January is a time to ponder the mysteries of oak logs snapping in a wood stove, the sweet taste of bourbon whiskey and the musty smell of a black dog drying by the fire heat.
To fully appreciate it, it helps to share the wet with the black dog, especially if the black dog is Mijbil, John Page Williams' small-framed Labradore, who lives with her master at the top of a hill overlooking Chase Creek, just upriver from the Maryland capital.
Chase Creek is one of a multitude of little feeders and ponds that run into the Severn River, which, even in the frigid grip of winter, can be a busy place.
On the weekend before the 1970s became the 1980s, fishermen were there in force. On the brink of a new decade, they were in cold pursuit of a prehistoric-looking beast with a funny name -- the chain pickerel.
Winter is pickerel season on the Severn and other modest-sized tidal rivers of the Chesapeake Bay.
It is a habit of most gamefish to repair to deep holes when water temperature plummets. There, they wait out the cold in near dormancy, feeding only rarely. But pickerel play it differently. They are skulkers by nature. o
In winter, they often hang in the edges of shallow grass beds near shore, rendered practically invisible by the weedy cover. When a stray minnow cruises by they can dash out with a flip of the tail and attack.
They particularly favor sun-warmed banks on a bright January day. And who wouldn't?
"I don't see any point n starting real early," Williams said over the phone. "It's been my experience that they bite best during the warmest part of the day. Make sure your waders don't leak."
It was nearly noon before his 17-footer was rigged and ready. I know because I kept glancing at my watch, wondering how anyone could expect fishing success after a lazy start like that.
But Williams and his colleague, veteran pickerel pursuer George Pierre, insisted there was no cause for concern.
They headed downriver first, with a balmy west wind behind. Williams peeked in the coves as he went by and found stiffs and rowboats in almost every promising spot.
"Yesterday, I counted 13 fishermen in one cove," he said. "It gets busy out here on a pretty day."
He made one fruitless stop at a cove that had produced fish a year before, then pressed on to a place called Cockadoodle Creek, practically in the shadow of Annapolis proper.
A tidal slough led from the river back to the creek. It was too shallow to take the boat through, so we waded. When we broke through from a stand of cattails, first a huge flock of canvasback ducks, then another of mallards flapped away in fright.
"Stand right here," said Williams, "and fan your casts from shore to shore."
There was skim ice on a quarter of the pond. Williams cast a combination minnow/spinnerbait/plastic worm to the edge of the ice, let it sink and then retrieved it slowly.
The tip of the rod did a merry dancy.
Bink. Bink bink. Bink bink bink.
Finally the pickerel settled its mind and chomped the hapless minnow.The line started moving off, left to right.
"Hit him now," I whispered. Williams reared back and set the hook. The rod bent in a big semicircle. The fish was on.
It was a nice one -- about 20 inches and two pounds. That's standard size for river pickerel in these parts, where a three-pounder is a big fish. Williams played the fish out, daintily removed the hook from its broad, toothy jaw and set it free.
Cockadoodle Creek was good to us. We pulled seven or eight pickerel out in an hour's time, the largest a 22-incher of 2 1/2 pounds.
Elsewhere on a two-mile stretch of the Severn we found other coves that produced five or six more pickerel in all, plus a pair of yellow perch, the other winter delicacy of the Severn.
As the sun set over the river, Williams turned for home, where a fire and sweet bourbon waited.
Pickerel fishing should be good through the winter until March 15, when the season closes so the fish can spawn in peace.
Traditional Severn pickerel anglers fish from a small boat, often drifting, and use a double rig of small jigs with bull minnows attached to the hooks.
Williams likes a single jig with a spinner blade attached by a safety-pin rig, plus a plastic worm and a minnow on the hook. It sounds like overkill, but it works.
He also loves to wade after pickerel, which makes for a very satisfying day.
He'll park the boat on a sandy shore and walk back to the creeks and ponds. It's quieter, colder and a lot more like an adventure.