Charles County, Maryland, May 14, 2010
We could hear thunder booming in the distance as we soaked our bait but the only fish that seemed to like what we were offering were really big catfish. Where were the croakers?

As the weather begins to warm in our region
croakers, scientifically known as Micropogonias undulatus, begin their annual spring migration into the inlets and tributaries throughout the mid-Atlantic. These fish are bottom feeders with a short life span (about 5 years) and are a blast to catch on light tackle or a fly rod. They get their name from the sound they make when the male fish vibrates its air bladder to attract female fish during mating and you'll often hear that sound when you land the fish.

I normally do catch and release but when I want to eat fish, croakers top my list as one of the few regional fish, all saltwater, that I will catch and consume. Croaker is a very light, flaky fish-- very tasty when grilled on a charcoal fire with just salt and pepper or lightly pan fried with garlic and butter but you'll find
lots of recipes out there. The topic of croakers came up at the office while discussing food and fishing when a co-worker mentioned that she and her mom would love to have croaker for dinner if I could get over my habit of releasing everything I caught. She also gave me the old, "this-man-is-crazy-because-he-throws-good-fish-back-into-the-water" look too, but I thought that keeping a few was a good idea because I hadn't had any croaker myself since last year. So after work I met Paul at his place on Cobb Island to fish the following day.

We motored out of Neale Sound and across the Wicomico River to one of Paul's favorite croaker spots. The weather was clear and cool with a light wind blowing up a bit of chop. As soon as the anchor was firmly hooked on the bottom we had our lines in the water.

The folks at
Shymansky's marina said the croakers liked shrimp, so we tipped both hooks of the bottom fishing rigs with fresh cut crustaceans and waited. And waited. And waited. After an unusually long wait, Paul drew a hit. The fish was putting a good bend on the rod but when he brought it alongside the boat it turned out to be a decent channel catfish. A fat, healthy and very slimy channel catfish. But we wanted croakers so it was back into the water for Mr. Cat.

The weather began to warm up but the croaker fishing remained cold. We picked up the occasional fish, but it wasn't really on fire like on past trips to this area. And although the croakers weren't biting, the catfish continued to chow down on the shrimp. I caught a bunch of catfish and so did Paul and if my co-workers wanted catfish we'd be done with fishing by now. But we needed/wanted croakers.

"Two fish in two hours is not good," said Paul. "Time to move."

We pulled anchor and moved around to fish at other locations but the action remained slow. As we fished the temperature began to climb into the 80's and we could hear the faint sounds of thunder echoing over the water. Storms were expected in the afternoon and we hoped to have enough fish by then but the way things were going we'd be lucky to reach a half dozen croakers by next Thursday. Then Paul decided to switch bait and use squid instead of shrimp. He used the new stuff while I continued to use shrimp but within a few minutes he had hooked and landed a decent croaker and about five minutes later had another in the boat. I quickly reeled in and re-baited my hooks with squid and soon I put a croaker in the cooler.

Croakers liked the squid and it seemed catfish didn't like it because we didn't catch another for the rest of the day. The fishing picked up and soon we had a dozen croakers on ice but now it was time to go. We didn't want to be caught on the water when the thunderstorms hit and I had a bunch of fish to clean when we got back to the dock.
INFORMATION: Croaker season is open all year. The fish love squid, shrimp, peeler crab or bloodworms. Minimum keeper size is 9 inches with a 25 fish per angler per day limit. We were in no danger of exceeding that limit today.