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Successfully Targeting Summer Croaker on the Chesapeake Bay


Published on 06-20-2004 01:50 PM

Water Liquid Cloud Fishing net Fisherman
Typically in saltwater fly fishing, and more specifically with fly fishing on the Chesapeake Bay, heading out into the big water and searching for breaking blues and stripers is option #1, and fishing underwater structure is option #2. Both of these options require a boat that's capable of moving from spot to spot, or from school to school.

I personally own a small, humble boat and I am on the water often, or as often as time and work permit. On good days, my boat is capable of getting from spot to spot, but not when the winds are over 10mph. Because of my restrictions I'm not typically in the open water of the Chesapeake Bay proper, or even the middle of Tangier Sound, but mostly about as far as my 16' johnboat will take me on a nice day-maybe to the mouth of a river, or near a rip that sets up in a tributary creek.

This restriction forced me to discover an underappreciated fishery, a nearby fishery virtually unexplored and unfished with a fly rod. From a realistic standpoint, I could wait for that perfect, windless day to come in order to get out on the big water for stripers and blues, or I could explore the fishery that I had access to, nearby areas that held good numbers of croaker and the occasional seatrout.

Where to find croaker on the Chesapeake Bay
On the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, my friend Joe Cap and John Baker have successfully fly-fished for croaker as far north as the mouth of the Chester River and the waters of Eastern Bay. Croaker can be found in good numbers in the lower Choptank River and as far upriver as the route 50 bridge in Cambridge. On the Western Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, I have heard that the Patuxent River and south past Smith Point are also viable croaker fisheries.

During the Summer months, I fish the waters of Tangier Sound and I feel that this is one of the most fly-friendly croaker fisheries on the Chesapeake Bay. From the mouth of the Nanticoke River to south of Tangier Island I have consistently targeted and landed croaker on the fly. Tangier Sound is just an excellent environment for croaker and the water during the summer months on into fall are certainly thick with them. With water depths from 6 to 14 feet bordering a significant channel with depths of over 90 feet, Tangier Sound is certainly a haven to hardheads.

One common trait that all of my best croaker spots share is a proximity to deep water. Even when I'm fishing water that's only 8 feet deep, it's usually a flat that borders a significant channel or drop-off into deeper water. This can be the main channel of the sound proper or even just a simple hole or drop-off that's over 10 feet deep.

Capt. Matt Tawes fishes out of Crisfield, MD and suggests working the water around crab pot lines. As a native of a Chesapeake Bay community, he knows firsthand that local watermen often comment on croaker trapped in their crab pots. Crabs are certainly a significant part of a croaker's diet, and it goes without saying that where you'll find crabs, you'll find croaker.

Other captains that I have spoken with feel that croaker are mostly found around hard, shell bottoms, so oyster beds are certainly a good place to start looking. Both oyster beds and clam bars are marked with small buoys and are a good place to start looking.

A good depth finder will be able to mark the bottom structure. Anchor above and up current from it, and thoroughly dredge that spot with your fly. Anchoring is truly an art here. Being off by one or two feet can make the difference between constant hook-ups and going home empty handed. A simple look at a chart can let you know where you can find areas with hard bottoms and time on the water will show you where oyster beds and clam lines can be found. There are often private or DNR planted oyster beds that are marked by stakes or bouys.

Often when I'm on the water I get caught into old fishing patterns and I end up fishing for croaker with techniques more suitable for striped bass. My retrieve is typically too fast or my fly is not fished on the bottom. If anything, I'd say that the real key to successfully targeting croaker on the Chesapeake Bay is to fish for them as their species behavior dictates. It's been beaten into our heads that a fast retrieve is necessary for success. As I said before, croakers are not the voracious predators that stripers and blues are. They hold on the bottom and wait for food to come to them. For this reason croakers prefer a slow retrieve, and fishing your fly slowly helps you maintain contact with the bottom.

A simple look at a croaker's physiology shows a stout body with a down- turned mouth. From a biological standpoint, if croakers are feeding on anything, they're eating it off the bottom. With this observation, it should be said that fishing your fly near the bottom isn't enough: your fly needs to be bounced along the bottom for it to be considered. Boat drift is a serious factor to consider when you're fish to the bottom with your fly.

Sometimes it's best to anchor, and thoroughly work specific areas. I'll anchor when the wind is blowing my boat too fast for me to effectively fish the bottom. Or sometimes during a strong current I'll anchor for the same reason. But when the winds are light or the tide isn't running at full swing, I'll just drift without anchoring. Though I don't use one, I imagine that a drift sock would be very useful in slowing boat drift.

Flies and Tackle

I've had the most success with shrimp, or crab patterns. I think that croaker will hit pretty much any crustacean pattern, but Clouser minnows tied with a lot of flash have certainly also brought plenty of hardheads to the boat. Chartreuse and white, chartreuse and pink, and yellow and pink are good color combinations for targeting croaker. I've also caught croaker on Joe Bruce's Crab Colored Clouser. As far as crustacean patterns go, I've had good success with my Chesapeake Crusty pattern in white, tan, or olive. This pattern is kind of a cross between a **** and a shrimp and it has proven itself as my go-to croaker fly. Joe's Grass Shrimp is a fantastic croaker fly, and when tied with a rattle it's hard to keep them off of it. I prefer fishing these patterns to minnow patterns because I feel that they're best fished slowly and they offer a better presentation than a slowly fished Clouser minnow.

Fly choice should vary and you shouldn't be afraid to change it up if you're not getting any hits. I'll typically start out with a shrimp pattern and switch colors if I'm not having any luck. Then I'll switch to Clousers and experiment with colors. Without being too general, I'd say that flies with lots of flash and sparkle have been the most consistent producers on my boat and have also been the most highly recommended from local guides. Middle Bay guide, Capt. Richie Gaines told me that a typical rule of thumb is brightly colored flies for bright light conditions and darkly colored flies for low light conditions.

When targeting croaker I retrieve my fly in slow six-inch strips. Usually as I strip my line in I can feel the fly bounce along the bottom. "Feeling" the bottom is best achieved when fishing your fly down and across current. When fishing like this, the fly swings slowly with the current and the line remains taught, letting you to feel everything that the fly comes into contact with: oyster shells, vegetation, and the occasional croaker. An up current cast is typically necessary to fish the fly on the swing, especially if you're fishing deeper water and you have to wait around 30 seconds for your fly to sink to the bottom-depending on the density of your fly line and depth of the water you're fishing.

A stiff 7 weight to a 9 weight are good rods for targeting croaker. I personally fish with two rods when I'm fishing for croaker: a 7 weight rigged with a 225 grain line and a 9 weight rigged with a Teeny 300. I'll fish the 7 weight when I'm fishing water between 6 and 10 feet, but I'll switch to the 9 if I'm in deeper water than that. A 7 weight handles the average croaker beautifully but that it not to say that a 9 weight is at all overkill. Any croaker puts up a strong, determined fight and will put a serious bend in any 9 weight rod. An 8 weight with a 250 or 300 could probably cover all of these areas just as effectively. Because of their simple, raw strength I use a 2 to 3 foot 12 lb leader.

There is one day of fly-fishing for croaker that stands out in my memory over all others. In fact, I consider it to be one of the best days that I've ever had on the Chesapeake Bay, even though I didn't catch a single striper. Looking out on the water on the Deal Island bridge I could see that the water of the Sound was calm and that heading out to the Holland Straits wouldn't be much of an ordeal. There are days when everything simply comes together. And on this day, I was simply in the right place at the right time. It was a high tide that had just really started ebbing and it seemed like all of the resident croaker were feeding actively 7 feet beneath my boat. On just about every cast a croaker would inhale my fly as it bounced slowly along the bottom. The frequency of hits made it seem more like casting to breaking schoolies than the bottom bouncing that I was doing. The fish averaged between 10 and 14 inches and provided great fun on my 7 weight.

After a while I was simply sated. I had caught my fill of croaker and I was ready to try something else, contentedly, and without worry of wasting good fortune or precious time on the water. I had heard reports that large seatrout were being caught in nearby waters so I decided to try my luck targeting them. Though I didn't have a lot of experience with catching seatrout on the Chesapeake Bay, I decided to try my hand at it.

Anchoring on the shallow lip of a ledge that dropped down suddenly to 20 feet, I picked up my 9 weight and got ready to fish the deep water with a huge pink clouser. My plan was to work different portions of the ledge: the lip first and then progressively deeper down the slope. On my first cast I hooked into something solid, a fish that immediately started fighting. The fish had enough strength to merit fighting it on the reel and I started searching frantically for my net. After finally getting the fish to the surface, my excitement turned to disappointment, and then to simple shock. It wasn't a trophy seatrout that I had been hoping for, but a 21" croaker that had put up one hell of a fight.

After that, I stopped looking at croaker as a second option, a backup to not being able to fish for blues or stripers. The croaker fishery in Tangier Sound is certainly underfished, and these fish are fantastic sport on a fly rod. Croaker are also extremely plentiful and in this era of conservation, catch-and-release, and uncommon keeper rockfish, it's refreshing to be able to keep numbers enough for a family fish fry.

Capt Matt Tawes specializes in light tackle and fly fishing on the waters of Tangier Sound. He can be reached at 410-968-3286, or check out his website at www.chesapeakeangling.com. Mason Huffman at The Salisbury Fly Shop also knows the ins and outs of area fly fishing opportunities. He can give you advice and set you up with proven local fly patterns that he ties himself. Give him a call at 410-543-8359 or visit his website at www.salisburyflyshop.com for more info.
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