RIDGE -- As the Miss Valerie II ran through the darkness and rounded Point Lookout early last week, a trail of luminescence spread across the wake, a pair of shooting stars sped toward the horizon and, well to the south, a cloud bank sparkled with heat lightning.
But the light show of a hot summer evening on the lower bay where the Chesapeake mixes with the Potomac River lacked the intensity of the fireworks that had started a couple of hours earlier, just before sunset.
"I have been fishing this part of the bay for a lot of years, but I never have seen croaker like these," said Don Martin, as he stood along the gunwale, catching a bare hint of warm breeze after a hot evening of bottom fishing. "I know a good number of those 70 fish in the box are 18 inches or more, and for years we didn't catch many past about 12 inches."
The croaker fishery has changed over the past few years, as increasing numbers of the strong-running bottom feeders have moved into Maryland's waters of the Chesapeake, and each year the fish have grown larger.
Now the croaker action on the lower bay is extraordinary, especially in the evenings when they come up from deep water over the channel edges to feed.
"You can catch 'em any time of the day," said Capt. Steve Davis, who runs the Miss Valerie out of the family docks off Smith Creek in St. Mary's County. "But when the sun gets down behind the tree line, they just seem to turn on. Sometimes you have to be little patient at first, but eventually they will bite -- and bite and bite."
Monday evening, as the hottest weather of the summer built over Maryland, Steve Davis and his father, Capt. Eddie Davis, each had charter parties running out of Smith Creek, northeast around Point Lookout to Buoy 72, on the eastern edge of the shipping channel opposite Point No Point Light.
The Davises also had a third boat in the area, and the radio traffic among them appraised the catch rate along the sharp edge that has held a mother lode of croaker for a month.
But while Eddie Davis aboard the Edith Rose and Capt. Joe Bryan aboard the Minnie L were getting early bites, the fishing action was nonexistent aboard the Miss Valerie, which swung to anchor in an ebbing tide.
The bay lay flat. The air was still and thick with humidity. The heat was considerable, and a handful of small and hungry black flies had invaded the cockpit.
"This has been the place to be for me," said Steve Davis, as he sectioned peeler crab baits, handed out a pair of fly swatters and offered bug repellent. "We could move to where Dad is, but it is slow there, too. So we'll give it awhile longer here."
While Buoy 72 has been one of the best locations for croaker -- as well as sea trout, blues and catch-and-release rockfish at different times of the day -- Davis said the entire eastern edge of the main bay channel in the area has been consistent. The key, he said, is the sharpness of the edge.
"We're anchored in 32 feet of water, but just to the west of 72, it drops real fast to 80 feet or more," he said. "That gives croakers a real variety of depth in a small area, and that's important, so they can move up or down according to what they need."
Don and Christine Martin and Matt and Jim Gilford, meanwhile, were listening to the laughter coming from other boats in the area, and wondering when the bite would begin. Christine, a close friend of the Davis family, swept the fleet of a dozen charter boats with binoculars, to see who was catching what and playfully chided the captain she has known since his childhood.
"Stevie, I came out to fish, not to sunbathe or get a sauna," said Christine, who with her husband, Don, lives in the Roanoke, Va., area. "We didn't drive up from Paint Bank to just sit here."
And shortly past 7 p.m., as the sun dropped to the tree line and heat lightning began to sparkle through the cloud bank to the south, the first croaker hit and took line. Within minutes, there were two or three fish on at a time, and over the next 90 minutes the fish box filled at a steady rate.
Jim Gilford of Frederick and his son, Matt, a science teacher at Brunswick Middle School, were enjoying a rare fishing trip together, and after a slow start the son was out-fishing the father.
"He wasn't sure he wanted to come, and we set it up at the last moment, really," Jim Gilford said, and called across the cockpit as Matt landed a hardhead. "Just remember, catch one more and it's a long walk home."
Undeterred, Matt rebaited his bottom rig and kept catching.
Don, retired from the Environmental Protection Agency, and Christine, meanwhile, were catching steadily, too -- Christine animated with her hook sets and Don quiet and businesslike as he reeled them in.
Over the radio, the Minnie L and the Edith Rose also reported good to excellent fishing, and judging from the laughter that carried through the dusk from other boats anchored nearby, the edge at Buoy 72 was producing another night of excellent fishing.
The black flies had moved on or were unnoticed, a slight breeze rTC was building from the southeast and with the coming of darkness broke the heat of the day -- and set the stage for the light show on the ride home.
Pub Date: 7/26/98