The following is an excerpt from a chapter from Brett Gaba’s upcoming book, Chesapeake Bay Kayak Fishing, coming out this September:
Rain falls a thousand miles to the north, ﬁnds its way to a Pennsylvania stream, and joins the muddy Susquehanna to head south to Maryland. Behind the clouded spring sky Mars slides behind the sun and out of view. Below, as the soil awakens after the last frost and warning rains, gardens take root, seeds poke meekly from the ground, and an early chorus of frogs sing long into the night.
If the cows in pastures are lying down, it’s a sign of rain.
From the inside of a tent it was difficult to tell if the rainfall came from the clouds, leftover drops from the leaves above, or a little bit of both. I could hear a staticky drizzle on the nylon fly of my tent as I woke, along with an occasional heavy drop from the new oak and maple leaves from the trees above. The sound was compounded by the leaves rustling above, along with the drops hitting the thick leathery leaves of the mountain laurel around my campsite. It wasn’t at all ominous and didn’t hint at threatening weather to expect; it was just the random and ambient sound of a tapering rain with few bolder drops every now and then dripping from the leaves in the trees high above the campsite.
We had arrived at the campground late the night before, coming in hot from a highway sprint up Interstate 95 in an over-caffeinated buzz, and barely making the 10 p.m. cutoff point at the Elk Neck State Park ranger station. After we checked in, we set up our tents in the stark, overexposed beams of our truck headlights, lit the obligatory campfire, and roasted a few hotdogs for a late dinner. Shortly afterwards, David and I turned in, tired from a long week of work and a late drive, and anxious to get out on the water the next morning.
Our trip to the Susquehanna Flats that year had come together quickly. On Wednesday a work obligation of mine for the weekend dissolved, leaving me with some unexpected free time. I called David that night to see if he was interested in trying to get up to the flats with me, and after some back and forth, he committed enthusiastically to the trip. David might be the last guy in the world who would ever plan a fishing trip, but he’s usually the first to jump at the chance to get out.
The weather and tides didn’t look ideal, and there hadn’t been enthusiastic reports of the flats fishing because of the rainy spring we’d had, but with our fairly complicated work schedules and ever-increasing home and family obligations, it was looking like this could be our last shot before the flats season ended, so we went.
* * * * *
The Susquehanna Flats are at the northern end of the Chesapeake Bay near Havre de Grace, Maryland—about 200 miles from the mouth of the bay near Cape Charles, Virginia. The waters of the Susquehanna River spill from the Conowingo Dam and flow into the flats from the north, while the North East River enters the shallow brackish estuary from the northeast. As its name implies, the area is mainly a shallow saltwater flat, roughly six miles by eight miles, with two main channels working up the eastern and western shores and a network of smaller guts woven throughout. Much of the water is less than ten feet, with many portions as shallow as three feet or less where the healthy weed beds can be seen reaching up towards the sun. In the summer, you can see the mats of the weed beds all the way from the US Route 95 bridge.
Our moody and unpredictable mid-Atlantic springs make the fishery somewhat touchy. Wind can churn the shallow waters quickly, temperature drops can push the fish into deeper waters, and runoff from the Susquehanna River can all put the fishing off for anglers fishing flies or light tackle. Along with local rain and runoff, there’s the considerable drainage of the Susquehanna River to the north to consider. If eastern Pennsylvania, and even southern New York see their share of rain and flooding, all of that muddy water flows downstream to the main stem of the Susquehanna River until it spills over Conowingo Dam and into the Susquehanna Flats.
Beneath the threat and reality of spring rain there’s the undercurrent of the spawn. By then we’ve been warmed up by perch and tempered with the arrival of stripers. There are also the side plots of shad on a few select rivers and on our lakes and ponds largemouth bass and bluegill start finning out nests. After the silence of winter, all of this effort to procreate in the face of high muddy water sounds especially unstoppable. It’s a good feeling to know that the runoff might hinder the fishing, but it never really stops the spawn.
I don’t consider the flats to be local water, and it’s taken years for me to get even a minor understanding of the fishery. It can change drastically from year to year and from day to day. At this point, I have a basic understanding of the area and what the fish are doing there, but I’m far from an expert. Biology and sheer math are luckily the main contributors to most anglers’ success up there.
The tidal creeks and rivers of the Chesapeake Bay are the principal spawning areas for striped bass along the mid-Atlantic coast. Each spring stripers return to the Chesapeake Bay after wintering off the coast of North Carolina. They work their way into its tributaries to spawn where some stay for the summer and fall, but others return to the ocean. Some of the fish veer off to spawn in main tributaries like the Potomac, the Chester, and the Choptank, but others keep working north until they hit the flats.
For fly fisherman, the black and white math of the fishery simply can’t be ignored. Each April during trophy season, a huge number of fish enter the relatively small and shallow body of water of the Susquehanna Flats. Some of these fish can be in the thirty- to forty- pound class with others comparatively smaller, but regardless of their range in size, they’re all stripers, and after long winter, they’re ready to gorge on the ample supply of herring on the flats.
For many anglers, this is an incredible opportunity to catch trophy stripers in easy-to-access shallow water. Rich and poor, young and old, when the bite is on, the flats can fill up quickly. On nice days, I’ve seen everything from cabin cruisers and pleasure boats, to center consoles and small aluminum boats powered by 10hp outboards out fishing. The regatta can be jovial when the days are mild and the fishing is good and it’s similar in feeling to the perch runs. Other times when April feels more like a closer relative to March than June, the waters are cold and stained, and the anglers are scattered.
Even with the outside chance at a trophy striper, it felt good to be fishing the bay again. The perch and largemouth trips I’d taken had been good ones, but it didn’t really feel like I had started the year until I woke up at Elk Neck.
* * * * *
So often there’s an excitement before a fishing trip that can keep me up at night. And on a domestic level, there’s the strangeness and moderate discomfort of sleeping away from my bed and wife that can make for a strange night’s sleep. But I woke up incredibly comfortable the next morning. I wasn’t cold, I wasn’t at all damp. I was perfectly warm and dry inside my tent and sleeping bag, and glad for the extra padding of the sleeping pad that I had purchased that winter.
I’m not entirely sure why, but I always sleep incredibly well at Elk Neck. Maybe it’s the time of year, late spring when it’s usually pretty temperate, not the harsh winter cold or summer heat that can make some camping trips test a man’s constitution. But each time I camp at Elk Neck, when I sleep in its mountain laurel enclosed campsites on bluffs that overlook the Chesapeake Bay, I wake incredibly rested after a deep, uninterrupted sleep. Much how some wild places can feel innately haunted or sinister, Elk Neck has the opposite effect, as if the forests and waters there have a healing and rejuvenating power born into the area.
The sound of rain and my overall comfort made rousing myself a little harder than usual, but within a few minutes I heard David fart loudly from within his tent and soon I heard the sound of his tent zipper as he started waking up and digging through our lukewarm cooler.
Our trip that year had a haste and overall lack of preparation to it that left us mildly embarrassed. Along with this were unspoken and moderately low expectations for the fishing itself. We had remembered to bring the basics—rods and tackle, kayaks and paddles—but we had each forgotten a few key items. David had left his sleeping pad, so he slept on the ground in his sleeping bag, and I had forgotten tippet material and my headlamp. We had a cooler with us, but it wasn’t packed well or incredibly tempting: inside were some bottles of water, the remainder of our hot dogs and soggy buns, some bruised bananas, and the remnants of some barbecue chips. Clearly, we hadn’t thought this through, not all of the details, and the seriousness of spring trophy season made us feel even more unprepared. Despite all that, the basics were there for a fishing trip and we were there to give it a shot.
Breakfast was a necessity, but it wouldn’t be pretty given our available options. The campground store wouldn’t open for another couple hours and probably didn’t have much for breakfast anyway. There was a McDonalds about ten miles up Turkey Point Road in the town of North East, but driving there and back seemed like a waste of time, so we cooked up some hot dogs, forced down some mushy bananas and finished what was left of the chips before heading out on the water, agreeing to eat a warm meal once we got off the water around lunchtime.
We launched our kayaks at the state park beach and paddled out into a still gray spring morning. There was a low fog and the water of the flats was calm. Our initial plan was to work the relative shallow water of the middle portion of the flats, targeting a few of the minor channels that acted as back roads to the two major highway channels that lead up the eastern and western shores.
The surface on the open water was mildly choppy from a stiff breeze and the temperatures felt noticeably cooler down on the water than from the protected forest of the campsite. At least we’d both remembered our waders.
The water clarity near the beach wasn’t great. It was stained that muddy and turbid brown from the runoff of four mid-Atlantic states, but it improved a bit once we got out into the main channel. Behind us, the bluffs of Turkey Point rose into the fog and light rain. Although I couldn’t see it, I knew the light house was there, but its light no longer warned ships of land.
Our paddle out wasn’t too bad. The wind was with us, and the tide was beginning to rise. After more than a few perch trips that year, along with a handful of early bass trips on some local lakes, my paddling stroke felt strong and consistent again and winter’s dust and cobwebs had been knocked off. David was ahead of me in his kayak, a light poking from his milk crate shining in the early morning gloom, and two nine-foot fly rods rising into the air from their rod holders. After we crossed the channel and ventured into the flats we began casting. David was about thirty yards away in his kayak when I heard something between a laugh and a gasp. I looked over to him and he had a scared look on his face.
“I was just about done my retrieve and was about to make another cast when I saw a fish was following my fly. It was huge. I could see its eyes and…and it saw me.”
Stay tuned for more from Brett Gaba’s upcoming book, Chesapeake Bay Kayak Fishing, coming out this September. Preorder it now at amazon.com/Fly-Fishing-Tidewaters-Marylands-Chesapeake/dp/0764348841