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Worth Braving the Cold

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.