A fish tale with a 46-year pedigree


Where were you the last weekend in April 1957?

Dollars to doughnuts, you weren't at the start of a Tilghman Island fishing tradition that began that weekend and was held for the 46th time on April 26.

Bill Burton is the father of the event, dubbed the "Water and Woods Ball," a 24-hour whirlwind of beverage consuming, oyster and fried chicken eating, card playing, lie swapping, insult hurling and - oh, yeah - striped bass fishing.

Burton, who for 37 years penned an outdoors column of the same name for The Evening Sun, presides with the good humor of a man who's seen both sides of a 7 a.m. dockside hangover and with the crustiness of an old salt.

It's exactly what you'd expect from the man given the title "Admiral of the Chesapeake" by then-Gov. J. Millard Tawes.

Unless you're a certain legendary Tilghman Island charter boat captain, there's no way to compare No. 1 with No. 46. Buddy Harrison has attended all of the balls and insists the modern versions are more genteel.

Burton agrees. "People actually go to bed and get a good night's sleep before fishing."

Even Burton himself, in his mid-70s, has mellowed somewhat. The rules used to be that once you were invited, you were expected to show up every year or else find yourself crossed off the list. Now, a missed ball may not mean expulsion.

Good thing for Barbara Mikulski. Maryland's junior senator missed the previous two shindigs because of things political. But she's here working the crowd this Friday night, shaking with one hand and holding a bottle of beer in the other.

All 70 invitees this year seem delighted to be back. And everyone marvels at the staying power of Burton's get-together. Sure, there are some gray hairs and no hairs, but there's enough young blood to ensure the ball will go on as long as Burton does.

Burton's 4-month-old granddaughter, nicknamed "Grumpy" by her doting granddad, is on hand, perhaps starting her own Ripken-like string of appearances.

How many things last 46 years?

Sputnik I, launched in the fall of '57, has long since fallen from the sky. Ebbetts Field saw its last Dodgers game that year and was plowed under in 1960. Little Richard retired for the first time (he's hanging it up again this year). The late Buddy Holly, Marty Robbins and Jimmy Rodgers all had hit 45s. And Peyton Place couldn't even raise a blush if it were published in 2002.

"We just have fun" is how Burton explains the longevity.

Then there's this possible explanation. "Water and Woods" is a perfectly blended stew: former Evening Sun colleagues, real fishing guides, a couple of outdoors writers and Burton friends, neighbors and family.

Getting everybody on one of the 11 boats Saturday morning falls to former newsman Alan Doelp, aka the vice admiral, who runs a computer better than Burton ("Grumpy runs the computer better than I do," Burton admits).

This year, Burton's boat - actually it's Harrison's Buddy Plan - includes some old friends and some newcomers, all clutching box lunches in the pre-dawn chill.

There's Mikulski, who's still happy to see people at 7 a.m., a couple of outdoors scribblers, like the Easton Star-Democrat's Keith Walters, and Dr. Stanley Minken, professor of surgery at the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda and former chief of surgery at St. Agnes Hospital.

"Well, we made it another year, Buddy," Burton yells to Harrison.

Turning, he says with a twinkle in his eye, "Of course, we haven't made it back yet."

By 8 a.m., Buddy Plan is across the bay from Tilghman Island and trolling the channel edge off Calvert Cliffs. Six minutes later, it's "fish on" for Mikulski.

Ably assisted by Minken, the senator doesn't take long to land a striper more than half her length.

I'd like to tell you that the rest of the day is full of the same. That would be lying.

Alas, we don't get to see how good Minken is with a blade and we don't get to see action shots by Walters, the retired photo guru at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, because Mikulski's fish is all the bay is giving us today.

What we do have is good weather, Buddy Harrison's fried chicken, Burton's stories and Minken's quips.

I'll take that.

Back dockside, Mikulski's fish is put on the scale.

"That's 31 inches and eight pounds," says Walters, scribbling in his notebook.

"Eight pounds?" Mikulski says incredulously.

"Would you rather have 8 inches and 31 pounds?" Walters teases.

"That sounds like my size," the diminutive senator shoots back.

Postscript: Minken calls Wednesday to note that he went out with Harrison the day before and caught a 40-pound, 45-inch striper near the mouth of the Choptank River and would I like him to e-mail me a photo?

Doc, you're killing me.

Bird's-eye view

I've had birds on the brain this week, and I don't mean Orioles.

Like thousands of other folks, I've been checking in on a pair of peregrine falcons and their new family of four perched on the 15th-floor ledge of a Pennsylvania state office building in Harrisburg.

Cameras mounted near their gravel-filled nesting area documented the laying of the eggs between March 24 and 31. The first chick appeared last Tuesday, the next two entered the world Wednesday and the fourth one pecked its way out Friday.

Now, it's fun to watch the parents feed the fluff balls as they grow.

The state started the nesting program in 1996. In 2000, a falcon pair produced the first clutch of eggs. One bird from that clutch survived and lives in New Jersey (there's a joke in there somewhere). Last year, three of four birds survived.

On May 30, biologists will remove the babies from the nest to band them. Two birds will be fitted with tiny transmitters that will allow scientists and Web birders to track them for up to three years.

The state of Pennsylvania Web site has tons of cool falcon information, including photos, and links to live video from the "nestcams." It's a great way to teach kids about the once-endangered birds.

The address is www.state.pa.us, keyword "falcon."

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