Not...Burton on the Bay
Vol. 9, No. 32
August 9-15, 2001
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Flummoxed Fishermen Unite
Help me collect tales of fishing flops on Chesapeake Bay
by Bill Lambrecht

Philip Wylie, where are you when you’re needed?

I thought of Wylie, a mid-20th century writer, while returning the other day from another star-crossed fishing trip.

Capt. Rick Blackwell had triggered the outing by telling me from his truck, “We got our fish by 9:15 this morning.” Capt. Rick is the operator of Hexbuster, a Deale charterboat that took its name from our extreme efforts a few years back to drive off my bad luck.

Hearing his words, I headed for the slip, oblivious to the breeze that had started to swirl. By the time I was trolling, the wind had stiffened and, contrary to any forecast from the newspaper or the VHF, begun to howl out of the northeast.

Rather than banging hopelessly through the swells and tasting salty foam dripping from my cap, I decided to switch to a little bottom-fishing. This time of year, is there any way not to load up on spot and croaker for a fine meal?

Apparently. It became clear after a half-hour of crawling around on the deck to dangle 50-cent bloodworms and squid - that looked just like the calamari we’d ordered for an appetizer the night before - that the fish were too shook up to cooperate.

Bouncing home with a single croaker that the cats would eat, I glanced down and pondered another question: Why is it that every time I fish with bloodworms, I’m wearing white shorts?

Tall Tales
A few days before, I’d received a marvelous book as a birthday gift: The Greatest Fishing Stories Ever Told (Lyons Press, $24.95; edited by Lamar Underwood).

I have a shelf of these books, fishing tales over the centuries by the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Thomas McGuane and Zane Gray. There’s an angler’s guide from 1912 compiled by Field and Stream with directions on “how, when and where to fish.”

I own a beautiful copy of Izaak Walton’s The Complete Angler, written in the 1600s. I used to read the Bible just for its fishing stories. (“Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, saw two brothers, Peter and Andrew, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishers.” Matthew 4:18.)

I have poems about fishing by Homer that date back to 800bc. One of them goes:

The silent fisher casts the insidious food.
With fraudful care he awaits the finny prize
And suddenly lifts it quivering to the skies.

Unfortunately, what I usually lift to the skies are the fishing books, not the fish. And while I love my collection, I have a problem with the literature of fishing.

Almost always, the stories are heroic tales of conquest, of landing the biggest fish anybody has seen to date. In The Greatest Fishing Stories Ever Told, deep-sea fishermen haul up creatures as big as their boats. Fly-fishermen in the shallows of the Florida Keys trick bonefish that behave like jet-fueled dragsters when hooked.

Writers recall epic struggles with 75-pound salmon leaping like dolphins from cold rivers in the Northwest. Grandfather bass as big as Duroc hogs emerge from beneath logs to chomp the plugs they’ve resisted for years.

Inevitably, they are stories of fishermen securing peace on the water, of men (and a few women) rounding off the jagged edges of their lives by hunting, and always finding, fish.

Then there’s Philip Wylie.

The Hard Luck Trophy
Some day, I hope to collect tales of fishing flops on Chesapeake Bay. There’s the story, for instance, of the greedy fools a few years back who caught so many bluefish that they sank their boat.

I found similar tales in my birthday book in a story by Philip Wylie, a man after my own heart. The story is called “Listen to This Tale of Woe.”

As a correspondent for Saturday Evening Post starting in the 1930s, Wylie traveled the world seeking adventure. But unlike the others, he was honest in relating that fishing doesn’t always yield peace on Earth and world records. He even had problems of his own.

Once, he fished in the Caribbean for giant blue marlin for a solid week with nary a bite. With the trip nearly at its end, he tightened the drag and loosened his grip on the rod to fool around with a barracuda trailing the boat.

Suddenly, his deep-sea reel was flying through the air with such force that it loosened 12 screws when it crashed into the boat’s mahogany transom. At that moment, a huge, deeply hooked blue marlin leaped from the water just behind the boat - before it disappeared forever, along with Wylie’s rod and reel.

Wylie’s misfortunes led to an award - the Philip Wylie Hard Luck Trophy - handed out each year in a Miami fishing tournament.

One winner was flyfishing in reef-protected shallows, loading a sack that he’d tied to his waist with snappers and jack for the contest. Suddenly, the fisherman was yanked backward by, it turns out, a huge shark that had clamped its toothy, fearsome head around the sack.

The flyfisherman survived, as did the luckless guy who fell overboard, almost landing on top of the 500-pound tuna he was battling, a rare specimen that likely would have won the tuna tourney he’d entered.

Another time, a hungry fisherman served his first-place pompano for dinner before it could be properly weighed.

It gets better. A fellow fishing from a bridge drew a crowd while fighting a monster he never would see. That’s because the bridge turned out to be a drawbridge, and when the span started to raise skyward, his line was sawed off on a light pole.

Then there’s my favorite: The fisherman casting flies along a railroad track. With his back cast, he accidentally hooked an uncommonly large tarpon that rose to his fly from the channel behind him, on the other side of the tracks.

But before he could land the leaping tarpon- and possibly win the tournament - a freight train barreled by and sliced his line.

That bout of hard luck makes me happy there are no trains in Chesapeake Bay. But from now on, I intend to be careful trolling in the shipping channel.

Send your Hard Luck fish stories to the Flummoxed Fisherman at Bay Weekly, P.O. Box 358, Deale, Md., 410/867-0304, Fax 410/867-0307,

Bill Burton is recuperating from surgery to repair tears in his rotator cuff. He will return when his writing arm is unstrapped.

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly