- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 29, 2005

BUSHWOOD, Md. - Let’s face it: Even WRC-TV meteorologist Bob Ryan gets it right once in a while. For example, one day last week he said the morning would be replete with rain. Indeed, it drizzled, poured, then changed to a soft mist followed by heavier rain. In St. Mary’s County, there simply wasn’t a place outdoors where it was dry and comfortable.

But this was the latter portion of May, with June peeking around the corner, so we absolutely had to try and fish the local croaker population because we enjoy eating a few of them now and then. Rain or no rain, Dale Knupp and I would go after the hardheads, as Southern Marylanders call the tasty fish.

Dale bought fresh shrimp because a fishing insider told him that’s what the croakers wanted. We had 2-hook bottom rigs tied to the nylon on medium action rods and reels. The bait-holding, snelled hooks and their 2-ounce sinkers would settle over the Wicomico River’s hard 15-foot bottom and spread their inviting aroma.

We donned foul-weather gear, then stashed sodas and sandwiches in one of the boat’s storage compartments. The area we’d fish in has always been known for its fine populations of hardheads, and we had no reason to believe things had changed.

Times and schools of fish do change, however. This was now, not yesteryear.

We fished along a Wicomico River channel ledge sitting still but also tried slowly drifting along with the tide. Either method produced nothing. To be sure, I had a strike from some kind of fish, but it got off the hook before I could see it.

Still, there were plenty of rewards despite the lack of bites. On the Charles County side of the river, four bald eagles flew about, unconcerned with the rain. A kingfisher, loudly chattering and twittering, flew across the river, probably hunting shore-bound minnows.

Every river marker had a nest of ospreys. In the distance we spotted two crabbers pulling up their pots, but they came up with very little.

“The river has been too doggone cold,” said a weather-wise waterman just a few days ago as he snickered about the news that some people obviously with more money than good sense have been paying up to $160 for a bushel of mediocre hard-shelled crabs.

I was lost in my thoughts, but Dale suddenly ripped his rod upward and moments later a chunky croaker came into the boat.

“We’re into ‘em now,” said the Charles County fishing guide. Sadly, we weren’t.

In hour after hour of watching the depth finder and drifting slowly along a 15-foot river ledge with the tasty, juicy baits, we never caught another croaker.

We did eventually hook a few white perch in a nearby cove, using spinnerbaits and a tiny lipless Rat-L-Trap known as a Mini-Trap. But even the perch were tough to come by. They obviously had not yet invaded the side pockets and grassy edges of the feeder creeks and rivers as they surely will when warmer weather raises the water temperatures.

But how can I explain a statement from a waterman at the Chaptico Wharf boat launch who said, “The croakers are gone. Most of them have left. I caught a bunch with a rod and reel a few weeks ago, but I could see the numbers drop off daily, ‘deed they did.”

Said another fellow who chatted with us after having checked his eel pots out in the river: “There’s something wrong this year. I’ve heard relatives down South say they saw dead croakers all through the winter. They apparently died from some kind of ocean pollution. No, I don’t have any hard facts on this, but one thing is certain — the croakers ain’t here like they’re supposed to be.”

Some wags might suggest that most of them have been netted into oblivion by commercial interests, but that’s not true either. (Not that the netters wouldn’t do it, but this year it simply hasn’t happened; not in Maryland anyway.)

So if someone says that the croaker fishing is red-hot, bet the rent that it isn’t happening in the Potomac’s Wicomico feeder. Not yet, anyway.

Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column every Sunday and Wednesday, and his Fishing Report every Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washingtontimes.com

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