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Tips for river fishing in late winter

Late winter river fishing can be tough. In fact, it can be very frustrating because with a nice warm spell like we just experienced and sunshine, anglers venture out and expect to catch fish in their usual haunts from the fall fishing trips. Often this never accomplishes much more than chilly fingers, a dead boat battery and unused bait unless the fishing is approached differently.  

Like everyone else, all it takes for me to get the fishing bug is a few warm days and I start eyeing my fishing rods with serious interest. Over the years I have learned a few things from experience and from others that make my time on the water more efficient and successful in terms of putting slabs of fish in the cooler or live well.

The first thing I learned is to target fish that will most readily bite in the river during late February or early March. These species include, but are not limited to, ring perch, white perch and blue catfish. Anglers that are savvy will be able to use their fish finder to locate schools of crappie, but they must be sought after as they will congregate in schools that are tightly packed near deep structure such as a blowdown that is large and near the channel or in a secondary channel and may not be easily seen.

Yellow perch will readily hit this month. In fact, if I had to pick three places to fish for these tasty panfish I would choose the tributaries near and around Leedstown on the Rappahannock, the upper end of Aquia Creek off the Potomac and the headwaters of the Occoquan River just below the dam at the reservoir. Ring perch run upriver and up creek to spawn in February and early March. Red wigglers, minnows and bright jigs with grubs will take these fish readily. Hop the jig along slowly on the edge of the current, behind structure near the current and definitely on the bottom. Sometimes it is a good idea to let the bait sit for nearly a minute before moving it. If you have a boat and are fishing from it don’t be reluctant to jig vertically.

White perch begin their spawning run in the rivers this month as well. I have yet to hear of them being caught quite yet, but it should be any day that we get reports from Tappahannock of these scrappy fish. The largest and most mature fish tend to arrive first. One year I fished the Old Mill Park area in early March and took many fish weighing just under a pound home. Bloodworms, shrimp, clams and squid get the most attention from these fish. One other note I should make is that a perch caught in the summer sure tastes different from one caught in the late winter or early spring. I will take the cold water fish any day over the summer fish, although I eat plenty of the summer fish too. Use a bottom rig or a 1/8 ounce or bigger jig to entice these fish. Cast in eddies or swirls near log jams but over sandy bottom if possible. They like rocks and shell bottom too.

Catfish will bite year round, although my experience shows either the smallest or the largest tend to be the most willing participants at this time of year. Catching fish that measure between 18-24 inches (best eating size) seems to be a bit more of a chore. However, I can share a few insights on where and how to catch them. I rarely eat catfish from the Potomac River and being a meat eater I rarely fish strictly to catch and release fish for the fun of it.

On the Rappahannock River catfish will prowl the mudflats on sunny and warmer spring days in search of baitfish. The brown mud catches the sun’s rays and warms the shallow water quickly, which in turn draws bait. Look for these mudflats at the mouths of creeks and off the main channel of the river from Hicks’ Landing downstream to Tappahannock. I like to cast on the downtide side of these mudflats or cruise up into secondary channels that split a flat. The fish hold on the end of these channels closest to the main channel. I think it is so they can move back to deep water easily. Since the water is cold, smell does not spread through the water quickly as it does during the summer. Use really fresh, bloody or smelly bait to lure the catfish in. Chicken liver will work and they do stay on the hook better when cold versus when the water is hot. However, bait shrimp, cut shad and old squid works well. Fresh up your bait when it gets washed out.

 

Fish caught from cold water will taste much better, the meat is firmer and they are easier to clean too. A bucket will suffice to keep fish at this time of year due to the cold. Filet the fish if large enough and be sure to cut the skin off to remove any bad taste or pollutants.

When fishing the river at this time of year be sure to remain safe. Wear a life jacket or a float coat. I am told Stearns makes a great float coat that doubles as a floatation device but it is warm and windproof. I am going to check it out and write about it in a review in the upcoming months.

Last, it is not too early to try the boat, check the engine out and get it going. Warm days are ahead although we will suffer some cold ones through April. Fishing season is coming though!

 

Mark Fike

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