Jim McGuire: Seasons, weather and fishermen

According to the venerable Old Farmer’s Almanac, spring will officially arrive exactly four weeks from today.

Being an incorrigible angler, just reading the notice of such a propitious event produces an instantaneous thrill.

In my mind and heart, spring and fishing are absolutely and wonderfully inseparable. It marks that glorious time when we finally get to dust off our winter-shelved tackle and begin making the year’s first forays to our favorite lakes and streams.

While I do believe the publication’s given reckoning of seasonal time and date is accurate, I must also admit I have to take their vernal promise on faith.

The current view from my deskside window is of an arcticwhite world caught in the clutches of a severe spell of Ohio winter. It sure doesn’t look like spring is anywhere close!

There’re at least 8 inches of snow on the ground, though drifts measure considerably deeper. While the soft-sculpted landscape is undeniably lovely, it’s also challenging.

Underneath this picturesque mantle there’s a thin layer of ice on the ground. A fact I discovered on the first post-snow morning when shoveling a couple of wheel tracks up our steep driveway hill. The hidden ice made footing slick and treacherous. It also explained why my wife’s all-wheel-drive Subaru was scrambling unsuccessfully to claw its way to the road.

Currently, more snow is pouring down—tiny flakes so fine they resemble sugar crystals. But larger flakes appear to be intermixing gradually, and at times the air is so thick with white I can barely make out the island 40 yards across the channel from the cottage.

An additional accumulation of at least 2 inches is predicted, and I have no doubt this will be the case.

The outdoor thermometer hanging on the box elder near the front door reads 19 degrees. Weather gurus claim the day’s high could soar to a balmy 26, but warn that, come night, the mercury will bottom out in single digits. Brrrrrr!

A column I wrote a couple weeks back about how winter’s last half is typically its worst, has turned out to be prophetic. This is one of those times when there’s no joy in being proven right.

Upstream and down, much of the Stillwater’s surface is frozen. Broad ice shelves extend far out from the banks along the pools and slower stretches. Yet— as is generally the case, thanks to the drop and fast current created by the big riffle just upstream of the cottage—the channel between the house and the island remains mostly open.

This is important because it gives those who fish for their living a place to turn up a meal. Open water in winter is critical to such wild creatures’s survival.

Unlike other small birds flittering around backyard feeders, herons and kingfishers aren’t impressed with seeds, suet, or corn. These feathered anglers want meat, protein—fish!

Yet they don’t expect handouts—even when the ground is covered with snow. Perfectly willing to work to eat, all they ask is a stretch of open water. With perhaps a shallow riffle or an ice-covered rock for the free-standing heron, and a handy perch overhanging an open bit of pool for the kingfisher.

Herons and kingfishers are hardy birds, undaunted by the ice-cold water. Moreover, they’ll make the task of securing their food amid even harsh conditions look easy.

Kingfishers like to divebomb potential victims. The one I’ve been watching this morning has chosen to launch his ambushes from a low-drooping sycamore limb. In ten plunging dives, the plucky bird brought back six minnows. A better than 50 percent success ratio! The still-wiggling baitfish was pounded lifeless and summarily swallowed.

However, just watching that fellow plummet again and again into the icy flow sent shivers up my spine!

The blue heron is a wading stalker. They like to position themselves at the bottom of the riffle, or in the shallows along the far bank. But come winter, they’ll occasionally fish deeper water by standing on the edge of an ice-shelf or the tip of a submerged log.

This alternating approach of either sneaking along or standing and waiting is deadly. When something tasty swims near, the bird leans close to the stream’s surface and jabs with its rapier beak, and regularly scores on larger shad and small suckers. Good-sized meals. To swallow, they deftly turn their catch around until it faces headfirst, pointing down their gullet. One long gulp and its in their belly.

While the heron may make fewer fish-securing attempts per-hour than the kingfisher, his catches are bigger and his success rate seems notably higher.

Maybe it takes one addicted angler to fully appreciate another equally compulsive fisherman. Whatever the reason, for a long time now I’ve been a real fan of the great blue herons and kingfishers who—during these coldest months—daily ply their trade in the stretch of stream adjacent to the cottage.

I admire their prowess and fortitude.

But I’m a wuss—I’m waiting for spring!