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The Oracle of Mill Creek

Leo James knows better than most what’s swimming down there

“We’re going to have a good many fish for the trophy season this year,” says fishing sage Leo James. “And the regular season should be just as good.”

In gauging the chances of a successful fishing season, I have learned to distrust the forecasting of state and conservation officials as fraught with politics and self-interest. Worse, my own guesses have proven wrong so often that I’ve learned to stop making them. There has been, however, one source I rely on year after year.
    I’ve come to think of this fellow with his thick mane of white hair as the Oracle of Mill Creek.
    Leo James has again and again captured the essence of the unfolding seasons more accurately than I thought possible. Living on the same Mill Creek waterfront property that his family has held over the last 100 years or so, this mostly retired waterman still rises at 3am this time of year to set nets for fresh bait. He fishes, tends to his marina and shares his knowledge of the Chesapeake with anyone who doesn’t irritate him. Luckily, I sometimes fit that qualification.
    “More rockfish than I’ve seen on the Bay in a lot of years,” was his first take this year. “The fish were so thick out there in February and March that they ran all of the alewife up into the creeks. Then more rock showed up this month, lots of big ones, too.”
    His prediction: “We’re going to have a good many fish for the trophy season this year, even better than last. And the regular season should be just as good.”
    Being on the waters of the Bay almost every day over the last 70 years has given James a prescience that eclipses the attempts of many highly educated scientists. The strenuous life he’s led has also left its mark on him. To say he’s fit is an understatement.
    The daily schedule as he moves about on the water and in his marina would put most of his age group (myself included) in the hospital.
    “But I can’t work into the night then be back on the water by 3am any more,” he confessed recently. “Guess my years are catching up with me.”
    In our conversation, he also reminisced to back in the day when 50- and 60-pound rockfish chasing fleeing alewife would slam into his bait nets.
    “They’d rock the whole boat. You almost couldn’t stand up some days. A rock tail two feet across would come up out of the water so it took your breath away. I remember one fish so big that it just tore through the whole net, never even slowed down. On one or two days, we had to quit setting. The fish just ran us right off the water.”
    Hyperbole? I’m not so sure. I’ve read and heard similar stories and caught glimpses of too many really big fish moving through Bay waters to discount any of the Oracle’s recollections.
    Part of the beauty and mystery of the Chesapeake is that you never really know what’s beneath. Of course, Leo James has a pretty good idea.