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Gronaw: Go fishing for zombies
Fat winter bluegills cruise around lethargically like fresh water zombies where slow and delicate presentations can be successful in mid-winter. (Jim Gronaw photo)

I must admit, this has been a difficult, yet rewarding, winter fishing season for me. With only a very narrow window of 48-hours to fish local “safe” ice conditions, I have somehow managed to dodge this and that snow event and cold spells to put a pretty good hurtin’ on bass, crappies and bluegill so far this winter.

Although I am a catch-and-release angler for even panfish species, I did succumb to the keeping of a couple dozen bluegills and crappies over the winter to help fortify the meals when my son and his girls come over for a fish fry. Not that they eat like football players, but you never want to run out of fillets when the main course is, well, fish fillets!

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Open-water, mid-winter shoreline fishing throughout the Mason Dixon is not an easy gig by any means. The water is cold, usually 35-38 degrees but warmer during mild winters.

Skim-ice often forms overnight and can … can, be melted off by noon or a little later the next day. Frequent snowfall and melt off makes footing slippery and drops water temperatures, even when it’s warming up. Cold winds, sting and burn. And then there’s that mucous thing — the “running of the noses.”

Then there’s the fish … bluegills, crappies, bass and a few other species. Over on the Eastern Shore, where they hardly have a winter, freshwater gamesters have been tearin’ it up all during the chill as water temperatures can be as much as 10 degrees higher.

Locally, it’s colder. Fish are lethargic, even zombie-like, as they slowly cruise for a winter morsel on weed edges, shallow bays or suspend somewhere in the water column. The “swimming dead” aren’t energetic, but they will feed, slowly and surely, and just barely tip a sensitive float enough to let one know it is actually biting your bait. If your watery, stinging eyes can focus on the float, you may have time enough to set the hook.

That is provided you don’t have a huge bow in your line from a gusty wind.

Then, there are some “good” problems. The best good problem is having a cold, wet hand from unhooking multiple fish in short order. When you do find fish and start catching some, they are usually in tightly packed schools or “pods” of fish.

Cast to the same exact spot 30 times in a row and you can get a strike or a fish on almost every cast, hence the wet hand that never dries or warms up. Yes, this is a good problem.

At other times, a good problem is realizing that you are the only one foolish enough to be out there enjoying this madness we call winter fishing. Plenty of privacy, no competition for prime fishing spots, and the steadfast assurance that you will sleep soundly and deeply, either that night or in “nap form” upon your arrival home.

Yes, you might miss your favorite episode of Raymond, Lone Star Law or the Sports Center rundown of the day. But it’s worth it.

As bluegills and crappies mill about in slow motion, you cast tiny, 1/80th ounce jigs tipped with meal worms or wax worms and watch those delicate, sensitive floats for any indication of a take. At best, your float will tip to a 45-degree angle, indicating that something has your bait. A quick hookset with a long, ultralight rod puts the hook into an 8-inch bluegill or maybe a foot-long crappie.

Feeling justified, you toss the ice-cold, squirming panfish into the confines of your trusty 5-gallon bucket, promising yourself that you’re only going to keep enough for one or two meals. The next several cast yield similar results, and before you know it, you aren’t quite sure how many fish have hit the pale. Ten, maybe? Is that enough?

That’s when your ice-cold, left hand cries, “stop already!”

Ultimately, this is the goal of the winter angler. a pan of great tasting panfish as the main course for a evening meal.
Ultimately, this is the goal of the winter angler. a pan of great tasting panfish as the main course for a evening meal. (Jim Gronaw photo)

But you know the game, as you fall head-first and get completely engulfed in the frenzy that yields fish after fish, some of them good ones, some of them dinks. It’s difficult to even re-bait your hook as cold winds and wet hands don’t mix too well. But you know you won’t get a strike on a plain jig, at least not now, during the coldest stages of the winter.

So, you bait up, toss out and tract your float ‘til it tilts, set the hook again and squeal quietly inside as the frigid left hand gallantly struggles to hold yet another fat bluegill that may, or may not, make it to the pan.

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Admiring the robust fish, you decide to let it be “his” day — his lucky day — as you gently toss him back into the dark waters he’ll call home.

As the afternoon wears on you realize that you actually had a better outing than most of your warm water efforts. There’s a dozen nice fish in the bucket and you released several that were larger in hopes that they would one day grow to trophy proportions provided they aren’t caught and consumed by another angler who thinks he is “hungrier” than you.

The sun is setting in the western distance and the bite is slowing down. One last cast, one more fish. One more shot at the swimming dead, the zombies. The addiction of watching bobbers dance and disappear are powerful, but we must make a choice to refrain.

On the way home you think about how good those ice-cold fillets are going to taste, all golden brown and sizzlin’ in the pan of hot oil. Mashed potatoes, corn bread, a little Old Bay on the fish. Iced tea, maybe a beer. Maybe a nap. It was a good time and a reward for the effort.

You think about spring, but deep down, you know you’ll likely, once again, go fishing for the zombies.

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