Burton on the Bay

Vol. 8, No. 46
Nov. 16-22, 2000
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Flummoxed Fisherman Strikes Again
By Bill Lambrecht

Before the election, hoping to calm my jangled nerves, I went fishing. For me, of course, fishing Chesapeake Bay can be an unnerving enterprise.

You may recall from previous "Flummoxed Fisherman" reports that my outings on the Chesapeake seldom go like those of master angler Bill Burton, whose observations normally fill this space. (Burton's visiting his Aunt Mimi in Vermont this week.)

On my trips, the fishermen don't always boat their limits by 9am. (Never have, actually.) Seldom is the boat redolent of fresh fish and rarely are cameras snapping pictures of folks hoisting big ones aboard.

As you may recall, I have related to you tales of fishless days, sudden storms and fishing jinxes laid on by Haitian voodoo priests. (As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up.)

There have been breakdowns, boat leaks, bucktails dug into the palms of hands and poles flying out of the boat like scud missiles when someone (wonder who?) set the drag too tight. Once (twice, actually), a fisherman ended up in the water.

As election campaign 2000 neared its end, I hoped that all of these sad events were behind me. So I headed out to the Chesapeake Bay for a few hours of fishing - alone, since friends find excuses when I suggest an afternoon on the Bay. ("Uh, my dog's got some ticks that I really need to get off.")
Finding 'em

My fish-locater has been broken for three years, and my depth finder is stuck on 997 feet. But hey, I know I can trust my instincts to find those fish. So after motoring out on the Bay, I sniffed the air, checked the tide and scanned the horizon. That's when I saw them: charterboats.

Near the mouth of the Choptank River, they were lined up like fellas at a breadline in Lafeyette Park. I'm not one to appear opportunistic, so I didn't just rush up to secure a spot. Instead, I threw in a line and trolled close to the charterboats, pretending that I hadn't really noticed their action.

They were chumming I could see. Smell, actually. As I drew close, I could see mates ladling out scoopsful of ground-up ripe alewives from plastic buckets. And I saw something that re-jangled the nerves that I was seeking to calm: guys yanking in fat rockfish, sometimes two at a time.

Where I grew up, back in Illinois, they placed a premium on staying cool, and I pride myself on remaining unruffled in trying times. But never have I succeeded in keeping calm when the fish are biting, really biting. In a school of breaking fish, when the birds are diving and the fish are rolling, the first thing I usually do is kick over my beer.

Then, after unhooking my lure from the seat cushion, I cast it into the waiting mouth of - a seagull.

Once, while I was scooting leaves around the yard, my neighbor, the well-known Captain Rick, yelled from his truck that there were "acres and acres of fish breaking just out front." I nodded my head and stayed totally cool. Then I raced down to my slip and roared out to the Bay. For once, he was telling the truth. In no time, I was in roiling water in the midst of a feeding frenzy, on one of those fishing trips to remember. I ran to the cabin to get started, my heart jumping out of my shirt. That's when I realized I'd left my fishing rods in the truck.

Chum(p) Line

On election eve, I had my poles on the boat, albeit no chum. Nonetheless, I coasted into the line of boats, turned off the motor and ran up to the bow to throw out the anchor. One of the charterboat captains greeted me.

"SOB is trying to get in our chum line," I heard him say.

I kicked over my coffee, banged around the boat and prepared to haul up a couple of those rockfish.

The only bait I had with me were the bucktails, hoses and all the junk in my tackle box. But as the old saying goes, when fish are biting, they'll hit anything. I may not know chum, but I know lunch. In my cooler was a half-pound of steamed shrimp, a fat bag of taco chips and a fresh jar of salsa.

If rockfish eat crabs, I thought, why not shrimp? So I put a couple on hooks, dropped them overboard and waited. And waited.

When I was a kid and the fish wouldn't bite, my father would say, "You're not holding your mouth right." I thought about his words and the election.

It occurred to me that you could never get a hook in the tiny mouth of George W. Bush or any of that purse-lipped, hard-eyed bunch of Texans around him. I thought about Bush's father, the former president, and the time up in Kennebunkport, Maine, when I was covering him in my days as a White House correspondent.

Old Man Bush, a fishing fool if ever there was one, hooked himself in the ear one morning while chasing bluefish in his boat. I wrote something about "President Bush getting his ear pierced today." But from then on, I knew he was a man after my own heart.

The Catch

I began wondering if Maryland had lifted the two-fish-per-angler limit after watching the boats around me reel in what seemed like hundreds of stripers. On my boat, my hypothesis about rockfish eating shrimp wasn't holding up.

Clearly, it was my lack of pulverized, stinking chum. I decided that I would need to polish my chum skills and that I would begin by giving my spouse, the editor of this paper, a chum-grinder for an anniversary present. It would be a useful gift, though not quite as romantic as the Shop-Vac she unwrapped last year.

A fisherman needs to be resourceful, I decided, so I dumped half a bag of taco chips overboard. They floated, unlike chum, which brought to the back of my boat every seagull and tern for approximately 10 miles, along with the attention of the fishermen on all the charterboats.

I didn't disappoint. The rod on starboard jerked downward with such ferocity that I thought it would snap. After falling out of my chair and spilling salsa, I grabbed the rod and yanked back. It felt like I had snagged a submarine.

All eyes were on me now, and I tried to look cool despite the blood-red salsa dripping off my pants. Finally, my fish emerged from the depths. When I lifted it home, everyone saw what I had: a bug-eyed, warty toadfish.

It says in the book Fishes of the Southeastern United States that the oyster toadfish, or Opsanus tau as Linnaeus named it 234 years ago, grows to a maximum of 15 inches. But the mighty fella that I landed had to be two feet long and fat as a young Hampshire hog.

My prodigious catch delighted onlookers, judging by the laughter scooting across the water. I had read recently that NASA had sent the peculiar toadfish into space for experimental reasons. But I believe they just wanted to get rid of a few.

Using the cellophane chip bag, I unhooked the aquatic beast, which was belching like a foghorn, and flung it back where it came from. "Heck of a fish," I heard someone say.

I'd had enough. It was time to get back to land, back to the election. The engine started, always a good sign, and I turned to the west. That's when I heard the noise, Ka-thunk, and felt the boat jerk. What was it?

Did I leave a line in the water? Maybe I'd finally hooked the huge rockfish I was after and I'd get the last laugh.

Nope. I'd forgotten to pull up the anchor.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly