- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 20, 2002

We have no sure way of knowing just how many fishermen in the Washington area bother to wet a line when temperatures plummet, but we know there are more than the non-angling public suspects.
For starters, trout fanatics never stop. They slip on hip-waders and slosh through the coldest mountain streams no matter what the weather forecast says. But in these parts, a bit of a fishing phenomenon is increasingly noticed. It's the constantly growing number of tidal water fans who do not winterize their bass boats and cartoppers because they intend to go fishing in local rivers and creeks that support year-round populations of yellow perch, bass, crappies, carp and even stripers.
Not long ago, the moment the first hard frost arrived most fishermen would hang up their rods and reels and make sure their outboard motors would stay warm and toasty until the balmy days of spring. That no longer applies.
A goodly part of this newfound fondness for winter fishing can be traced to a local bass expert, Coast Guard-licensed fishing guide Andy Andrzejewski.
"I don't put away my gear when the weather turns cold," the La Plata resident says.
Andrzejewski has turned winter fishing in tidal rivers into a science, and he has much to share with people who own a boat and a depth finder (even a cheap one will do) and are willing to sit and study the screen of such a depth sounder, interpreting blips, gobs and streaks that flit across the electronic marvel's liquid crystal display while wearing heavy-duty snowmobile suits, gloves and woolen caps.
A planned outing on New Year's Day, followed by several other January fishing trips, proved to me that Andrzejewski might be the best of the Mid-Atlantic's winter fishermen. The man possesses almost mystical fish-finding skills, and he showed as much on the first day of 2002. The wind blew 15-20 mph, while the temperature fell to the-mid 20s and never rose beyond 32 degrees. Our chosen tidal Potomac River tributary's shoreline was covered with ice, although the main creek body was open, and only wild ducks and geese appeared to enjoy the weather.
Andrzejewski launched his boat, idled away from the ramp, then stared intently at the screen of his dash-mounted depth finder (a second electronic sounder is mounted on the deck at the boat's bow) as the boat slowly went against an outgoing tide. At first, only occasional small, black dots moved across the viewing area, and the guide shook his head. "Nothing there," he said, "except maybe a few gizzard shad." The boat continued upstream. Then it happened.
In a sharp creek bend where the water depths fell from three and four feet to 18 or more, Andrzejewski slipped the outboard motor's accelerator handle into neutral. "Look at this," he said, pointing at a black ball that filled the lower left half of the silvery screen. "Baitfish, just a little off the bottom. They're minnows or shiners, and wherever you see bait bunched up like that there's a chance that something else might be near them, getting ready to eat."
The suggestion was as plain as the increasingly bluish tint on my half-frostbitten nose. With such a smorgasbord readily available, predator fish should be nearby.
Andrzejewski picked up a baitcasting rod, its reel loaded with 14-pound monofilament line, and quickly tied a 3-inch-long, avocado color Mann's Sting Ray grub on a 1/8-ounce exposed jig hook to the nylon. He dabbed the beaver-tailed plastic lure into a jar of creamy crawfish-flavored Smelly Jelly fish attractant and flicked the pungent grub toward the edge of the shallow water, then allowed it to slide and shimmy into the deeper layers close to where the baitfish school should be.
"OK, fish on," he said as he lifted his rod sharply. "The first one of 2002." The guide brought in a fat yellow perch, posed for a photo, then let the golden-hued fish slide back into the creek.
Moments later, both of us had yellow perch on the hooks; Andrzejewski's bit the Sting Ray; mine fell for a chartreuse Berkley Power Tube bait fished from a spinning outfit loaded with 12-pound monofilament. We intentionally experimented with various types of plastic lures to see which one might work better on this particular day.
The moving of the boat, locating staircase-like dropoffs and spotting various dark blips that indicated single fish under the boat or larger balls of frightened bait minnows became the order of the day.
"But when the temperature rises even a few degrees and the sun shines, keep your eyes open for baitfish moving around in shoreline shallows," Andrzejewski said. "Minnows don't waste any time going to marsh bank shallows when the sun warms the water a little, and you know what might be looking at that bait moving from the deep water to the shallow stuff bass, the largemouthed variety. They intend to snack on these minnows. Cast your grub to those little surface eruptions near shore and slowly crawl it back toward the boat. The bass, or whatever else might be around, will do the rest."
He was right. During that particular week, we variously hooked perch, crappies, bass, catfish and carp all on imitation food that smelled mighty tasty.
You can do it. The upper tidal Potomac, Patuxent, Choptank, Nanticoke, Chester and Wicomico (Salisbury area) in Maryland or Virginia's Rappahannock, James, Chickahominy, Pamunkey and Mattaponi rivers await your visits. Dress warmly, let somebody at home know where you're headed and wear a life vest wherever you go.

Look for Gene Mueller's Outdoors column every Sunday and Wednesday, and his Fishing Report every Friday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: [email protected]


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