The rites of spring spawning are here for the finned migrants from the ocean. Each year in mid-march they come pressing up river from the Atlantic, through the vast Chesapeake Bay. They swim up long reaches of tidal flowage to the fall line and the river cities of Washington, Fredericksburg, Richmond, Tappahannock and Havre de Grace.
And for the people in these and other nearby towns that about rivers flowing to the sea, some of the year's finest angling is at hand.
Five major species surge up the Potomac, Rappahannock, James and other rivers. The runs began in the middle of March and will overlap and extend through much of June.
The fish are white perch, herring, hickory shad, white shad and striped bass.
The names alone make most piscators guiver with anticipation. The sporting potential of all five gamefish is immense, but this week we'll look at just the first two of the spring spawners to arrive in local river towns -- the white perch and herring.
The smallest of the quintet, this silvery pair in many ways lacks the strength and acrobatic fineese of the later arrivals, the shad and stripers. But in their humble way they're intriguing quarries.
The white perch is the earliest migrant. On the Rappahannock the gray-flanked perch have arrived near the U..s 1 Bridge north of town by the 15th almost every year, according to Reggie Chesley, of Chesley's Bait & Tackle. In Washington, Ray Fletcher, of Fletcher's Boat House, points to the third week in March for the first perch catches. Warm rain spurs them onward, says Fletcher.
Perch are indiscriminate feeders and will wolf down minnows, cut bait, bloodworms and nightcrawlers with abandon when the runs arrive in earnest. And they'll do it under a bright midday sun as well as in the mornings and evenings. Tides aren't even too important, though an incoming flow is often best.
Many of the fish will be small tykes, so bring plenty of bait and be prepared to move about until you hit a concentration of bigger, older perch before settling down into fish-catching rhythm.
Look for the perch directly on the bottom, in deep pools and eddies just off the main current. Some fish will hang in shallow water near shore, but these are usually small ones. Fish the deep, washed out holes and low-current pockets for the fattest perch.
And if fat perch are what you want, nothing tops a wriggling minnow for bait. Rig a medium-sized shiner or bull minnow on a No. 4 hook with a thread-on barrel sinker of one-quarter to one-half ounce and a split shot crimped on a foot above the hook to keep the lead weight away from the bait. This is a version of the "fish-finder" rig used by drum fishermen in saltwater. It allows the fish to take the bait without feeling the weight of the sinker, which may spook it and cause it to drop the minnow.
If you're more concerned about numbers than hauling in trophy perch in the pound category, worms are the perfect bait. Blood-worms are best, since they give off more scent, but nightcrawlers and garden worms will aslo work. Fish these on a traditional two-hook bottom rig with an ounce or so of lead to keep the bait bouncing on the river floor.
It's not necessary to manipulate your bait for perch. If you don't get a strike after a few minutes, though, move the offering a few feet, gradually working it back to the boat or shore. Then try a new area on the next cast if you haven't connected.
White perch won't fight like tarpon, but on suitably light gear they'll bend the rod enough to curl the lips upward on most anglers' faces. Light or ultralight spinning gear with four or six pound line is a good choice of tackle.
Herring generally arrive a week or two after the perch. Slightly heavier equipment is needed for herring-snagging, which only dupiously fits under the category of sport. A medium-weight bass rod is appropriate for this meat-getting technique aimed at the thinner herring that clot the tidal rivers and streams feeding the Chesapeake.
Twelve to 16 pounds line is about right, and the "weapon" is a weighted treble hook. The angler tosses out the rig, lets is sink about two-thirds of the way to the bottom, then jerks the treble hook back through the water with a sharp, upward lift of the rod. The aim is to foul-hook a herring.
Though I'm not fond of the technique, it is legal, and certainly harmless enough to the resource. The herring in the rivers at this time of year are almost as thick as they are in the tin cans on the grocery shelf. The number taken by the treble-hook snatchers is trifling. It's when a snagger happens to latch onto a beautiful bass or white shad that you want to cringe. Fortunately, this is rare.
And one must be realistic. The reason most people "fish" for herring is to fill up all the coolers and barrels and bags they can with the thin, bony quarry for pickling and smoking.
If that's your aim, huge wire-mesh nets are the way to go. Along the edges of rivers they're held in the current (mesh upstream), and the migrating slivers of silver are allowed to swim into them. When there are herring in the net, the angler sweeps up the wire mesh and dumps the flopping catch into a five-gallon plastic paint can. Not the sportiest of endeavors, but a labor of love if you relish the taste of smoked herring or pickled herring.
Surprisingly, both herring and perch can also be taken on flies and lures. Small shad darts and colorful streamers are the most productive offerings. This technique actually works better on the Rapahannock, from the U.S. 1 Bridge upstream, than on the Potomac. The water there is shallower, clearer and broken with riffles and pools. Both the perch and herring seem more willing to strike at the bright, fleeting artificials in this environment than in the deep sweeping Potomac.
The perch strike artificals best on the bottom, herring at mid-depths. Erratic but slow retrieves pay off best for both species.
If sport is your aim, rather than meat in the pot, grab your ultralight spinning gear or favorite fly rod when you head for the river. The pair will be in the river towns for a month or two.