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Perch ‘n Pickerel!

Well, it’s the time of year when Chesapeake diehards commit to their winter patterns. It’s a week before Christmas and we’ve had cold weather grip the region for the past two weeks with serious dips into the 20sF, which has dropped water temperatures quickly down to 50F and even lower. In the middle-Bay, most of the migratory baitfish have exited the rivers heading south to the mouth, and along with them, striped bass. There are still a few resident schoolies that remain in the rivers but targeting them is fruitless—like searching for a needle in a haystack. Best to aim for species we can count on catching—even during the coldest depths of winter. So, many of us target…and you know where I’m going with this…yellow perch ‘n pickerel!

And for the past couple weeks, it’s been a fairly consistent bite, if a bit tough. As long as the weather is stable with fair winds, you have a shot at catching fish. For my past several outings, I hit small creeks when the winds were predicted below 10 mph. The tides during which were somewhat frustrating. Daytime tides fluctuated between ebb and flood, but have been mild: within the 0.0- to 0.5-foot range of the cycle, which means consistently low water, which means a more exposed shoreline (we prefer high water covering shoreline structure where fish like to hide). Low water seems to be the early-winter pattern with regard to the moon’s position relative to Earth. Weak tides be damned, we went fishing anyway.

This is what we were after–frisky pickerel. This guy hit the tiny Rapala countdown minnow, very close to the same spot a couple yellow perch hit just moments before.

I opted for the jon boat on these past few trips because I’d be staying close to home waters in the back creeks and I wanted stealth. The jon boat can put me in close range to targets and moves gently from spot to spot with the silent trolling motor. To work a creek effectively when perch and pickerel fishing, you need to work the entirety of the shorelines, its cover points (docks, laydowns, etc.), and backwaters/flats. This can take a few hours, even in a small creek. Look at an aerial map of the Magothy or Severn rivers and you’ll see examples of these creeks.

For the actual fishing, I kept things simple with three basic rigs; all spinning, I had light, medium, and medium-heavy rods for various presentations. Most trips, I opt to fish for reaction bites, so for lures I’m casting tiny 2” crankbaits, 3–5” jerkbaits, in-line spinners, and usually a chatter-style bait tipped with a soft plastic (paddletail or fluke). These allow me to cover the water column top to bottom in the shallow water (2—10’).

During each outing, I circumnavigated the entire creek, hitting every possible target and casting toward shoreline with slowish retrieves worked back to the boat. Yellow perch usually hit the lure on the fall or within the first few twitches, with a tick-tick-take, and are frisky on the front-end of the retrieve. A bit of play happens for a few seconds, then tapers off as you pull them in. A couple nice yellow perch hit the tiny Rapala countdown minnow. The smaller baits were preferred, though I did pick up another on a 3” Rapala Xrap. Both in yellow perch colors, which is the preferred “match the hatch” color pattern for this type of fishing.

Ouch! Somebody had previousely hookset this pickerel in the cheek. For me, he hit a Rapala Xrap worked across shallow water that abutted a bulkhead.

Pickerel love perch. They know the forage fish is active this time of year, and so mimicking this pattern can usually catch them. And I did. Same lures as the perch—the minnow and the jerkbait. Several decent pickerel came into the boat, averaging only 20″ in length. There are bigger fish out there. Interestingly my other go-to lures didn’t even get any follows on these past few trips—that is, a pickerel chasing the bait all the way to the boat. As winter continues to bear down on the fishery, I expect a number of other patterns and lures to increasingly become effective. For example, twitching a shallow-running jerbait or surface minnow over dying grassbeds that have been warmed by the sun. That’s another pattern I’m looking forward to. Perhaps next trip. See y’all on the water again real soon!

This yellow perch hit a 3″ Rapala Xrap, proving that small fish will go for big meals!