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Regulars (Sporting Life by Dennis Doyle)

It’s the most important link between you and your fish

Working at sports stores has given me a long-term look at a critical and often overlooked item of tackle: monofilament fishing line. Taking your line for granted can lead to very unfortunate results.
    Monofilament fishing line was developed more than 75 years ago by DuPont Chemical Company as a spin-off of nylon, the first synthetic plastic. Those early efforts produced stiff, springy lines that had too much memory, tangled easily and were brittle.
    Braided lines made of linen (from the flax plant) or cotton were the overwhelming choice of anglers. These braids were strong for their diameter, supple and relatively easy to handle with the revolving spool reels used by most fishers of that period.
    Braided natural fiber fishing lines continued to hold sway over anglers for the next 20 years. Those lines did, however, have two distinct drawbacks: They tended to deteriorate if not dried properly, and they were visible to the fish.
    Eventually chemists solved all the technical problems with monofilament. In 1959, DuPont introduced Stren, a soft, pliable fishing line with excellent strength and very low visibility in the water. Over the same period, spinning reels advanced in popularity. The new monofilament line was embraced by spin anglers as the perfect application for their tackle.
    DuPont’s product was so successful that it was copied by many other manufacturers. Monofilament has been continually improved. It is superb fishing line: inexpensive, with great strength to diameter and with low visibility in the water.
    Its one drawback: It does not last forever.
    The ultraviolet rays from sunshine, fluorescent lighting and more will eventually break down the structure of monofilament, causing it to fail under stress. Knot strength is the first thing to suffer, while the line itself appears unchanged.
    If monofilament is unused and stored in a cool, dark environment it will last a few years. Outside in sunlight or inside exposed to the light of fluorescent bulbs and tubes, its life expectancy is limited. Manufacturers recommend replacing line every season.
    The life of line gets still more complicated. Because manufacturers do not date their products’ creation, consumers have no way of knowing the age of a newly purchased spool of monofilament. Nor do we know under what conditions that line was stored.
    Most tackle shops routinely rotate the inventory, so monofilament lines are constantly refreshed by newly manufactured supplies. But the buyer has to beware. A spool of line that has remained in a store’s inventory for long periods, especially if exposed to UV light, will likely fail under stress. The longer it has been retained, the more likely it is to break down.
    Purchase your line from reputable sporting goods retailers that frequently turn over their inventory. Higher quality lines are going to resist UV deterioration far longer than less expensive lines.
    One simple test of monofilament’s integrity is to tie an overhand knot in the line and give it a good strong tug. The overhand knot is not recommended for fishing because it cuts into itself. Fresh lines with this knot in them will still be difficult to break. However, monofilament compromised by age or UV exposure will fail at a mere fraction of its rated strength.
    Your monofilament fishing line is probably the least expensive component of all of your tackle. But it is the single most important link between you and your fish. Respect and replace it frequently.
    When not in use, store your tackle with reel covers that shield the line from UV rays. Or keep your tackle in a cool, dark room. Remember also that today’s energy-efficient compact-fluorescent bulbs produce UV rays.

Yellow perch are climbing the rivers

The yellow perch run is on. It may seem early, but small male yellow perch have been caught in a number of locations around the state for over three weeks. That can only mean one thing: The bigger fish will show up any time — if not already.
    These yellow neds are on the move, swimming to the headwaters of Bay tributaries to spawn.
    Driven by increasing daylight and temperatures, the scent of their natal waters and mysterious Mother Nature, this species is the first of the year to appear in numbers in the fresher water of the Chesapeake.
    Minimum size is nine inches and the daily limit is 10 fish per day. They are particularly delicious, rivaling white perch for table quality. Fried and paired with sliced tomatoes, simmered greens and corn bread on the side, they make the finest meal you can serve this time of year.
    Light- to medium-weight spin tackle spooled with six- to 10-pound mono will do just fine for tangling with the neds, whose size can run up to 15 inches or more (a citation is 14 inches). They will eat earthworms, bloodworms, grass shrimp, minnows and even wax worms.
    With water temperatures this time of year generally under 40 degrees, the fish do not respond well to artificial lures. But when fish abound, they can be caught on shad darts, small Tony and Nungusser spoons, Rooster Tails, Mepps spinners and small jig heads with soft plastic curly tails.
    My preference is a five-foot-four-inch, light-action spin rod, six-pound line and a tandem rig with a gold number 12 Tony and a lip-hooked minnow on the long leg and on the shorter a 1/16-ounce shad dart tipped with a grass shrimp, all fished under a weighted bobber.
    Casting the rig out toward likely spawning areas such as flooded brush or downed trees in three to four feet of water, I twitch the rig back slowly, continually working over a large area until I locate fish. The bite is generally tide driven, with a falling tide just after the flood the best.
    When fishing a low tide, target the deeper areas in the center of creeks and rivers and fish your baits close to the bottom. Since the fish are constantly on the move, you never know when or where you’re going to find them, so moving around and trying one area after another, either from a boat or from shore, is the strategy for success.
    It is also a good idea to have on hand a big Mepps spinner in size 3 or 4, silver or gold, dressed with squirrel or bucktail. If your yellow perch action suddenly dies off or hasn’t yet materialized, try casting the larger lure. Quite often a large pickerel or two (which follow the schools of yellow perch this time of year) have moved into the area and queered the perch bite. The Pickerel will be suckers for the big Mepps and an exciting addition to your day.
    The Department of Natural Resources website maps a number of locations where yellow perch fish have been caught during the spring run on both the Western and Eastern Shores: http://dnr2.maryland.gov/Fisheries/Pages/maps.aspx.

Rabbits make a fine test for hounds and hunters alike

On a cold, crisp morning, ice crinkled underfoot in the brushy field. Clear, dense air carried the clamor of some 25,000 snow geese feeding on a field a half-mile away.
    Then, over that waterfowl music, a hound’s howl broke out about 25 yards in front of me. My guess was that it was Junior, a five-year-old beagle that was part of my good friend Charles Rodney’s experienced pack of rabbit dogs.
    Seconds later, Junior’s soulful wail was joined by his four pack-mates, Slim, Copper, Lou and Jack. The sudden urgency of their baying told us that if they hadn’t seen the rabbit, its scent was red-hot.
    From the midst of the thick stuff, Charles motioned me to move out to the side and ahead to a clearing to try for a shot at the cottontail as the dogs pushed. I arrived promptly and the hounds trailed through, indicating the rabbit was well out in front of us all.
    Don Coleman, the third in our hunting party, had positioned himself a ways behind us in case the cottontail doubled back. At six-foot-five-inches, Don moved easily through the thigh-high grasses. The 83-year-old still pursues rabbits with the passion of his first hunt as a six-year-old in Beloit, Wisconsin.
    This bunny was also experienced and laid a convoluted spoor for the dogs to follow and a drama to unfold. The pack lost and found the scent as we moved along, positioning ourselves but never getting a shot. Finally, out of the corner of my eye I saw a streak of grey-brown fur break out behind Charles heading the opposite way, back into the thicker cover.
    We called out there he goes, there he goes! and moved toward openings that might allow us a shot. But the rabbit was long gone. Rallying the beagles to where we had last seen movement, we began anew.
    The rabbit now circled all the way back to where the dogs first scented him and started to lay a new trail. It takes a seasoned hound to follow the scent of an animal that has crossed over its previous path.
    We waited while the dogs untangled the route, repositioning ourselves from time to time to intercept the wily animal. A disturbed rabbit will run quite a distance, but it is generally hesitant to leave its home territory and tends to circle back. This one had been running about in a 200-by-300-yard swath of cover. We intended to keep it there. If it broke out, it would most likely head for a groundhog hole, and we would lose it.
    Charles, the hunt leader and youngster of our party at 64 (I’m 72), was relentless in powering through the thicker areas along the rabbit’s path to ensure it hadn’t jumped aside and sat. Constantly encouraging his beagles, he directed Don and me to new positions as the dogs moved the rabbit (or the rabbit moved the dogs) through one area and into another.
    At the half-hour mark, the cottontail made a mistake. It hadn’t seen Don move to a new position at the edge of the field and almost blundered into him. Then streaking back into heavy brush, it broke out in front of me. Don and I both had a safe line at it — but only for an instant. Shots echoed out but the rabbit vanished back into the high grass.
    Running to where the cottontail had disappeared, I found only some tufts of fur. It was hit but still on the move. The dogs caught up and continued trailing the rabbit as I followed in hope that it would be lying somewhere nearby. Within about 100 feet, the pack stopped baying and started milling.
    As I neared, Junior emerged from the grass with a furry parcel in his mouth. I accepted the dog’s offering, held it up high and called out we got it! Don and Charles closed on us to congratulate the hounds.
    We had four more chases that morning, each nearly as intense as the first, with only one trickster giving the dogs and us the slip.

It’s all a matter of layers

Whether in the sporting field, bird watching, horseback riding, hiking, fishing or other outdoor sports, options in dressing for freezing temperatures have never been better — or more complicated.
    Layering is the one key ingredient no matter what you’re going to do, as I’ve learned from experience. A base layer (undergarment) is followed by a covering layer (shirts and pants) and topped by the over layer (coats and overpants). The advantage of this approach is that as the weather changes or your activities vary, you can always take a layer off, if only temporarily.
    I’ve also found that if your cold-weather activity is mostly sedentary, such as bird watching, hunting, fishing or the spectator sports, the base layer is the most important. Fleece base layers, particularly expedition-weight types, are arguably the most effective.
    Fleece is comfortable next to the skin and holds in your body warmth best. If you’re preparing for sub-zero temps, a full body fleece undergarment is the way to begin.
    I’ve further discovered that the best types of fleece base layers are those with zip necks. Fleece is so efficient that even light exertion can cause you to heat up. Unzipping the top allows that body heat and moisture to escape. When that part of your activity is over, you can zip back up, maintaining a comfortable core temperature.
    Activities that include long periods of high intensity followed by periods of low intensity call for technical base layers. Such clothing is designed to maintain warmth with an emphasis on wicking moisture (sweat) away from your body to the outside of that garment. It can then evaporate or migrate to the mid-layer (where it also evaporates). Choose technical base layers designed for intense activity sports such as mountain climbing, big game hunting and skiing.
    Mid-layer clothing options are much less complicated. Flannel shirts are fine, cotton will do, medium-weight wool is great. Since the base layer has already done most of the work of temperature control, the mid layer is whatever makes you most comfortable.
    The outer layer (coats and over pants) is dictated by weather conditions. Since the development of the breathable membrane for clothing fabrics some 45 years ago, virtually all severe weather clothing has this feature as part of its construction. The membrane or fabric coating allows water vapor (sweat) to be vented out but prevents liquid water from penetrating. It is also a great wind barrier.
    Additional insulation is also an option in outerwear, depending on how extreme the temperatures are going to be and whether you’re wearing a base layer. But generally the final layer is intended for keeping out rain, snow and wind. Keep in mind that the bulkier the jacket (and your cumulative clothing), the more your movements will be hindered.
    Hats are essential as are facemasks and scarves for high-wind conditions. Make sure they are windproof and cover the ears.
    Gloves are application specific; the types you choose depend on what you’re doing. Waterproof and woolen gloves are best around the water. Mittens are warmest if you don’t need to use your fingers. Chemical handwarmers, such as Hothands and Grabber, are also effective. Position them on the back of your hands (where your blood vessels are) to keep your fingers warm.
    Footwear should be insulated if you’re going to be sedentary. Otherwise rely on lightly insulated boots and heavy woolen socks for superior cold and moisture control.
    Above all, be especially careful in colder weather and move inside at the first indications of hypothermia — shivering or a decline in coordination.

Solunar theory predicts fish and animal activity cycles

‘Fishing Charlie’ Ebersberger has spent as many days on the water as any angler in Maryland and arguably acquired more knowledge in his constant conversations with like-minded customers at his store, the Angler’s Sport Center.
    How was the Solunar watch working out? I asked as the instrument celebrated its first anniversary on his wrist. Seems that its predictions of fishing success based on peak times for fish activity are much better than either of us expected, according to the story he told.
    We were after marlin off of Ocean City and had not had any action for quite some time. Our electronic finder was indicating that we were over some good marks but nothing was eating.
    How many fish do you see now? one of the party called out.
    The question wasn’t directed to the finder screen but to my Solunar watch. Its display showed from one to four fish symbols depending on how active the bite was forecast at any particular time. Three to four fish mean a good bite.
    It’s beginning to show three, I said.
    Just then one of the starboard lines went down and fish on, fish on began ringing out from the stern. A few minutes later, my watch face moved into the four fish category. For the next three hours the action was hot and constant.

John Knight’s Solunar Theory
    The Solunar theory of the most productive fishing times was developed almost 90 years ago by an avid angler, John Alden Knight. After years of keeping logs of his frequent fishing efforts, he was perplexed at his inability to predict the best times to fish. He decided to apply scientific analysis to all the information he could gather.
    Starting with over 30 factors that seemed relevant, he eventually eliminated all but three as worthy of further examination. The prime factors, he eventually deduced, were sunrise, sunset and moon phase.
    Tidal phases and currents (caused by the moon moving in orbit around the earth) have long been thought the critical factors in saltwater fish feeding times. Knight discovered it was actually the relationship among the sun, earth and moon that was essential.
    Moonrise and moonset proved to coincide with intermediate or moderate phases of fish and animal activity. Most influential were the meridian periods when the transits of the moon crossed the earth’s line of latitude. High moon and low moon produced the most intense levels for the longest periods.
    Knight eventually worked out Solunar tables based on his theory to predict peak activities when fish (and game animals and birds) would most likely occur for any particular place and time.
    There are, however, mitigating factors that can negate or degrade the Solunar effect.
    A falling barometer generally precedes a period of poor fishing (as well as animal and bird movement) as do high winds, hard rain or snowfall and significant temperature fluctuations. These conditions, of course, are impossible to predict beyond the very near future. Still, they do have to be taken into account.
    Knight’s Solunar Tables have been in constant publication since their debut in 1936. Watches and time clocks have also been developed based on the Solunar formulas to make interpretation of the predictions ever easier.
    Using his Casio Pathfinder, Charlie has confirmed the accuracy of Solunar theory on the Chesapeake over the past season, not only by his own experiences but also with the help of many of his customers.
    “When they ask me what time of day is going to be best, I consult the watch. Whenever I could identify periods showing three to four fish, it was uncannily reliable that the time period predicted would result in up to three hours of great action.”
    If you’re looking to get an edge in the coming fishing season or need one now in hunting, Solunar predictions may be for you.

Early-spawning crappie already on the move

The new fishing year is blossoming before us. Since the passing of the Winter Solstice (the shortest day of the year) on Dec. 21, 2014, our daily dose of sunshine has grown. January 8 gives us eight hours and 11 minutes, a trend in the right direction. We might not notice the accumulation of extra sunlight every day, but the fish do. It is one of the prime drivers of their urge to spawn.
    Crappie (properly pronounced with a broad a) are generally the first fish in the Tidewater to feel that stirring and start to move to the shallows. They are also known as calico bass, speck, speckled perch and, because of delicate mouth structure, paper mouth. That’s a point of anatomy to be considered when making the decision whether to derrick a hooked fish up out of the water or land it with a net.
    One of Maryland’s most overlooked fish, crappie are also good eating. Therein lies part of the problem of finding good crappie water: Their fans are loath to share that information. However, I can offer a few tips to get you headed in the right direction.
    Now is not too soon to start looking. Any day temperate enough to tempt you out will be a good day to try. Crappie tend to bite early and late in the day, so that’s the first thing to take into consideration. I recommend scouting sites starting in the early afternoon (when it’s warmer) and fishing early mornings only on locations that has proven productive.
    Light to medium-light spin tackle with six- to eight-pound monofilament will be sufficient. Specs will take minnows of all types, but smaller ones are usually best. Try to harvest the minnows yourself with a dip net or a baited minnow trap, particularly from areas close to where you’re fishing. Fish the baits under a bobber or on high-low rigs. Concentrate on water 10 feet or less in depth.
    Since crappie have a larger mouth than most pan fish, any hook size from a #6 to a #1 will work. Thinner diameter wire hooks are superior because they are easier on the smaller minnows and keep them lively longer. No leaders are necessary.
    Night crawlers and red wigglers are two more fine crappie baits. Fish them the same way you would the minnow, under a bobber or on high-low rigs. Crappie are schooling fish. When you hook up one, there should generally be others in the immediate vicinity.
    Concentrate along shorelines of the fresher areas of local tributaries, targeting downed trees, submerged brush or tangles of floating debris. Bridges, piers, docks and other constructed water structures are also prime holding areas. Target deeper water during low tides when fish tend to congregate in the river’s holes and pools. When the water warms up past 50 degrees, these fish will be more likely to take a lure. For now, live bait is best.
    Crappie are widely distributed in Maryland. On the Eastern Shore the Wye Mills impoundment — as well as the stream (and bridge) below the spillway — is a good place to look for big crappie. The Tuckahoe River is also a prime location, again both the impoundment and the waters below it.
    The Upper Choptank is a particularly good tributary for a hot bite in early springtime. Greensboro is a great place to try, especially if you have a small boat. Going upstream and targeting laydowns, tree stumps and submerged brush will generally get you some nice fish. Higher up the river at Red Bridges can also be excellent for shore-bound sports.
    The Pocomoke River near Snow Hill can be outstanding. One of the better fly and light tackle guides on the Chesapeake, Kevin Josenhans specializes in fishing that river just for crappie this time of year. Check out his blog at http://josenhansflyfishingblog.com/ for an early season report.
    On the Western Shore, the Patuxent is one of the better rivers. Starting at Wayson’s Corner and up to Queen Anne’s Bridge and Governor’s Bridge, you’ll find good spec territories somewhere along the way. Also try the Jug Bay Wetlands area for good fishing and scenery.
    Almost all of the upper reaches of the Western Shore tributaries can hold crappie, but these fish have a low tolerance for salinity so you will not find many farther downstream.
    There are also a multitude of freshwater impoundments in Maryland where crappie lurk, especially Urieville and Unicorn Lakes and spillways. Find a full listing of all the inland waters available plus listings of the species that frequent them at http://dnr2.maryland.gov/fisheries/Pages/hotspots/index.aspx.

The new fishing year is blossoming before us. Since the passing of the Winter Solstice (the shortest day of the year) on Dec. 21, 2014, our daily dose of sunshine has grown. January 8 gives us eight hours and 11 minutes, a trend in the right direction. We might not notice the accumulation of extra sunlight every day, but the fish do. It is one of the prime drivers of their urge to spawn.
    Crappie (properly pronounced with a broad a) are generally the first fish in the Tidewater to feel that stirring and start to move to the shallows. They are also known as calico bass, speck, speckled perch and, because of delicate mouth structure, paper mouth. That’s a point of anatomy to be considered when making the decision whether to derrick a hooked fish up out of the water or land it with a net.
    One of Maryland’s most overlooked fish, crappie are also good eating. Therein lies part of the problem of finding good crappie water: Their fans are loath to share that information. However, I can offer a few tips to get you headed in the right direction.
    Now is not too soon to start looking. Any day temperate enough to tempt you out will be a good day to try. Crappie tend to bite early and late in the day, so that’s the first thing to take into consideration. I recommend scouting sites starting in the early afternoon (when it’s warmer) and fishing early mornings only on locations that has proven productive.
    Light to medium-light spin tackle with six- to eight-pound monofilament will be sufficient. Specs will take minnows of all types, but smaller ones are usually best. Try to harvest the minnows yourself with a dip net or a baited minnow trap, particularly from areas close to where you’re fishing. Fish the baits under a bobber or on high-low rigs. Concentrate on water 10 feet or less in depth.
    Since crappie have a larger mouth than most pan fish, any hook size from a #6 to a #1 will work. Thinner diameter wire hooks are superior because they are easier on the smaller minnows and keep them lively longer. No leaders are necessary.
    Night crawlers and red wigglers are two more fine crappie baits. Fish them the same way you would the minnow, under a bobber or on high-low rigs. Crappie are schooling fish. When you hook up one, there should generally be others in the immediate vicinity.
    Concentrate along shorelines of the fresher areas of local tributaries, targeting downed trees, submerged brush or tangles of floating debris. Bridges, piers, docks and other constructed water structures are also prime holding areas. Target deeper water during low tides when fish tend to congregate in the river’s holes and pools. When the water warms up past 50 degrees, these fish will be more likely to take a lure. For now, live bait is best.
    Crappie are widely distributed in Maryland. On the Eastern Shore the Wye Mills impoundment — as well as the stream (and bridge) below the spillway — is a good place to look for big crappie. The Tuckahoe River is also a prime location, again both the impoundment and the waters below it.
    The Upper Choptank is a particularly good tributary for a hot bite in early springtime. Greensboro is a great place to try, especially if you have a small boat. Going upstream and targeting laydowns, tree stumps and submerged brush will generally get you some nice fish. Higher up the river at Red Bridges can also be excellent for shore-bound sports.
    The Pocomoke River near Snow Hill can be outstanding. One of the better fly and light tackle guides on the Chesapeake, Kevin Josenhans specializes in fishing that river just for crappie this time of year. Check out his blog at http://josenhansflyfishingblog.com/ for an early season report.
    On the Western Shore, the Patuxent is one of the better rivers. Starting at Wayson’s Corner and up to Queen Anne’s Bridge and Governor’s Bridge, you’ll find good spec territories somewhere along the way. Also try the Jug Bay Wetlands area for good fishing and scenery.
    Almost all of the upper reaches of the Western Shore tributaries can hold crappie, but these fish have a low tolerance for salinity so you will not find many farther downstream.
    There are also a multitude of freshwater impoundments in Maryland where crappie lurk, especially Urieville and Unicorn Lakes and spillways. Find a full listing of all the inland waters available plus listings of the species that frequent them at http://dnr2.maryland.gov/fisheries/Pages/hotspots/index.aspx.

Fish, fowl, venison — and winter greens

Eating wild is a priority at my family’s table. During the Christmas and New Year holidays, we feature treats we’ve harvested from the wild. Following are a few favorites.

Appetizers

Rockfish Ceviche

Two rockfish fillets or other firm, white fish (about 1.5 lbs.), sliced into pieces approximately
½ x 2 inches
1 Tbsp. salt
2 Tbsp. olive oil.
1½ large sweet onions, cut in half lengthwise, then very thinly sliced
2 to 3 large cloves of garlic, minced
1 handful of fresh cilantro, chopped
1 to 3 jalapeno peppers, chopped
4 lemons
4 limes

    Put fish in glass. Add all ingredients, then gently mix. Add freshly squeezed juice of lemon and lime to cover the ingredients in the bowl. Gently mix again so that all pieces are exposed to the juices. Cover and refrigerate at least five hours, better yet, overnight.
    Taste and adjust spices. Serve drained on a bed of lettuce with a garnish of thinly chopped spring onions plus a side of French or artisan bread or your favorite crackers.

Broiled Breast of Dove

    Wrap each dove breast in a piece of thick-cut, smoke-cured bacon. Broil in oven, turning once.
    Remove when bacon begins to crisp. Serve with a dusting of paprika.

Entrées

Waterfowl Medallions

    Fillet breast meat from a goose or duck and, slicing against the grain, cut into medallion-sized pieces abou three-quarters-inch thick. Marinate overnight in olive oil, rosemary, minced garlic, salt and pepper.
    Drop pieces individually onto a hot cast-iron skillet and quickly brown both sides. Remove and store in a shallow bowl in warm oven.
    Deglaze the skillet with one-half stick butter and one-quarter cup brandy. Drizzle over the browned medallions. Garnish with chopped parsley and serve.

Venison Tenderloin

    Cut a 12- to 18-inch section of venison tenderloin, rub with coarse-grained salt and puncture thoroughly with a fork. Marinate overnight in olive oil, chopped basil and generous amounts of minced garlic and fresh-ground black pepper.
    Prepare grill and scatter wet mesquite chips over charcoal (if using a gas grill, wrap wet wood chips in foil and puntcure several times with a fork). Cook covered but with vents open. Turn once. Remove when internal temperature of the roast reaches 120 degrees. Cover with foil and let stand 15 minutes.
    Melt one stick butter, add a good squeeze of fresh lemon, stir and drizzle over sliced tenderloin. Serve garnished with pickled green peppercorns and a dusting of paprika.

Collard Greens

    Rinse, stem and chop two pounds of greens. Combine in saucepan two bottles of beer, two tablespoons olive oil, one-half cup chopped country ham and salt and pepper. Add greens and simmer until tender.
    Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and Bon Appetit!

Fishing in a chill rain is better than not fishing

As my cast settled, the streamer curved down and across the dark current. As the line straightened out at the shadow line, an unseen rockfish slammed the fly hard. I struck back and lifted. My nine-foot rod bent all the way to the cork handle, and my line came tight to the reel. “They’re here,” I informed my friend up in the bow, “or at least one of them is, and it’s a good one.”
    The night had turned cold, a lot colder than I expected. Drops of icy rain had begun to splatter my foul-weather coat, and that wasn’t expected either. George Yu, an old fishing buddy, and I were taking a long shot, trying to get in one last bit of action before rockfish season closed. It looked like our effort — and discomfort — just might pay off.
    Our skiff was anchored a long cast up current of one of the piers of an area bridge, a reliable rockfish hangout in seasons past but one we hadn’t visited in a while. It was a nighttime-only bite and dependent on tidal current, moon phase and a fair bit of luck.
    We had decided to try it earlier in the day. One problem, originally, was the moon. It was close to full, and that much light at night almost always scatters the fish. Near total darkness is necessary to allow the bridge lights to cast a distinct shadow line. There the rockfish like to concentrate and ambush bait.
    However, a good, solid overcast had formed and was projected to remain heavy throughout the night. The 10-day forecast promised few other chances at catching a last fish before the season ended. We decided to chance it.
    The next problem was timing. My friend couldn’t get out of his office until late, putting us on the water at 8:30pm, well after dark, with a tidal current predicted to slacken at 10:30. That left a pretty short window for success.
    To make the effort more difficult, we were using fly rods and hi-density sinking lines to try to coax the stripers into eating. We’d been successful using this technique before. But it did mean we would be dealing with a right-hand wind.
    A right-hand wind tends to push the backcast (assuming a right handed caster, like myself) across behind the angler’s body. Hence, the forward cast can easily stick the fly’s hook through your ear. Only a slight breeze had been predicted. But if you put much faith in a marine wind forecast you haven’t fished the Bay much.
    The first fish, when it came, proved a spirited fighter. I had forgotten how much colder water enhanced a striper’s ability to resist capture. I expected to see a 23-incher come alongside as I struggled to bring the fish near the boat. This one measured scarcely 18 inches, though it was as winter fat as a football.
    “We can do better than this,” I said, slipping the fish back over the side. By then my partner was hooked up and struggling with his own fish.
    “Get the net,” he called out.
    “It’s going to be smaller than you think,” I replied. “Relax. It’s not going anywhere.”
    When the fish broached alongside us, I scrambled for the net. It wasn’t a giant, but it was definitely a keeper. A few minutes later George slipped the heavy 21-incher into the fish box. In another couple of casts, I was tight to its near twin.
    Deciding to endure our good fortune, we hooked and released small and just-keeper rockfish for well over an hour, holding out for a pair of heavier critters to reach our limit. Then the current began to die and the wind picked up.
    “I think I’ve enjoyed about as much of this as I can stand,” I said after too many minutes of no fish, my teeth chattering and my fly whistling too close to my ear.
    “Anytime you’re ready, I’m ready,” George said. “We got in one last trip.”

After six days pheasant hunting, we were exhausted, wind-burned — and ecstatic

“Congratulations,” my wife, Deborah, said to me over the phone early that morning. “You boys have managed to put yourselves in the coldest spot in the whole country, and that includes Alaska.”
    I was pulling on a pair of thick woolen socks while outside swirling snow was accumulating in the parking lot of our motel. In De Smet, South Dakota, the outside temperature gauge read five degrees above zero as we prepared to go ring-necked pheasant hunting. A stiff 30-mile-per-hour breeze made the wind chill calculation minus 20 degrees.
    A reasonable person would, perhaps, have hesitated, saying to himself, Maybe it would be wise to wait for another day. That kind of good sense is not often found among dedicated bird hunters. Besides, the number of wild pheasants in South Dakota was predicted to be the highest in years.
    The pheasants themselves were hardly inconvenienced by the descending frigid mass of arctic winter air. The ring-neck is a century-old immigrant from Northern China, where it was also no stranger to extreme winter conditions.
    Introduced to America in 1881 by Judge Owen Denny, the U.S. Consul to China, this superb game bird immediately adapted to our continent, especially the agricultural areas and particularly South Dakota, which long ago proclaimed itself the Pheasant Capital of the World.
    As we transferred our dogs into insulated kennels in the beds of two four-wheel-drive vehicles, it was obvious that the pups were not going to be bothered by the cold. Brewster, a four-year-old English cocker spaniel endowed with a delightful personality and boundless energy, was already rolling and frolicking in the parking lot snow drifts as we sorted things out.
    Along with Brewster were six field-experienced springer spaniels — Astrid, Buck, Gino, Penny, Sony and Susie — plus Sandy, a big muscular yellow Labrador whose role it would be to bust through any cover too stout or snow drift too deep for our mid-sized spaniels.
    The 10-day bird-hunting trip had been meticulously planned and put together by Tom Schneider with Meade Rudasill, both Annapolitans, avid wing shooters and springer spaniel fans. They had been making this pilgrimage for ring-necks for 20 years.
    This year they invited me to join the adventure along with their three other companions and gun dog handlers, Kevin Klasing of Mt. Airy and Jim Zimmerman and Tim Wachob, both Pennsylvanians.
    Below-freezing weather had one advantage: Ring-necks, particularly the roosters, yard up or gather in flocks under such conditions. They also seek out the densest cover for protection, usually close to an energy-dense food supply such as corn. If South Dakota has anything in large quantity besides ring-necked pheasants, it is cornfields.
    This year, especially, it had cold as well. That five-degree morning was just the beginning. Within two days, the temperature had fallen to minus 11 and the wind chill to 40 below. But ring-neck hunters are a hardy lot; with proper clothing and mad determination, we managed an exceptional hunt.
    Switching out dogs on a regular basis and selectively hunting only the smaller (about a quarter-mile or less), denser patches of cover kept our energy levels up. We also returned frequently to the trucks for restorative warmth. Almost every day we bagged our limits of roosters (three per gun per day; hens are protected from harvest) though it often took us to closing time (5pm) to get it done.
    We did not keep track of the shells we expended. The ring-neck can quickly attain 65 mph in level flight. Add in a 30 mph tail wind, you’ve got a particularly difficult target to bring to bag. By the end of six days in the field, we were just about out of ammunition, exhausted, wind-burned — and ecstatic.

A fat eel is the best winter bait

I could feel my bait strongly swimming downward next to the bridge piling. Judging its descent at a couple of feet off bottom, I thumbed the reel spool, both to keep it out of any rubble it might dive into and to incite its efforts to escape. It briefly struggled against the increased resistance. That was all that was necessary. Something powerful grabbed the bait then swam away.
    A five-count allowed about 25 feet of line to slip under my thumb. I slowly raised my rod tip, then lowered it to allow a little slack in the line. Hoping the rockfish had the bait well back in its jaws, I dropped the reel into gear and waited for the line to come tight. When it did, I struck back hard.
    My rod bent in a severe arc. I could feel the heavy headshakes of a good fish transmit up the line. Then the striper took off running, headed for the general direction of Baltimore. There was little I could do to stop it.

The Art of Eeling
    More than any other seasonal change, cold alters fishing tactics and baits for stripers. One of the better tempters, especially for large winter-run stripers, is the eel. Called big rockfish candy because the whoppers love them so much, eel is one of the surest bets for seducing a trophy rockfish this time of year.
    The one downside to eeling, as its more dedicated practitioners call it, is handling the slimy devils. Slipperier than a bucket of eels, is an old saying. They are impossible to grasp with a bare hand and a challenge to control if you do manage to get hold of one.
    Fortunately, there are solutions to these problems. Keeping the snakelike creatures restrained in a net bag in your live-well or an aerated bucket will allow you easy access to them. Using gloves or a piece of rough cloth simplifies holding them until you can manage to get them on a hook.
    One of the better alternatives I’ve found is to store them on ice. I use a small lunch-pail-sized cooler with a good layer of ice (or better yet reusable plastic ice blocs) on the bottom covered by a thick wet towel. The snakes become dormant when stored this way and will live for quite some time, days even, if maintained cold and covered by another layer of wet towels.
    They can be easily handled in this passive condition using just a piece of towel or a cloth glove. Once you’ve hooked them up and tossed them in the water, they quickly regain their vigor.
    Put them on your hook in a way rockfish favor. Because rock have very small teeth, they will usually attack a larger bait toward the head to immediately control it. Your hook should be toward the head of the eel, where the fish is likely to strike.
    Sliding the point through the corner of their eye sockets gives the hook a solid purchase. Some anglers prefer to hook them under the chin and out the top of the mouth, particularly if the eels are to be fished weighted on the bottom. Others, especially anglers drifting their eels suspended under release bobbers, hook them lightly under the skin at the back of the head. There is rarely a need to place a second hook farther back on an eel. In fact, using a second hook on this writhing critter will lead to an impossible-to-unravel tangle.
    Once a striper strikes, allow it to swim off with the bait. Give it time, a five-count at minimum, to subdue the prey and work it back in the throat in preparation to swallowing. Use a strong short-shanked hook, at least a size 4/0, that can withstand a good deal of pressure because your chances of hooking a really big rockfish will never be better.

Farewell Fish and Eel
    The rockfish headed toward Baltimore that day probably arrived within not too many minutes. Somehow, during that express-train run, the hook pulled free. I lost the fish, but my hands did not stop shaking for quite a few minutes, and it wasn’t from the cold.