Wooded swamp walls the river, cloaking it in blackness save for a band in midchannel where one star reflects on the slatey surface. Then, something large under the river's skin bulges, swallows that star whole.
Soon the river corridor echoes to acres of thrashing and splashing as huge cow rockfish wallow on the surface, spurting gobs of translucent amber eggs, attended by smaller, leaping, males, jetting sperm.
It is especially good, when you make your living chronicling all the very real ills the Chesapeake Bay is suffering, to spend a night in early May on the spawning grounds, listening to its rivers resound lustily with life.
May is such a promise, fecund and lovely, marked by greening, nesting, mating; ripe to bursting with prospects for renewal. To whatever you would hope it seems to urge: Yes, you May.
Nights like this underscore the fundamental sexuality of the Chesapeake. When scientists call the bay an estuary, they mean a semienclosed body of water, fed by the salt ocean at its mouth and the sweet water of rivers draining into it. But the Latin root, aestuare, implies a heaving and surging; and that is not the half of it.
Daily, the tides ebb and flood the length of the estuary, in and out, up and down; and beneath them a salty tongue of ocean licks the deep channel bottoms, penetrating far upbay and carrying with it the young of crabs and fishes too feeble yet to swim on their own.
Geologically, the bay enters and withdraws from the land to a millennial cadence, deflating with the Ice Ages and the fall of sea level, then, after a hundred thousand years of warming, swelling potently as the seas rise to form, once again, the estuary. Five times in the past million years the bay has thus come and gone, water making love to land. And every spring, March to May, the rockfish and other migrants thrust inland from the seas, jazzing the river-wombs with offerings of life, betting the future of the race that the river gods will smile receptively.
We almost lost the rockfish. Although most are Chesapeake born, they spend the year ranging from Canada to the Carolinas, where they have been considered the most prime of catches by fishermen since the time of the Pilgrims, and the Indians before that.
By the 1970s, we were catching annually about half of all the rockfish there were -- pressure few species can endure. Many cursed the commercial fishermen, who were taking them by the ton. But in retrospect, the sportsmen were doing equal damage. I have a picture, taken in 1960 at Crisfield, of three grinning anglers, one lying on the deck of the boat, covered head to toe in a living blanket of rockfish they hooked for pleasure in just a few hours.
No recreational fisherman thought they were catching too many, and individually, they were right. But there were millions of them. I find the photo particularly appalling because it could have been a picture of me.
By 1985, when Maryland (joined later by Virginia) finally closed all fishing of them, the rockfish were perhaps a year or two away from being reduced to numbers so low a comeback might have proved impossible.
That would have been a tragedy, a loss of more than good eating and economic values. A few weeks before tonight, I went to this same spot with biologists who use an electroshocking boat to stun the rockfish to the surface. Collected, they are taken to a state hatchery to complete their spawning, then returned to the natal river.
I have caught a lot of rockfish in my time, usually of a few pounds in weight; but they are simply not the same animals as those we collected. Nearly four feet in length, up to 70 pounds in weight, these were rockfish born in the fabled spawn of 1970, the greatest reproduction of the species ever recorded on the Chesapeake. All were females. One last year weighed more than 100 pounds.
They are thick and deep-bodied, in marked contrast to the streamlined, silver and black-striped smaller versions you have seen in markets. Their coloration is richer and more complex. Hauled fresh from the river in sleek breeding prime, they glow and flash with iridescent tints of bronze, copper, pearls and mauves.
If you were to paint a picture of a rockfish, said the biologist with me, this is where you would get your model. Having studied all that science has revealed about rockfish, it was simply their beauty he thought most remarkable. The tail on one measured 13 inches across, and I could barely grasp the narrowest part of its body with two hands, or hold it for more than a second when it thrashed on the deck.
Born literally around the first Earth Day, 22 springs ago, when the nation's modern environmental movement first came together, these old fish have a presence. They have endured. Much more than their juniors, they claim you individually, and once you begin to think of any animal as an individual, it alters your perceptions.
A waterman friend, who catches diamondback terrapins for a living, once consented to pull a huge old female terrapin from his daily catch of several hundred so we could photograph him with it. After awhile he sighed and said, "I was afraid of that. You got me to looking at her and now I've got to let 'er loose," and he nudged the old creature, who was probably 40 years old, gently over the edge of the dock.
I will still drive halfway across Maryland for a good rockfish dinner, and hope to catch many more before I am through, but not one of those big old mothers. If it were a world record, I would throw her back.
After five years of total protection, rockfish populations have skyrocketed in the Chesapeake. Whether their reproduction has returned to normal is still unsure. We will need more years to get a clear trend. Meanwhile, a limited fishing season has been opened, with strict quotas on the catch.
The first time it reopened, in 1990, 78,000 anglers descended on the bay, reaching the quota in only 10 days.
It looks as if we may have saved the rockfish, and in the process learned some important lessons.
First, the bay still has a lot of vitality. Given some breathing room, it can still respond heartily.
Second, we have now entered a new era of biologically determined limits on how much we harvest.
The careful management of the rockfish is a prototype that needs to be refined and applied to most of the species we catch from the Chesapeake -- and ultimately to much more than fish if our constantly expanding population ever is to utilize the bay and its watershed on a sustainable basis.
I don't know if we can do all that; but tonight, with those big Earth Day fish rolling in the starlight, the river seems to insist: to all such dreams of earth and bay, Indeed, yes,you May.