Storm creates day at the breach

The Baltimore Sun

Chappaquiddick Island, Mass. -- There's a hole in my fishing hole.

Specifically, a gaping maw wide enough to let the Ravens' football field float freely from the Atlantic Ocean into a placid bay called Katama with plenty of room to spare beyond each end zone.

The winds and waves of an April nor'easter gouged a trench through a section of a thin barrier beach that protected Katama Bay from the ocean and attached Chappy to the rest of Martha's Vineyard.

The Vineyard Gazette reported that the storm was so powerful that it "exposed a buried 52-foot whale that researchers had been unable to locate this winter, and unidentified human remains washed up in Edgartown Harbor."

Now, Chappy is an island for the first time since Hurricane Bob roared through in 1991 and Katama, with two openings, is a little less of a bay.

Sand is dancing to a different tune as it is pushed first by current from Nantucket Sound beyond the mouth of Edgartown Harbor - the traditional entrance to the bay - then by the new ocean currents. Bay tides are doing a drunken stumble, too, with rising waters from opposite directions trying to gain the upper hand.

A local group called The Surfcasters is warning visitors not to fish alone near the breach and to wear a life vest when working the unstable edges of the gap, which measures at least 12 feet deep.

Boaters say the crosscurrent, once robust only in times of storm or lunar high tide, is tearing through the harbor at 6 knots. Tea leaves are better than tide charts in trying to determine when the high-water mark will occur. Slack tide, the period between up and down, lasts about 15 minutes, locals say.

The local papers are reporting that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration doesn't have plans to reconfigure the tide charts because the agency is too busy along the Gulf Coast, where Hurricane Katrina remade the geologic map two years ago.

So, for now, fishing is a spontaneous thing: Grab a rod and run when the water level starts rising.

On a more personal level, nature's handiwork has rendered years of scouting for fishing sweet spots and prolific clam flats as worthless as Michael Vick's football contract.

Bev Aaron, a fishing buddy who could accurately predict the nightly arrival of stripers in search of bait fish, has spent days walking the beach, rod tucked under his arm, in search of a topwater feeding frenzy that signals the presence of Marone saxatilis.

Tackle shops offer contradictory advice, agreeing only that whatever gear you're using is useless and should be upgraded immediately.

Breaches here aren't new. Major openings occurred in 1856, 1886, 1938 and 1954. Smaller holes opened in the late 1970s and again when Hurricane Bob rearranged the landscape.

Each time, the beach has mended itself as waves push sand from the western end of the island eastward down the coast. This time, experts predict it might take 15 years for the gap to fill and make Katama a bay again.

You might think that the wait would be enough to make a grown angler cry.

But there's something else at work here, something worth smiling about.

The breach created a roadblock for trucks and sport utility vehicles traveling around the perimeter of the bay, which, in turn, created a perfect haven for nesting piping plovers and shorebirds on their migration north and south.

The opening also allowed fresh salt water to flush out every nook and cranny of the bay. During low tide the first days of the breach, layers of bottom muck were sucked out of the bay and into the ocean.

Since unpacking my gear here two weeks ago, I've been amazed at water clarity and quality of the clean sandy bottom. While fishing, I conducted my own version of former state Sen. Bernie Fowler's "Wade-In" water quality test.

Toes are visible in more than 3 feet of water. It's easy to watch crabs scuttle across the bottom, clams dig new sanctuaries and tiny shrimplike critters dance between the bay grasses. Menhaden are everywhere (don't tell Omega Protein). Oysters and clams are saltier and healthier.

"It's like a big bowl of bouillabaisse," said Aaron as he watched the teeming wildlife near his feet.

Local conservation experts say things will keep improving, especially for striper and bluefish anglers, who will have more fish to chase because there is more food for them.

Although it's hard to admit, there's another upside to the new face of Katama: This old dawg is learning new tricks. The bay is a clean slate, as new to me as the first day I saw it years ago. Nothing is automatic. No go-to spots. No perfect lure. No magic hour.

Like millions of kids across the country, I'm back in school.

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