In the water and on it, we’re hearty breeds
My breath was creating small, frosty clouds in the mid-day December air as my skiff quietly drifted along an edge on the upper Magothy. I flicked a Mepps spinner close to the rickety remains of an aged dock. Though it obviously hadn’t been used for its intended purpose in many years, I hoped the structure proved of use for at least one of the river’s denizens.
As I retrieved the pulsing, gold lure past the last tilted piling, a chain pickerel lurking there in ambush launched an attack. The fish’s long body glowed briefly in winter clear water as it slammed the spinner, broached and, with the prize held firmly in its toothy jaws, headed back toward the tangle of old lumber.
I immediately regretted my choice of tackle. My ultra-light spinning reel surrendered its line to the escaping fish, the drag humming pleasantly as disaster approached. I reached down and, thumbing the base of the rapidly turning spool, added resistance, hoping to turn the pickerel before it was too late. I could hear the small, crisp pops of stressed cork as my light rod curved deeply into the butt.
If I hadn’t replaced my line the day before, I would have lost the tussle. But my fresh six-pound mono took the strain, and the rowdy jackfish, in the end, reversed and decided deeper water might be better. This time I let it run.
In open water, the fish poured on scalding bursts of speed, first one way then another, as it sought out distant refuge. Finally after a last close call with some drifting debris, I netted the spirited creature and brought it into the boat. Using my battered fish pliers, I gingerly removed the now scarred spinner from its wicked smile.
After admiring the fish for a moment and regretting that it was too bony for my table, I eased it back into its element.
My fingers twitched with the shock of cold water, and with that chill I suddenly felt oddly out of place. It seemed just a short time ago I was in this same river, sweating in shorts and a T-shirt. Now it was an entirely different season with a new cast of players, rules and temperatures.
Hungry pickerel have emerged from their summer hideouts and are actively prowling the newly frigid shallows. Ocean-run rockfish, big, thick and heavily muscled, have been steadily moving up into their favorite Bay wintering grounds. Large gatherings of white perch are in transition to new, deeper winter territories. Higher up in the fresh waters, crappie gather in tight ravenous schools at secret, brushy locations.
Our Chesapeake has completely changed. It is no longer the languorous summer playground; all that is gone. Everything is colder, tougher, crisper, more vibrant and a little more dangerous. The new season brings other unique aspects as well: crystal-clear water; vigorous, healthy fish; solitude; and the exceptional comfort challenges only a few anglers can appreciate.
Shivering once again as the frigid wind gusted, I tried to dry my almost numb hands on a soft towel that now felt oddly abrasive. At that moment it also occurred to me that this breed (and I am usually included in their number) sometimes scores rather low on the old sanity meter.