It's the wrong time of year for fishing but some people don't know how to quit.
Last week, the water temperature was down to 36 degrees in the rivers that feed the Chesapeake Bay and most fish had settled in for a long winter of dormancy. The cold carried the threat of a hard freeze; a threat that was borne out by the time Christmas rolled around.
But even in the last days before freezeup, there was activity on the rivers.
There is no particular breed of person who will fish regardless of conditions. Like the rabbit hunter who feels at home in the thickest thicket and the duck hunter who grins through a sleet storm, the winter fisherman is generally a solitary sort.
Some brazen souls enjoy big water in the wintertime and brave the Chesapeake proper, trolling after striped bass in deep water. But most cold-water anglers grab a fishable day when it comes along and enjoy it in the more hospitable confines of a river, chasing pickerel.
My pickerel river is the lower Severn within a few miles of Annapolis. It's a 45-minute drive from Washington and a fishing colleague has pointed out some of his favorite spots.
My first cold-weather visit was marked by great achievement. At the time, I knew next to nothing about fishing. John Page Williams was going to lead the voyage but he wound up having to work. He left a complicated note at his house a few minutes drive from the river.
The note said there was a little tin boat at the bottom of the hill, some oars under a bench and a minnow trap tied to a dock around the bend in the creek.
The envelope had some small shad dart lures in it. The note said to row across the creek to the sodden remains of an old mulberry tree, put a minnow on a shad dart hook, cast the lure next to the tree, let it sink for a four-count and retrieve it very slowly.
Strike me dead if a great big pickerel didn't come along and nail that minnow to the wall.
Pickerel are strange, skinny beasts with huge mouths. Some fishermen call them "snakes" and moan and groan in the summertime when they catch one instead of the bass they were hoping for.
But in the winter, when the pickings are slim, these slim, prehistoric-looking denizens of shallow water are the only game around. Occasionally, they even draw a crowd.
"How many boats have you counted?" Williams asked last week after we'd been fishing an hour or two. No one else was counting, but Williams said he'd seen three or four pickerel parties already on the mile of river we'd covered, and this on a cold Thursday.
"It can get real busy on weekends," he said.
With good reason. A mild winter day is a gift too dear to be wasted. Rivers like the Severn, South, Magothy and West are protected enough to be safely navigated in any sensible small boat and a few hours on the river can ease the seemingly interminable burden of winter.
There are two basic techniques for pickerel fishing. Most anglers prefer to stay in their boats and drift across moderately shallow areas. Pickerel favor coves, backwaters and creek mouths and are likely to be found in two to 10 feet of water.
The boat fishermen hang the minnows on shad darts or jigs and suspend these rigs below bobblers at various depths, depending on the water depth. This system works.
Williams carries it one step further. His wife won't confirm or deny it, but there is a rumor that he wears hip waders to sleep at night. It is known that he wears them all day. The waders give him access to even shallower backwaters than the boat fishermen can visit. He parks his skiff at the mouths of small creeks and wades back in, then tosses a jig and minnow into the shallows and drags it back through beds of submerged aquatic grasses.
Grass beds are what pickerel love most and there is even one breed of freshwater marsh grass called pickerel weed. Williams' shallow-water approach makes for especially exciting fishing, since most strikes are accompanied by a roiling swirl as the fish attacks the minnow.
We go at least once a year and have never yet been skunked. The only problem is that pickerel are not particularly good eating because they are very bony. Usually, we throw most of the fish back. This year, we brought along a third party who is notorious for eating anything. He kept four fish.
"They were good, man," said the third party. "When we got done we were licking our fingers."
And we were pleased to have gone when we did. Shortly afterward the river was hard ice, the result of the earliest freeze-up in recent memory.
Come a thaw and Williams will be back in the wading game. If the cold hangs on, he may have to dig his way to the pickerel with a long steel ice-fishing spud.