Waters near power plants pack powerful winter fishing


November 07, 1993|By GARY DIAMOND

During the dead of winter, most Harford County anglers would rather be someplace else -- a location where they could enjoy balmy tropical breezes, swaying palm trees and crystal-clear water that's warm enough for bathing.

In some instances, many nonmigratory species of fish have the same fantasies -- with a distinct difference. When water temperature dips to a bone-chilling 35 degrees, fish go where conditions are similar to those found in South Florida -- not Harford County.

They don't exit Chesapeake Bay and head south, but instead travel a few miles to the nearest power plant, where they'll spend the winter basking in water warmer than normal for this time of year.

Throughout much of the nation, electricity is generated by using various forms of energy to heat water and convert it to steam. The steam then is used to drive huge turbine generators that produce electrical power. Although some of the superheated water evaporates into the atmosphere, the majority is cooled with heat exchangers, passes through cooling towers and eventually returned to the river, lake or bay where it originated.

Federal law dictates how high discharged water temperatures can range above that of the surrounding body of water, which during warmer months averages approximately 5 degrees.

However, in winter, it's not unusual to find 75-degree water flowing from power plant canals and outfall pipes. So winter gradients can be considerably higher, often ranging up to 30 or 40 degrees higher. This thermal difference causes a chain of events that mimics an environment similar to that found in late spring or early summer.

Warm water accelerates the growth of microscopic marine animals and organisms. These tiny creatures attract hordes of small minnows and other forage species, which in turn attract predators such as largemouth bass, channel catfish, white perch, yellow perch, walleye, northern pike and tiger muskie.

Armed with this wealth of knowledge, a handful of avid winter anglers enjoy great fishing action in fresh and brackish water locations throughout most of the winter.

When fishing hot-water discharge areas, the key to success doesn't hinge on your angling expertise. Basic bottom fishing and live bait techniques are all that's required to get in on the action. However, you must first know where the action's taking place and how to gain access to a particular area.

At Peach Bottom Nuclear Power Plant on the western shore of Conowingo Lake, two steel gates regulate water flow rates at the canal's outlet a quarter-mile downstream. Currents ranging from to 5 knots produce a swirling back eddy that holds enormous numbers of fish.

Huge, slabsided crappie usually arrive on the scene sometime in early December, remaining until late April when they migrate to various shallow coves and creeks to spawn.

By mid-month, hybrid white bass, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, rock bass, walleye, catfish, yellow perch and an occasional tiger muskie will inhabit the heated waters.

Every species will gorge themselves on swarms of tiny gizzard shad, a forage species that primarily feeds of various forms of plankton.

The most productive bait will be live minnows or live gizzard shad, but the secret to success is to place your bait in areas where the lake's cold water is mixing with the heated discharge. For some unexplained reason, the largest fish seem to feed heavily in these fringe areas -- not in the middle of the warmest water.

When conditions are right, low light levels, calm winds and ice cold, main lake temperatures, hybrid white bass ranging 5 to 12 pounds slash through schools of fleeing baitfish. Local anglers cast quarter-ounce, white bucktails, trimmed with live minnows or squid strips to the melee with deadly results.

When the hybrids refuse your offering, move closer to shore until the outline of a steep, underwater wall is seen on your depth finder.

Today, the canal's granite walls form an underwater sanctuary for juvenile gizzard shad and crayfish, species that take refuge in small crevices. Lurking in the wall's shadows are 2- to 6-pound walleye and hybrid tiger muskies tipping the scales at more than 15 pounds. Local anglers cast deep diving crankbaits and live minnows lip hooked to bucktails parallel to the structure, working them slowly in the currents. At the slightest indication of a strike, set the hook.

The shallow flats between the canal and shore often produce red-hot smallmouth bass and crappie action. Depths here range from 6 inches to 6 feet and the entire bottom is littered with submerged tree branches and boulders, ideal habitat for most species.

Because you're essentially fishing in a submerged junk yard, you'll need to rig live minnows with weedless hooks. Although some tackle shops still sell weedless hooks for plastic worms, they're sometimes difficult to locate.

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