'TRUE WATERMAN' VOWS TO HANG ON

THE BALTIMORE SUN

On a damp April morning, Bob Evans awakens well before sunrise and wonders what treasures lie under the river today.

Into his Ford pickup go an ice chest, some plastic buckets and a thermos of coffee. Hesets off through the quiet streets of West River, stopping at a friend's shed for cracked clam bait, then pulling into the Citgo at Park's liquor store for cigarettes and gasoline. He crosses Anne Arundel County's southern border. Before long, highways melt into two-lane roads, tobacco fields and weathered barns.

At Greenfield Farm, near Croom in Prince George's County, he turns down a dirt driveway and parks next to a shed. There, he comes to his 15-foot, blue-bottomed skiff with an outboard motor, hooks its trailer to his truck and tows the boat down the road.

The Patuxent River is waiting. This morning, as wind blows from the east, the river's at high tide with a surface smooth as glass, framed by a cloud-covered sky and slender marsh grass at its shores. Except for the whirring of the skiff's motor, all is silent.

Evans arranges his 260-pound frame on a squat box in the stern, guiding his boat toward a buoy where his fyke nets lie submerged, tied to stakes. As the skiff skips over the water, wind cuts at Evans' blond-bearded face, just enough to burn. He doesn't seem to notice.

Deep below the murky water, histreasures plot their escape. Evans is ready. Standing at one side ofthe boat, he slowly pulls from the water a funnel-shaped series of net-covered hoops. Striped bass, shiny white and yellow perch and meaty catfish with whiskers fill the bottom.

Out of their safe, underwater home, exposed to alien air, the fish spray arcs of water and scales. Some males spawn a milky, white fluid.

It's a mess, but to the 37-year-old waterman, it sure looks good.

"Pretty, aren't they?"he says, untying the net and dumping the fish into the skiff. "That's a beautiful white perch there."

The feistier ones flip-flop withall their might. A sea turtle, mixed in with the lot, pops his head back in his shell when Evans picks him up.

Kneeling now in his oilskin coveralls and thin cotton gloves, sorting his catch into buckets, tossing the turtle, small fish and those on the state's endangered list back into the river, Evans says, "Smells like money to me."

But even if it just smelled like fish, Evans would gladly be up to hisrubber boots in these creatures.

Through frigid cold and unrelenting heat, through bans on gill nets and moratoriums on shad and striped bass, through depressed markets and poor spawning seasons, Bob Evans works the water. Even when the state hired him as a fisheries maintenance man -- compensation for the 1985 striped bass ban -- Evans soon turned down the money.

"I don't clean out no s--- houses or paint buildings for nobody. I'm a waterman," he says.

For 20 years, that has meant staying one step ahead to survive. When they banned striped bass, or rockfish, he switched to perch. When they banned small-mesh gill nets for fishing perch, he switched to fyke nets and harvesting catfish. During summertime crabbing, when his buyers turned downfemale crabs, Evans sought out new markets, then opened his own store, Bayfood, in Edgewater. To Evans, being a waterman means staying onthe water, whatever it takes.

It means belt-tightening during the$2,000 weeks to live through the $150 weeks. It means building markets, watching the wind and the tides, lobbying against ever-restrictive new laws.

So far, the water has given the divorced father support for two daughters, a new truck, his own house in South County and away of life like no other.

"If I'm not at work for a week, I missit. It's like Christmas morning every morning to see what you got."

Watermen like Evans may seem like a dying breed, squeezed out of aonce-lucrative way of life by waterfront development, pollution and declining harvests. Some predict that few will remain in another 20 years. But Evans vows to go on.

"I'm looking forward to working on the bay the rest of my life," he says. "Anybody working on the water has to diversify. That separates the watermen from the people who want to be watermen. True watermen are gifted. Some people are gifted asmechanics or working with wood. Watermen are gifted with outsmartingnature."

He learned to love this way of life growing up on his cousin's farm in Harness Creek, south of Annapolis. Sunday afternoons meant family get-togethers, crabbing on the creek, the smell of crab cakes on the griddle.

By age 14, he earned extra money crabbing after school. At 18, he took a job guiding boats of biologists into marshlands. But he soon decided to work the water for himself. During tough times, he shucked oysters or cleaned fish. Never, though, has he worked more than a year for someone else.

Today, after a bad week, it's a good day for catfish and for perch, too. A "Nor'easter" last weekend had scared off the fish. Now, he's actually short a few buckets. He tosses a few large catfish to one side of the boat.

For mostof the day, it's just Evans and the fish. Now and then, a blue heronoffers watchful company from above. Most county watermen work the Chesapeake Bay, but Evans prefers the solitude of the river. He passes two boats all day, acknowledging their owners with a wave.

He comes upon his live box, an underwater pen where he keeps the biggest catfish alive. When fish crowd the pen, a buyer brings a truck to pick them up.

In one net, he finds nearly 500 pounds of live striped bass, fish that used to account for one-third of Evans' income.

"And they call these endangered fish," Evans says, freeing them. "I've thrown more rockfish overboard this fishing season than I've kept fish."

Evans has planted 20 fyke nets in the river, marked by stakes bearing his commercial fishing license number. He guides the boat 10 miles up the river to Jug Bay, checking half his nets along the way. He'll check the rest tomorrow.

It's midafternoon when Evans unloads his catch. The sun has yet to peek through a thick layer of clouds. With no sign of stiffened muscles from the chill, Evans steps to the pier and hauls full bushels into his truck. He drags his boat up the grassy slope, hooks it to his trailer and drives back to Greenfield Farm.

Evans has known Earl Greenfield 20 years, since he worked on the water for one of Greenfield's neighbors. Evans calls Greenfield "the biggest liar in P. G. County."

The farmer and a group of retiredfarmers watch Evans submerge his fish in buckets of clean water, weigh them on a scale, then pack them neatly on ice in cardboard boxes.

"Right there, Bobby, that's some good eatin'," says one man.

"That's for sure," Evans agrees.

The farmers chuckle as they poke good-natured fun at Evans, the "youngster" in their midst.

Evans pretends to ignore them and stacks a few boxes in a refrigerated cooler outside the shed. Here, Greenfield sells fish along with cantaloupe and farm-grown vegetables. Greenfield sells the fish as a favor to Evans.

"He doesn't make a penny," Evans says. "He just does it to getmore people in here he can lie to. He'll be sold out before dark."

Evans loads the rest of the fish into his truck. Tomorrow morning, he'll deliver 50 pounds of perch to Woodfield Fish and Oyster Co. in Galesville, which called in an order last night. Then he'll drive down the road, past tobacco fields and barns, and head to the river oncemore.

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