- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 25, 2004

As promised, when my 2004 deer hunting season came to an end and plenty of venison was neatly packed away in the family freezer, I went fishing.

Yes, I’m fully aware what time of year it is, and, yes, it’s colder than a well-digger’s derriere out on the water in late December, but having been a waterfowl hunter since I was a teenager has taught me how to dress for the occasion.

Not only that, I play the cold-water game a lot safer than I used to. My old duck hunting pal, Jimmy Granahan, will verify that one New Year’s Day in the 1970s we hunted from an offshore blind on the Eastern Shore and ventured out in a 10-foot aluminum johnboat that promptly turned over in a wicked chop.

The two of us nearly drowned because we thought retrieving a little bufflehead duck and pulling in three dozen decoys was more important than our own hides.

Nowadays, I shiver when I see more than one person floating about in a 10-foot johnboat, and the retrieving of ducks by boat is best left to the youngsters — someone under 40.

When we go fishing in freezing weather, we wear warm zip-up jackets that actually double as life preservers, and when we’re in our boats they are as safe as an overstuffed couch inside our house.

So a few days ago, bass fishing guide Dale Knupp, who will drop a lure into rivers, creeks and lakes for any fish species, was in his bass boat, busily working the water up around the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. The following day, I put my 18-footer into a quiet Potomac River feeder creek in Charles County.

Both of us needed to know where we could find some fishing action. Whatever happens by day’s end would be shared, to be used in future outings.

Knupp didn’t waste any time finding willing bass and some tasty crappies upriver near the District line, including the Belle Haven marina cove and adjacent waters. His lure of choice was a Sting Ray grub, smeared liberally with the ever-popular Smelly Jelly fish attractant. With that lone soft-plastic lure, Knupp latched not only onto bass and crappies but a couple of resident yellow perch.

The trick was to locate a shallow shoreline with plenty of waterlogged trees, branches, rocks or old stumps the fish might venture into during quiet sunny hours, looking for minnows to feed on. But in each case there had to be a distinct drop in the water depth nearby that the fish could disappear into when icy daytime blasts and nighttime freezes saw water temperatures plummet.

Most days, fish caught in winter weather will hang out along the deep side of such watery ledges, and the rubbery “fragrant” grubs must be retrieved very slowly. Remember, the fish’s metabolism is in low gear now. There’s no chasing the baits; you will get some soft nibbling, if any at all.

Later when I went out, I slowly ran my heavy-duty aluminum bass boat (it can carry the weight of 11 normal-size people) into a Southern Maryland creek.

The method and lure used by Knupp would be the same. Along a marsh bank that jumps from little more than two feet of water to 10 feet or more, the Sting Ray grub (other lures, such as the Silver Buddy or Berkley Power grub, also work) drew a soft strike from a small bass of maybe a pound. Twenty casts and slow, dragging retrieves later, a keeper-size yellow perch grabbed the plastic grub and wouldn’t let go.

The wind had picked up now, and I thought about heading in if it got worse. One cast was made to a sunken, wooden dock. I felt a tiny resistance, just a mere touch, then noticed a twitch in the line, and I set the hook. It was a largemouth bass of 5 pounds, maybe a shade more.

Why did that bass suck in the avocado color Sting Ray? We have no doubt that the predator bass believed the 3-inch, chubby, tapered grub with the broad beaver tail to be a bull minnow — also known as a fat-head minnow or mummichog. Bass, crappies, perch, carp and rockfish inhale them with regularity. In fact, in many tidal creeks this particular minnow provides the sole food supply.

Just remember to use the strongest thin line you can find, tie it to a 1/4-ounce ballhead jig and pierce the grub onto the hook. Make sure the hook point comes out of the broad “belly” side of the lure and then fish slowly.

Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column every Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washingtontimes.com.

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