Giving the Paying Customers What They Want


Anchors aweigh. The captain took his place in the little enclosed wheelhouse up front while we tourists huddled around the engine in the center of the deck for warmth.

Cap'n Paul seemed a pleasant enough young fellow. Every five minutes or so he came back to check on us, a group of six who had driven to Crisfield to go fishing in a chartered Eastern Shore work boat. Somebody said, "I don't see any toilet facilities. What are we supposed to do?"

A shy smile, and he said simply, "Over the side. Just be sure it's to the leeward."

The woman with experience added, "Just yell 'All eyes to windward' and we'll look the other way." And then she added, "Lucky men -- again."

The engine made such a racket that conversation was difficult, so I walked forward to the little enclosure where, in addition to steering, Cap'n Paul was receiving and sending messages on his CB radio. Noticing me, he turned the thing down. I asked him if he was a native of the Eastern Shore.

"Born and bred," he said. "Got some Shore mud between my toes when I was little and never got it out again."

I asked if it was true, as I had read, that the lifestyle of watermen was changing. He said it certainly was.

"Not many Shore people making a living any more as watermen," he said. "Like me -- I take out fishing parties from the city, and I work around the yacht club helping sport-boat owners look after their boats. But don't try to make it crabbing and oystering."

A half hour of motoring, and we reached a metal buoy with six or seven boats like ours sitting around it.

"Well, this is it," Cap'n Paul said. He produced half a dozen fishing lines and a boxful of bait, which was crab. He attached a piece of crab to each of our hooks and then we each grasped a pole.

Our hooks in the water, we drifted now with the wind and the tide, enjoying the freshness of the damp cold air and the shrieking of the gulls hovering overhead.

Fifteen or 20 minutes went by and we weren't doing much good. One of us did land a fish -- a little fellow, not a rock. Cap'n Paul said, "I'd throw it back," and the fisherman agreed.

Another quarter of an hour and nothing. Every now and then, the captain revved the engine and moved us back into position near the buoy. He looked worried.

"Awful strong flood tide," he said. "Along with the wind, keeps shoving us away."

Ten or fifteen more minutes. We knew we were just tourists and not serious fishermen, so we weren't hurting. In fact we joked about the ones that got away, and somebody remarked how easy it is to be philosophical when dinner doesn't depend on what we catch.

But Cap'n Paul seemed more and more concerned about our lack of success. "Don't understand it," he repeated more than once. "Yesterday evening they were biting good." He told us to take in our lines, we were moving to another place.

The engine roared again, and we motored five or ten minutes to another buoy where, again, half a dozen boats were already in position. Here a couple of us caught some little fellows -- Cap'n Paul said they were sea bass -- but no sign of any rock.

After a quarter of an hour, Cap'n Paul's face was in a deep cloud. "Don't understand it," he said. "Only thing I can figure, last night we had an ebb tide, and now we're on the flood." He told us again to pull up our lines, we were going to try trolling.

He handed us each a pole as big around as a thumb with a reel holding a fine steel line that ended in a lead weight shaped like a hot dog roll. The game now was to let the weight drop to the bottom -- 25 or 30 feet -- and let it drag there off the rear end as we drove forward.

Trolling felt good. At least it was action. The weight, catching on a rock or depression on the bottom, tossed and jerked, bending a big round curve into the pole and giving the feeling that there was a big fish on the hook -- even if there wasn't.

Well, we trolled for 10 or 15 more minutes, and there were lots of false alarms, but no fish. No rock. Not one apiece. Not even one for the whole party.

By then we had been out three or four hours. We were cold and hungry, and not a single person had sounded the call for all eyes to windward. Somebody suggested we were ready to head ashore, and Cap'n Paul said he was ready, too.

On the way back, over the din from the engine, our tired little group could hear Cap'n Paul's voice alternating with crackling electronic voices coming in on his CB radio. Lots of conversation. He sure was making up for the time he'd lost with us city slickers.

Back on the dock in Crisfield, there were no game wardens waiting to check our booty. Only a friend of Cap'n Paul's, holding a big plastic sack. Through the shiny transparent sides we could make out two rockfish -- one enormous and the second no slouch either.

The friend gave the sack to Cap'n Paul, who handed it to one of us. "I feel sorry you didn't do any good," he said. "They don't seem to be biting on the flood. So take these. We caught them last evening. They'll be enough for your dinner."

Later, after the fish were cooked and eaten, and we were digesting both the food and the experience, somebody commented how nice it was that Cap'n Paul had seen to it that we didn't have to buy fish for our dinner.

The woman with fishing experience said, "That wasn't about being nice. That was about public relations. No charter boat captain is about to let a group of paying customers return home empty-handed."

Isaac Rehert is a retired Baltimore Sun writer.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad