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Bill May: Enjoy the fall outdoors in Delmarva

Kathleen LaForce shows a smooth dogfish to Gus and Kingston.
Kathleen LaForce shows a smooth dogfish to Gus and Kingston. (Bill May photo)

The Delmarva coast is a great place for outdoor activities even in the “offseason.”

The end of summer and September has its pleasures, as I’ll detail with our family vacation in mid-August. My daughter, Rachel, husband, Dave, and three younger kids — Georgia, age 11, Kingston, 10, and “Gus,” 8, came for their annual trip to “Aunt Betsy’s” condo in Lewes on the beach at Delaware Bay. Besides the usual beach activities and reunions with family and old friends, I wanted to give them a taste of Delmarva outdoors during their 10-day stay.

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Neither Dave nor I are big for beach lounging, and August is not prime time for birding and for most types of fishing within the kids’ abilities. (Offshore fishing is very good.) But in Delmarva it’s just a matter of accessing other outdoor possibilities.

One evening we cruised Delaware Bay on a Cape Waters Tours and Taxi 54-foot catamaran (technically a pontoon boat) to see dolphins. They were all over the place feeding and, well, porposing. Captain Steve Cardano went from school to school, so as not to disturb their feeding activity, though it seemed at times the dolphins were as happy to see us and we were to see them.

Frequently small groups surfaced within arm’s reach of the drifting boat.

The next afternoon, we went to Angler’s Fishing Center for a three-hour “Sand Shark Fishing with Kids” special. When I saw the setup I was skeptical whether this was going to work. With fishing stations only about 6 feet apart, comparatively heavy rods, old fashioned conventional reels without level winds and 8-ounce sinkers needed hold bottom in strong currents, I envisioned constant untangling of lines.

But, with an experienced captain, and three patient and friendly mates distributed throughout the 65-foot boat, there were few problems.

All our kids caught fish, including a “double,” gray trout and croaker at once, for Georgia, and it seemed all aboard had some success. We caught croakers (aka hardheads), spot, sand sharks, and, happily, a lot of gray trout, which will be good sized next year.

Our third trip, the next morning, was again with Cape Waters Tour and Taxi on their “Extended Eco Trip.” It was the highlight of our ventures. We sailed up the Lewes Canal and out to Delaware Bay, then twice dropped an “Otter Trawl,” a large, fine-meshed, weighted net with side planers to keep the mouth of the net open. Use of this net requires special permission and reporting requirements from Delaware Natural Resources and Environmental Control.

“Gus” Chamberlain, my heir apparent, proudly displays a croaker (hardhead) he caught.
“Gus” Chamberlain, my heir apparent, proudly displays a croaker (hardhead) he caught. (Bill May photo)

After a short drift the net was hauled aboard with the help of two burly passengers. At this point biologist Kathleen LaForce took over. She began sorting through species and temporarily placing them into several large tanks and aquariums at mid-boat.

Using her headset and encyclopedic knowledge of marine species Kathleen would hold up a specimen in her hand or in a portable aquarium for all to see, name it, tell something about it then walk it to every table on the boat for the kids to see it close up and touch it where appropriate before releasing it back into the bay. Every species description ended with her saying, “Isn’t it beautiful?” They were; so was Kathleen.

A partial list of species included whelk, sea nettle, blue crab with eggs, hermit crab, spot, sea robin, puffer fish, burr fish, summer flounder, smooth dogfish, sand shark, southern stingray. The kids, and adults, were transfixed.

Our plans for next August will definitely include Angler’s Fishing Center and Cape Water Tours and Taxi. (Cape Water Tours has an environmental and bird banding programs in spring very popular with kids.)

The kids enjoyed bike riding, swimming and dipping crabs in front of the condo and boogie boarding at Cape Henlopen and all joined in on jigsaw puzzles and HeadsUp at the condo. David got in a round of golf at The Rookery course plus used a sand wedge (purchased for $2 at the New Life thrift store) to pitch balls into a sand bucket at the beach. Rachel got a hands-on lesson on baking sourdough bread at the kitchen of the Heirloom restaurant.

Most of the activities described will be available plus additional fishing and birding possibilities for the next couple of months throughout Delmarva beaches from Chincoteague through Bombay Hook, including Ocean City, Rehoboth Beach, and Lewes.

My favorite time at the Delmarva area is the fall and early winter, with massive bird migrations, outstanding freshwater and surf and inshore salt water fishing, colorful scenery, moderate temperatures and few insects. Things are less crowded and hectic, lodging rates are cheaper, and many resorts stage special events to keep tourists coming. My family began annual fall Ocean City long weekends in the late 1960s.

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The keys are research and planning — I scouted Lewes two weeks before our vacation — plus keeping track of the weather in the fall hurricane season. Also keep aware of overly zealous Delaware traffic enforcement.

Some contact information: visitsoutherndelaware.com, 302-856-1818; Cape Water Tours and Taxi, www.capewatertaxi.com, 302-644-7334; Angler’s Fishing Center: www.anglersfishingcenter.com, 302-644-4533; Ocean City, https://ocean-city.com

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