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Thumps, Bumps & Hooksets

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Thursday, November 10th. On the eve of Hurricane Nicole making headway up the eastern seaboard, from Florida to Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay region had a bluebird day forecasted with gentle breezes, plenty of sunshine, and every reason in the world to get on the water to fish. It was the calm before the storm. Truth be told, hurricane conditions downgraded to a tropical depression—so lots of rain was coming. A few articles ago, I wrote about post-frontal conditions and how the fishery potentially and seemingly shuts down after a cold front blasts through the area. Opposite to that, we’d have pre-front patterns and for this very report, we found fish.

In the upper Severn River, where I intended to fish for about two hours in the morning before work beckoned, the tide was predicted to ebb a half-foot. We would have moving water. Coming on the heels of a full moon just a couple nights prior, I still had to contend with a fishery that was probably pretty active all night long. Would the fish still be active come morning? Hopefully. Overnight air temperatures finally dipped into the 40sF during the early part of the week, which cooled water temps to just below 60F, at about 57–58F. This favored the angler in search of species whose feeding is triggered by real-feel fall temps. We need the cold weather to stir up the pickerel and the resident striped bass that are fattening up before winter sets in. And with conditions lined up as such, I targeted both fish.

A 3/8oz bucktail jig is perfect for skipping and jigging under and around docks for lurking striped bass.

For the striped bass, I brought a medium spinning outfit with a small, 3/8oz bucktail jig tied to the end. I’d be fishing the ends of deep-water docks (10–20′ depth) by working the bucktail under and around the pilings, letting it sink to the bottom and then gently and slowly jigging it back up through the water column.

For the pickerel, I had a medium-heavy spinning rod specifically to use with my preferred jerkbaits, the Rapala Shadow Rap Shad. I like both the shallow and deep running versions of this hard plastic bait. The twitch is remarkably quick and life-like and on the pause it hovers in the exact zones/depths that I’d be fishing. For pickerel fishing, the live perch color is the go-to. I use a medium-heavy setup because it has slightly more stiffness than medium, which I prefer for working the lure as I like.

For a third option that could entice either species, a 3/8oz swim jig (red) tipped with a 4″ curly tail grub (white) was my choice. This could be swimmed or jigged at all depths—a versitile option that serves as a sort of search bait.

Of note, on each of these rigs, I run 15# Power Pro mainline and a 5′ leader of 17# Berkley Trilene Sensation or 20# Gold Label Seaguar (depending).

Jerkbaits in perch colors are perfect for enticing aggressive pickerel in cold water.

I truly stuck with these three primary baits and set course for my chosen spots. Careful and attentive planning goes into where to fish exactly. It’s tough. I spend the evening before, reviewing conditions, scouting aerial views of the river, and trying to intersect my knowledge with my hunch. So for this morning, and with only two hours of fishing time, I stayed relatively close to my boat launch/ramp, taking a short ten minute ride in the McKee across the river to a stretch of grass beds along shallow flats that drop to deeper water—and, are adjacent to long docks that cover these depths. The docks, I feel, are worth keying on because they provide a third cover option for the fish, which could be cruising the shallows searching for food, hanging off the deep ledge, or nestled between the pilings.

I started the morning pitching the jerkbait into the shallows and working it over the grass beds, which are dying back this time of year and makes for less hangups. My hope was that pickerel would be using the grass as camouflage to hunt the small schools of minnows that thrive in this habitat. The colder water triggers a pickerel’s aggression, and within short order I had hooked up with a healthy, frisky 14″ fish. I also hooked up with a much larger specimen but he shook the lure out. They are acrobats and for as much fun as they are when hooked, they certainly can drive you mad when they shake free. It had been about 9 months, after all, between hooksets on a pickerel for me, so I was a little rusty. Across this flat, I felt no less than 5 more solid bumps of the lure, but didn’t connect. This tells me the pickerel are just starting to become aggressive. A good sign.

Pickerel were starting to show signs of aggressive feeding this morning, now that water temperatures are dipping into the high-mid 50s.

Having worked the area over, I transitioned to another location where a run of docks—the ends of them—hits deep water, where I’ve had past success jigging bucktails for stripers. Sure enough, I had a very solid thump in about 15′ of water and the fish started peeling drag. This is the kind of hit I was searching for. Definitely a striped bass. But halfway through the tug, he oddly shook free. I must not have had a hookset. Rather than curse the heavens and piss away time lamenting, I immediately began pitching the lure back into the space. Nothing. I turned 180 degrees and pitched into the next dock down, just yards away. And sure enough, another big thump and…this time…hookset! This fish felt similar in size, took drag, and was trying desperately to wrestle his way back into the dock pilings. I carefully played this fish with enough pressure to bring him boat side and over the gunnel. A solid 23.5″ striped bass. Such a clean specimen, I let this one go back in the water. It was probably the same fish.

With the success of landing both species under my belt just under the 2 hour mark, I headed homeward, but not before making one last pit stop in Plum Creek for a few last casts. I wanted to see if I could find a pickerel in, what many consider, some of the best pickerel water on the Western Shore. Last week (with warm 70F temps mind you), I struck out fishing this entire creek. Today, it took me just a few casts to find a very nice pickerel that connected, fought well, gave me an acrobatic leap, and shook himself free of the lure (darn it). What a sight, what fun, and confirmation that we’re inching closer to prime pickerel time. See y’all on the water again, real soon!

A healthy fall, resident striped bass that measured 23.5″ on the bump board.