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Regulars (Sporting Life by Dennis Doyle)

Right now it’s catch and release; Trophy season opens April 16

Once again, I heard a story I couldn’t pass up: a concentration of rockfish up to 33 inches. It was my dream setup and perhaps a chance to catch (and release) my first rockfish of the season.
    I was sure of only one thing. I had not dressed warmly enough for the morning. My teeth were chattering and fingers shaking from the chill as well as the anticipation when I threaded the soft plastic tail onto a half-ounce jig head.
    Selecting a five-inch saltwater Bass Assassin that had been productive at the end of last year, I tied it on my fluoro leader and began to explore, fan casting, drifting and hard-twitching the lure just over the bottom.
    A half dozen casts was all it took.
    I was tight to a good fish taking drag and shaking its head while it ran all around my skiff. I had squashed the hook barb flat — per DNR requirements for this time of year — so had to be extra careful not to allow the least bit of slack lest the fish throw my hook. After an extended struggle I finally eased the brawny rascal to the side of my skiff and into the net. Sweet victory.
    Leaving the still-struggling 25-inch striper entrapped in the mesh, I hurried to ready my camera and get a quick picture. Catch and release this time of year rarely causes mortality or even injury to the fish. Still, as soon as I could I slipped it over the side and back into the cold, clear water of the Bay. The fish jetted away, leaving a small cloud of milt in its wake.
    I couldn’t believe my luck. Then four or five casts later I was hooked up again, then again and a few minutes later yet again. Though the bite slacked off within the hour, I managed to scratch out a total of seven excellent fish by 11am, altogether a fantastic day for my maiden rockfish trip.
    On the way back to the ramp I reminded myself that the best fish of the day (the 25-incher) was still 10 inches under the minimum for the coming trophy season. Today, that ­didn’t matter a whit to me. The scrappers that were feeding that morning allegedly had some bigger cousins nearby. If they continue to hold and feed in that general area, I may have an excellent chance to score a trophy rock come opening day on April 16.

Some days, it isn’t the fish that count

Sometimes nothing goes right, and it just doesn’t seem to matter. The original plan was to start out at tide fall. According to the charts, that meant about 11am at the mouth of the Magothy. But of course it was closer to one o’clock when Mike, Dale and I finally launched my skiff.
    The high tide, we noticed, was stalled, but perhaps ready to fall as we stowed our gear and motored out into the river channel. Intending to methodically work every area where we had ever found fish on the Magothy, we started right there. Marking small schools holding on the bottom, we presented minnows and bloodworms for almost an hour. No takers.
    This was the first trip of the season for Dale, though Mike and I had been out. We all knew that the likelihood of finding fish was questionable. It was a bit late for yellow perch and early for the whites.
    Soldiering on, we fished up the river in familiar-looking locales. At first we blamed our lack of success on the absence of tidal current, then the lack of grass shrimp (we only had bloodworms, minnows and butter worms), followed by the fickleness of spawning perch and the time of day (mid-day is the least productive period).
    Since denigrating each other is an alternative sport when things aren’t going right, we eventually speculated on the presence of a Jonah. Named after the Biblical Jonah, swallowed by the whale, and ever since identified with bad luck on the water.
    Moving upriver, we fished all the way to Beachwood Park, where it was obvious from the many listless anglers along the shoreline that no one was catching fish. Our luck remained stalled — as did, incidentally, the tidal current.
    Dale and I were about to bestow the Jonah on Mike when he hooked up with a fat and feisty yellow perch, which he battled to the side of the boat. Consumed by envy, Dale and I were relieved when the ned spit the hook as Mike tried to derrick it into the boat.
    He explained that he had purposely freed the perch out of concern for our self-esteem. We loudly protested that preposterous claim. Then Mike went on to hook a small sunfish, then a pickerel — at which point his luck and his boasting grew unbearable.
    Dale and I were conferring aloud on the best way to heave him overboard when I happened to glance at my watch. Already it was 5pm, and Mike had promised his wife that he would meet her for dinner at that hour.
    We persuaded all of our spouses, who had been patiently waiting for our return, to join us at a waterfront restaurant halfway down the Magothy River on Mill Creek. It would take them, we hoped, as long to get there as it would our skiff.
    Dinner was delicious and the adult beverages especially welcome and warming after the chill of the late-afternoon run. Mike, Dale and I entertained our dinner companions by trying to convince them just how one lost yellow perch, a tiny sunfish and a barely legal pickerel constituted a fantastic fishing trip. They believed us. It was obvious we’d had a great day on the water.

Paddlers approach fish and wildlife closely and unobtrusively

Lifting the slender red hull with one hand, I put the single-person kayak in the back of my pickup truck, securing it with a bungee cord and tucking in the double-bladed oar. Within an hour, I was floating over the placid waters of my favorite lake, casting my fly rod to any number of bluegills, pickerel, bass and perch.
    Later that week, I would launch the same craft along a major Chesapeake tributary to pursue white perch and schoolie rockfish with a light spin outfit.
    One of the best things about living in Maryland is our public recreational areas. I’m not talking about places such as Quiet Waters Park, Truxton or even Sandy Point State Park, though they are all great areas to enjoy the outdoors. The public space I’m talking about is the Bay itself and its almost countless tributaries, as well as Maryland’s many freshwater lakes and streams.
    Under federal law, people have access to all navigable waters subject to the ebb and flow of tide, and to all inland (non-tidal) waters capable of being boated. That means that if you’re floating in a watercraft almost anywhere in Maryland, you are in public space.
    That amounts to thousands of square miles of public recreational water including the 2,500 square miles of the Chesapeake, the 3,190 miles of shoreline (up to the high water mark), 40 rivers and innumerable lakes, streams and creeks.
    But you can’t enjoy this vast playground unless you have a boat, which may be easier than you think.
    The kayak boom has accelerated access to Maryland’s waters. This small craft was created by Inuit hunters of the far north some 4,000 years ago. It is a very stable craft due to its low center of gravity, light and easy to propel. In its modern incarnation, it is inexpensive and virtually maintenance-free.
    There are versions available for big water (sea kayaks), special designs for fishing, others for whitewater or saltwater surfing models. There are models designed for up to four people, though solo and two-person kayaks are the norm. All are seaworthy, so you can expect to be safe and secure on any day pleasant enough to make you want to be out on the water.
    Many versions weigh about 40 pounds and can be transported on the top of virtually any vehicle. I’ve even seen them towed on special trailers built to be pulled by a bicycle.
    The general touring or recreational versions will do for most applications. Coupled with a comfortable life jacket and a light two-bladed paddle, it is a marine package almost anyone can afford and enjoy.
    This very unobtrusive craft allows the paddler to approach closely to fish and wildlife, a particular advantage to an angler, wildlife photographer or nature lover.
    Canoes also afford wide access to our calmer waters. Canoes were developed some 10,000 years ago in Scandinavia and are generally considered the first form of watercraft. Of yore, they were crafted from a single log or by covering a light framework with tree bark.
    Commonly used by Native Americans and later by European immigrants, the canoe proved to be the primary source of transportation on the lakes, rivers and streams of North America until the late 1800s. Their light weight allowed them to be easily portaged between navigable waters, and they were built in sizes that could accommodate as many as eight passen­gers and their gear.
    Today’s canoes are constructed of molded synthetic materials that are both light and robust, requiring little maintenance. Many are as inexpensive as kayaks though not quite as stable because you sit higher in the hull. On the other hand, the canoe provides more room and storage. Many models can accommodate up to three or four people.
    No matter which of these light craft you choose, it will give you immediate access to one of the largest aquatic recreational areas in America, and all that access is free.

You think you’ve got everything you need until you find out you don’t

It was a nearly perfect morning. We had arrived to find our favorite yellow perch spot empty of angler competition, the broad stream running full and clear and a warm sun poking up over the tops of the thick trees lining the far shore.
    With medium-sized bull minnows hooked on shad darts under weighted bobbers, my buddy Frank and I flipped our rigs out into the stream, above a small eddy churning about 30 feet from the shoreline. Both our bobbers disappeared as soon as they drifted close to the edge of the twisting water.
    Setting our hooks, then gently fighting and easing two fat neds to the shoreline, we grinned so wide they almost hurt our faces.
    “Man these are definitely keepers,” I said.
    “Definitely,” Frank concurred, “but we had better check.”
    Agreeing, I hunted in my tackle bag for a measuring tape. It was not to be found.
    “I must have left it at home,” I said.
    Frank was not having any luck either. “I know I had one last year,” he said.
    “Dang. I’m not so positive that my fish is legal,” I had to admit.
    “I’m not sure enough to risk a $200 fine,” Frank agreed.
    After a final desperate search and still coming up empty, I proposed an option.
    “I think a dollar bill is close to six inches. Let’s cut a branch the size of one and a half bills to measure our fish. We should probably add a little length just to be sure, because I’m not positive that a bill is just under or just over six.”
    Both our neds proved legal by this method, and we used the small stick until we limited out.
    We would later discover that a dollar bill is exactly 61⁄8 inches. So we had probably released, unknowingly, a dozen legal keepers.
    We also discovered we had overlooked bringing a fish stringer, pickerel lures, a better quantity and selection of shad darts, heavier sinkers and a minnow net for dipping bait.

Making Your List
    The first trips of the year can be like that. You think you’ve got everything you need until you find out you don’t.
    With the benefit of hindsight, Frank and I made a checklist:
    A measuring tape or ruler.
    A five-gallon plastic utility bucket, a great catchall for carrying the various items of your tackle to the fishing site as well as in carrying back any fish you might harvest.
    Two fishing rods per person so that an accident like a broken rod or a reel that has frozen up over the long winter won’t derail your after an hour on the road and a mile hike to the secret spot. It is also handy to have one rod rigged for bobber fishing and the other for bottom fishing.
    A regulation book in case you catch a species you hadn’t planned on and can’t remember the minimum legal size or legal season for possession.
    Extra shad darts of varying weights, sizes and colors, plus small spoons and crank baits, extra hooks of the proper size and hi-lo rigs to set up for bottom fishing. Also bring sinkers and bobbers in enough quantity that you can lose a few in the multitude of snags and low treetops in springtime angling waters.
    A minnow bucket so that you don’t have to purchase yet another when stopping at the bait store; plus a small dip net to allow your hands to stay warm in the chill of spring.
    A line clipper;
    A good knife;
    A small towel or two to keep your hands dry and warm and to wipe off fish or bait slime.
    A hemostat or pliers to aid in divesting your fish — especially pickerel — from the hooks.
    A camera to prevent your being called a liar.
    Boots in the event of a flooded or muddy shoreline.
    A light waterproof jacket or poncho for that day when a warm, sunny sky turns into an dark dowpour.
    A first aid kit, including bandaids, medical tape and disinfectant for fin and hook punctures, plus a small wire cutters should a hook bury in past the barb.
    Last but not least, a fishing license.

If it’s looking like a curled wood saw, it’s time for a new one

While walking close to the stern of my trailered boat in the drive yesterday morning, I felt a tug. My pant leg had hung up on the outboard’s prop, and for good reason. The edge of the offending blade looked like a curled wood saw.
    Fishing shallow water has its rewards, but it can be hard on boat propellers.
    You’re sometimes navigating where your skiff’s propeller is pushing through sand, silt or worse. You are inevitably going to hit a rock or two, possibly even a boulder.
    If you have a stainless steel prop on your outboard, you must be eternally cautious or have deep pockets. Stainless is expensive and doesn’t easily bend or deflect. While superb for deep-water cruising, stainless props will fracture, or fail when encountering rocks of size.
    Aluminum props are much more forgiving, bending and deflecting from collisions with the hard stuff in the shallows. My propellers for the last few decades have been aluminum for just that reason. Though they can eventually lose their operating efficiency when the blades become too rough or misshapen, replacing them is rather simple.

Know Your Propeller
    Next to the horsepower and torque of the motor itself, the propeller is the most critical link to moving through the water. The propeller and its shape determine, among other things, your top speed, fuel economy and how promptly your craft comes up on plane.
    An outboard prop’s performance essentials are identified by the numbers inscribed on the hub of the prop (which means you have to take the propeller off to determine what they are). These numbers indicate pitch (how far the prop theoretically drives through the water in one revolution, measured in inches) and the prop’s diameter (also in inches). It should also denote the direction of rotation (usually right or clockwise).
    If you are pleased by the past performance of your propeller and merely intend to restore lost efficiency (caused by dents, gouges and misshapen blades), purchase a new one with the same pitch, diameter and rotation direction as your original.
    At propeller-changing time, you can also modify any aspect of your craft’s general on-the-water performance. Choosing less pitch, or a slightly smaller diameter for your new prop can likely generate higher RPMs (engine speed) and a greater WOT (wide open throttle) speed. Expect, though, that the change (as long as the RPM increase is within the safe range of the engine’s specs) may also result in your craft coming up on plane a bit more slowly.
    If you are a shallow-depth dervish intending to cruise the shoalwaters and wanting your skiff to jump up on plane faster, choose a greater pitch or a bit larger diameter prop, recognizing you may lose a little top-end speed.
    One caveat: It is impossible to predict exactly how a different prop will affect your boat’s performance on the water. So when you decide to try a new setup, exercise care in unpacking, installing and running the new unit. If it doesn’t perform as you wish and the parts (and packaging) are still in new condition, you can return it in exchange for another better suited to your needs.
    Don’t discard a banged-up prop. It can come in handy as a backup. If you’re handy and have a hammer and a butane torch, you might restore a dinged aluminum unit to useful condition.

Yellow perch break winter’s fast

Things are looking up for Maryland anglers when the first runs of yellow perch are reported. Also called ring perch, neds or yellow neds, they are the first Tidewater fish to respond to spawning urges. Leaving their wintering grounds, they will now break up into small schools and migrate toward fresher tributary headwaters to lay eggs and reproduce.
    Waysons Corner where Rt. 4 crosses the Patuxent River is usually the place yellows first appear in our neck of the woods, and this year is no different. The run there started a week or so ago and is growing. Fish up to 12 inches are being taken, but with a nine-inch minimum size and a 10-count possession limit there can be lots of throwbacks.
    Other places will soon see these fish. Maryland Department of Natural Resoures lists some 40 springtime yellow perch fishing spots on its website: dnr2.maryland.gov/fisheries/Pages.
    You might not find them the first or second try, so don’t hesitate to change locations. But if you are persistent, you will score the first fresh fish dinner of the new year — and it will be a good one.
    The migrating schools of perch tend to move up the rivers and streams on the incoming tide, retreating to deeper water as the tide reverses. The best shoreline bite is usually some phase of that high tide. Focus on the brushy shorelines, especially near downed trees, bushes and sunken debris. During low water, try channels and deep pools.
    Small male yellow perch move up the tributaries first, the larger males arriving a bit later. Both remain upriver and near spawning sites as long as females keep coming. The roe-bearing females show on their own immutable schedule and then leave soon after they spew their eggs. Yellow neds also live in most freshwater impoundments throughout Maryland and feel the same springtime spawning urge.
    Yellow perch exude their roe in accordion-like sacks designed to foul on any submerged structure, holding the roe suspended. The eggs hatch in 10 to 25 days.

Fishing Yellow
    Five- to seven-foot light or medium spin rods work well this time of year. Reels should be spooled with fresh four- to 10-pound test monofilament. Small hooks are generally best, with a No. 2 the largest for this time of year.
    Low water temperatures will limit the success of artificial lures, as this time of year most fish locate their food by scent rather than sight, and perch are no exception. Present fresh bait such as minnows, grass shrimp, bloodworms, earthworms, wax worms and butter worms on hi-low rigs. Use a sinker in deeper water and shad darts suspended under a bobber in the shallower areas.
    When fishing bobber-suspended baits, cast out and pop the bait slowly back to create sound and constant motion.
    I’ve had good results with a tandem rig with a gold No. 12 Tony Accetta spoon and a lip-hooked minnow on the long leg and a bright colored 1⁄8-ounce shad dart dressed with a grass shrimp or a bit of worm on the shorter leg. Casting this rig out to likely areas and slowly working it back will almost always draw strikes when yellow perch are around. It has the additional advantage of enticing any pickerel lurking about.
    When you locate perch in deeper water they will usually remain concentrated in that area for some time. But the neds in warmer shallow water are generally in spawning mode and constantly moving. As females begin to exude their egg sacks, groups of males follow them, bumping their sides and exuding milt to fertilize the eggs.
    Gravid females appear to be the meatiest of the perch, but most of their physical bulk is made up of the eggs. It is better to keep the legal, slimmer males and release the egg-bearing females to contribute to next year’s population.

Be ready for fish with the year’s most appealing lures

High winds, dark days and 20-degree temperatures have limited anglers’ choices this ugly February. Enforced home time is just what you need to prepare for next season.
    Among good news last season was the appearance of vast schools of schoolie rockfish. Many proved under the 20-inch minimum size, meaning many will have grown fat and legal by the time fishing blossoms again.
    Be ready for these coming-of-age fish with the most appealing lures. You won’t want to see nearby anglers scoring cast after cast while your offerings are getting only minimal acceptance.
    On a quick and casual survey of tackle shops around the Chesapeake, I made a list of lures that should produce as the 2016 rockfish season commences on the Tidewater.
    An eclectic enterprise on Kent Island that prides itself on being first in identifying new trends in lure design had some interesting recommendations. Blueblue, a Japanese lure company with scant exposure here, has a couple of lures that have given their anglers particular success.
    They are the Blueblue Searide Jig and the Blueblue Snecon 130, a swim bait in green with an orange belly or yellow with a red belly. Both lures have a radically different noise and swim action from traditional rockfish lures, which may explain their effectiveness. Both are worth examining.
    An Annapolis tackle shop with a long tradition of handling excellent artificial baits offers some light tackle lures as well. Big (10 inch) BKDs in white or chartreuse are definitely favored on black one-and-one-half Mission jigheads for springtime trophy efforts. The Tsunami holographic soft plastic baits in bunker color in all sizes are also worth a look, especially on hardhead two-tone jigheads. They’re said to work equally well for casting, jigging and trolling.
    Five- and six-inch soft plastic, Saltwater Bass Assassins in Opening Night and Albino Shad have remained consistently productive, customers say. But Panhandle Moon- and Ripper-colored five-inch Saltwater BAs on one-and-one-half Mission jigheads were reported as superior for most of the second half of last season.
    Stingsilvers, especially when rigged with a dropper fly, continue to be among the better metal baits to work with in vertical jigging for rockfish. Silver is the most productive color followed by gold when fishing in overcast or stained water.
    A reliable Edgewater tackle store added that Mirrolure Popa Dogs, a top water popper with walk-the-dog action and a unique sound, was a surprising and overwhelming favorite last season. The redhead, white-body model was tops in sales, which numbered in the hundreds.
    Soft plastics by Bust ’em Baits, competing with BKD and BA lures, are also achieving local notice with a unique construction that delivers a more pronounced undulating action.
    Time will tell if they are worth making room for in your tackle box.

It’s the critical link to your fish

In my considerable exposure to big fish stories over the years, I’ve noticed that many failures and disasters focus on one recurring cause: tired fishing line. That is unfortunate, especially as the cost of replacing the line on most reels is less than a six-pack.
    How do you know when it’s time to replace your line?
    If you’re asking yourself that question, the answer is yes. When in doubt, replace.
    Monofilament can degrade rapidly with exposure to ultra-violet sunlight and fluorescent lighting, eventually from wear, changes in temperature and humidity and sometimes from simple age.
    New monofilament has a particularly lovely shine on the reel spool. With time and use (especially in saltwater), that shine disappears. Eventually the line becomes chalky. A flat finish is suspicious; chalkiness is definitely bad. Both are signs that vital components of the mono have leached out.
    Braided line, brands like Power Pro and Berkley Fireline, is much more resistant to age and wear than mono, but it is not immune. Extreme use and repeated exposure to the elements eventually cause that line to fail as well.
    When a line begins to lose its integrity from age or use or both, knot strength is the first thing to go bad.
    Next, try the knot test. On lines of indeterminate age and from 10- to 20-pound breaking strength, tie an overhand knot and give it a hard jerk. If it breaks, get rid of the line.
    When lines below 10-pound fail the test, you face a judgment call. Are you ready to chance a good fish?
    Replace your line regularly. Every season is best for monofilament, and every three to five years you should replace braided line.

Line-Shopping Guide
    When buying new line, do not look for bargains. A low or steeply discounted price may indicate old stock or questionable quality. Both mean trouble.
    I have a fishing buddy who cannot resist a bargain. He had chanced into a small out-of-the-way shop selling spools of a popular line at such a low price that he bought a lot. After the start of the rockfish season and the third inexplicable break-off in just the first couple of trips, that line disappeared from his reels and that bargain was never again mentioned.
    Since spools of fishing line do not bear a discernable manufacture date, you never know how old they might be. Thus knowing your supplier is another good rule in buying line.
    Many low-cost lines are excellent, though not superior. Higher-quality lines are monitored for uniform breaking strength. Manufacturing methods are routinely upgraded, with the latest (and usually most expensive) softeners and lubricants added, resulting in better longevity, suppleness, ease of use and knot strength.
    Unless you don’t mind losing gear and fish to break-offs, buy the best you can afford. Purchase your line from a reputable dealer that rotates stock and sells a lot of the product. If you are having your line spooled at the store (always wise), ask to see the bulk spool. Inspect the line for age (if mono, it should be shiny), and don’t hesitate to give it the knot-and-pull test.
The 20-Foot Solution    
    Before the start of each season, discard the first 20 feet of line off each of your reels. Repeat after every half dozen or so trips, particularly if you enjoyed a lot of action. The first 20 feet undergoes the majority of the wear and is most likely to fail under high stress. Landing your next big fish may depend on it.


Conservation Alert

Maryland Governor Hogan’s administration plans to suspend Bay oyster restoration. They are also opening to commercial harvest many oyster reserve areas that have been off-limits. Oysters have been driven down to the last one-half percent of their historic population levels, and these actions, while popular with the commercial sector, are bound to push this vital Chesapeake resource closer to exhaustion. All Bay-lovers should respond to these misguided actions: http://takeaction.cbf.org/p/dia/action3/common/public/?action_KEY=18053.

The waterfowl hunter is a different sort of man — or woman

The sound of a half dozen rapid shots followed by a pause, then two or three more measured reports rolled in from the nearby Magothy River. I was drinking my first coffee that morning, still in my bathrobe and looking out the front window when I heard the gunfire. It was bitter cold, windy, overcast and an altogether miserable morning. The duck hunters must be in heaven, I thought.
    Foul winter weather drives migrating waterfowl down the Atlantic Coast. It also moves birds that have already arrived off open wind-riven waters to seek shelter and food along the shoreline coves and the tributaries. That’s where these specialized hunters wait, crouching in blinds or shivering in layout boats next to scores of decoys, fingering long, slender shotguns and waiting for their quarry to be attracted into range.
    Waterfowl hunters are not like normal people. During duck and goose seasons, spates of sunny days and moderate temperatures send them into irritable funks. Forecasts of storm warnings and gusting winds, snow or rain, overcast skies and plunging thermometers cheer them and lighten their step.
    Waterfowling is a sport only for the hardy, those inured to harsh, frigid conditions and ready to expend any amount of effort in preparing for their sport. They must also be immune to long days of inaction, for experienced gunners know well that often the birds do not come to the hunter.
    The sport requires specialized hard-weather clothing, tough waterproof coats and trousers with heavily insulated cores. All come in camouflage patterns designed to make the wearer as inconspicuous as possible to the migrating ducks and geese. Those birds have virtually telescopic vision.
    It takes strength and good physical condition because gunning the Chesapeake requires an inordinate amount of hard labor. Preparing blinds and duck boats, lugging any number of decoys, setting them out before sunrise and carrying bags of gear: That kind of effort will raise a sweat and exhaust many before the first shot is even fired.
    Challenges are often extreme. The hardy, long-traveling, powerful birds that test these gunners do not seem bound by the normal physics of flight.
    I remember gunning many years ago on Lake Erie. I was in a layout boat behind four-dozen decoys on a blustery day inside Presque Isle Bay. A string of a dozen canvasbacks had plummeted in from on high. I rose up to lead the first duck by at least a half-dozen feet. My shot struck the water just behind the trailing duck as they flew off. If those geese weren’t exceeding 100 miles an hour, I’ll eat my hat and yours as well.
    In spite of the challenges, this sport has long had a hard corps of dedicated practitioners. And make no mistake, it isn’t strictly a man’s sport. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, especially these days, when the women in our military are earning Army Ranger badges and queuing up to compete for the most exclusive areas of Special Forces.
    Woman or man, the waterfowl hunter is a different sort of individual.

Bird watching, fishing and hunting are all in season

Late January can be a great time for outdoor lovers, including bird watchers and waterfowl hunters. The arrival of colder weather has encouraged migrating waterfowl to finally head our way along the Atlantic Flyway. The Ches­apeake and its tributaries are ideal resting and feeding areas where these birds will linger, at least until additional foul weather convinces them to continue to warmer climes. Some will eventually travel as far as Mexico.
    Now’s the time to see some 250 species of migrating birds and waterfowl including tundra swans, snow geese, Canada geese, loons, wood ducks, canvasback ducks, widgeons, mallards, black ducks, golden eyes, buffleheads, old squaws and eiders.
    Great sites for viewing (and in some cases, hunting) these visitors are parks and refuges including Blackwater Wildlife Refuge (near Cambridge), Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge (near Rock Hall), Elk Neck State Park (near North East) and Wye Island Natural Resources Management Area (near Queenstown).
    Small-game hunters seeking a clever but tasty animal will find this is one of the best months for success in hunting Maryland’s prolific gray squirrel. Despite being sought by owls, hawks, weasels, foxes, coyotes and the like, the gray squirrel has continued to expand its range and numbers.
    Its wily nature in the forest can make it a difficult animal for hunters to approach. However, mid-January marks the beginning of the mating season, and romantic inclinations make them especially active. With the trees clear of foliage, squirrels are more vulnerable to quietly moving hunters than at any other time of the year.
    Squirrel meat was the primary wild game in the original Brunswick Stew (cooks.com/recipe/5h5f08i5/brunswick-stew.html) that fed Colonial America during the wintertime for nearly a century until the forests were eventually cleared and other game species (and domestic animals) became more numerous. Our state game management areas are ideal places to seek out this cautious but delicious critter. Try the DNR website http://tinyurl.com/MD-DNR-wildlife for more information.
    Anglers on the Chesapeake haven’t for quite some time had a winter rockfish catch-and-release season like the one now going on at Point Lookout at the mouth of the Potomac River. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel has also been having a good run, the best in the last few years, and there you can keep one fish over 28 inches.
    Crappie are schooling, as are yellow perch, and both should become available in the very near future as they begin to spawn, especially short warming spells continue. Six- to seven-foot medium-action spinning rods with six- to 10-pound mono are ideal for both of these delicious creatures. Best baits are minnows, grass shrimp, bloodworms, earthworms and wax worms, in that order. Fish them on a shad dart under a bobber or on a high-low rig on the bottom. Target along the shorelines at the high tides or the deeper channels during the low phases. Crappie and perch both like to hang out around submerged bushes and trees.
    Chain pickerel are probably the most reliable and aggressive game fish in both fresh and salt water in mid-January and into February. These fish seem to be energized by the colder weather. A toothy fish that can easily reach 24 inches (citation size), the pickerel likes to ambush its prey and can be usually found lurking around downed trees (laydowns), piers and docks (the older the better), floating rafts of leaves and debris and rock jetties. They will also follow the schools of yellow perch that are moving up to spawn in tributary headwaters.
    Hikers along the Bay’s shoreline should keep an eye out for the graceful lion’s mane jellyfish that show up in good numbers this time of year. Large brownish creatures of five pounds or more each, they are clearly visible on calm days pulsating along the clearer waters of the wintertime Chesapeake.