Burton on the Bay:

You Catch Them While You Can

Ordinarily winter is a time to fantasize about fishing, but so far this January one doesn't have to daydream or look back to the great catches of yore. Forget the calendar, there are fish to be caught.

Admittedly, by the time you read this, more winter-like weather could prevail, but this being a screwy winter one can't figure that far ahead. Even if the mercury displays more appropriate January readings, you can figure there will be some more balmy January, even February days. This is the Year of El Niño.

The other day while the annual Chesapeake Sportsfishing Show was docked in Annapolis, some regular attendees played hooky. They had reason: hooks of steel with bait added.

Those fortunate enough to get grass shrimp caught white perch at places like the old Severn River Bridge, big perch. In a few Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland streams, yellow perch were stirring. In the upper Potomac, smallmouth bass were hungry, in the Severn and Magothy, pickerel jumped the gun on spring, and at Ocean City where rockfish'n is a year 'round affair, a few anglers rounded up a striper. Power plants and their heated waters also produced catch-and-release rock.

Who can blame the hooky players? Why go inside to look over the latest in tackle or attend seminars when the real thing is to be had in comfortable sunshine not too far distant? It was such an exciting prospect that I overlooked an anniversary.

Frozen Out in the 49th

Saturday, Jan. 3 - the day I stopped by the Severn to listen to bridge anglers tell me that grass shrimp consistently outfished bloodworms for perch - marked the 39th anniversary of statehood for Alaska. It was an occasion I observed that day in 1959 from Baltimore with mixed sentiments.

I lived in Alaska in 1955 and early '56 when it was still a territory. Most of the old sourdoughs preferred it that way. The less government, the better, they figured. Though I was a chechaco (a newcomer), I sort of sided with them, though statehood would mean a voting representative and two senators in Congress - a say in what went on in the Lower Forty Eight as well as in the new Upper Forty Ninth.

In Alaska, El Niño or not, there would be no wintertime fishing; it made headlines one day in January when the temperature in Anchorage topped by a degree that in Tallahassee, Fla., according to the old U.S. Weather Bureau.

My grizzled landlord, Claude Rhoades - who headed to the territory as a young man - said it was the warmest winter day he could recall. But there was no fishing. Not only was the ice several feet thick; in Alaska, fish snooze all winter under it.

From mid-December through mid-March, there wasn't much to do in Alaska back then. Hunting seasons were over, TV aired old stateside programs, social life was nil, daylight came after 10am, the sun set by mid-afternoon, the movies were old, the library wasn't much, there was no theater, fancy eating spots were limited, the equipment on the ski slopes wasn't up to keeping the conditions like they were in Vermont. Cross country skiing hadn't arrived.

About the only nightlife in Anchorage, where I wrote for the daily Times, was in the bars of which there were many - and frequented by trappers who came to the city to sell their furs and hides and spend most of their money before heading back to the trapline. In daytime on weekends there were the dog sled races, but only the huskies, malamutes and their drivers were warm. It was chilly standing around watching the teams in temperatures that reached 40 below.

So we worked, drank, shoveled snow, prayed the car would start in the morning, chopped and sawed (by hand) wood, dried clothes in the kitchen, wrote letters to those back home and waited for the thaw - some time in April. Until then, the only thing to thaw were the moose and caribou steaks packed outdoors in ice.

Come the Thaw, Gangbusters!

We daydreamed about the fishing to come and thought back on the fishing we had, as many of us do hereabouts these days. Here we have a smorgasbord. In Alaska, we had a limited menu: primarily trout, king salmon, dolly varden (a western char) and grayling, a trout-like fish with a big, colorful fan-like dorsal fin akin to that of a sea robin.

No shad or herring, though for a brief time in late May or early June came the cries "The Holligans are in," which sent us out to dip-net these smelt-like fish. They wouldn't take a bait but were thick enough that an hour of wading would turn up enough for several big fried fish outings.

What we lacked in variety, we made up in quantity and quality. By the mid-'50s, catching near the city was ebbing; too many fishermen. But in the hinterlands accessible by bush pilots and float-planes, catches were unbelievable.

The average city angler couldn't afford too many flying junkets back into the bush and there weren't enough of their stateside counterparts engaging outfitters to fish-out the streams and rivers. As the territory-wide reporter granted much leeway in determining my assignments as well as an outdoor columnist, I made it a point to plan stories convenient to back country fishing holes.

Not infrequently, the only competition was the hungry brown bears anxious to fatten up after a long winter of hibernation. I'd rather have another boat move in and break up my chumline on the Chesapeake today than have a brown bear, or perhaps a Kodiak bear, move in and share my fishing.

Bears preferred the salmon and the sea-run rainbow trout, and were such intent fishermen, paying their human counterparts little attention on the stream - or so I was told. But when I approached a point next to shallow water or a jag below a falls, if it was occupied by a bruin, I'd be casting at least a hundred yards away and paying it more heed than the fish.

What patience a bear has. It studies the water and waits. When a fish appears close, it slaps into the water with lightning speed, bats the fish ashore, grabs it and starts munching. It's a faster way to fill their belly than berry picking, which comes later when the fish spawning runs are past.

Take a bear that weighs three times my poundage, is hungry, known to be of ill temper and also unpredictable, and there's no need to explain why it enjoyed its fishing holes undisturbed by me. Other fishermen shared my timidity.

The Best of Fishing

I've had the best of fishing in Chesapeake Bay Country: a day like one last October when, with Capt. Ed Darwin, we released more than 75 keeper rockfish in a morning Catching with Capt. Buddy Harrison countless six- to 12-pound breaking bluefish splashing so loud in the shallows they sounded like the ocean surf And jigging up sea trout on every drop with Capt. Bruce Scheible. But nothing can top a day I had on the Brooks River at Alaska's Katmai National Monument.

I was on the stream at daybreak, 3am, and catching a fish on every cast: sea-run rainbow, the smallest 19 inches, and all on light tackle. I was afraid I was dreaming, and I couldn't stop for breakfast or lunch. Everywhere there were fish heading upriver to spawn.

When a bear ambled up the shore looking for a likely fishing spot, I waded in the opposite direction. The fish were everywhere. I released 96 that day, kept a few for eating - or perhaps to toss to a bear I might encounter heading back to the float plane. None appeared, and it's just as well. I'd had enough excitement that day.

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VolumeVI Number 1
January 8-14, 1998
New Bay Times

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