The funny thing about growing “old”, is how much you revert back to being “young”, and the actual age, the number we so carefully count each year, doesn’t really matter – just the process.
It’s like coming full circle. A reward for surviving the responsibilities and hard work of the middle years, perhaps even a few traumas. Rich memories, long buried beneath decades of building careers and raising children, effortlessly resurface with the least provocation.
I get to be carefree once again.
Lately I’ve been waking from dreams with the call of seagulls echoing in my mind, and I search for the tangy aroma of seaweed in an early morning mist. Or sometimes while weeding in my garden, a sudden summer breeze whooshes through the tops of towering sycamores, sending leafy branches into a wild, exuberant dance that to my ears, becomes a surging beach-side roar, like frothy ocean waves crashing onto the wet, packed sand of childhood memory.
As a bona fide mountain girl, I am surprised by this yearning for the ocean of my youth.
I was born on Long Island, New York, where I resided until ten years of age, not too far from my mother’s family, some of whom lived on Shelter Island, only a ferry ride from my father’s family in Greenport. I have such fond memories….
When I think about my Uncle Jack’s marine store at Dering Harbor, I only have to shut my eyes to once again feel the rough, weathered boards of a sun-drenched dock, or to hear the gently lapping water against boats, rocking and creaking from their tethered lines on time-worn piers. I can see my Aunt Dotty, her long jet-black hair cascading over a brightly flowered sun-dress, waiting on customers from behind an old wooden counter.
It was truly a serendipitous moment when my husband said to me, “Honey – guess what I just bought?” Thankfully it wasn’t a yacht. That would have definitely been a drain on ye olde’ budget. Imagine my surprise when I found out we were going fishing on a charter boat in the Chesapeake Bay.
This was totally new territory for me. My saltwater fishing experience began and ended off a long island pier, where the only thing I caught on a hook was a black, slithering eel. But after canceling plans to visit the coastline of Maine last year, I needed to feel the spray of salt air on my face more than ever. I was game for any adventure that brought me closer to the ocean.
Our trip was scheduled with the Chesapeake Bay Sport Fishing, LLC that docks at the Queen Anne Marina on Kent Island, Maryland.
We left on a bright, sunny mid-afternoon day. It was only a two hour drive from home but since the charter informed us that the “boat leaves promptly at six a.m.”, we decided it would be best to reserve a nearby hotel room for the night before and settled on the Best Western Kent Narrows Inn.
The weather forecast had promised us an absolutely perfect day for fishing. The recent severe heat wave was due to subside, temporarily, for that day only, owing to a bit of rain that would nicely cool things off for a bright, non-humid, eighty degree day.
Except it wasn’t just a bit of rain.
By the time we reached Ellicot City, Maryland, the skies opened and literally dumped rain. It rained so hard that mini reservoirs formed across the busy four lane highway and turned the air so thick with water that it looked like we were driving through a grey, beaded curtain that had no end.
Luckily I wasn’t driving, since I couldn’t see more than ten feet in front of our Toyota Land Cruiser, and as we passed not one, but three tractor trailers that had pulled off to the side of the road, I worried that we might have to do the same. But Doug’s driving abilities are great in all kinds of weather and we soldiered on, crossing the Annapolis Bay Bridge with high spirits even though we couldn’t see the huge expanse of the Chesapeake Bay that lay spread out somewhere beneath us.
We arrived at our hotel only a few short miles later and were greeted by efficient staff that kindly listened to me babble about my very first charter boat fishing trip and the need for a pre-dawn checkout. The clerk proudly stated that Best Western caters ‘to their fishermen’, so we could expect the breakfast room to open a full two hours earlier than normal.
By the time we headed back outside to find our room, the rain had turned into a soft drizzle and the sky was blazing red-orange with a setting sun. Doug said, “You know what that means. Red sky at night, sailors’ delight! We’re going to have a great day for fishing tomorrow.”
Our room was on the 2nd floor, with an exterior door that opened onto a covered balustrade, and a clear view of the Bay that was awash with the brilliance of sky and water. We stood arm in arm, enjoying the moment, smiling with sweet anticipation for our adventure the next morning, until our stomachs growled. We laughed, and then quickly settled in with our overnight bags before heading across the street to Fisherman’s Inn, for dinner. We couldn’t have asked for a more convenient location.
The atmosphere was casual fine dining, with large plate glass windows that overlooked the Bay. A model train chugged on a railway suspended from the ceiling, traveling its circuit throughout the room, disappearing into the neighboring lounge, and reemerging from a tunnel built through an adjoining wall.
The service was great and the food excellent.
We relaxed over a couple of micro-brews and I enjoyed my first taste of broiled Rock Fish – in honor of the fact that we would be trolling the Bay for more of its kind in just a few short hours. It had a similar flavor and texture to Mahi-Mahi and so earned my seal of approval. Now I really wanted to catch some fish! I went to bed that night with “visions of [rock fish fillets] dancing in my head”.
It didn’t take long for the alarm to sound at 0430 hours, but we had pre-staged everything the previous night so it took only moments before we were ready to head for the marina, only a short twenty minute drive from the hotel. Before leaving, I checked out the wide assortment of breakfast foods, ready and waiting as promised, but Doug didn’t want to eat that early and I was too afraid.
In the days leading up to this trip, there had been so much talk about sea-sickness, that I was loathe to risk putting anything in my stomach. I’m not really prone to such things, but since this was my first experience in unknown waters, I was worried about it. My game plan was simple: empty stomach, Sea-Band Wristband, MotionEaze Sickness Relief All-Natural Topical Liquid, and focus my eyes to the horizon – often. No *drugs* for this chick. I wanted to be alert when I reeled in a Rock Fish or two.
As it turned out, I was right to be concerned. Remember all that rain from the previous day? Not only did it cool things off, but it churned up the Bay like a giant bathtub of violent, swooshing water which made the early dawn ride out to the fishing grounds quite interesting.
Our boat, “Retirement Fun”, was a 42’ Jones Bay Built, hard core, fish catching vessel with lots of room for a few dozen rods and a giant cooler to keep our catch on ice. We were helped aboard by the Captain and his Mate, and we huddled around a tiny cabin with the other fishermen – 12 of us total – as the crew eased us away from the dock.
Doug and I perched atop a small, open-air, bench set against the backside of the enclosed cabin, sheltered only by a short roof, kind of like the bikini top on my CJ-7 Jeep. We faced backwards, with a clear view of the boat’s massive wake as we sped out in the grey-blue morning light. Our companions found places to sit or stand around the giant cooler or inside the cabin which had a minuscule table and bench seats opposite the Captain’s chair.
It didn’t take long before the Mate shooed some passengers closer to the cabin with an understated, “if ya hang out here, ya gonna get wet.”
I have no pictures of this wild ride to the deep waters of the Bay because I was too busy holding on for dear life. However, it looked just…Like…THIS!
We rocked and rolled and plowed through turbulent, choppy waves that cast great sheets of water up and over the tiny cabin roof, drenching the boat’s open deck. I sat far enough back that I was spared from most of the wet, but I was also closest to the side edge where I caught a continuous spray of cold water.
Oh, what about my husband you ask? He was having a blast. Mr. ‘Chatty Cathy’ talked a stream, grinning from ear to ear, completely in his element. I should probably mention he retired from the USCG after nearly thirty years of service.
And me? I was concentrating on the horizon and chanting an internal mantra, “please don’t let me get seasick … please don’t let me get seasick”, waiting for what I thought was inevitable.
And then, thanks to a bit of magic, everything changed.
Doug carefully left his seat, grasped onto the metal rod holders high overhead, and turned to face me. He stood with practiced ease, swaying and rocking in perfect tune with the boat’s maniacal movement. He smiled at me and shouted over the wind, “Hey Rob, it’s just like riding a New York City subway.”
I blinked with sudden recognition. He was right. I remembered the lilting cars, and standing tall, grasping onto a handle suspended from the ceiling.
From that moment on, I enjoyed the crazy, wild ride out to the fishing grounds. The more the boat rocked, the more we laughed, restraining ourselves just a little, for we shared a joyous urge to shout out, “WOO HOO!”
And then the boat slowed and the waves calmed. The sun rose high in a clear blue sky and the water glistened like jewels of the deepest blue. A slight, refreshing breeze kept the eighty degree temperature comfortable. We had perfect weather for fishing, just as the weatherman predicted.
The Captain issued command and his Mate scurried about the boat, setting up fishing poles, readying lines, and preparing the outer rigging.
Short, wooden boards, painted bright red, were tied to a long rope and put into the water, one set for each side of the boat. Their shape and tilt allowed them to stay about thirty feet aft no matter which way the boat turned, keeping the rope taut. Each fishing pole was placed into one of the many, metal brackets that were anchored EVERYWHERE – from roof edges and all alongside the three exposed rails – and its line hooked to the rope, at intervals, via a quick-release lanyard. This kept the many fishing lines from tangling, yet allowed instant access by snapping loose within seconds. Then it was just a matter of setting the hook and reeling in a fish.
The Captain explained we would be trolling for Rock Fish, which basically meant we would be constantly moving throughout the Bay versus sitting at anchor and manning a specific pole.
We moved at a moderate to slow cruising speed, and dragged about three dozen fishing lines from which bright shiny lures, sparkled and dazzled, all in the hope of attracting fish towards the yummy looking rubber bait suspended from needle-sharp, barbed hooks.
The Captain then handed my husband twelve playing cards, one for each fisherman. We were instructed to choose a card, and that would be our number in the lineup for the day, the order from which we took our turn reeling in the fish.
Starting with me, Doug fanned them out face down like a magician doing a trick and told me to pick a card. Woot! I drew the Queen. I’ll blame what happened next on sleep deprivation.
Oblivious to what it actually meant, I displayed my card for all to see. “Hey look – I’m Queen for the day!”
The Captain was very kind when he explained that the order of cards ran: Ace, Deuce, three – with Queen being last. Heavy sigh. LAST. I emitted a mock, “Awwwww”, but I didn’t really care. The whole trip was an experience and I was enjoying myself regardless of whether or not I reeled in a fish.
After all the other fishermen were done choosing a card, Doug was left holding only one more, his own. He came to me and said, “Ok Robin, how about we trade, sight unseen.” I laughed and said, “Well my luck could only improve, not a very good trade for you. What did you get?”
Doug turned over his card. The Ace of Spades. FIRST!! He tried his best, insisting that I trade places, but I couldn’t deny him that thrill. Instead, I gave him a kiss and said, “It’s as it should be, we’re the Alpha and the Omega. Between us both, we’ll catch the biggest fish.”
In reality, I had figured I wouldn’t even get to touch the handle of a fishing rod – I mean last … number twelve … sheesh.
I needn’t have worried though. We were kept busy, reeling in fish after fish, all of us getting multiple turns at a pole while the rest clapped and hooted encouragement, the Mate standing by with net ready.
As it turned out, just like a true Alpha, Doug did indeed catch the biggest fish of the day. We didn’t have a scale, but it felt like it could have weighed ten to twelve pounds, which is huge for an August fishing trip.
The really large, trophy sized, Chesapeake Bay Rock Fish weigh between ten to forty pounds and are normally caught in the early spring.
And all joking aside, I – who drew the Omega – caught the second largest. My catch felt to be seven to eight pounds.
On top of all that fun – sunshine and blue water, seagulls and gentle breezes, camaraderie and sporting adventure – I learned a few things:
* During a full moon – the fish can see by its light and feed all night long, so fishing the next morning is scarce since they aren’t hungry.
* Rock Fish are so-named by Marylanders, but these same fish are called Stripers, or Striped Bass, by Southerners.
* Really large, Chesapeake Bay Rock Fish, weighing between 10 – 40 lbs., are most often caught in the early spring. Our trip, in late August, netted us mostly small ones – still within legal limit but not the trophy sizes that can fill a freezer, which makes the fish that Doug & I caught lucky for us. But we also released plenty back to the Bay, as well.
* Rock Fish are predators. When they chase bait fish (their prey) the bait fish try to evade (run away! run away!) which forces them to the surface water where seagulls are waiting en masse to eat the bait fish. In a trolling boat, we searched for the seagulls dipping and diving as they ate bait fish, knowing that there would be a school of Rock Fish pushing them from behind – and then positioned our trolling lures/lines in that area.
* Look for fish slicks – an area of very smooth, glass-like water, caused by groups of bait fish swimming near the surface.
* WD-40 sprayed on fishing lures, attracts fish – although this is open for some debate.
* Rock Fish were almost fished to extinction. Now they are plentiful, thanks in large part to regulations. All fishermen are granted a maximum catch per day, and fish must be of a certain size.
* I’m reminded how true experience, versus strict knowledge, enhances the quality and depth of understanding. I had often heard the term “following seas” over the course of my career, but now I had experienced it. Bottom line, it means a comfortable ride, because the boat is surfing the waves vs. pitching into them.
* Seasickness – an ounce of prevention… Once you have it, it’s almost impossible to stop it, not until you are landed back on solid ground. I used wrist bracelets and essential oils – but I’m not prone. Even still, our Captain – as hardy a seaman as I ever saw – told me that even he, who fishes every day in all weather conditions, sometimes gets a bit sick. His cure? Nibble on some saltines, take a sip of water, and stand in the fresh air of the deck.
As “all good things must come to an end”, it was time to head back to the marina.
We had fished for about eight hours, and even though many of the fish were too small to keep, we still ended up with a sizable catch.
While the rest of us enjoyed a speed run back to port, the Mate cleaned and filleted every fish.
I had many things to be thankful for – the great weather, finding my sea legs, catching fish – but chief among them all was standing side by side with my best friend and love of my life.
With my face in the wind, I stood at the rail, watching the boat cut through the water, eager to soak up every last bit of the view, arching my neck to admire the underside of the Annapolis Bay Bridge as we cruised far below its lacy steel-work.
We drove home, tired yet happy and refreshed, ready to plan our next adventure.