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Severn Tough

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With a twitch to the right, sharp turn left, a foot-deep dive here, then there, and a pause, the jerkbait hovered in clean, clear water just within eyesight. And behind it, a mammoth pickerel. The fish had chased the lure, observing its every move, and the moment had come when it would decide between attacking its potential meal or gently doing a 180 and swimming back from whence it came. I had baited the pickerel. It sat still in the water. I could see it’s fins delicately undulate. And then…

This fish swam away. It didn’t bite. I estimate it was a 23–24-incher. It’s what we, who brave winter’s chill for a shot at catching these predatory fish, call a “chaser” or “follower.” When you work the banks, shorelines, and cover searching for the torpedo strike of a pickerel, chasers are common…and can drive you mad as an angler. You question your competence, you curse the fishing gods, you pray for another shot at catching the very fish you just witnessed turning its nose at you. “The chase” just about sums my past week of early season pickerel fishing. It’s been a grind, but I did manage a few fish, plus a couple bonus species.

In the past week, I took four trips on the Severn River. Specifically the upper Severn, which I consider my homewaters. The abundance of pickerel-rich creeks, clean water with slightly lower salinity than the river’s main stem, and plenty of goldmine cover usually produce fish on each outing. If weather and tidal conditions are in step, the day can be dynamite. Of course, the fish have to cooperate. Some days, you may hit the lottery as evidenced by a spectacular day exactly one year ago—the first week of December 2021—that saw me pick off more than 20 pickerel in a couple hours time and mostly within one creek. Amazing. Other days, of course, can be tedious exercises searching for one good bite.

This yellow perch hit a Zman willowvibe tipped with a Zoom fluke as the bait swam parallel to a dock.

For the first run of the week, I opted to zip the McKee Craft northward through The Narrows of the Severn and slip into the cove just north of Mathews Point. The plan was to exclusively work this cove—its shoreline and many docks with Rapala jerkbaits, small crankbaits, and a Zman willowvibe tipped with a Zoom fluke. The colors for all lures were decidely perch—off-white/green/yellow/orange/black. This was a late-afternoon trip shortly before sundown. Conditions began calm and with a strong flood tide nearing it’s high slack. The water looked juicy—ripe and definitely holding pickerel…right? I methodically picked apart the shoreline with all lures and ultimately began to favor the willowvibe for the jighead’s proficiency to skip under and around docks, and swim through varying depths. But for all the hard work put into two short hours, only a yellow perch—go figure—hit the lure. A nice, little surprise catch. The pickerel, however, were no-shows. Not even a chaser.

This 19″ pickerel attacked the small 2″ Rapala Husky Jerk in gold color.

Next up was a quick bank trip to my honey hole just a short walk from home. I tied on a tiny jerkbait—a 2″ Rapala Husky Jerk in gold color. The shimmer and shine of this magic bullet is enticing. As a small minnow imitator, it matches the forage present in the creek shallows. With a light spinning outfit, it’s easy to launch the lure a couple dozen yards off the bank. I usually put on my hip waders so I can roam the shallow shoreline waters unabated. At the honey hole, I’m pretty much looking for the one fish that’s lurking around. It’s unusual to find more than a single fish. And on cast number two, just as the lure zipped into view ahead of the rod tip, a 19″ pickerel darted into its path and engulfed the bait. Fish on! A fun, little playful fish that was lip hooked, making for an easy release. One and done. Pickerel success!

For a change of pace and a shot at pickerel that might be habitating the freshest water of the Severn, I drove to the river’s headwaters at Severn Run and hiked—hip waders on—from a roadside trailhead about a 1/4-mile to a shallow cove. The tide, unfortunately, was very low, having just hit the slack low mark about a half-hour before my arrival. Nevertheless, I immediately observed a few fishy swirls about 30 yards from the bank and began making casts. Again, with the tiny Rapala Husky Jerk. No chasers though. I switched out the jerkbait for an inline spinner, a Mepps Aglia Streamer, and in short order I connected with…white perch! White perch—a jumbo 12–13″ fish at that—in these shallows (about 3–4 feet depth max) was definitely a surprise. Could have been a rogue fish, but the amount of occasional swirls had me thinking a small school was swimming the area. Unfortunately, no pickerel showed up. My itch needed scratching though, so the next morning…

A jumbo 12–13″ white perch nailed a Mepps Aglia Streamer in the shallows of Severn Run.

I loaded up the old 12′ aluminum jon boat with an assortment of shallow water setups, the electric trolling motor, and a large, hot cup of coffee. Air temps had dropped into the 20sF overnight and the surface water temp registered 46F. My plan on this very, very cold morning was to work the entirety of Plum Creek—shorelines, cover, docks, and shallow headwater. Again, with the tide being super low, most tree laydowns were at least half-exposed and my hunch was that any pickerel were probably holding 10–20 yards further out from shoreline than if the water was at a high tide (the tide would start flooding about an hour into this trip though).

I started with the lightest of three spinning setups and worked a tiny sinking Rapala minnow in perch color along the bank and around docks. No looks or chases though. Then, a heavier, deeper diving jerkbait—the Rapala Shadow Rap Shad—worked perpendicular to the ends of docks had a couple chasers, one of which was the mammoth pickerel written about in the top lead. But no hookup. Things were slow to start. It wasn’t until the boat made way to the shallow mud flat at the end of the creek that I’d connect. Fancasting the tiny Rapala minnow across the expansive flat got a nice chase and hookup with a 22″ fish—a healthy, solid specimen. The pickerel I, myself, had been chasing.

Healthy 22″ pickerel. I entered this specimen in the Coastal Conservation Assoc. of Maryland’s Pickerel Tournament, which runs through the end of February.

Shortly after this fish, a 19-incher took the bait off a slight drop from 2′ to 4′ adjacent to a dock. Same lure. Throughout the morning, I tried a bevy of baits, but only the tiny minnow produced. A tiny minnow (the Husky Jerk) produced the only pickerel a couple outings ago. And the week before that, it was a small Rapala DT4 (also 2″ and perch color) that produced the two pickerel I caught in the HOCB Pickerel Slam tournament. All this to say that it’s my belief downsized lures/baits are the preference of the fish in the early goings of this year’s pickerel season. Tiny, 1–2″ baitfish remain abundant in the creek shallows. Mimicking them with a slight upsize to 2–3″ lures has been the ticket thus far. As the larger bull minnows and yellow perch begin to show themselves deeper into winter, the pickerel will be hunting these super-size meals, so the larger, 3–5″ profile jerkbaits, paddletails, and chatter-style baits should come into play. Until then, heed this advice; good things come in small packages. See y’all on the water again, real soon!

Downsizing to 2″ Rapala minnows seemed to entice a few more bites than the larger 3–4″ jerkbaits I usually throw this time of year.