t about to lip the toothy fish, so I scooped it under it’s wide belly and lifted it up into the boat.  Chain pickerel squirm like trout, so it takes two hands to hold them, and it’s still a struggle.  I somehow managed to stabilize the fish long enough for Cory to snap a picture, but he quickly flopped out of my hands and back into the water.  I should’ve brought a rubber coated net. I didn’t get a measurement, but I think he was over the 24″ Maryland citation mark and easily the biggest chain pickerel I’ve ever caught.

My biggest rockfish this week was a fat 48-inch trophy caught on a purple glitter Bass Kandy Delight (BKD) hotrodded with orange garlic scented dye. I’ve had two more fish in the mid-40-inch range in the past three days.  I usually catch my biggest rockfish of the year in January, so I’ve been fishing hard to make sure this year is no exception.  Temperatures have been very pleasant lately.  Too pleasant really.  We need a good snap of cold weather to really make fishing fun.

On the yellow perch front, some of my friends in the Upper Bay Mafia checked in this week to tell me fishing is improving fast in the area around Port Deposit.  I’m hoping to get up there soon to get in on some of that action.  The fish are holding on the deep ledges and artificial baits are now producing as well as minnows.

Speaking of fun, I’m looking forward to the Baltimore Boat Show coming up the weekend of January 19-22.  This year’s exhibitor and seminar list looks way too interesting to pass up. Since I plan to do a lot more winter fishing, I especially appreciate the courses on safe-boating and onboard emergencies.  I’ll probably drop in on the “Dock & Dine on the Chesapeake” seminar as well since that’s usually a big part of summer fishing trips for our family.  Of course, the biggest draw is the boats.  Even though I have a boat that I really like, I can’t wait to see the new 2012 models and check out the latest engines and marine electronics.  It’s at the Baltimore Convention Center.  Drop me a line if you’re going and maybe I’ll see you there!

My spring seminar schedule is shaping up as well.  I have several talks scheduled at various locations including Washington DC, Annapolis, Pasedena, and Westminster.  I’ll say more about my talks when we get closer.  For now, I hope you find time to get out and enjoy some of the many winter fishing options.  I have high expectations for this year and things are off to a very good start!




Posted Monday, January 9th, 2012 at 12:12 pm
Filed Under Category: Fishing Reports
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Responses to “A Good Start”

  1. bugsy says:

    Please turn your hymnals to page 228! Love it all!

  2. Jimmie says:

    I have been having a great start to 2012 as well. Great read Shawn. Can’t wait until my boys are old enough to get out on the water with them like you and Cory!

  3. Jimmy John II says:

    I had no idea. This is really good stuff.

  4. Bridgette Burns says:

    Thank you for an entertaining story and some very nice photos. We just bought your book at Alltackle and I’ve been fighting my boyfriend for it.

  5. Oystercracker says:

    Whoa! Makes me sorry that the boat is shrink wrapped for the winter. I have been catching some of those toothy critters and a couple of yellow perch in the Magothy. Try a suspending crank bait like a shad rap or a small XPS minnow with an irritic start & stop retrieve. The pickerel can’t leave them alone. I don’t know about them bending the rod as much as a 45″ striper but I guess they’ll have to do until Spring. Thanks for all of the great lessons you pass along….you are right on.

  6. Tim C. says:

    Wow Shawn, I am seriously impressed. I think I have been fishing the same striper spot with less than great results. About 3 weeks ago it was super hot for me. It took a bit to figure it out but I caught all I wanted in the 18-24 range it was just like you said totally dead then it would turn on.

    On Saturday I caught just a few smaller fish…. I had great marks and had my jigs in the strike zone but couldn’t seem to make it happen..I mean I tried EVERYTHING in the book. The fish I did catch seemed skiddish/sluggish on the hit. I was actually ready to give up on them for the winter as I thought temps were getting too low. Guess not

    Thanks for the report, NICE WORK!
    -Tim C

  7. Great post and I appreciate the mix of technique, description of gear and “catch pics”..Nice report…Phil

  8. rick says:

    Just finished the book. Great read! The rooster tail was my go to perch spinner until I started using Woody’s lures. Got to try it dropper style next time. Nice report!

  9. Blue Marlin says:

    Were you in the Severn or the Magothy for the pickerel? Those are beautiful rockfish.

  10. Gitzit 2 says:

    a great start to 2012 indeed!
    I hope to get out soon and jump start my season, too.

    see ya soon.


  11. Creig says:

    Awesome catches man! Like the chainsides. Imagine you will need to do some line changing with the toothy critters and the stretch I am sure you got on your bc’s from those trophy rocks!

    Tight lines!

  12. Capt Jimmy Tilghman says:

    That Pickerel looks smaller than the rest of those fish.
    I guess it’s all relative.
    Speaking of relatives;
    Jimmie and Jimmie John don’t you got chores?
    Bridgette, give us a call…

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