February is the Longest MonthPosted on: February 15, 2019 By: FHMD
“February is the longest month,” my late friend Bill Pike used to grumble about this time of year. Capt. Pike, the “Perch Professor” of the Severn River, hated weather days that kept him off the water, and he wasn’t about to be appeased by scientific explanations of things going on out there that he couldn’t see or feel, especially on the end of his line.
Truth to tell, though, there’s a lot going on. Even after that lobe of the polar vortex got spun off by a loop in the jet stream to freeze us solid, daffodils are already poking up their shoots in protected, south-facing spots. Buds on maple trees are visibly beginning to swell. Bald eagle pairs are settling in on long-established nests, while great blue herons are gathering in their isolated rookeries. The middle ten days of this shortest-but-longest month generally mark winter’s turning point for the Chesapeake’s tidal waterways.
As Earth’s axis slowly tilts the Northern Hemisphere back toward the Sun, the increasing light energy warms our waters with ever-lengthening daylight. It also tells our wintering migratory waterfowl that it’s time to begin mating rituals preparatory to migrating north next month to their nesting grounds. In river basins of the Colombian rainforest and mangrove swamps of Cuba, ospreys are preparing their return to the Chesapeake.
To watch the warming in tidal waters, check Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Eyes on the Bay for monthly and, in some cases, near-real-time water quality data, including all-important trends in water temperature. Now microscopic, free-drifting, single cells of algae (phytoplankton) begin to absorb some of that radiant energy, allowing them to bloom (multiply). Tiny free-drifting animals (zooplankton) feed on the blooming phytoplankton, and they too begin to multiply to feed small fish, for example bay anchovies, the most abundant species in our Bay system. We anglers know them as “rain minnows” because of the raindrop-pattern their schools make when they are close to the surface, and we stock plenty of small, slim flies and lures to imitate them because they feed virtually every species of predator fish. The bay anchovies are predators, chasing down individual copepods in the zooplankton. Meanwhile, the year’s first river herring, menhaden, and hickory shad will swim through the zooplankton, “filter-feeding” by straining them out of the water as they swim.
Both plankton groups are short-lived, lasting only a two-to-three days before reproducing and dying. Their dead bodies sink to feed bottom (benthic) creatures like hooked mussels, grass shrimp, and seaworms, especially around “live bottom” oyster reefs. Even though February can be cold and gray, the Chesapeake’s food webs are waking up as increasing temperatures raise their metabolism.
Water has a high specific heat, a measure of how much heat energy it must absorb to raise its temperature 10 Celsius. In plain words, the main Bay warms slowly. At the beginning of the month in the big water, the temperature sits in the mid-thirties (Fahrenheit), but sun warms the shallows. Metabolisms rev up in larger fish, many of which will spawn soon. They feed more frequently to fuel this primal process, sometimes venturing onto warming flats. Surprising catches (and releases) of rockfish turn up for hardy, enterprising anglers, and channel catfish specialists find increasing success in the Upper Bay, the Potomac, and other tidal rivers.
But smaller volumes of water in the tributaries warm faster, so much of the action takes place there as spring begins. The upper tidal rivers are pushing 400, and some creeks go even higher. As February progresses, look for yellow perch yellow perch to begin moving upstream, to spawn when these tributaries reach 42-460 F. A good information source for timing and locations is the Maryland Anglers’ Log. Traditional spots include Allen’s Fresh (the headwaters of the Wicomico River in Charles County), the Patuxent around Hills Bridge (Route 4) near Wayson’s Corner, and Tuckahoe Creek above Hillsboro. The run will peak around the end of the month, and white perch will follow shortly after.
So yes, Capt. Pike had a right to growl about February’s cold, gray days. But if you’ve got cabin fever, there is a lot to see and do in this month’s inevitable thaws. Dress carefully when you do venture out. Pay close attention to safety around and on the water. But go. You’ll be surprised by what you find. And please don’t forget to post your catches and observations in the Anglers’ Log.
Be sure to visit Maryland Department of Natural Resources online for information on fishing licenses and regulations. Also, check out the Plan Your Trip section of our website to find lodging options, fishing charters and guides, and outdoor retailers to get the most out of your fishing trip in Maryland.
If you’re looking to turn your fishing trip into a road trip, there’s no better way to experience the beauty of Maryland than travelling its scenic byways.
This post was written by John Page Williams
Images courtesy of Yvonne Navalaney, Graham Slaughter, Gary Colgan, Chuck Rygg, Chuck Prahl via Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ flickr account