Home Drifting Easy - Fishing Tips When does fishing start? What's biting in Ocean City, MD
When does fishing start? What's biting in Ocean City, MD

Brrrr”. It’s winter and we’re reading the winter edition of the Coastal Fisherman and looking at pictures of trophy fish. Most anglers spend many waking hours thinking about trying to catch one of those trophies in the spring! Others just dream of “pullage” and any action will suffice. That first tug of a fish after a long winter of waiting is like a dream come true! When can I try fishing in the spring? What fish start biting first?

I’ve been in the tackle business for over 30 years and I can tell you that when the first warm day comes around, anglers want to go fishing. But it’s not about the warmth of the air, it’s all about the temperature of the water! In the fall, the water temperature “slowly” gets cooler as the weather gets colder and the days get shorter. It’s the same in the spring. As the days get warmer and longer, the water temperature slowly rises. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen in one day!

“So when does it start?”

Every year is different, but the first fish are usually caught inshore in March or early April. I looked back on my fishing reports last year to see that the first tautog caught in the Indian River Inlet was on March 18th. The first stripers in the Delaware Bay were boated the same week. March 21st saw some white perch “inland.” Ocean City didn’t see any action until the first week of April when the first summer flounder was caught in the bay and skates were caught in the surf.

Even if you hate to catch skates, it is a good sign in the spring. After the first reports of “skates” we usually see other fish follow! I noted after last year’s early Easter weekend of “skates” and not much else that the water temperature in the ocean was a cold 44 degrees. (I use Station 44009 that is just offshore in the ocean around the MD/DEL line.)

Speaking of the ocean, when anglers inshore were casting their hearts out and coming up empty, anglers going out on the party boats were catching some pretty nice tautog. That’s right! Anglers can catch fish out in the ocean earlier in the season than fishing in the bay or surf. That’s because the fish in the ocean are living in slightly warmer water. Plus, they don’t come inshore until the waters warm up a little and their inner clocks tell them to move. In fact, anglers on party boats caught tautog for almost the entire winter. So if you get really bad, bad fishing fever, bundle up and make a reservation on an ocean-going party boat. In the dead of the winter, it can still be “hit or miss” but sometimes fishing fever is like a disease, and you either “got to get over it” or “go fishing!” If you hold that fishing fever off until spring, the tautog bite on the party boats started to get really good around the first week of April last year!

Last spring was cold and it seemed like it took forever for inshore action to start. During the first week of April, when the ocean temperatures finally reached that magic temperature of 46 degrees, anglers caught the first tautog from the Route 50 Bridge, but anglers in Ocean City were “still” waiting for a report of the second flounder!!! Anglers fishing in the Indian River Inlet were starting to catch flounder in earnest and they also had some reports of “short” stripers from the Inlet and more tautog. For some reason the Indian River Inlet in Delaware sees fish about a week before we see them in Ocean City!

The second week of April, when the ocean water temperature reached 48 degrees, we finally saw some serious action. The first kingfish (whiting) was caught in the surf. Surfcasters off Assateague Island landed black drum and skates. Some flounder were caught in the bay and more tautog were around. Anglers fishing off the Oceanic Pier finally saw some action with tautog and skates and short stripers were caught off the beach in Delaware.

By the last week in April we finally had some keeper stripers in the Ocean City surf along with the first bluefish and more kingfish. Black drum were biting on Assateague and sharks and blowfish showed up as well. Flounder fishing finally picked up! Water temperatures were hovering around 49 degrees out in the ocean.

The first week of May gave us the really magic water temperature of 50 degrees. That’s when almost everything will bite. When the weather was cooperating, we had good flounder and tautog catches and almost everything was active in the surf. We couldn’t always get to the surf because of the near constant northeast wind, but the fish were there!

By mid-May the water temps were in the mid-50’s and we had croaker, kingfish, blues, tautog, flounder and keeper stripers in the surf, from the Route 50 Bridge and in the Inlets.

When the fishing fever bites me I always have a dilemma in the spring. What direction should I go? Surf fishing for stripers, kingfish, and whatever… or go on the bayside? And then, if I go on the bayside, should I fish for flounder with live minnows and shiners or should I try catching tautog with green crabs or sand fleas? What to do… what to do!

OK, this is what I do when I don’t want to flip a coin! I look at the marine forecast and see what direction the wind is going to blow from. If it’s going to be calm and I’m off for a whole day, I seriously consider hopping on a party boat. If the wind is going to blow hard from a westerly direction, then I know that sitting at the bulkhead at 2nd and 3rd Street the wind will be right in my face, so I decide to fish from the surf, which will be calm out in front and the wind will be at my back. If the wind is going to be northeast and over 10 miles an hour, I’m going to the bulkhead! It can be warm and toasty down there, and freezing on the beach!

Tide and sun are a very big consideration in the spring when fishing for flounder and tautog. Solar warming from the sun can mean the difference between catching and “nada”. Flounder like an optimal water temperature of between 62 and 66 degrees. They like for the water temperature to be at least 56 degrees for a decent “bite.”

An incoming tide from the ocean can be 10 degrees colder than an outgoing tide that has been warmed up by the sun in the far reaches of the bay. That’s why we get flounder “up the bays” first! Anglers in boats catch them a week before anglers fishing from the shore. You can find the warmest water first up by the Route 90 Bridge, on the flats north of the Thorofare, down south by the Assateague Bridge, offshore of Frontier Town and around the marshes by the “duck blind” behind Assateague. Both the high and low ends of the outgoing tide are the best tides be fished in the early part of the season.

The same is true for tautog fishing for us anglers hanging out at the bulkhead between 2nd and 4th Streets, at the Route 50 Bridge, in the Inlets and the Oceanic Pier. The first of the outgoing and the last of the outgoing tide will give you the warmest water. If the sun has been out that day, even better! Tautog are one of the first fish in the bay to catch, but you need a water temperature of at least 44 degrees to catch one. If the water temperature falls below 40 degrees, it’s hard to get one to bite. When these fish are “really on the temperature edge” your best bet is a late afternoon outgoing tide when the sun has been out all day. (Hint: Don’t go home too early. Sometimes the largest tautog bite right before dark!)

“When should I come down for the spring striper run?”

Well, we get this question all the time. Again, every year is different, but usually we get a good run during the month of May.

Stripers will start biting when the water is around 45 degrees but many good surf anglers tell us that their optimal spring water temperature is between 50 and 56 degrees. This usually happens in May and coincides with a serious striper migration. Stripers that winter in the deep waters off Virginia and North Carolina head north and go up into the rivers to spawn and feed on herring and shad. After the spawn, they leave the rivers and hang out in our bays and surf until the water temperatures get too warm. Then they head north, into New England and even Maine. Schoolie stripers hang close to where they were born for a couple years, while the larger spawning stripers move on. That’s why we get big stripers in the spring and fall, and mostly smaller stripers the rest of the season.

Seventy percent of the migrating stripers are from the Chesapeake Bay area and rivers flowing into it. But lots of stripers also come from the Delaware Bay and its tributaries. So anglers on the Delmarva Coast have stripers from both areas. Be ready, but know that we can’t give you an exact date when the stripers will bite! You can bet it will be sometime in May!

If you miss the stripers, there’s other fish to catch. Bluefish notoriously run one week either side of Mother’s Day. We also have black drum, kingfish, flounder and tautog. Oh a fisherman’s dream in the middle of winter!

Anglers can’t wait for that first tug of the season. Some anglers continue to fish all winter long hoping for a bite or two. If the weather is mild it’s possible to catch fish into the winter, but by February it’s usually pretty quiet.

Can’t wait till spring? Well, you’re not alone!!!

Good fishing….

Sue Foster is an outdoor writer and co-owner of Oyster Bay Tackle in Ocean City, MD and Fenwick Tackle in Fenwick, DE.