Once arriving at the Chesapeake Light, there is little doubt of their presence, as evidenced by a solid blacked-out bottom machine, and huge schools of graceful spadefish gliding past your boat with no particular agenda. The best time to target these fish is from about mid May through late August.
As with any species, the spadefish’s feeding patterns vary, but I have noticed little difference in timing for spadefish appetites-either they will bite or they won’t. But when the sun sits higher in the sky, the fish do tend to sound somewhat deeper in the water column, so following the fish with deeper placement of the bait will prove a little more productive around midday. The movement of the tides and currents do not seem to have much bearing on the bite, unless the current is running hard enough to hinder a natural bait presentation.
The best approach to a successful spadefish outing is to anchor in the vicinity of their holding structure. There is no need to anchor too close to the leader-breaching Light Tower, but also avoid positioning your boat near any other ominous fixtures such as, anchor ropes, buoys, nearby boat out drives, and neighboring angler’s baits. If you forget, you will be boldly reminded soon enough!
What in the world do spadefish eat? Well, their favorite treat is by far is the common jellyfish. But luckily, the easily obtainable chowder clam pulls in as a close second choice. I have tried other baits, and heard of others with some success, but chowders are plentiful and inexpensive, and entice the spades every time. But be sure to leave the dock with plenty of them, at least two or more dozen clams per person, but the more the better. In addition to the bait, be sure to grab a few packs of spadefish chum! Tackle shops sell clam chum in a variety of frozen forms, and is an excellent method of luring the spades closer to your bait, and hold them near your boat. So grab your clams, tackle, and chum, and point your bow to the east towards the Chesapeake Light Tower, the king of the spades.
Once anchored, jump-start the action by tying the clam chum over the side of the boat, and whacking a few chowders firmly together and discarding the shells. Spadefish are extremely curious, and are often attracted by this effort, playfully chasing your discarded shells out of sight. Prepare the bait by slicing the clam into two or three strips from the belly towards the foot section. The method of baiting the hook varies, but my best luck comes with the clam threaded on belly first, leaving the foot to barely cover the barb of the hook. No matter which baiting technique you use, be mindful that spadefish are expert bait snatchers!
Tackle and Equipment
Keeping in mind the strength and agility of these powerful fighters, leave your light tackle at the dock. Four medium-action rods with matching spinners or bait casters will usually suffice. My favorite combos include custom 6-foot rods paired with a Calcutta 400, and my trusty Stradic 4000, both strung with either 20-pound monofilament or Power Pro braided line. Whatever your choice, ensure your equipment is in optimal working order, these are no wimpy fish, and will test your equipment’s worthiness in a hurry. As for terminal tackle, after encountering endless broken hooks and leaders, I have found 3-4 feet of 20-pound disappearing pink Yo-Zuri fluorocarbon leader tied to a small barrel-swivel, to be the best option. Line any heavier than this, and the spadefish tend to become more leader-shy, any lighter and you can count on retying your broken rig.
A small, very strong, sharp hook is an absolute must with spadefish. A spade’s mouth is no larger than a marble, and loaded with leader-abrading teeth strong enough to effortlessly fracture any average-strength hook. Therefore, for strength and sharpness, my top choice is a #1 or #2 Gamakatzu live-bait hook. Because the leaders are easily frayed and weakened during the battle with these dynamos, I recommend having dozens of rigs tied ahead of time and ready to go. It’s a shame to miss out on optimum fishing time while retying lost hooks and frayed line.
Setup and Technique
I never set out more than four rods, any more and you are asking for a spadefish-twister game in the cockpit, with fish lost during the tangle. Verify you have plenty of room for long runs, the Chesapeake Light Tower grounds tend to materialize into a boat parking lot when the spades are in town. Two of the rods are donned with a small ¼-½ ounce egg sinker sitting above the barrel swivel with a float set 2 to 4 feet above the sinker. The other two rods consist of the same arrangement, minus the floats. Drift the two lines with floats back behind the boat, anywhere from 20–40 feet is a good starting point. Place the other two lines directly behind the boat, lowering one until the bait just disappears, and the other to about 8 feet or so. As it becomes evident which depths and arrangements are preferred, adjust your spread accordingly. Place the rods in the rod holders, and tighten the drag on the reels until you can just pull the line, then sit back and wait. Resist the urge to hold the rod, which is a sure way to miss the bite, and ignore any nibbles. Don’t get too comfortable though; as soon as those nibbles transpire into a doubled-over rod, be my guest. But be prepared for a battle that attracts anglers from all over to the famous Chesapeake Light Tower, for your opponent is the compact-sized beauty with a powerful punch unmatched by any other…the commanding spadefish.
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