Fish in a Barrel
Angling Made Easy Aboard a Charter Boat
But getting out of bed seems even less desirable than usual on this Saturday on Tilghman Island. My earnest, early-to-bed-Friday intentions were dashed by the incessant, bowel-shaking bass thump of a karaoke machine and the Patsy Cline-defiling bombshell--"Britney Spears' mom," one of my similarly sleep-deprived shipmates later dubs her--who occasionally "sings" over it.
After gorging myself on oysters cooked a half-dozen ways (it's part of the charter-fishing-trip deal) and taking a walk through town, I had decided to turn in at 10:30 Friday, returning to my comfy little room upstairs in this quaint, cozy burg that remains mostly devoid of the landscape-scarring McMansions that announce the Eastern Shore's invasion by the nouveau riche as surely as the shorts-clad, pot-bellied middle-aged and their skeletal wives do over in antiques-crazed St. Michael's.
But the crowd at the smoky, palpating bar beneath my room had other ideas. After giving in to the cacophony and joining the revelers for a couple of beers, I tried doing the right thing again at midnight, hoping to hell they would all stop with their, um, spirited homages to Tony Bennett and Jimmy Buffett. But as some lush sputtered his way through David Lee Roth's "I Ain't Got Nobody" at 12:45, I realized I was sunk.
Consequently, when someone raps on my door at 5:45, I do not awaken refreshed by a quiet night of slumber eased by the Chesapeake Bay breezes that oh-so-gently waft through my windows, or ready to haul in massive aquatic creatures destined for an appearance on my family's dinner table. Note to Harrison's Chesapeake House Country Inn and Sportfishing Center, Tilghman Island, Md.: When putting up fisherpersons the night before an early launch, lodge them in one of the wings away from the bar. Or hire someone like Belle and Sebastian or Marcel Marceau for your "entertainment."
Fortunately for me and my mates, the day gets better (well, mostly), from the inn's cardiologist-baiting breakfast buffet to the gentle, late-April sun that doesn't disappear all day long. Harrison's has been taking piscophiles out on successful early-morning expeditions for more than a century, becoming a legend among lazy anglers with short attention spans, as well as those who know what they're doing but don't mind having Harrison's captains pamper them. (That might explain the presence of Bill Burton, erstwhile chronicler of the seas for The Evening Sun--and the nearly exact incarnation of The Simpsons' Captain McCallister--at breakfast.)
For about 200 clams, the politically connected Harrison family, headed by former Talbot County Council member Levin "Buddy" Harrison III, gives you three squares and a roof for one night, plus a daylong trip trolling up and down a stretch of bay in search of the no-longer-elusive rockfish (in the spring, at least; in summer it's croaker and spot, in autumn drum). While the angling art concerns itself with finding the fish, fooling them into devouring your lure, and pulling the suckers in--all of which are sometimes suffused in labor-intensive ritual, such as in fly-fishing--the Harrison's version is "sportfishing" in name only. With rods set by a hired captain, a cooler full of "beverages," and (for a bit extra) a fish-cleaning service provided at the end of the day, the deal has a we-work-so-you-don't-have-to ethos to it. The only "sport" would appear to be avoiding falling overboard while you're drunkenly wrestling a striper into the boat.
An electronic fish-finding monitor and constant radio chatter with other charters about who's biting what take us far from the simplicity and "contemplation" extolled by Sir Izaak Walton in his four-centuries-old classic on fishing, The Compleat Angler. "Indeed, my friend, you will find Angling to be the virtue of humility, which has a calmness of spirit, and a world of other blessings attending upon it," Walton wrote. American charter-boat fishing is, rather, typically American: We want to catch fish and drink. Idle contemplation is for losers, those who aren't where the action is.
Today's "anglers"--me and two married couples--leave the Harrison's dock on Harris Creek a little before 7 a.m., passing a pair of mute swans and a channel marker topped by an osprey and its nest, aboard a 30-year-old wooden vessel named Tradition. Among the dozen or so charter-fishing boats in the Harrison's fleet, this is the old, rickety one, meaning it lacks the modern power and response of, say, the bass speakers in your average karaoke machine. Tradition's captain, a chain-smoking, wisecracking old salt named JoeJoe Lowery, has been helping folks go for the Big One for 35 years, as did his father and grandfather before him. He wouldn't swap places with the other captains, he says, torching another Winston: "All those fiberglass boats out there look the same to me. A boat like this has character."
As we pass under the Knapps Narrows Bridge and across the bay's shipping channel, the wind and chop (wave height) pick up. Linda, a cheery pharmaceutical salesperson, pops a couple of what her similarly employed husband, Ken, calls "second-generation Dramamine." The other couple, Jill and Paul, search for ways to escape the wind, which has already threatened to deliver hats to the drink.
Forty-five minutes out, JoeJoe turns down the throttle and starts setting out lines from rods he keeps attached to the boat's ceiling. The lures he's using--bright green-and-white oblong things with eyes and feathers--remind me of some of the weird toys my kids played with as infants; my mind briefly entertains an image of me reeling in a gasping baby. "They're Sassy Shads," JoeJoe says, lures that he places at three depths: along the surface, about 15 feet down, and near the bottom of the bay. The lines are attached to five rods, one for each paying customer. There's no casting, no line-tightening, no worrying about whether your bait got stolen, no nothing. You sit and wait. As Lowery buries the rod's handles into holders along Tradition's edges, I ask how we know when we've got a rock. "See the way they look now?" he rasps in a voice that sounds like No. 17 sandpaper, pointing to two rods that bend gently like willow branches in the breeze. "They won't look like that."
Ken rubs his hands together then massages each rod. I don't want to analyze this behavior too thoroughly, I think, and do so again when the women do the same thing a few minutes later. "We need some lady luck," Ken says. We've already decided, for reasons either chivalrous or chauvinistic or both, that Linda and Jill will grab the first rods that jump.
By 8, we're fishing in 42 feet of water maybe a half-mile from the Western Shore, with Chesapeake Beach and the north end of Calvert Cliffs in full view, going back and forth parallel to land. I drove two hours to the Eastern Shore to fish along the Western Shore, I'm thinking. Weird. But it seems as if every boat in the bay is here, a sign we're in the right place. Sure enough, the captain yells, "Fish on the line!" The reel is clicking and the rod has gone from willow branch to a big "C." Lowery jumps down from his captain's chair, the ember from his cigarette threatening his scarecrow hair, and picks up the rod, handing it to Jill. Along the way, Ken and I have been talking about the "fun" one can have with fish who fight back, including the once-regal bluefish--since chased from these parts, it is believed, by the rockfish, whose numbers were fortified by the 1990s moratorium on their capture. But rock don't seem as tough to reel in; it only takes Jill a couple of minutes to deliver a 31-incher--silvery, with its gills wide open, and bloodied by the hook--to JoeJoe's waiting net.
Not 10 minutes later, Linda repeats the process, bringing in 29 inches of fine white filet-meat-to-be. By 8:30, we're 40 percent toward our daily limit of five adult rockfish, or one per customer.
I'm up next, they all tell me. This is when we run into problems. The promise of an early return to the docks with a cooler full of stripers goes the way of the weather. Winds pick up, cooling things down below 60 degrees, and increasing the chop to 4 feet at times. We're rocking, all right, but not in the manner intended. Linda's über-Dramamine fails her, and she spends a lot of time bent over the stern, unlike Ken, whose system has been soothed by the better part of a Heineken six-pack. The rest of us get a little queasy; it doesn't help that Paul keeps making reference to Gilligan's Island. The chop's no good for fishing either, JoeJoe says; in such churning waters the lures don't move "naturally." But he assures us that this is nothing like the time he took five drunken West Virginia coal miners out in a hurricane, at their insistence, and the 8-foot swells that came with it.
The weather isn't the only thing JoeJoe finds to blame for our seven hours of fishlessness. Even though he trusts me to guide the boat--more like a bathtub toy subject to a tyrannical kid at this point--while he checks lines for seaweed and other "dirt," he lambastes me for missing a couple of clicks from rods, which I maintain were moved by the chop and nothing more. "Fishing is like baseball," he tells me, "three strikes and you're out." In other words, I'm two-thirds of the way from being tossed off the boat.
That's when the rod next to me at the boat's rear starts bowing like crazy. "Grab it!" the others yell. I oblige and, with the the others' help, put the end of the rod in a specially made belt for leverage. I reel and stop, picking the pole up to set the hook. I do everything my father taught me, awaiting my prize. JoeJoe, meanwhile, stands next to me, openly displaying the life jacket I will need if this fish doesn't pan out. But as I continue to reel in, I notice some slackness. "He's gone," I say, and sure enough, my line (with my fish!) has become hopelessly entangled with another one, leaving enough slack for the fish to escape. Fortunately, JoeJoe takes pity on me and decides to give me one more chance. In keeping with the fine fishing tradition of lauding the one that got away, Paul laments our lost fish as "the biggest one we've hooked yet."
But all fish stories have happy endings, and here's mine: At 4:15, not long before we're due back to join most of the rest of the boats back at Harrison's dock (where they'd been since around 2 with their quota of fish), something hits the same rod. Feeling performance pressure that rivaled my high school days, I manage to pull in one at the legal limit, 28 inches--just barely. As JoeJoe stretches it out over the yardstick on top of the fish cooler, I muse anxiously, "Can't we feed it something?" But it makes the cut. And after 45 much more enjoyable minutes of waiting, we return to Tilghman.
JoeJoe wouldn't leave the fishing grounds until all his customers were satisfied that they'd been true and successful sportsmen and -women. And rightly or wrongly, as I drive out of town over the Knapps Narrows Bridge toward St. Michael's, having just picked up my cleaned striper, that's how I feel.
For more information on booking a trip with Harrison's Sportfishing Center, call (410) 889-2109 or visit www.chesapeakehouse.com
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