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Rodricks: Of time and the Chesapeake

Have you ever happened upon the dawn of time? Have you ever felt like the world began overnight? Have you ever tried to squint away the rest of humanity and imagine yourself the first person to stand at the edge of the ocean, with all life foaming at your feet?

I’ve had moments like that. How about you?

I once awoke to the squawking of gulls, hundreds of them, on Cape Hatteras, and ran down to the beach to investigate the cause of the racket. It was minutes after sunrise, and a horde of bluefish had invaded the surf, attacking a school of Atlantic herring, chasing them into the shore. The tide had started to recede, stranding dozens of the herring in large, shallow puddles on the beach. My dog, Rosie, hovered over one of the puddles, suddenly snapped up one of the silvery herring and ran off with it in her mouth. In the surf, the slaughter continued for another hour: Hundreds, perhaps thousands of bluefish feeding frantically on frantic herring, and the surf smelled of shredded fish.

Another man might have instantly run to fetch his surf rod — you can catch a bluefish in its feeding madness with a bare hook, after all — but I stayed and watched a while. It was the rare blitz of bluefish the local anglers had told us about. I had never seen one. I tried to imagine the first Hatteras native to come upon this sight, way back when, at the dawn of everything. I imagined him running off to alert his tribe, then giving thanks for the feast that had come crashing ashore.

Ever have a moment like that?

Ever walk across farmland on a foggy day, unable to see more than a few feet in front of you, and unable to see the dozens of Canada geese honking above you? This happened 30 years ago, on a late fall day, in northern Baltimore County. I was out for a hike through corn stubble with my dogs. The geese were loud but unseen. They seemed to be no more than 20 feet above me. I heard their familiar honks, sensed the light pelting of their wings. But they were invisible in the gray cover, and the moment was strange and beautiful.

Farmers and hunters of fowl have probably had the “ghost geese” experience. Farmers probably pay little attention to it. Hunters probably curse it. But when you have no particular reason to be there — when you’re just out for a hike with dogs — and the moment comes, you feel privileged, as if given a gift.

More than that, something in the primal brain takes over and triggers a deep-rooted sensation, as if the ancestors inside you have been stirred awake by something that looks, sounds or smells familiar to them. There’s been some speculation and even some research about DNA holding the memories of ancestors, the idea that we’ve inherited the effects of long-ago experiences from all those people we never knew, the ancients at the roots of our family trees.

That’s certainly an intriguing hypothesis. But it’s not why I’m taking you for a ride in this stream of consciousness today.

It’s because of what happened in the Little Choptank River on Friday. I was out on a boat, making what has become an annual pilgrimage to the forage grounds of the mighty Chesapeake Bay striped bass, or rockfish. I had one of those moments, when you can squint away the man-made world and ignore the four-cycle engine, and see out there, in bay waters, the most primal phenomenon.

Shortly after sunup, we spot flocks of laughing gulls. Their heads are black, their feathers white and gray, their bills deep red. They move in packs over the water, following schools of what is likely bay anchovy. Then, suddenly excited to see their prey within range, they dive into the school and fill their bills with the tiny fish. They are called laughing gulls for good reason: An increasingly healthy Chesapeake, with an abundance of forage fish, appears to make them giddy.

That sight alone — the gulls crashing into piles of anchovy as they swim just below the surface — would be enough to make anyone feel privileged.

But then something else happened.

Rockfish started slamming the anchovy from beneath. Here and there, and again over there, stripers broke the surface with their mouths. Five, six, 10 of them. They charged up from the bottom, anywhere from 12 to 16 feet, and swallowed the small fish in bunches, leaving rings on the surface.

Gulls attacking from the air, rockfish attacking from below, all of them chasing and feeding on the frantic little fish — a natural ritual as old as life itself. You stand there in the boat, in the middle of the Little Choptank, feeling awe, feeling, in the moment, that you just happened upon the dawn of time.



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