OK, I know that by the time you read this you are going to be thinking about things like warm living rooms, outdoor shows and dreaming about spring. But long before it really warms up there will still be good fishing at area hot-water discharge areas that will involve a number of species. Sure, cabin fever can get the best of all of us, but don't overlook what can still be some great fishing.
On almost all occasions, my main target in warm-water discharge flows will be small mouth bass and any thing else that comes along is usually considered a bonus. As always, it is important to know what the current river stages are in either the Susquehanna (for the Brunner Island Plant near Mount Wolf, PA.) or the Potomac (for the Dickerson Power Plant, known as Pepco) near Dickerson, Maryland. These are my two favorite hot-water options and over the years some patterns have emerged that follow yearly trends. I avoid periods after substantial rain as it makes wading difficult and even dangerous. Plus, cold muddy water, even in the warm water scenarios, tends to put the fish off.
A consistent day-in, day-out pattern of smallmouths and other game would be bouncing 1/8 th and 3/16th ounce jigs along the bottom of slower runs to tempt the fish. I do this with a light action, 6-½ foot spinning rod and 6 or 8 pound quality mono like Trilene XL Smooth Casting in fluorescent blue or clear. During low water periods, you'll want to make longer casts as you wade out, as the warmed water will spread out further from the bank. High water condition will see warm water pushed tighter to the banks and fish will also be in tighter and behind structures that will block and cause current eddies to form. There are extremes in both ends, and very low and clear water makes for nice wading, but spooky fish. When the water is up and running hard, you will wade very little, but often drop jigs in tiny pockets and one or two quality fish here and there.
Colors of jig plastics can vary. We like to use Zoom Fat Alberts in 3-inch size with watermelon seed, pumpkin pepper and chartreuse flake being our top colors. Sometimes, we'll use hairjigs with a plastic trailer added to give a bulkier, slower presentation if the eddy is large enough to cover with several casts. Berkley PowerBait Grubs in 3 an 4 inch lengths are also a top choice along with Kalins Salty Grubs in similar colors. You will hang up jigs, so bring a bunch, as snags are inevitable. The current crop of tube-style baits are also popular and work quite well, and are inexpensive.
You'll have to develop a 'touch' or 'feel' for the bottom contours as your jig tumbles, then is lifted up, and slowly retrieved through certain areas. Strikes often are slight taps at the rod tip, but at other times a fish will really hammer it. And although the smallmouth is the number one game, chances are good that your jig will find its' way to a walleye, channel catfish, giant carp or even a musky in the hot water. Sometimes, especially at Pepco on the Potomac, you can find a batch of pre-spawn slab crappie behind a fallen tree or log. A properly presented jig will catch anything.
Other options we have had success with include suspending jerk baits like the Lucky Craft Pointer series in ghost shad pattern. We like the 112 and the 128 models for river work and use them in times of lower water flows when you see bait fish skipping out of the water. Keep them high in the water column to avoid hanging up when you notice active surface feeding. The Rapala DT 6 and DT 10 crankbaits are also good. Also, if you see a swirl and can get a quick cast to the immediate spot, then you could get a reaction strike from a big fish. My personal beast Susquehanna smallmouth, a 20-½ inch 5 pounder, came from just such a situation at the Brunner Island Plant when conditions were low.
Another hardbait option is the Rat-L-Trap in ¼ and ½ ounce chrome or blue-back and shad colorings. You'll want to toss these lures with slightly heavier gear and may want to opt for baitcasting gear and 20 or 30 pound Gamma Torque or Stren Super Braid. This would be one of the better lures during dinghy or off colored water due to the heavy vibrations it sends out. Keep the lure moving, inquest of active fish, and strikes can be thunderous!
Simple safety tips will make any warm water effort more enjoyable and keep you on the water longer. We use neoprene insulated chest and hip waders to get into position during various water conditions on the river. Always wade with a partner and preferably some one who knows the water and shoreline habitat. I like to travel light, and keep all the lures I would use for fishing in my wader pouch and in my fishing vest. Keep a bottle of water handy and a few lightweight snacks for that break you'll take after a few hours of fishing. And don't forget the camera! If it's cold, keep your digital camera tight to your body to maintain warmth and to avoid battery drain in cold conditions. You'll want a picture of that big smallie or walleye or maybe a giant carp or cat.
Before you go, it would be a good idea to check river stages and current conditions at http://www.erh.noaa.gov/er/. There will be a menu on the left hand column that will direct you to different stretches of most major river systems in the mid Atlantic region and you can home-in on your destination. Warnings and cautious conditions will be noted and use sound and safe judgement before you make a trip. Sure, there is lots of fishing come spring, but the hot water bite is the best it will get during mid-winter periods. Beats sitting home!
Jim Gronaw is a Times outdoors writer. His column appears every other Sunday. Reach him at 410-857-7896 or firstname.lastname@example.org.