Chesapeake Outdoors

Vol. 8, No. 7
February 17-23, 2000
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Outdoors in Winter: Of Birds and Humans

Despite some harsh conditions this winter, there is still much for the outdoor enthusiast to do that doesn’t involve strapping glorified 2x4s to your feet and plunging head first down a mountain. Even in the dead of winter, a quiet walk through one of the region’s many parks may reveal natural wonders.

Bird watching has been wrongly equated with elderly gentlemen in tweed jackets and bow ties, for it is one of the many charms of the Chesapeake winter.

In the gloaming after a recent day afield, the distinctly massive white head of a bald eagle, draped by the dark wings that expanded like giant capes, was visible from several hundred yards away, menacing some snow geese and black ducks. As the bald eagle lifted off the ground and soared majestically, even the most jaded person would be hard pressed not to be awed. Well before the eagle was adopted as the American symbol, Native American cultures revered the big bird for its mystical powers. The birds’ feathers were said to carry the arrow true to its mark and prevent anyone holding the feather from speaking an untruth. Hopi tribes would cage eagles so as to have a fresh supply of feathers.

After facing extinction from the silent yet insidious killer DDT, bald eagles were placed on the Endangered Species list in 1973 and were only upgraded to ‘threatened’ status in the ’90s. Breeding today in the Bay region are as many as 400 pairs of bald eagles, of whom about 200 are year-round residents. Some of the major nesting areas are along the James, Potomac and Rappahannock rivers, as well as Dorchester County.

The recovery of this national treasure is testimony to both the damage that people inflict upon the natural world and the success that environmental protection can bring. But the key to sustaining that success is vigilance.

The larger waterfowl that winter-over in Chesapeake Country, such as swans, Canada geese and canvasbacks, seem to have weathered the freeze-up, perhaps because they can move to open water for food. Herons and other birds that feed in shallower water, however, had a rougher time of it.

Even in Winter, Fish Are Biting

If you thought that the winter months put an end to fishing, think again. Within the last few weeks, ice fishermen in Western Maryland experienced excellent yellow perch action and caught a few walleye and chain pickerel as well on Deep Creek Lake.

The North Branch of the Potomac is generally fishable through the winter if the releases are not too high out of Jennings Randolph Lake. Both West Virginia and Maryland stock large quantities of catchable fish during February.

One fly angler friend told me he was doing well in the upper reaches of the Patuxent River, fishing for trout with nymphs. Even in the brackish tidal tributaries like Nanjemoy and Mattawoman Creeks on the Potomac, the upper Chester, Choptank and the Patuxent rivers, yellow perch are schooled up. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources fishing report predicts that these fish will spawn early (mid-March is traditional time), perhaps before the month is out depending on water temperatures. Chain pickerel is also a very good possibility, especially in the Severn and Magothy rivers.

The cold water also offers some quality catch-and-release rockfishing at power plants that discharge warm water, such as Chalk Point on the Patuxent River, Calvert Cliffs on the Bay and Morgantown, on the Potomac River at the Rt. 301 bridge.

Winter outdoors activities, particularly fishing, are substantially different than when the summer air makes the water warm. Hypothermia is a real, and deadly, threat. Anglers should take added precautions, carry required safety gear, dress in layers and wear waterproof jacket and pants. Wearing your life jacket, especially in the dead of winter, offers a substantial safety and comfort factor.

I carry a set of dry clothes in a completely waterproof bag (dry bags are best) just in case, and I often bring a thermos of hot coffee or chocolate to keep the chill off, as well as some food to fuel the body’s furnace.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly