Rockfish are striped bass to everyone not around the Chesapeake Bay. We call them Rockfish because they like to nestle in the nooks and crannies of reefs and ledges. Rockfish were once caught weighing 30 to 50 pounds or more, but those fishing days are long gone. Mid-century pollution and commercial over fishing almost killed off Rockfish, oysters and blue crabs. However, us humans, despite our destructive tendencies, responded to the crisis by establishing and enforcing protective regulations against farm and lawn fertilizer runoff , stopping industrial waste dumping and instituting restoration and environment management programs. These are funded by the surrounding watershed states and federal government. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and other local organizations crusaded to Save the Bay for the last 50 years.
That’s why my present to John to celebrate his 68th birthday was even possible. The rules are simple — recreational fishermen are allowed to catch and keep two Rockfish of at least 20 inches in length per day. All others must be thrown back. All you have to do is find the fish! That’s the real catch.
Our bleary eyed fishing party arrived in near darkness, then headed out just after 6:00 AM on the charter boat Patent Pending under the command of Captain John Whitman and his mate Kern. The water was calm and the air still as the sun broke over the horizon and we motored out of the harbor channel.
“A perfect day for fishing,” Captain John noted, in a deep-throated song of a voice, perfectly matching his handsome Hemingway bearded face. After 45 minutes, we arrived and then quickly left a fishing spot inside and north of the Bloody Point Lighthouse marking the entrance to Eastern Bay. “No fish here,” he declared and headed south for another 45 minutes to the entrance to the Choptank River. We approached a gaggle of boats floating at anchor, but once again, Captain John studied what they were fishing for and declared the spot unsuitable, this time because “Those boats are catching bait, not Rockfish.”
We motored for another 20 minutes. I stood in the aft, worried that I had paid for us not to fish. “We’ll play it by ear,” Captain John reassured me after I asked if we would ever find fish.
At the third spot, he looked through his glasses watching boats at anchor to see if they were catching Rockfish, but once again moved on to another group 10 minutes farther south. The idea of more motoring was beyond my belief. Captain John was becoming my Wizard of Oz, the bearded ol’ man pulling the levers and making magic behind the screen (in our case, at the helm). I had no choice but to trust that he knew what he was doing, as I certainly did not.
“It’s time to fish,” Captain John announced authoritatively, gazing into his fish finder as if it were a magic orb looking with images of Auntie Em. It was telling him there was a fine kettle of Rockfish in waters around us. He dropped the hook as Kern swiftly baited our dangerously barbed hooks with live bait, small feisty Spot fish, a favorite delicacy of Rockfish. Six lines in the water with Spot was like shouting ‘Buffet’.
No sooner did we get our lines in the water than our Captain directed us to “get your lines out of the water”. Obediently, lines are jerked from the water and Captain John slowly and gently moved us to the outside of the pack of fishing boats. He must have been reading the tea leaves in his magic fishing orb because suddenly, he stood, smiled broadly and whooped in that mesmerizing voice of his, “They’re under the boat right now. Get those lines in the water.” We quickly obeyed again.
Fish were flying. Kern and Captain John scooping them up in the net as we reeled them in. Kern removed the hook, often with the Spot still flapping away on it, from the fish’s throat, quickly measured the Rockfish length and then either threw it back or popped it into the cooler before turning to the next line with a fish on it.
We were thrilled! Within 30 minutes we had caught dozens of fish and reached our catch limit of ‘keepers’. Laughing, we opened a beer as the Captain pulled the anchor and headed back across the Bay.
In the middle of the Bay we slowed to trawling speed, took our trophy pictures and then Kern filleted the fish, keeping the bloodied skeletons in a big plastic can, evidence for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to keep us honest, if they chance to meet us at the dock to measure our catch. The Captain served us a tasty brunch not lunch of grilled crab cakes, cornbread and fresh greens. We, the fishermen, revelled in the excitement of the hunt, praising our Captain for his tenacity to find us fish. I bowed to his magic orb.
I liken fishing to baseball. There are long periods of boredom spiked, if you are lucky, with moments of chaotic action. Fishermen understand this and look forward to it. Its the long periods of doing nothing, the boredom, that get me. I’d rather be sailing, but it was a great joy to see John, surrounded by friends, fully engrossed in every minute of the trip. He is a fisherman.