Volume 12, Issue 20 ~ May 13-19, 2004
Current Issue
Cicada Invasion
Dock of the Bay
Letters to the Editor
Bay Reflections
Not Just for Kids
Burton on the Bay
Chesapeake Outdoors
Earth Talk
Sky Watch
8 Days a Week
Music Notes
Curtain Call
Movie Times
Bay Weekly in Your Mailbox
Print Advertising Rates
Distribution Spots
Behind Bay Weekly
Contact Us

Powered by

Search bayweekly.com
Search WWW

Burton on the Bay
by Bill Burton

Lighthouses are Fishermen’s Friends

Anythin’ for a quiet life, as the man said when he took the sitivation at the lighthouse.
—Charles Dickens (1812-1870): Pickwick Papers

Lighthouses can be lonely places, so what better location for one who seeks a quiet life? Any rendition of the traditional beacons of yore bring to mind solitude, or perhaps loneliness and boredom.

We still have a fair number of lighthouses in Chesapeake Bay, though some have been transplanted shoreside in museums or other places of public access. Others, no longer in use, are falling into various states of neglect.

Few are as functional as they once were, having been replaced for the use of mariners by steel towers or markers where they once stood — or adjacent to where they still stand awaiting a determination of their future. May they all be saved, for each and every one of them has rich stories to tell. They are a symbol of a past when they played significant roles in guiding mariners safely to and from port.

In a way, unique though each is — and picturesque — name me a lighthouse not situated shoreside that does not bring to the observer’s mind this melancholic word: Desolate. In a way, that is much of the charm, the intrigue and fascination of these structures from which shone the beacons that saved vessels of all sizes from running aground or worse.

I share in this nostalgia — yes, even enchantment — associated with lighthouses. Yet the interest therein goes beyond their quaint configurations, the storms they have endured, the boats and crews they might have saved and the loneliness of their keepers. It goes even past their original purpose as landmarks for travelers on the brine in either fair or foul weather.

Beacons for Catching
I am a fisherman. Have been since age four, as I felt the switch when my mother surprised my sister Ruth and me after we slipped away from our house to fish in Art Ide’s pond. That’s all we caught, a few lashes to our legs by a mother bent on teaching us a lesson. Yet she failed to dampen my interest in wetting a line for any fish that will bite something on any hook.

In the years that followed, fishing became my vocation as well as my avocation. I like to think I have learned much about the ways of hoodwinking a creature with fins to take a bait and the wheres to find that fish.

Shane Cavanaugh Jr. of Riviera Beach at Thomas Point Light where he had just caught a 33-inch trophy rockfish.
And that brings us back to where we started: lighthouses. As an Izaak Walton, I have learned that those who built lighthouses did so to warn mariners of reefs, channel edges, boulders, shoals, anything capable of doing in a vessel. Such are the places, fish thrive.

Whether they be big striped bass or small Norfolk spot, fish look for what fishermen call structure: drop-offs and irregular bottom. Thereabouts, tidal rips and other water movement bring meals to fish. Even the foundation of a lighthouse not infrequently serves that purpose. Lighthouses are the friend of a fisherman, a beacon for catching.

In the past several years, 129-year-old Thomas Point Light, the last screw pile-style lighthouse in the nation still shining from its original location, has been one of the most productive sites for catching huge rockfish in the trophy season as well as much of the rest of they year. It’s also been a favored location for bluefish, sea trout, white perch and spot.

Boatmen without electronics can easily find those waters, thanks to the distinctive configuration of this picturesque facility. Thus more than a few anglers hail the news that, thanks to an agreement with the National Park Service, good old Thomas Point will remain where and what she is, a beacon for finding fish. She will become a tourist attraction, host probably 5,000 visitors a year. Yet she will be visited by that number several-fold or more in boats rigged to catch fish.

A Fishing First for Thomas Point
Nearly 40 years ago, Thomas Point Light, then manned by Coast Guardsmen, played a significant role in the origin of a highly regarded technique in Chesapeake fishing: Plug casting for breaking fish. A Massachusetts fisherman, Bob Pond, devised a plug to catch rockfish and blues on the surface where anglers could see the fish strike, then fight atop the water. It’s the most exciting of all angling techniques.

New England fishermen had long used surface plugs, but they were unheard of in Chesapeake Bay. That Pond was determined to change. He asked Don Carpenter, then an outdoor writer for the Washington Daily News (and later the Annapolis Capital), and me — then of the Sun papers — to take him to a likely fish-catching spot on the Bay to showcase the effectiveness of his lure. We chose Thomas Point. And boy, did we catch fish.

The Coast Guardsmen tending the light as they had done since it was vacated by a lighthouse keeper watched fascinated. This was a method they could use from the stone pile that supports the light, and they called to us for samples. Soon, they were catching fish. Their word-of-mouth testimony shouted to fishermen close to the light probably did more to embellish the popularity of surface fishing for rockfish and blues than all the columns Don and I ever wrote about the sport.

So to me, the continued presence of Thomas Point Light where she stood, and still stands, is a historical marker reminding passersby of the introduction of light tackle angling for rockfish in the Chesapeake, in which I played only a minor role. It was the structure that attracted the fish.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.
Last updated May 13, 2004 @ 1:30am.