The captain grew up on the Eastern Shore and spent several days of every year of his life trolling, chumming, casting, jigging and hand-lining for fish in the Chesapeake Bay. He's caught about every species that swims there, though these days he rarely kills fish. Tuesday, he wanted to show me something, so we took his boat out of Back River shortly after noon.
Somewhere to the east of Hart-Miller Island, the captain shouted and ordered me to the fly bridge. He told me to look at the electronic fish scanner, his EKG on the Chesapeake.
"We're marking tremendous amounts of fish," he said, then laughed excitedly. Indeed. We had come across an area where throngs of bait fish, probably menhaden, filled the first five feet of water below the surface. This appeared as a solid chartreuse bar on the dark screen of the scanner. "I've never seen anything like that," the captain added, which for him was going some.
Twenty feet below the menhaden was a horde of rockfish. They formed a five-foot thick band across the bottom of the screen. Sixty yards off the bow, and again 30 yards to port, rockfish broke the surface. Patrols of gulls crashed into the schools of bait fish, swallowing what the rock had left.
Sometimes an oily film appeared on the water. This spectacle occurred over a vast area that the boat covered during the last 90 minutes of our trip. Gulls were still crashing, rockfish still breaking as we headed in, the fine day crowned by the setting sun in a tangerine sky.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources reports more good news in the rockfish renaissance: Reproduction is continuing at a healthy pace. The September survey showed an abundance of juvenile stripers and indicated that 1995 was another good year in three of the Chesapeake's four major spawning grounds -- the Choptank, Nanticoke and Potomac rivers.
All of this leaves you feeling oddly proud of humanity -- we actually backed off and placed a moratorium on rockfish harvests before it was too late -- and optimistic about the bay.
But, even with those fat bands of fish on the captain's scanner, even with gulls in a frenzy, even with the state's "conservative" harvest protocols for watermen and sportsmen, one still wonders whether we will maintain our environmental vigilance and contain our blood lust. We and the rockfish have been given a second chance. There's no excuse for blowing it this time.
William J. Goldsborough, fisheries scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, once said: "We don't know how to deal with abundance. We see fish out there, we want to catch 'em. That's human nature." Yes, and no longer an excuse.
Ocean City in October
Joey Amalfitano, my official food taster, files this report from Ocean Highway:
"Forgive me, Dan and TJI readers, for I have sinned. It's been five years since my last trip to Ocean City. And October is prime time in my book to hit the beach. Me and Maxine -- we slept in separate rooms, of course -- had a place on 38th Street overlooking one of the world's great oceans. The weather was extraordinary for fall. The crowds were nowhere.
"I know you like sunsets. So get this: The first night we had dinner at Fager's Island, where they have the '1812 Overture' timed perfectly with the sun setting over the bay. It was fabulous. I yelled, 'Encore!' Later, the boardwalk -- no smells of hamburger grease, popcorn, cotton candy, machine oil, just sea breeze -- beckoned. Like two kids we headed for Playland, a beacon in the night, and the games. Best 10 bucks I've spent in years.
"The rest of our time we did bikes, long walks on the relatively deserted beach, wonderful Dumser's milk shakes and the sun rises -- they came in orange sherbet, hot neon pink, fuchsia. Met the proprietor of a 50s and 60s karaoke bar who grew up in Hampden, served with the Green Berets in 'Nam, won three Purple Hearts, earned his master's in engineering, spent 25 years designing aircraft, retired. Jim's his name, but on stage he's Spinner. His lady friend is nicknamed Lugnut."
The other day outside Leeds Federal Savings in Arbutus, Linda and Wayne Morris overheard two elderly women commiserating on various medical afflictions. "I got this hiatus hernia," one of them said. "That's the kind that goes away for a little while," Linda says. Yeah, and it always comes back in time for the fall sitcom season.
One more medical malaprop: A man in Baldwin heard his wife remark that a woman could have "a tubal litigation reversed." What we'd like to know is, do you need a doctor or a lawyer for that?
Remember register tapes
Reminder: The Renaissance Institute's big class project -- to collect cash register tapes from Giant, Safeway and Metro, then redeem them for classroom computers for a Baltimore public school with the greatest need and the best student attendance -- is under way again. If you want to contribute, send your receipts to:
Save the Tapes, Renaissance Institute, College of Notre Dame of Maryland, 4701 N. Charles St., Baltimore 21210-2476.