The image that sustains fishermen over the winter is of a big fish whacking a little bait or lure. "A few more months," says the angler, "and I'll be hooking them again."
But why wait? Some places are actually better now than later.
Glenn Peacock, my bass fishing buddy, knows all the Washington-area hot spots, having grown up in Silver Spring with a fishing bug in his brain. As a youngster, his wintertime place was Pepco's Dickerson power plant on the Potomac above Poolesville.
Dickerson uses river water to cool its generators. When the warm water is flushed back out into the Potomac, the area around the outfall becomes a winter haven for fish seeking relief from hostile climate.
The hot water population at Dickerson includes bass, catfish, bluegills, crappies and carp.
Peacock and I planned a post-Christmas assault on Dickerson. "If you want to catch big carp," he said as an afterthought, "you have to make up some good bait."
He had a special bait recipe, devised in his adventuresome childhood: to a cup of boiling water add a package of strawberry Jell-O and some vanilla extract. Then stir in corn meal and flour until it makes a gooey, glutenous gruel.
We had no strawberry Jell-O, but my wife came up with some black raspberry and I cooked up the purple concoction. It came out great. She dubbed it, "the eggplant that ate Chicago." I left it gurgling on the counter to cool overnight.
Next morning in my haste to go fishing I stupidly left the blob of carp bait behind. When I came home, though, I was relieved to find it still there. I could see it oozing out under the front door.
The parking lot for recreational access to Dickerson is about a mile downriver from the plant at a place called Cherrington, just off Rte. 28. We locked the car and hiked through a cold fog to the river bank to net some minnows for bait.
While Peacock was casting out the minnow net an immense bronze carp leaped clear of the water 20 feet from shore. Then another one splashed down a little way upstream. We were in carp heaven without a doughball between us.
Peacock got several dozen shiner minnows and some hand-size bluegills in three tosses of the net. We quickly set off up the C&O Canal towpath, burdened with four rods, lunches, tackle boxes, a bucket of minnows and assorted other junk.
The power plant is a complex of monolithic buildings in institutional green. One good fishing place is in the canal in the shadow of the main building, where a small pipe spills out heated water. We tossed in two minnows and waited for our bobbers to twitch. Almost immediately I caught a little largemouth bass.
Near the outfall Peacock hooked and landed a two-pound largemouth that attacked a lure he was dragging near the surface. It was a classic bass capture, the fish boiling along, leaving a wake behind the lure before it struck with a splash. Peacock admired the bass and threw it back.
I started pitching a lure, too, leaving my minnow and bobber along the bank. When I'd walked 30 paces away I saw the bobber go under; I dropped my casting rod and ran back helter-skelter in time to hook and land a citation-size crappie of 14 1/2 inches.
Plant workers were passing messages over the loudspeaker constantly, which created a weird aura. As you concentrated on fishing a stentorian voice sliced the air: "D-Debbie One; it's in the pipe," and similar incomprehensible electrospeak.
The talk reached a despicable nadir when one workmen announced, without benefit of words, his indigestion.
On that disgusting note Peacock and I moved to the river, following a fence that parallels the major hot-water sluiceway through the woods. At the mouth of this industrial creek is a jumble of rocks. The hot effluent comes surging out in a rapids, creating eddies and whirlpools where fish feed, or ought to.
But we had little success there, managing to catch only eight or 10 small catfish by drifting minnows along the bottom, and no smallmouth bass at all.
So we trundled back to the canal in the fading afternoon light. There Peacock hooked two more nice crappies, landing one. Two youngsters fishing nearby caught and released a small bass.
We hiked back to the car in a relaxed and cheerful state, having forestalled for at least a few weeks the onset of the dreaded fisherman's disease, cabin fever.