Most Under-appreciated Fish
By David Graham
We all know that feeling. It's when a good fish hits your fly in mid-strip, and you can feel the weight of it immediately. I was wading with a couple of buddies on the Piankatank River just before sunrise using my 9ft. 5wt. fly rod with a purple/black wooly bugger type fly. There was no doubt that I had nailed a good one. The first run took me about 25 yards into the backing. Then the hard, head thumping fight started. He obviously did not want to come in easily. Fred Davis came wading over to help. I told him it might be a while. Twice more, as I worked him he took off with good runs. Both of us thought I had a good striper, since he came up and swirled on the surface often. Then when I had him close, Fred said, "That's the biggest croaker I've ever seen". With a bit of difficulty I finely had him in hand, and Fred got the tape out. He measured 23", but before we could get him on the scale he flopped out of my hand and swam merrily away.
I've never had another one that large, but 2 to 3 pounders are common enough to keep me going. I admit it, I'm a croaker nut. Pound for pound, it's one of the finest fighters you can hook into; a hard hit, good runs, and a dogged fight all the way in. What more can you ask for? And the best part is that there are vast schools of them pretty much everywhere.
Most fishermen do not consider the croaker a worthy game fish because they are using tackle more suited for sailfish than croaker. My suggestion is to try a light tackle trip for these scrappy fish, and then decide for yourself.
For tackle, I recommend a fly rod no heavier than a 6wt. For Spinning, don't exceed 6 lb. test line. Most of the time, I use my 9.ft 3 wt. fly rod. As I spend most of my time wading the shallows, a sinking line is not necessary. Use 8-12 feet of leader, and it will get down to the fish without any problem. Some of my buddies will go to a sinking tip line. I prefer the floating line because I can switch to a popper or crease fly if I see any top water action happening. From a boat, you do need the sinking line. I use a 150 grain on the 3 wt. Croaker will hit most anything that you throw out there. Clousers, crab patterns, shrimp imitations, it really doesn't seem to matter. I like to joke that I've caught them on everything except a popper. I always have a few Chernobyl Crabs with me, as they are deadly for most species found in the Bay. The same Woolly Buggers that slay smallmouth bass and rainbow trout are killers for croaker. Just remember to wash them off in fresh water after you use them, as they will quickly rust away after they are used in the salt. Use a split shot if the ones you have are not weighted.
Spinning tackle is easy. A handful of twisty tails and ¼ oz. jig heads, and you are set. I prefer chartreuse in daylight, and a dark pink or green at night. Tip off the jig with a small piece of shrimp or small squid strip, and you are good to go. Tipping off will more than triple your number of hits for all fish found in the Bay. As for lures, I also have had good luck with the small 2 inch Mirrolures in the 4M18, and 4M21 models. The mini Rattletraps will also work well. Remember, they are mostly feeding on small crabs, shrimp and minnows, so size your lures appropriately.
With either fly or spinning, the big secret is to work the lure slow. Short jerks with your rod tip of 3-4 inches each are all that is needed. If you have ever watched a crab or shrimp scoot across the bottom, you know what I mean. Most hits will occur on the pause, when the lure drops. As soon as you feel any resistance, set the hook. Then the fun begins.
Croaker first show up around the end of April each year, depending on water temperatures. In the early part of the season, they will be more prevalent in the rivers. This is when I tend to catch my largest fish. They start in the James, and move north as the water warms. By mid to late May, you should be able to find them most everywhere. I usually don't target them in the main Bay itself until early June. By then the water has warmed up enough, and they have spread to all their usual haunts. There are a few spots that have produced great results for me over the years.
I believe that the Piankatank River is the best-kept secret in Virginia. This small river is a veritable fish factory. There are a number of public access points and boat ramps available. Any good map will show you where. Points and creek mouths tend to be better in the daytime, flats areas at night. Don't forget the artificial reefs. If you anchor off them at night and start a chum line, all kinds of good things will happen. Be prepared for some really large fish if you try this. Grandview Natural Preserve is a great area just north of where the fishing pier was before Isobel turned it into kindling. The beach runs for several miles, and is exceptional shore fishing. The rocks about a mile north of the entrance are a super spot for several species, but the entire shoreline holds fish. I've even hooked a few cobia there over the years.
As usual, dawn, dusk and night will produce more fish and larger fish. Croakers tend to flee the shallows after the sun rises, but it is usually possible to catch good fish most anytime.
Once you start using the right sized tackle on these great fighting fish, you will find that you will be just as hooked as I am.
Tight lines and good luck.
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