JUST BECAUSE heating furnaces are going full-bore in Washington doesn't mean sport fishing should come to a halt. Sure, most of the nation's 70 million anglers packed it in at the first frost. But there are winter fanatics who refuse to call it quits. As long as a treacherous layer of ice doesn't inhibit movement, the game is on.
Count me among the die-hards.
Until the spring thaw arrives, we fish the tidal rivers and creeks that give up chain pickerel, crappies, yellow perch and occasional largemouth bass and white perch. The trick is to bring insulated hipboots, a small shoulder-strap tacklebox and lightweight rods and reels.
My favorite stamping grounds -- Maryland's Eastern Shore and the southern counties on the western shore of the Chesapeake -- offer quiet, meandering tidewater rivers tailor-made for the 14-foot aluminum flatbottom boat that sits waiting in the backyard. The weather-beaten craft is as much at home drifting down a lazy stream in search of late-season squirrels as it is tied to a shore tree while I try to hook enough crappies to fill a dinner tray.
The message here is simply that there is something to do until the dogwoods start blossoming again.
Join me on a typical cold-weather outing from now until March. Bring a warm shirt and a goosedown vest; hot coffee instead of iced drinks. Slip on the hip boots or tuck the jonboat into the back of a pickup truck. The fishing gear includes a five-foot lightweight graphite rod, a tiny spinning reel loaded with 4-pound or 6-pound testline -- never any heavier -- and a light, narrow tacklebox with a web shoulder strap. It holds six Mepps spinners, sizes 1 and 2; several dozen 1/8-ounce and 1/16- ounce bucktail hair jigs in varied colors; two or three Rebel or Rapala shallow-lipped minnow fakes roughly 4 inches long; several white plastic curly-tailed jigs in 1/8-ounce and 1/16-ounce weights; a half-dozen plastic bobbers no than a nickel.
The first stop is a woodland creek in Southern Maryland, but it may as well be in the Northern Neck of Virginia or, for that matter, Delaware or New Jersey. The tide is still rising. A 1/16-ounce white hair jig is tied to the line, the eyelet on the lead head perpendicular to the nylon. We want the little lure to stand out and do a dance when -- after the plastic float is pinched to the nylon some 21/2 feet above the lure -- the rod tip is twitched. The tiny jig disappears in the middle of water-logged branches of a long- fallen tree. The rod is gently shaken -- once, twice, maybe a third time -- when a silver/black speckled fish can't resist the offering.
A crappie bites, and all that need be done now is lead a wildly objecting fish through a maze of underwater branches. You're reeling and laughing, the fun quite comparable to landing any species taken on matched tackle. The same lure brings more crappies, a couple of perch and an errant largemouth bass.
Later, the revolving blade of a spinner may lure a chain pickerel from a shoreline lair beneath an undercut creek bank with a willow shrub above. The sawtoothed pickerel weighs two or three pounds. A respectable tussle ensues. It breaks -- or bites -- the line and disappears in a flash of olive green. That's okay. The fish earned its freedom. There'll be more. Perhaps on the little balsawood minnow imitation or -- if the neighborhood tackle shop stocked them -- a live minnow.
Following is an assortment of places for this kind of fishing. Just be sure to check for the tidal demarcation lines on the creeks. Such lines are sometimes indicated by tree or post signs that tells you a fishing license is required upstream. To be safe, I always carry a freshwater license. Of course, Maryland anglers are required to be licensed either way. A $5 tidewater license takes care of ebbing and flowing water. Maryland is the only state in the Mid-Atlantic region with a tidewater fishing license law. MARYLAND
ZEKIAH SWAMP CREEK -- Route 6, six miles east of LaPlata, Charles County. Also, Route 5, south of Waldorf, just before the Bryantown traffic blinker. Crappies, sunfish, bass and pickerel. Shore walking or wading.
WARDS RUN -- Route 6, 17 miles west of LaPlata, Charles County. Crappies, pickerel, some yellow perch. Shore walking.
NANJEMOY CREEK -- Route 6 west of LaPlata, Charles County, to Route 425, past Hilltop, to Friendship Road Landing. Pickerel, bass, crappies, perch, catfish. Best for jonboaters.
MATTAWOMAN CREEK -- Route 225, west of LaPlata, Charles County, to Mason Springs bridge. Bass, pickerel, crappies, perch. Good shore walking. Boaters can go to Route 210, Indianhead, to Mattingly Road and launch at Slavin's ramp.
TUCKAHOE CREEK -- Route 480, Caroline County, Eastern Shore. Fish from spillway at Tuckahoe State Park pond downstream. Crappies, pickerel, perch, bass. Good shore walking. Boaters can launch at Hillsboro ramp, Route 404.
MARSHYHOPE CREEK -- off Route 404, Caroline County, Eastern Shore, below Smithville Pond spillway. Crappies, bass, pickerel, perch, sunfish. Limited shore walking. Boaters can launch at Federalsburg ramp or anglers can walk around the ramp area for good shoreline fishing, Route 313.
CHOPTANK RIVER -- Route 314, Greensboro, Caroline County, Eastern Shore. Public boat ramp, ideal for jonboats. Crappies, pickerel, bass, perch, sunfish. VIRGINIA
PAMUNKEY RIVER -- Routes 2/301, Hanover County, south of Bowling Green. Pickerel, crappies, sunfish, bass, perch. Some shore walking or jonboating.
MATTAPONI -- Routes 2/301, Caroline County, south of Bowling Green. Pickerel, crappies, perch, some bass. Tough shore walking. May launch a small boat from bank.
OCCOQUAN RIVER -- Route 722, near town of Occoquan, Prince William County. Crappies, catfish, stripers, bass, pickerel. Shore walking. Check with Lynn's Store in Occoquan for information.
AQUIA CREEK -- Route 630, Stafford County, near Aquia development. Crappies, perch, bass, catfish. Some shore walking or jonboating.
POTOMAC CREEK -- Route 1, south of Stafford, Stafford County. Crappies, sunfish, catfish, some bass and perch. Shore walking.