The air smelled mossy, the crickets at the lake's edge murmured. Rain came and went, and the sun turned pink before some fat blue clouds squeezed it out of the sky and it disappeared.
As night fell. Lights flickered on. Geese skimmed over the water, black as shadows. The moonless sky glowed an eerie orange.
And still, the fishermen stayed on the water of Little Seneca Lake. They dotted the shore and 20, maybe 25, boats bobbed on the lake long after dark. Reels sighed, lures thwacked the water. Occasionally, the stillness was broken by a cry and a silvery flutter in the water.
True fishermen always have a fistful of theories on hand, and some believe that when the sun goes down, the fish come out like burglars. The creatures let their guard down at night when it's cooler, some argue, and can be hooked as they swim into shallower areas for a midnight snack. Plus, the heat lifts at night, and it's blessedly quiet drifting out there on the glassy water.
The managers of this northern Montgomery County lake, former farmland flooded in the mid-1980s, had these true believers in mind when they decided several years ago to leave the park open until midnight once a month between May and September. And so it was that a motley crew united in their passion for late-night fishing, largemouth bass and waterlogged tall tales descended on the lake as darkness fell on a recent Wednesday night.
"I've been fishing since I was 10 and catching minnows with safety pins," said George Leissler, 45, a cattle hauler from Smithsburg. He'd brought along some dinner, his 15-year-old daughter and a friend. As he bit into a bologna sandwich, he explained that he had every intention of staying until the clock struck 12.
"What else is better?" he asked.
Absolutely nothing, the folks here say, as they drop night crawlers or artificial lures into the water and wait for crappie, catfish, bluegill, sunfish, tiger muskie and, mostly, the ever-popular cavern-mouthed bass that populate the 505-acre lake. The record catch here weighed in at more than 8 pounds.
Many of the fishermen evaded questions about how often they visit the lake in search of that elusive 10-pound beauty, saying simply that they fish as often as they can. "I'm a licensed contractor. I don't want people to know how often," said Chuck Chapman, 42, who was out with his neighbor's 11-year-old son.
Chapman nodded at his young friend. "He comes out all the time," said Chapman, who lives in nearby Frederick. "He's addicted to it like I am."
Cary Andres, 37, a software developer from Germantown, had promised to take his son night fishing weeks ago. His wife and toddler came along earlier in the evening for a peanut butter and jelly picnic at the boat launch, but now it was just him and 5-year- old Connor, floating in the water by some toppled trees.
Connor was wearing a Scooby-Doo life preserver and an oversize fishing vest that hung off his tiny shoulders. He had already caught five bluegills - as he kept reminding his father with fisherman-style zeal.
A fish suddenly flipped in the water, and Connor reeled in No. 6.
"There you go!" Andres said, kneeling to unhook another pancake-size bluegill. Fishermen here are permitted to keep fish depending on the size, species and season, but most release them. Father and son peered at the wriggling fish for a few seconds before setting it back in the water.
A ways down the bank, Leissler and his small crew sat in a row, gazing across the water. His daughter, Sam, rested her toes - painted with pink polish - on the edge of the boat and lazily held up her rod while her father and his friend happily argued about caught fish of yore.
"That's another thing about fishing - the lies," said Leissler's friend Doug Mongan, 29, who had come from Greencastle, Pa.
"Unlike any other sport in this country, for fishing you don't need any special ability. Ask this guy," Leissler said.
Just then, a breeze crumpled the smooth surface of the water. Distant thunder boomed, and rain began to fall, slowly at first, then faster and harder.
None of the fishermen budged. The fish are already wet after all, and some folks believe they bite more when the water is choppy. Michael Kanz, 44, the manager of a custom cabinet shop in Landover, continued to cast out and reel in, utterly unruffled.
"Fishing lets you unthink the daily stress of work, children, family, aggravation," said Kanz, who was there with his boss. "There's not much aggravation with fishing." A little rain was nothing and anyway, after 15 minutes or so, it stopped as suddenly as it had started. Kanz lit a cigarette and blew smoke into the night air.
He swears that dark lures - such as the black spinner bait - work better at night and, as if to prove the point, his line jerked, and he pulled a flapping bass into his boat. A greenish 2-pounder. Well, almost a 2-pounder.
Kanz gave the fish a kiss and tossed it back into the water. "You have to show the fish a little loving," he said, as it landed with a thump and slipped away.
The hours slipped by. The air cooled. The lake turned a hundred shades of black. The boat lights, which according to park regulations must be visible after dark, glistened on the water.
Fishing boats on the lake are permitted to use only electric motors, but despite the slow pace, Leissler had putted his way under the bridge to the part of the lake regulars call 10-Mile Creek. A boat lingered nearby, but beyond that it was just the crickets and the whirr of their reels.
Sam, who had given up because of line problems, was text-messaging friends. The other two just kept fishing. They had hooked a few that got away and caught three, which they threw back. Leissler said he had photographs to prove how big they were.
"Never did get that storm. Just a little rain," Leissler said, a lone voice in the darkness. "It's beautiful."
They cast out again. And again.
Mongan searched for the right word to describe night fishing. "Peaceful," he finally said.
He whistled an aimless tune as the fishermen turned their boat around and headed back to the shore.