FISHING THE UPPER CHESAPEAKE
Year-Round Opportunities in Your Own Backyard

By Marty Gary
The northern Chesapeake Bay is so close, yet so often overlooked. Many fishermen that reside in the areas ringing the Chesapeake above the William Preston Lane Memorial Bridges often look south before considering their local waters, just a short drive away. But in doing so they pass up a diamond in the rough that has only come to shine more brilliantly over the past decade. In fact, the May 2003 issue of Field and Stream magazine named the Upper Chesapeake Bay as one of “America’s Top 25 fishing destinations.”

Field and Stream is one of the oldest and most well regarded sport fishing publications in North America, and the honor bestowed upon the Upper Chesapeake is well deserved. Despite rapid growth and development of its surrounding shores, spectacular year round sport-fishing opportunities exist in remarkably close proximity to more than 1.5 million people.


Maryland’s “first” fish
Shad fisherman releasing a fish A year on the Upper Bay begins in late February, when yellow perch ascend many of the region’s tributaries and become accessible to shore-based anglers. Some of the most popular locations for yellow perch fishing include the upper reaches of the Chester, Bush, Gunpowder and Northeast rivers. Known to sport fishermen as the “first fish” of the year, yellow perch tend to have fidelity for the river system in which they were born: Those spawned in the Chester River typically stay in the Chester, and Gunpowder fish stay in the Gunpowder.

Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Fishery managers carefully monitor perch populations by river, and regulations vary according to how healthy the populations are in each respective watershed. Overall, the region’s populations are in good shape except for in the Patapsco River, where they appear to be increasing although fishing is still not allowed.

As St. Patrick’s Day approaches yellow perch runs begin to wane but a cascade of anadromous fish species (those that live in the Bay but return to freshwater to spawn) soon enter the many rivers of the upper Chesapeake. Among those waiting in the wings are white perch, striped bass (rockfish), and the legendary shads, both American and hickory.

The same anglers that earlier fished from shore for yellow perch will see white perch arriving as early as mid-March, with the peak of the run occurring during the first two weeks of April. Neither species of perch are particularly picky about what they bite on. Earthworms and small minnows on shad darts will catch them, providing the perfect opportunity to introduce children to the sport of fishing.


Crowning opportunities
Mid-March also marks the opening of what has become the “crown jewel” of sport fishing opportunities in the Upper Bay as striped bass move into the waters in huge numbers to spawn. Most of these fish will congregate off of the Aberdeen Proving Grounds to wait for the water temperatures to reach the ideal range of 58 to 64 degrees; however, many of the smaller male fish will collect on the Susquehanna Flats.

A 1998 DNR study found that more than 97 percent of striped bass caught and released on the Flats survived in coldwater temperatures, and a fantastic fishery was opened in 1999 under intensive monitoring. The appeal of the fishery has been nothing less than profound as anglers now have the opportunity to catch and release Maryland’s state fish, one more closely associated with wide open water fishing, on fly rods and light spinning tackle. More than 94 percent of the fish are young males in the 16- to 24-inch range, but occasionally a larger fish up to 45 inches is encountered.

The shallow waters of the Susquehanna Flats provide an experience unlike any other in the mid-Atlantic region where these vigorous fish can make awesome runs similar to those of the bonefish in tropical flats. Since its opening in 1999, anglers have traveled from all over the United States and North America to experience this unique fishery. Fly fishermen have their best success on a variety of patterns of clouser minnows, while spin fishermen prefer bass assassins, bucktails and other single hook artificial lures. This is primarily a boat fishery, as these stripers tend to congregate in open waters away from shore.


Shad fisherman releasing a fish
The shad comes back
Next come the hickory shad, which move in from the waters of the Lower Bay and Atlantic Ocean in late March; by the middle of April, streams such as Deer Creek in Harford County are teeming with the silvery 12- to 18-inch fish.

The story of the comeback of hickory shad over the past 20 years is a remarkable one. In the 1970s, overfishing and manmade barriers to historical spawning areas in the form of dams and road culverts resulted in precipitous population declines, and a moratorium was finally imposed on the possession of the hickory shad in 1980. In the years since, state-of-the-art collaborative hatchery efforts by Maryland and Pennsylvania have led to a resurgence of the species.

Hickories, which tend to have an affinity for smaller waterways, began to recolonize other northern Bay rivers such as the Gunpowder, Chester, Northeast and Sassafras from original stocking efforts in the Susquehanna River. Nonetheless, while the harvest of hickory shad remains prohibited, anglers seem content to keep the fishery catch and release only. Hickories are ideally suited for this type of fishing as they are great fun on light tackle (fly rods or ultra light spinning gear), often leaping from the water multiple times before being landed. They are also easy to catch and DNR studies have shown that more than 99 percent live after being released properly.

As the hickory shad run winds down in late April, their larger cousins the American (or white) shad begin to move into waters of the Upper Bay. Unlike hickories, they tend to stay out in the main stem of the major rivers they ascend, principally the Susquehanna. They grow much larger than hickories, up to 26 inches in length and 8 pounds in weight. American shad also handle the practice of catch and release well, with more than 98 percent of the fish surviving when properly released.

The best location for catch and release fishing for American shad is immediately below Conowingo Dam, where anglers can catch them anywhere along the Harford County shoreline or from small boats fished below the tailrace. They can also be caught by wading the waters at the mouth of Deer Creek, located downstream from Conowingo, and from boats fishing in the main stem from the old bridge pilings above Port Deposit downstream to Lapidum Landing.

Like their cousin, American shad have been under a moratorium on possession since 1980, and their comeback is yet another success story in modern day fisheries management. Restoration through hatchery efforts has led to an exponential increase in the number of white shad returning to the Upper Bay each year. Preliminary numbers of shad passed at Conowingo this spring showed that trend continuing, with more than 134,000 fish having passed through late May.


More seasonal lures
2 anglers holding a nice rock in the upper Chesapeake By this time, spawning runs of anadromous fish are ending, but multiple opportunities remain for Upper Bay fishermen. Tidal largemouth bass replace stripers as the most coveted sport fish species, and anglers can find them in good numbers in the upper reaches of tributaries such as the Chester, Gunpowder, Sassafras and Bohemia Rivers. Look for largemouth bass around wood structures such as piers and fallen trees, as well as submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) and emergent vegetation like spatterdock.

While all of the river systems contain largemouth bass, the Susquehanna Flats is the Mecca for fishing clubs, tournaments and casual anglers. In recent years this area has seen its levels of SAV improve, which has in turn resulted in increases in largemouth bass size, abundance and rates of reproduction. According to DNR fisheries biologist Rick Schaefer, tidal largemouth populations are in better shape than ever and some very nice fish are showing up in our surveys. One recent tournament run out of Elk Neck State Park recorded a largemouth of 7 pounds, 2 ounces -- a huge fish by any standard, and not far from breaking the state record for the species.

Summer and fall continue to provide an array of choices for anglers. From the Bay Bridges north to Poole’s Island, a variety of fish are to be had including striped bass, bluefish, weakfish, croaker, spot, flounder and white perch. While boat anglers working over oyster bars and other hard bottom areas generally experience the best conditions, shore fishermen do quite well from piers at Fort Smallwood and North Point State Park on the Patapsco River, Charlestown on the Northeast River, and from the beach at Tolchester in Kent County. Further up in the rivers, on the Susquehanna Flats and into the C & D Canal, anglers can catch stripers, perch, and big catfish to 20 pounds.

By mid-December, striped bass season has concluded on Chesapeake Bay, and most fishermen have put away their equipment and winterized their boats. But for those hardy anglers willing to take advantage of the calm days that fall between the passage of cold fronts, some of the best fishing imaginable awaits them. Warm plumes of water from power plants attract baitfish, which in turn draw hungry stripers. Throughout the winter rockfish up to 40 inches and 30 pounds can be caught and released. The Brandon Shores Power Plant near the Francis Scott Key Bridge on the Patapsco River and the RESCO plant in the Middle Branch of the Patapsco near Baltimore’s M & T Bank Stadium are the preferred sites. Access is superb, with boat ramps at Fort Armistead and Harbor Hospital just a short ride from these locations.

Whatever type of fishing you fancy, the Upper Chesapeake Bay offers the eager angler unlimited opportunities. From boat or shore, all through the year, one of America’s “Top 25” fishing destinations is right at your back door. And it only continues to get better.

Marty Gary...
is a fisheries ecologist with the DNR Fisheries Service as well as a frequent contributor to this publication. He also provided the photos for this article.

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Photos by Angel Bolinger and Debbie Lukacovic, illustrations provided by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and NOAA.