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Maryland Fishing Report – Winter Preview 2023-24

Photo of man on a boat holding a fish

Black sea bass are a popular cold-weather species, and can be caught in Maryland waters through December 31. Photo by Monty Hawkins

With the start of winter and the end of some fishing seasons, Maryland’s anglers can rest assured that there is plenty of good fishing to be found this season if you know where to look!

Forecast Summary:

To see the latest water clarity conditions, check Eyes on the Bay Satellite Maps. For more detailed and up-to-date fishing conditions in your area of the Chesapeake Bay, be sure to check out Eyes on the Bay’s Click Before You Cast.

Chesapeake Bay

Winter is a great time to target blue and flathead catfish in the tidal waters of the Bay. If anglers could just get past the term “invasive catfish”, they’d find they are a lot of fun to catch, there are hordes of them in many areas, they have no creel or size limits, and when properly cleaned they make great table fare. If they are fileted and all the red meat and silver skin is removed, one has a mild white meat that can be used in many ways. An all-time favorite is catfish cut into small ¾-inch battered strips or chunks and fried, but other uses of the meat include fish tacos and other dishes.  Check out our Angler’s Log to see some suggested ways to clean catfish

During the winter, blue catfish tend to seek out deeper waters in the channels of the tidal rivers’ middle to upper sections. They will often stack up in holes and channel sections where they will hold through the winter months. If fishing from a small boat, a depth finder can be very helpful to find these areas – they tend to run adjacent to high banks and the outside curves of the river. These are good things to keep in mind when fishing from the riverbanks. 

Blue catfish can now be found to some degree in every tidal river feeding into the Chesapeake Bay. Several rivers with large populations include the tidal Potomac, Patuxent, and Susquehanna rivers, along with the Choptank, Nanticoke, and Wicomico rivers. On the tidal Potomac, the waters below the Wilson Bridge are good places to fish during the winter. The Jug Bay area of the Patuxent River is another hot spot. The Susquehanna River in the Havre de Grace area and the deep hole just below the railroad bridge is a popular location. The Dover Bridge to the Denton area on the Choptank River and the Sharpstown area on the Nanticoke River are excellent places to fish for blue catfish. In the Wicomico River, below Salisbury is a good location.

Photo of gutted catfish on a dock

This photo shows a blue catfish from the lower Potomac River with a belly full of soft clams. Photo by Gary Long

Blue catfish are eating and reproducing machines and now that they are here in large numbers, they are causing great harm to our ecosystems. They eat everything and when they grow to sizes approaching 100 pounds they have no predators and can eat adult size fish. The list of their dietary habits can include clams, crabs, finfish, turtles, and one was even found with a duck in its stomach. Unfortunately, they are overpowering many of our river systems in Maryland, so while fishing for them is fun, remember they are invasive and catching them helps protect our waters and native fish.

Anglers should always be aware of any potential environmental concerns regarding where they fish and the species they are catching. The most current recreational fish advisories can be found on the Maryland Department of the Environment website. Unfortunately, environmental contaminants are everywhere, but risks can be lessened with proper preparation. For blue catfish, it just takes a little common sense and removing the belly fat and red meat from the fish filet.

Flathead catfish can be found in substantial numbers in the Conowingo Dam pool and the Lower Susquehanna River below the dam. They are also found in the upper Potomac River. The fishing tactics for flathead catfish are much the same as for blue catfish.

There are many different types of bottom rigs to use when fishing for catfish. The simplest is a three-way swivel with a sinker rigged about 5 inches off the bottom and a J-style hook with bait. Those who have been targeting blue catfish for some time agree that a slit 2-inch cork float helps keep the bait slightly off the bottom. Many blue catfish anglers also believe in some type of rattle that is rigged ahead of the circle hook to help attract catfish. A barrel swivel is usually placed about 24 inches or so from the float and circle hook as a stop for the sliding sinker. The length of the leader can be adjusted, depending on the current, a shorter leader for swift current. Some floats come in the form of what looks like a crankbait or plug with no hooks and a rattle inside with the purpose of keeping the bait off the bottom and attracting catfish. Catfish have a very well-developed lateral line which helps them detect movement, their barbels also help detect smell.

Photo of a large fish on a kayak

Jared Ogle caught this 36-inch flathead in the lower Susquehanna River recently. Photo by Jared Ogle

Sliding sinkers or fish-finder rigs are needed when fishing with circle hooks. When fishing from a boat, egg sinkers are commonly used. If fishing from shore, a bank or pyramid sinker may be needed to hold bottom in river currents. When fishing from a boat, conventional reels placed on free spool with the clicker on works wonders in allowing the catfish to move off with the bait and hook itself in the corner of the mouth when the reel is engaged. Spinning reels are popular when one must cast from shore and a bait runner type reel can be a real asset. 

Fresh cut bait is the most popular bait to use, and common baits include menhaden, gizzard shad, white perch, bluegill sunfish, eel, or a selection from the fish market. Wild shrimp works as does chicken liver. Anglers seeking out the largest blue catfish of 60 pounds or more often use live bait. There is a prepared dough-like bait usually made with blood, cheese, and other stinky stuff and is placed on a treble hook, often with a spring-like device around the hook to hold the bait in place. Be advised, using this type of bait and hook can really get you in trouble when a catfish swallows the treble hook.

Chumming with ground fish can work wonders when fishing for blue catfish, especially from a boat. Ground menhaden is easily purchased, and it is a good oily fish to use to attract catfish. A metal chum pot weighted to rest on the bottom is one of the best ways to develop a chum slick to attract blue catfish to your anchored boat. 

White perch can be located in some of the deeper waters in all three regions of the Chesapeake. The rock piles at the Bay Bridge are a great place to target large white perch holding there. Jigging with a heavy dropper rig is a popular way to reach them in swift currents. There are some deep channel areas off Matapeake and the False Channel at the mouth of the Choptank that hold white perch. The mouth of the Patuxent River is another good place to fish. Bottom rigs baited with grass shrimp or pieces of bloodworm are popular baits on a bottom rig.

Recently anglers jigging in the deep waters of the middle and lower Bay near structure are catching black sea bass. The throwback ratio is about 50% or more but they present another fishing option for anglers. The black sea bass season for 2023 is open until December 31, with a 15 fish per day creel limit at a minimum length of 13 inches.

Striped bass fishing is catch and release only in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay waters, except for the main stem of the Potomac River, which is open until December 31 with a daily limit of two fish between 21 inches and 31 inches.

Recreational oystering can be a fun and very productive way to gather a delicacy for your holiday or anyday dinner table. If you can keep youngsters warm and dry, they will often enjoy looking for oysters during the extremely low winter tides. Wearing a pair of knee boots or better yet waders and gauntlet type waterproof gloves go a long way to making this a comfortable venture. If you still can launch a boat, tonging or nippering oysters is a fun way to collect a bushel. There are regulations to be followed and maps indicating where you can legally collect oysters must be studied. Most everything you will need to know about oystering in Maryland can be found on the DNR website.

Photo of man holding a fish

Larry Tenant caught and released this beautiful smallmouth bass on the upper Potomac River recently. Photo by Larry Tenant

The pre-season trout stocking program is now underway until late March 2024, when the spring trout stocking program will commence. Anglers are encouraged to check out the trout stocking website to see where they are taking place.

Trout fishing in the put-and-take areas is a wonderful way to introduce anglers of all ages to fishing with some success. During the winter many marginal trout waters in community areas provide cool enough water conditions for stocked trout to survive until the early summer. These sites can usually be reached by most Maryland without too much driving and they are relatively easy to fish. A simple bobber, hook, and bait – either an earthworm or artificial such as a Powerbait  – is all that is needed within easy casting distance. There are also some trout management waters that are set aside for our young anglers under the age of 16.

The catch-and-release and gear-specific trout management waters offer plenty of fun for those using fly fishing gear or using artificials. Many of these trout management waters are located in the western region of Maryland, offering solitude and a picturesque setting of mountain streams. In the central region there are a few similar trout management waters, with the upper Gunpowder being one of the more popular locations. 

The upper Potomac River is providing good fishing for smallmouth bass and walleye for the coming months. Water levels can change and cause hazardous conditions at times so caution should be taken after heavy rainfall. U.S. Coast Guard approved life jackets must be always worn when on the upper Potomac and its tributaries from November 15 to May 15. Deep Creek Lake and the lower Susquehanna River also have populations of smallmouth bass and walleye and Prettyboy Reservoir has a healthy smallmouth bass population.

Fishing for crappie remains good during the winter, and they can be found holding close to deep structure. Bridge piers and marina docks are good places to look for them in tidal and nontidal waters. The tidal Potomac River near the Wilson Bridge is a popular crappie fishing area. 

Anglers fishing in the tidal creeks of the Chesapeake are starting to catch yellow perch in some of the deeper areas. Small minnows on a bottom rig or jig head are great ways to catch them. 

Largemouth bass can be found during the winter in a variety of waters, tidal and nontidal. One thing they will all have in common is deep water. The largemouth will be holding deep near channel drop-offs and structure. Blade lures and soft craw jigs are good choices for lures, but they must be worked slowly and close to the bottom.

Atlantic Ocean and Coastal Bays
Photo of a man on a boat holding a fish

Photo by Monty Hawkins

Striped bass are moving through Maryland’s offshore waters this month, unfortunately they are large fish above the 31-inch limit and are in the U.S. exclusive economic zone beyond Maryland jurisdiction. Some will move along the beaches and anglers are out in force this week hoping to hook into one even if it is catch and release. 

There are plenty of smaller striped bass in the inlet and the Route 50 Bridge area as well as near the Route 90 Bridge. Most fail to meet the 28-inch minimum but are providing plenty of fun catch-and-release fishing for anglers casting soft plastic jigs and paddletails. Anglers are catching tautog around the inlet jetty rocks and the bulkheads and bridge piers near the Route 50 Bridge on sand fleas and pieces of green crab. 

Excellent fishing for black sea bass continues at the offshore wreck and reef sites this month. Maryland’s black sea bass season will close on December 31. The daily creel limit is 15 fish per day with a minimum length of 13 inches. Tautog fishing is improving at the offshore wreck and reef sites this month. The daily creel limit is 4 fish per day with a minimum length of 16 inches.  

Bluefin tuna are moving south through Maryland waters inside of the 30-Fathom Line to as close as a few miles of the coast. Many are pushing water in small schools and can be hard to entice to bite. Anglers have been catching a few bluefin by trolling skirted ballyhoo. It only takes one to make a fishing trip a success.

“At the altar, I little realized I was pledged to love, honor, and obey three outboard motors, the ways of the river, the whims of the tide and the wiles of the fish, as well as Bill, the man of my choice.” – Beatrice Cook, 1949

Maryland Fishing Report is written and compiled by Keith Lockwood, fisheries biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources

Click Before You Cast is written by Tidewater Ecosystem Assessment Director Tom Parham.

This report is now available on your Amazon Echo device — just ask Alexa to “open Maryland Fishing Report.”