TUCKAHOE STATE PARK -- On the last day of winter, Tuckahoe Creek was giving up its fish grudgingly, while the weather ran the gamut from a thin mist to a stinging sleet. It was that sort of day, cold enough to numb your fingers and make your nose run.
But it was fun.
After all, it had seemed like too long a time since the rockfish season had faded into the cold end of November, fishing giving way to deer and duck and goose seasons, and the days dragging into the dead zone between mid-February and late March, when there always seems little more to do than refill spools, rearrange tackle boxes and clean and lubricate reels.
Through the past few weeks, the snags of the Patuxent and Blackwater rivers had taken more gear than they had returned perch and catfish. By mid-morning Thursday, it seemed the Tuckahoe might offer the same meager return.
The first cast of the day had produced a 7-inch yellow perch off the end of a sunken log on the opposite side of the creek. The second cast snagged in the brush on the far shore, and as the shad dart and bloodworm were worked free, a great blue heron flew overhead, seeming to laugh -- kra-aack, kra-aack, kra-aack -- as it passed.
Had the heron stayed around, it certainly could have had a few more laughs because the shad darts spent more time in snags than anywhere else. It was almost frustrating enough to switch to the bobbers and trailing hooks that the few other fishermen in the area were using.
But as one effervescent young man said: "Why switch? At least you're catching something."
(I have no doubt that the fellow was referring to the monster perch that had come up on the first cast.)
In a short time, I had sorted things out, trimmed perhaps 40 feet of line off the recently filled spool and switched to a lighter shad dart. And the mist had changed to a steady rain.
Along the far bank, in back eddies and slow pools, yellow perch were beginning to hit in clusters -- two here, three there, two more over here.
A few days earlier, during perhaps an hour on the creek, the Tuckahoe had turned up two yellow perch and a 20-inch pickerel, which may have been delighted to know that it will be out of season until April 30.
On the last day of winter, the creek was kinder if not gentler. Rain from the night before and during the day had the water up perhaps a half-foot. The larger feeder streams were silty, their confluences with the main creek producing milky stains until they were dispersed by the main flow.
On the slow edges of these stains, especially where the smaller branches and twigs of fallen trees and shoreside bushes were submerged and there was bottom growth or debris, yellow perch seemed to congregate.
They are there to spawn -- and probably most of their spawning run is complete -- to deposit their accordion-style strings of eggs where they are likely to attach underwater structure and to be aerated by gentle currents.
The dozen-plus yellow perch caught and released the last day of winter should be little harmed by the experience. All were lip-hooked with barbless hooks and released while still in the water with minimum contact with human skin, which can damage the slimy protective coating that covers a fish's scales.
The minimum size for yellow perch in the Tuckahoe is 9 inches, and barbless hooks are required.
As the way was made back up along the shoreline to the path back to the car, and the rain changed to sleet, a red-bellied woodpecker knocked away on a tree, two mallards were spooked from their blissful business along a flooded bog and a large pickerel chasing a bait fish broke the surface perhaps 20 yards ahead.
Had it been five days earlier, I'd have baited up and shot him a line.
As it was, the next day was spring and there would be another time.