Croaker - Worth a Second Look E-mail
Friday, 09 October 2009 04:25
Among the popular saltwater sport fish along the east coast, the Atlantic Croaker is the Rodney Dangerfield species, even among kayak anglers.  We all want sexy speckled trout, huge striped bass or red drum.  Flounder and sometimes bluefish get more respect than the humble croaker.  They are dismissed because they are easily caught, breed like rabbits, don’t grow to 50 lbs, and just aren’t fashionable.

          When choosing between fashion or food, I prefer to have something in my freezer over the winter.  Reds and specks can be too few and far between.  If you don’t catch blues on a blitz, you may never catch them.  And with the declining state of my beloved Chesapeake Bay and other waterways, the croaker fishery is a Godsend that ought to be appreciated more by kayak anglers.  Yes, they are plentiful from late April to early September.  They are excellent fighters for their size (which has increased significantly over the years).  A little seafood breader and hot oil will make you wonder why anyone would dismiss this fish.

          The Atlantic Croaker is the little brother to the red drum.  They are found roughly from New Jersey to Florida with a high concentration in the Chesapeake Bay and the Carolinas.  As a bottom feeder, crab and bloodworm are high on their menu.  In the spring, they swim to brackish water creeks and rivers to spawn.  As the temperatures continue to increase, they scatter and can be found anywhere from channel drop-offs to shallow flats and marsh edges.  Structure such as old pilings and oyster beds draw them like magnets.

          Knowing these basic facts, I and others spent summers on the York River and other Chesapeake tributaries in the back of a boat drowning bait on bottom rigs.  The rigs had two hooks and at least a 2oz sinker to hold the bottom in a strong current in 10 to 20 feet of water.  Old heads would tell us to use stiff rods and 20lb test to “haul ‘em up.”  That may work if all you want to do is fill a cooler (like you really feel like scaling and gutting all of those boogers).  As a kayak angler, you must transform you mind to savor the sporting action as well as flavor of this underrated fish.

          I am a sucker for light tackle.  The same bait or spin casting combo you use in Uncle Bubba’s farm pond for bass and bream is perfect for fighting croaker in a kayak.  I use a 5ft light action rod with a spinning reel loaded with 8lb test.  I have a slightly stiffer combo with 12.   “What you gonna do if you hook a big red?”  Set the drag and fight it!  A fisherman should know how to do this.  A kayak fisherman should know such risk exist.  Those who are afraid to cope with such possibilities should stay on charter boats and piers.

          Using light tackle obviously means you won’t be using a battery cable rig with an anchor attached.  Jigs from ¼  to ¾ oz are perfect lures for this type of croaker fishing.  Standard buck tails sweetened with “Fish-bites” crab strips are deadly effective.  On a good day, darn near any flavor variety of Berkley “Gulp” will work.  I know, many of you artificial lure purist may wince at these recommendations.  Use whatever soft-bodied jigs you like and you will catch fish.  Indeed, I know of one fellow in the Williamsburg Kayak Fishing Association who has caught croaker on flies.  For those of you who absolutely must use a traditional rig and bait, don’t use any sinker bigger than an ounce.  Squid is the cheapest and best all around bait.  Peeler crab is even better.
          As croaker and red drum are closely related, they tend to hang out in similar neighborhoods.  The heck with deep channel drop offs.  Get a nautical map and find those coves and creeks with a depth of five feet or less.  Nearby marshes and grass bottoms are excellent places to find fish.  Think about it, where do crabs hide as they molt into new shells?  Where do you see egrets and herons looking for food?  A kayak and shallow water is a match made in heaven.  Great fishing spots are everywhere and you’ll rarely attract a crowd of other boaters who will drop anchor right beside you (I saw way too much of that crap as a kid).

          Nearly every method of fishing (anchoring, drifting, wadding in particular) works for croaker.  I prefer to drift for sheer exploration and to see how many different spots will be productive.  It’s also neat to land on a  small island, sandbar, or a patch of sand along a marsh and cast from the shore.  Please keep in mind that kayaking and adventure goes hand in hand.  When croaker are biting, you will catch fish anyway.  Try new places, walk around when you can.  Bring a cheap camera and waterproof case.  Bring binoculars with you.  Watch for feeding birds and minnows hitting the surface.  There may be blues, stripers, or even big croakers nearby.

          In the 70’s and early 80’s, ten inch croaker were worth bragging about as well as eating.  Due to milder winters in Virginia (one of few good side effects of global warming), such fish are considered relatively small.  I may keep three or four that size because I grew up eating pan-sized fish with the bones in them and they taste so darn good.  Twelve to 17 inch bruisers are the norm today.  Two, three, and four pound citations aren’t unheard of.  One fellow fishing in Mathews hauled up a nine pound croaker.  Catch them as big or small as you like.  Just keep no more than you are going to use. 
          This past July, I was drift fishing Whites Creek in Mathews and not catching much on my “Fish-bites” laced bottom rig.  While taking pictures on the north end of Rigby Island, another kayak angler was telling me of a 25inch speckled trout he caught on a 3” chartreuse jig a week earlier.  I reached in my tackle box and pulled out a “Gulp” swimming mullet thinking I’d do the same.  Instead, I went home with about eight greedy croakers about 10” to 12” that hit the lure like a bad bungee jump.  My wife had no idea of what I was trying to catch.  While enjoying dinner that evening, she probably wouldn’t have cared either. 

 

 

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