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Burton on the Bay
by Bill Burton

Catching Diamond Jim

A true history of a rockfish with a diamond in its mouth

It was good luck, but Bill Simmons didn't cast an old shoe, nor did he catch an old boot. What he did catch that day in 1957 was a diamond not in the rough.

Bill Simmons caught Diamond Jim and instantly became a celebrity, the envy of all fishermen everywhere.

Diamond Jim, as I recall, was worth $10,000 - and in 1957 that was a bundle of moola. By today's standards and accounting for inflation, it would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $50,000.

All fishermen were talking about Diamond Jim, but it was Bill Simmons who caught it - and on a day when he wasn't supposed to be fishing.

He was supposed to be out job hunting. Instead, he went fishing with an uncle, as I recall, and he made a catch that was worth well more than a year's pay at the time. Diamond Jim was a rockfish, and not just any old rockfish. It was bigger than average, but more important, in its jaw was a diamond stub.

On that diamond was a coded message. And in the safe of a Baltimore jeweler was the same mix of numbers and letters. When it was determined that the code on the diamond in Diamond Jim's jaw matched that of the slip of paper in the jeweler's safe, Bill Simmons of Baltimore didn't have to go job hunting for some time.

Nor did he. He went fishing time and again.

How Jim Got His Diamond
Back then, big money hadn't come to the sport of fishing; the biggest thing going in Maryland was the annual Chesapeake Bay Fishing Fair, a tournament that doled out merchandise and gift certificates for the biggest fish of varying species. The fishing fair was designed as a promotion to get people excited about wetting hooks in the Bay. It ran for many years and pretty much lived up to its purpose.

Though I hadn't come to Baltimore at the time to take over as outdoor editor of The Evening Sun, I can picture the birth of the Diamond Jim concept. It goes like this:

A bunch of advertising whizzes were in their Baltimore offices kicking around ideas for a promotion to get attention for their client, American Brewery, which was headquartered in an historic hops facility on Gay Street in the big city.

That would be sometime in the winter of 1956, and one of those around the desk suggested Let's put a marked rockfish in the Chesapeake worth a lot of money. Everybody will be talking about it; chances are it won't be caught, so American will get both a free ride and a lot of publicity.

At the time, there were three big breweries mixing suds in gigantic mash kettles in Baltimore: Gunthers; National Brewing Co. with its National Bohemian; and American Brewery, which brewed both American Beer and Arrow. It was neck and neck competition back before National made its big move, which subsequently drowned the other two in red ink.

I was managing editor of a small paper in Nebraska when Diamond Jim was released amidst much fanfare in the Chesapeake. But as I was preparing to head east to write for The Evening Sun, I was sent copies of the columns of my predecessor Tom McNally (headed to the Chicago Tribune) so I would have some background on the outdoor beat hereabouts and be ready to start writing on my arrival Aug. 26, 1956.

I recall my anticipation upon reading of Diamond Jim in one of McNally's columns. I was going to Chesapeake Bay Country to write about fishing and hunting - and with a fish worth a bundle of money waiting to be caught. Why, I might fish hard myself and catch the striper that could come close to doubling my wages at the Sunpapers. Ah, daydreams.

He Bit on an Eel
No one caught Diamond Jim that first year; once the contest wrapped up in late summer, Diamond Jim's worth dropped to $1,000, still a nice bonus at the time. Buoyed by the publicity, American Brewery released another Diamond Jim the next year, again amidst much hoopla. Again Izaak Waltons dreamed of making the big catch.

Bill Simmons was out of work that summer. He had been laid off at Bethlehem Steel, and as his wife left for work that morning he promised her he'd go fishing for a job. Instead he went fishing at the Bay Bridge. Drifting live eel baits was his technique. Diamond Jim II took the bait.

Not only Simmons was excited. So were the fellows in the ad agency, the brewery and the angler's relative - whose name I've long forgotten - who expected to get half the winnings. So, too, were many other fishermen who had found that a tagged fish, though among millions of others, could be caught. They might have a chance for Diamond Jim III.

There was a Diamond Jim III, but it eluded hooks. Then National Boh came up with a skipjack named Chesterpeake, with popular Frank Hennessy touring the Bay aboard it, to gain the spotlight and suds sales. So there were to be no more Diamond Jims swimming in the Bay.

Diamond Jim brought Simmons a new Plymouth, among other things purchased via his winnings. On the down side, he also was threatened with a lawsuit pursued by the relative who argued that half the prize money was his because tradition has it that when fishing, everyone aboard shares evenly the bounty of the catch.

As I recall, the court case fizzled; so did the brewery's plans to send the catcher of Diamond Jim on the road to make appearances as the man who caught the fabled fish. But, to old-timers, Diamond Jim remains a legend. He was the one fish worth more than a year at the workplace.

Bring Back Diamond Jim
Times have changed. Today, Maryland's financially pressed Department of Natural Resources needs to catch a fish worth a small fortune, but we know that's not in the cards. So among other curtailments the department has cut back appreciably on its season-long tournament; No more arm patches for those who catch a citation fish, no more plaques for the biggest fish of the year in various categories; no more this or that. The promotion of Maryland fishing is taking a big hit.

As DNR struggles to get by, methinks it might revive a legend: Bring Diamond Jim back to spur interest in fishing the Chesapeake. Make it worth, say, a million bucks. Fishermen would come from afar in hopes of hitting the piscatorial lottery. License sales would get a hefty boost; businesses and people catering to the Bay would do likewise. Excitement would reign.
NR wouldn't have to worry about a million-dollar catch to sink it more in debt. Lloyds of London just insured a tagged million-dollar carp for $11,000; certainly it would underwrite a rockfish for $35,000 or so. And surely there should be a sponsor willing to pick up the tab for a promotion with such potential, in return for the fish bearing the sponsor's name.

It's a win-win proposition. Everybody would be talking about it; more fishermen would be fishing for it; more Bay Country cash registers would ring, everybody would be smiling: DNR, the sponsor, Bay businesses, Bay watchers, fishermen, and certainly the angler who might make the million-dollar catch.

Enough said. it might be premature, but I've got to sharpen some hooks.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.