A tidewater fisherman's rite of spring seemingly always has been the run of yellow perch, migrating to the headwaters of tidal rivers to spawn, and drawing anglers out of winter and toward spring.
In recent years, the runs of yellow perch have been diminished, and many of Maryland's rivers are closed to yellow perch fishing to protect the species. In some of those rivers, however, there is a growing legion who are probing the tidewater for largemouth bass.
And the yellow perch runs can be helpful in finding bass, because largemouths are not hesitant to dine well and often on perch fry.
Find the largest food source and you will find the most fish.
Not coincidentally, at this time of year the bass will be moving back and forth from deep holes along the channel edge into the shallows during the day when the waters warm. They will be partial to the slower section of tidal water, where water moves vertically rather than rushing in and out, as through a narrow cut.
Yellow perch and their fry also will be seeking slower water, with the young hatching and moving into the shallows where they will hide among brush, the branches of fallen trees, near undercut banks and among the stubble of vegetation.
Happily for the bass fishermen, these areas coincide with where largemouths are likely to be at this time of the year.
Among the problems for fishermen this time of the year is the range of daytime temperatures -- one day the air may be 65 degrees and another it might be in the low 40s or lower. Nighttime temperatures are equally as erratic, so it may take awhile for water temperatures to stabilize.
Some weeks ago, Glen Peacock, a bass guide who specializes in tidewater and favors the Potomac River from Washington to the Route 301 bridge, spoke about ways to find and fish for largemouths from late winter to late spring, conditions that may occur through the end of March.
"Anytime you are fishing tidal rivers, you are fishing moving waters, the water fluctuates up and down," Peacock said. "During the cold months, these fish are looking for deeper water away from the current."
Deeper water translates to 8 to 15 feet and a situation where there is a steep dropoff -- a gravel pit, channel edge, dredging along a bulkhead, a series of bridge piling -- close to the main channel of the river.
The cover the fish will seek will be wood, logs, brush piles, rock piles or man-made structure such as pilings and bulkheads because underwater vegetation will not yet be fully developed.
The tackle to use in cold conditions are smaller, 3- or 4-inch plastic worms and grubs. Peacock prefers motor oil or smoke colors with chartreuse tails.
"Bass adapt to the temperature of the water," Peacock said. "The colder the water, the slower the bass, and the slower the presentation."
So on colder days, work the grubs or worms on weedless lead head jigs slowly and methodically along the bottom. Once you find one fish, there are bound to be others in the area.
"Another cold-weather lure is called the Silver Buddy," Peacock said. "This doesn't require the patience of a lead head jig. It sinks quickly to the bottom, and the best way to fish it is to keep your boat out in 18 or 20 feet of water and cast toward the shallows. As soon as it hits the bottom, take three cranks on your reel, and it will scoot off the bottom.
"Let it fall back and give three more cranks. Keep that going and eventually, boom. You will catch a fish."
The method in the madness is to work from shallow to deep to find where the fish are. Once found, the boat can be repositioned and the area to be fished will be well defined.
The pig-n-jig also is a tried and true cold-water bait.
"In March, when the water really begins to warm up, we go to a little bit bigger lead head jig -- maybe a quarter to a half an ounce with a pork rind trailer on it," Peacock said.
As the water warms through March, and the yellow perch fry grow, crappie and bluegill continue to spawn, there are more food sources in the rivers and the largemouths and the fishermen begin to move away from the rocks, stumps and brush piles along the dropoffs and start thinking about weed beds.
Beds of weeds will hold plenty of baitfish on which the bass feed. Given the winter we have had and barring a series of early spring snowstorms that the Mid-Atlantic seems to have every now and again, the events of an average early April may be upon us before March is out.
"Maybe not until the first of April [in a normal year]," Peacock said, "we will start going back to areas in which there were grass beds last summer. You can expect there will be marginal weed beds there again. But in April you can't see them yet."
The solution is to try a rattletrap lure of maybe a half an ounce and to fish a large flats area with long casts. You will be able to feel the weeds as the lure snags or perhaps you will pull up a piece of weed and you will know you are in a promising area.
"Once you find the grass, switch to a plastic grub of 4 or 5 inches on a quarter-ounce jig with a weed guard," Peacock said. "Work it very slowly on the bottom so that you can feel it stick in the grass. When it hangs up a little, give a little tug, which raises the jig from the bottom."
When the grub falls back to the bottom, you are likely to get a hit. Peacock estimates that, when fishing any bottom-bouncing bait, 90 percent of the strikes come as the bait is falling back to bottom.