Reeling in the fun

Justin Kula, 7, Piscataway, NJ, jumps for joy after catching a flounder off the Route 50 bridge. His father, Mike Kula, laughs as he holds his son's rod and reel. Joe Iacometta, Lumberton, NJ, a friend, is in background.
Justin Kula, 7, Piscataway, NJ, jumps for joy after catching a flounder off the Route 50 bridge. His father, Mike Kula, laughs as he holds his son's rod and reel. Joe Iacometta, Lumberton, NJ, a friend, is in background. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun)
Take away the boardwalk fries, the crowded streets, the saltwater taffy, the "I'm With Stupid" T-shirts, and what do you have?

Pocomoke River State Park.

Granted, there are some other trade-offs involved in swapping Ocean City for the greater Pocomoke City metropolitan area.

But if you didn't get around to planning the specifics of a late-summer camping vacation (that is, lodging) until now and would still like to fish and hike, with a day trip or two to mingle with the boardwalk hordes, then the state park 25 miles south of Ocean City could be the answer.

For $55 a night, you can rent an air-conditioned mini-cabin - $50 without AC - near the river. Tent sites are even less expensive: $20 to $30, depending on location and whether you desire electricity.

The mini-cabins resemble toolsheds on steroids with porches. Inside is a double bed and a set of bunk beds - just right for a family of four - a table and chairs and some shelves to hold the bug spray you'll be needing. On the porch is a bench perfect to enjoy a cold drink while tending dinner cooking in the fire ring or listening in on the conversation around the picnic table.

Choose your site carefully. The park is actually two parcels divided by the Pocomoke River and connected only by a 20-minute drive to the nearest crossing, in the town of Snow Hill.

With 191 campsites, the Shad Landing part of the park is by far the larger and more civilized one. It has a pool, general store, nature center, boat slips and three air-conditioned cabins. It is located on Route 113, a straight shot to U.S. 50 and Ocean City.

On the north side of the river off Route 364, Milburn Landing has 32 sites with three cabins without air conditioning, a boat ramp and quiet. It also allows dogs. The "back woods" location makes driving to Ocean City a little more of a chore only if you mind looking at lush cornfields that grow right up to the road, still-water ponds dotted with lilies the size of dinner plates and the picturesque town of Snow Hill, which looks like something out of the early 1900s.

All good and well, but your mission is fishin', right?

There's plenty of that in all three varieties: saltwater, freshwater and tidal water.

Day or night, there's always someone wetting a line along the U.S. 50 bridge into Ocean City. The bridge carries one of the country's original east-west highways over Isle of Wight Bay, which is rich with flounder, striped bass, bluefish and spot.

On a recent morning with the sun so bright, squinting was mandatory - even with sunglasses - generations of anglers stood along the sidewalk, casting into the rushing waters of an incoming tide.

To get the big fish and bring them up to the bridge, conventional wisdom is you need a big rod - at least 7 feet long.

But no one told that to Justin Kula, 7, armed with a red-and-blue Spider-Man rod and reel. Or the 18-inch flounder he hooked and reeled in that was ticketed for dinner.

"I caught one, I caught one. It's on my line. Come look, come look," shouted the little boy from Piscataway, N.J., to the amusement of the older anglers.

Jerry Whited, 70, a retired engineer from Havre de Grace who summers in Ocean Pines, makes the drive to the bridge four to five days a week.

"You have a beach house and all of a sudden, you have lots of friends," he said, smiling. "Sometimes you see your home friends more here than you do at home."

If traffic zipping behind you while you fish makes you a little skittish, try the Ocean City Inlet jetty or pay to use the Oceanic Fishing Pier - both at the southern tip of the island - or one of the public spots in town. For access to the bay, park at the Convention Center and walk behind the building to the pier. There's also public access at Ninth Street, 125th Street and the bulkhead between Second and Fourth streets.

Two of the best sources of information are Sue Foster at Oyster Bay Tackle at 116th Street and Jamestown Road, and the folks at Talbot Street Bait and Tackle (formerly Skip's) at 210 Talbot St., just one block south of the U.S. 50 bridge. (If the former owner, Capt. Douglas "Skip" Maguire, is around, he'll give you all the advice you need.)

Adventure is sometimes over the horizon. For $100 to $125 on Saturdays - Capt. Monty Hawkins will steer you out to the wrecks and artificial reefs offshore aboard the 55-foot Morning Star. Hawkins limits the number of anglers to 22, ensuring that you'll have plenty of elbow room to reel in sea bass, tautog, triggerfish and bluefish. Take your own tackle or rent Hawkins' gear.

Surf fishing is big at Ocean City and just to the south on Assateague Island National Seashore, where five state records have been set. In addition to fishing on Assateague beach, anglers can rent canoes or kayaks and fish in Sinepuxent Bay.

"I find it amazing that people from France, Germany, Japan and Italy come here," says Bonnie Griffin, who helps run the boat rental shack. "It's like, 'How did you find out about us?'"

Back at the state park, the fishing is fun, especially as the water temperatures begin to cool.

The headwaters of the river are in Great Cypress Swamp on the Maryland-Delaware line, the northernmost bald cypress swamp in the country. The river empties into the Chesapeake Bay. Legend has it that Pocomoke means "black water," and the river gets its stain from the tannic acid from cypress roots and decaying leaves.

Just steps from your cabin or tent, you can catch white perch, crappie, sunfish, catfish and largemouth bass.

If you want to make a day of it, get a river map from the Worcester County Tourism office in Snow Hill and rent a canoe or kayak from Pocomoke River Canoe Co. Put in just before the tide begins to fall and let the current take you down to the Milburn or Shad Landing ramps. Cast toward downed trees, or the exposed "knees" of cypress trees and stumps and under docks and along the edges of lily pads.

Keep an eye out for the high-powered, low-slung bass boats that prowl the river and can move much faster than you can paddle.

For beginners, fish a worm on 8-pound test line and use a bobber to keep the hook from snagging stuff on the bottom.

As fall arrives, so do the migratory striped bass. Park staffers say stripers of about 20 pounds can be reeled in.

Your cabin awaits.