Tournament fishing isn’t necessarily my thing, but that doesn’t make it invaluable to my angling experiences. Though the pressure and one-up-manship that a tourney stirs up on the water and in our psyche can take away from the fun, it also forces you to think aggresively. Then again, it’s all a mindset and depending on how bad or not you want to win, the experience can be a grind or relaxing. For the High Octane Custom Baits 3rd Annual Pickerel Slam on Saturday, November 19th, I mentally prepared as if I’d be lucky to find the fish at all, choosing a “take what you can get” approach to best enjoy the “me time” on the water. Honestly, I use this tournament as an excuse to enjoy a full day on the water, free of distraction. (Note: this is a different tourney than the four-month-long CCA Maryland Pickerel Championship.)
This isn’t to say that I don’t prepare and have a gameplan going into the day. Per usual, I researched weather and tidal conditions leading up to the day-of and matched them to my instincts based on past experiences and patterns. After all, I want to catch fish regardless of there being a leaderboard at play. Seeing as this was exclusively a pickerel tournament, I recalled my top performing lures from past seasons and armed my spinning setups with jerkbaits, in-line spinners, small chatterbaits, weedless paddletails, and crankbaits. The breadth of which covered the water column and various situations I’d be facing.
Tournament format was straightforward. The longest three-fish stringer wins the day. The field of 30-plus anglers would be aiming for 20-plus” fish. Average size of adult pickerel is about 22—24,” so any fish over this size would give anglers a shot at winning.
But conditions were not ideal where I’d be spending my day in the upper half of the Severn River. Winds blew steady around 10 knots with gusts into the teens and the tide remained low even on the incoming flood cycle. This meant the shoreline cover was exposed and probably not hold the fish. My hunch was that the pickerel moved out to slightly deeper depths 25—50 yards off shoreline and around the ends of docks, or along intersections of bottom change—for example, where a shallow grassbed transitions to sandy bottom dropoff. The water was super clear and cold, both good for pickerel which “activate” in sub 55F water temps and are sight predators.
But that wind. Damn. It precluded that I’d be fishing the leeward side of the river and creeks. It was blowing from the southwest but would occasionally shift 180 degrees before steadying back to a westerly. This limited my fishing range by about 50 percent. The grassbeds where I had some success last week were on the windblown side of the river (I did give them a try though). The creeks were a touch protected and up, down, and along the docks required planned drifts. I’ve yet to attach a trolling motor to the McKee Craft and this is perfect example of when they are needed to hold steady and move effectively. Oh well.
For most of my day—which started at noon and ended at 4:30 p.m.—I moved between four tributaries: Valentine, Plum, and Forked Creeks, plus Rock Cove. Early on I had quick success picking off a couple very fat white perch and one short pickerel in a Plum Creek spot that produced a dozen nice pickerel in last year’s tournament. These came on a Rapala DT4 crankbait in live perch color. The early confidence moved me to throw this lure most of the day. But those early catches would have to hold me over for nearly two hours until I made way into the windblown end of Rock Cove. With the afternoon sunshine warming this water and a breeze working any bait into this pocket, I figured there was a chance for a lurking pickerel. And it paid off with a spritely 18.25” fish, also on the Rapala DT4. Not the largest, but it was something. I had another hit but failed to connect. I worked the end of the cove before heading back to home waters in Plum to repeat my earlier attempts.
In between these early and late fish, I ventured across river to the aforementioned grassbeds (no luck with the jerkbait that hooked a couple fish a week ago here). I also tried working grass on the opposite side of the river between docks, with a weedless paddletail, but the wind had blown so much water out, that the grass (dying grass mind you) was breaking the water’s surface. Not good. The transition from grass to sand didn’t produce either. Forked Creek looked promising and I gave it a shot, but there were two other anglers already working the shorelines aggressively. And I had a feeling they weren’t the first to fish the water this day, either. My late start to the day (family obligations prevented a dawn start), probably did me in…sort of. As mentioned earlier, with the low water, most of my go-to cover spots (tree laydowns, etc.) weren’t holding fish.
Not finding the abundance of fish I hoped for was a slight downer, if only because I enjoy the tug. The overall winner of the tournament pulled in a 72.5” stringer. Impressive. Last year, I pulled in more than 20 pickerel for 66.75” stringer and finished in sixth place. This year, two pickerel and 17th place. But the tourney standings and competition play second fiddle to simple fun. I did take solace in the solitude of the day, loving the nature of it all. The sun was shining and a couple fish bit. Better luck in next year’s tournament. And a big thank you to the HOCB crew for organizing a pickerel tournament, which could develop into a Thanksgiving week tradition. See y’all on the water again, real soon!