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Volume XVII, Issue 8 - February 19 - February 25, 2009
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It’s an Anything-Goes World

If there is no ice, the weather will make it. If there is ice, the weather will break it.

One would rather see a wolf in February

Than a peasant in his shirt sleeves.

–Richard Inwards: Weather Wisdom

Punxsutawney Phil and his shadow have a good thing going up there at Gobbler’s Knob each and every early February. Throughout the Northeast and beyond, eyes are on the most renowned whistle pig of all time. Will he see his shadow?

Folk law has it that when Phil sees his shadow, spring won’t come for six weeks. As a week has seven days, that would hail the arrival of spring on March 16, four days earlier than the date astronomers tell us.

On the second day of this month, Phil did see his shadowy likeness on the turf outside his burrow at Punxsutawney, Penn., and the town’s coffers were again enriched with tourist bucks on its annual day of fame.

But weather being the weather, since Feb. 2 we’ve witnessed a fairly even mix of a spring and winter environment. Does that make Phil right or wrong?

Oh! for the Old Harbingers

For outdoorsmen such as this writer, it’s neither Phil nor the calendar that lets us know when spring is about to arrive. Time was, when an outdoors watcher knew the season by what he witnessed: catkins stretching on the hazelnut tree or, better still, the beginning of the migration of yellow perch to freshwater reaches of rivers and streams where they spawn.

Via these ancient eyes, the traditional rites of spring are no longer dependable.

Here it is mid-February, the traditional time for yellow perch to begin stirring as they instinctively realize spawning time approaches, with the peak of the popular annual run due within the month. Some perch are evident, though not in the usual places or numbers, considering some of the nice weather we have enjoyed. Nor do we have an inkling where, when, even if will come the runs we once so thoroughly enjoyed.

This is the time when Wye Landing boat liveryman Charlie Schnaitman would have many skiffs in the water for early-bird fishermen. Thus far, not a single fisherman, not a single perch, and Charlie — whose headquarters once was the top bet for early perch in all of Chesapeake Country — is resigned to keeping his fleet dry until May.

Wye Run, which feeds into Wye River and once ranked among the most popular and dependable streams in Maryland, has few fish and fishering traffic.

Perch are not the only missing harbinger. Fifteen years ago at this time of year, fishermen who wanted to catch for the table would be boarding headboats at Ocean City to work hard-plastic Norwegian worms and Diamond jigs for Boston mackerel, which they would not infrequently take by the hundreds for salting. Headboats sailed daily; sometimes the fishing was within sight of land.

When the mackerel stopped coming, fishermen stopped coming; today one headboat sails from OC in wintertime — and not on a regular schedule. Those who want mackerel filets broiled in butter, onion and lemon are obliged to go to market. Macks are still in the ocean, but no longer do they come close enough to Ocean City to accommodate the fleet. Today, many fishermen can’t remember how to pickle a mackerel.

Time was when this week was considered the peak of the codfish run off Ocean City. Headboats were packed; the cod were big, plentiful and the tastiest in the ocean. Other than an incidental catch, cod are forgotten. The same with winter flounder shoreside; no one even fishes for them anymore.

Fifty years ago, the approach of spring was announced as gudgeons began to school up for their spawning run to the upper reaches of rivers, most notably the Gunpowder in Baltimore County. Basically large (and tasty) minnows of three to five inches, these fish were often the first catch of youngsters. All that was needed was a tiny hook with a tidbit of worm added. The gudgeon run was a ritual; young and old lined rivers and streams of the upper Bay. When was the last time you heard of a gudgeon?

To many farther west, the breakup of the ice at Deep Creek Lake signaled the arrival of spring. If that held true these days, one would be confused seeing that some winters (though this one is an exception) there hasn’t been sufficient ice for safe ice fishing for more than short periods. Ice fishing at the head of the Bay has become a novelty. And when was the last time you heard of iceboating hereabouts? That was a popular sport in the ’50s.

Up here on Stoney Creek, I once knew spring was just around the corner when the canvasbacks arrived to flock up for flight to the prairies of Canada. I haven’t seen a single late-winter, early-spring can on the creek in four years.

One Sure Thing

In addition to the missed opportunities, I get increasingly concerned about the changes I witness. Am I simply an old codger reluctant to accept change, or are these changes meaningful: harbingers not of spring but of a changing environment? And not for the better.

It’s gotten so that my most reliable indicator of spring lies on the backs of my two black cats, Zelda and Karla. When the new fur on their backs glistens, I know spring is imminent. Global warming and other climate changes can’t fool them; they need no calendar or woodchuck.

Enough said.

Enough said.


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