- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 21, 2003

In the heat of summer, a quick upstream run on the tidal Potomac River generally results in only a minor problem: how to pick windborne insects from your teeth lest you swallow them. But at 8 in the morning (late by fishermen’s standards), a run in 32-degree temperatures on the same river to the same destination numbs body and mind.

Oh, sure, there are gloves, knit caps, heavy jackets and long johns, even plastic face shields to break the force of the oncoming air, but any way you slice it, you’re cold to the bone by the time you get to where you’re going.

It was no different when my Charles County neighbor, fishing guide Andy Andrzejewski, and I charged up the Potomac from the Marshall Hall launch ramp and didn’t stop until we reached the “slow down” buoys around the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge’s construction zone. It was a little after 8a.m., but it seemed the bridge workers had not yet begun to stir. Could be they lay frozen in their bunks.

However, on this cold December day, the largemouth bass were wide awake and busy — busy mouthing our artificial baits. We came to do what has become a cold weather custom, catching fish on 3-inch-long Mann’s Sting Ray grubs that had been generously dabbed with a magic balm known as Smelly Jelly. (Actually, if you already use another lure scent brand, it’s OK. It’s just that the creamy jelly has worked so well in our case.)

Over the years, the avocado color, plastic grubs, fished on 3/8-ounce or -ounce ball-head jig hooks, with the business end of the wire hook totally exposed, has been a red-hot winter lure for bass, perch, crappies, carp, occasionally even catfish and river stripers.

The reason for that is simple. The dark-green Sting Ray, when slowly dragged and hopped across a shoreline gravel bar, a creek channel, a sudden dropoff, maybe through a maze of underwater rocks or waterlogged tree trunks, apparently resembles a tidewater bull minnow. These baitfish, also known as fathead minnows or mummichogs, are a prime food source for fish who remain in their home waters during the cold months.

Just outside the Spoils Cove on the Maryland side of the river, a short distance upstream of the construction area, we began casting to an underwater drop that fell from a shallow 3 and 4 feet to 10 feet of more. Bang! The first bass of the day struck my Sting Ray.

Actually, “struck” is a poor descriptive word. It gently picked up the plastic bait, which fairly reeked of crawfish-flavored Smelly Jelly and moved off with it. As I lifted the rod a bit, I felt an odd pulling on the line. The advice to set the hook when in doubt is always sound, so I did and soon a small bass churned on the surface. It was quickly released.

Moments later, Andrzejewski, who used baitfish-scented Smelly Jelly, hooked a much better specimen less than 10 feet from my earlier catch. The pro guide did it again several casts later, and I followed with setting the hook to a 200-pound sunken log. But thanks to the a very thin, but powerful, super line in 30-pound test I was able to pull the hook free, straighten it in the process, then re-bend it into proper position and quickly touch up the point with a whetstone.

Inside the Spoils, the two of us hooked, landed and released 10 bass and missed many strikes from others but also found willing crappies. Yes, on occasion we’d lose one of the bottom-crawling lures, but that was a price we gladly paid.

Were we the only ones doing well on an icy cold morning that eventually warmed into the balmy 40-degree range? No way. In another bass boat near us the two occupants used shiny, metal Silver Buddy lures that are meant to be cast and steadily, slowly retrieved. Those two anglers caught a mess of crappies in what appeared to be a wide-open water area, but we know it to hold plenty of underwater structure that the fish find suitable as hiding or ambush spots.

One other boater fished in the slightly warmer waters of the Blue Plains waste treatment plant, and he reported fair bass catches on virtually the same equipment we were using.

Never let it be said that when winter temperatures become the norm the fishing stops.

Not by a long shot.

Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column every Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday, in The Washington Times. E-mail: [email protected]washingtontimes.com


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