You really can't blame most anglers for putting up their rods and tackle until springs: Winter's fishing all too often matches its bleak weather, and even the best anglers can get skunked. Half of what would make a good summer day's catch is considered outstanding as winter settles in.
But for those who just can't stand to put away their rods for four months until springs's return, there are possibilities. This week, Virginia's military waters draw the focus.
There is prime public fishing available on four military bases in the state -- Cheatham Pickett, Fort A.P. Hill and Quantico, the latter two of primary interest to area fishermen. A.P. Hill is just over an hour's drive from Washington, via i-95 for Virginia and D.C. residents, U.S. 301 for Marylanders.The big base southeast of Fredericksburg is marked prominently on road maps. Quantico is even closer, barely 45 minutes from the District, south on i-95.
What you'll find at these bases is ponds and lakes rich with pickerel, catfish, bass and panfish -- and, for some inexplicable reason, far better winter fishing than that found on most waters. In fact, I don't fish the bases at all after April: Weeds build up so heavily during the spring and summer that angling becomes a chore, rather than a pleasure.
The prime season starts right now and lasts as long as the lakes remain free of ice. Anglers in the know will probe them right through March.When winters have been really frigid, I've even chopped holes in the ice and found cooperative critters waiting for a lively bait.
The military waters are a delight to fish for many reasons, but one of the biggest attractions is their seclusion. Most of the lakes are hidden way back in dense pine and hardwood forests. If you hear two jeeps whine by in the distance, it's heavy traffic on many of the ponds.
Encountering other anglers on the water is equally uncommon, particularly during their prime period, fall through spring.Even when you do run into another fisherman, it's seldom unpleasant, since there's a 10-horsepower limit on the big lakes (electrics only on the small ponds). it makes for still, peaceful winter days on the water.
Another attraction is the variety of fish: Pickeral and largemouths are two major predatory species, but you might also run into a hefty channel cat or, on Quantico's Lunga Reservoir, a sleek striper. i
The panfish lineup is equally diverse, with bluegill, crappie, fliers and warmouth on the various ponds. On any given cast, one of a dozen different species could take the bait.
Only a small selection of lures and baits is needed to appeal to all of these fish during the winter. For the bass and pickerel, jointed Rapalas and Rebels are tops. Work them with a slow, steady retrieve along the shorelines and if this fails to produce, try bobbing them back gently on the surface.
When fish are deeper, spoons draw more action. Work lures such as the Johnson Silver Minnow, Daredevle and Mepps spoon just off the bottom with a slow, wobbling retrieve. (I know, you've always read that pickerel love a fast lure, but they don't here.) A strip of fluttering pork ring adds to the appeal of all spoons.
The final and best bait for winter bass and pickerel is allowed only on A.P. Hill; that old favorite, the live minnow, is outlawed on Quantico, for fear carp or other trash fish might be introduced into the waters by witless anglers using them as bait.
On A.P. Hill, however, minnows are legal and deadly. You can fish them any number of ways. One of the most supsenseful techniques is to use the simple bobbler and split shot rig, casting the bait to attractive shore-line cover and snaps in midlake. If action is slow, move the cork up so the minnow floats a little deeper, say four to eight feet, and drift in the deep holes on ponds and across points on the big lakes.
When the cork shoots under, resist pulling back for five or six seconds, then snap the rod up with a sharp motion. A bass, pickerel, perhaps even a pugnacious channel cat should be bucking on the end of the line. p
Yet another potent method for fishing minnows on A.P. Hill's waters is to hook them through the lips on a shad dart or bucktail and cast and retrieve the offering slowly along the bottom. These techniques are equally productive on pickerel and bass, and on most of the brown, acid-stained ponds there are equal numbers of both scrappers.
Crappie are the major panfish that you'll encounter during winter months, but a few brassy fliers should also spice things up a bit, and sometimes bluegills will cooperate. If the day is unseasonably warm and sunny, and you can steer your boat back into a shallow cove shielded from the wind, it's possible to take the panfish on a fly even in midwinter. Small sponge rubber spiders poppers and dry flies will all do the trick if you see the telltale dimples in the shallows that spell feeding fish.
Barring such rare weather, fish the blowdown and sunken brush with minnows on A.P. Hill, marabou jigs and rubber grubs in Quantico. If the fish aren't in the brush, try drifting in deep, open water with a couple of rods dangling baits or lures at different depths. If there is no wind (highly unlikely) troll slowly with oars or an electric motor.
Fishing on A.P. Hill is free, though an annual permit must be aquired from the Wildlife Administration Office and you must sign a creel card when you go out on the water. Quantico charges a $2 yearly fee for fishing privileges; the money goes toward fish-management programs on the base. You must check in at the Wildlife Office each day when fishing Quantico.
Both bases also allow hunting, and a rich day can be made by combining a morning's outing for deer, quail, woodcock, squirrel, turkey or rabbit with an afternoon of fishing. Deer season opens Monday, but the crowds waiting to get permits the first few days are so bad I wouldn't recommend going then -- for fishing or hunting.
Campsites are available at A.P. Hill and lodging can be secured for the incredible price of $1.50 per might per person. Phone 804/633-5041, extension 316.