Burton on the Bay
By Bill Burton
The Last American Independents
The big squeeze is on for those who work the land and water
I guess we’re in the same boat.
Capt. Andy Scheible, Sr.
It was about a half century ago when I heard those words from one of the best fishermen who ever wet a hook on the Chesapeake. He was also one of my best friends.
That day his boat was anchored off the old American Mariner wreck off the mouth of the Potomac. Our hooks were in small bluefish we were using as bait for cobia, a little-known fish among Bay regulars north of St. Mary’s County.
I was still a freshman among Chesapeake fishermen, having arrived here a year earlier. Andy was a weather-beaten former D.C. cop who took up oystering and sports fishing at his Scheible’s Fishing Center at Smith Creek in the lower Potomac. He had called to invite me to go fishing.
He needed some publicity, and what better place to go than the Evening Sun, then Maryland’s biggest newspaper, where I wrote a daily outdoor column.
At that time no Maryland fishermen could keep a rockfish of more than 15 pounds. For anglers of the Bay who rated big above plenty, that left few options: black drum, red drum (channel bass) and cobia. Nothing else grew bigger than 15 pounds save for stripers, which weren’t legal an ounce over that mark.
In many ways, the Maryland charterboat scene was both like and different than today’s. Anyone could anoint himself (heaven forbid there’d be a woman skipper back then) a charterboat captain and start carrying fishermen for hire. Charters were $40 a day. Most fishermen didn’t own boats suitable for open-Bay angling, though more than a few fishing centers were also boat liveries, where their patrons could rent rowboats for bottom fishing.
Rowboat rentals for perch, spot, hardheads and other smaller fishes went the way of the dodo bird as better times came and many fishermen were able to buy their own boats.
They could go when they wanted and fish the way they wanted. Rockfish weren’t (still aren’t) that difficult to catch once they learned the basics in wire-line trolling. Chumming was just coming on the scene, and many skippers weren’t yet convinced of its potential. Jigging, live lining and plug casting for stripers had yet to be introduced to the Land of Pleasant Living.
With practically no regulations, anyone with a boat could hang a shingle announcing himself a charterboat captain. Many did. Some, such as Andy, were good fishermen. Others were in it for a fast buck. Anglers were at the mercy of the draw; many had no way of knowing other than word of mouth who was legitimate and who wasn’t. And many got stung.
Needless to say, running a charterboat operation was a highly competitive business. Not infrequently, the bush leaguers would cut prices to get a party. Marine fuel was less than 40 cents a gallon, wages probably averaged 15 bucks a day, and a guy could clear that after paying his fuel bill that ran about $15 for a day of trolling. And there was also the usual tip of $5 to $10.
While we waited for a cobia to pick up a bluefish, Andy and I swapped stories. He talked about the uncertainties of charterboat fishing. I spoke about life on my widowed grandmother’s New England farm and the uncertainties of making a go of it. With both of our evaluations, everything depended on weather, the market and so many other unpredictables such as when fish didn’t bite or crows ravaged corn seeded for a much-needed crop.
Legitimate charterboat operators and farmers are American independents. Many don’t make much money. Farmers have, among many other things, the mortgage to pay every month; skippers have boat payments among other bills. They can’t let go, and they don’t want to. The charterboater looks upon the water as the place to be, a way of life. The farmer looks upon the land as a place to be and toil. It’s in their blood.
You might say both are hooked.
Andy had a different way of saying it: “I guess we’re both in the same boat.” I was about to remind him that farmers had to buy their own land to till, while fishermen took their crops from public waters and that while both had to pay for the machinery for the harvest, the farmer had to lease or buy the field from which the crop came.
But before I was able to come back with my rejoinder, a cobia of about 40 pounds picked up my bluefish bait, and the battle was on. Somehow or other, we never got to finish our debate on farming and fishing though Andy and I fished many, many trips thereafter until he was done in by a stroke years ago. He lived hard and worked hard, and the many winters of hand-tonging oysters did him in.
I was thinking about that the other day when still another charterboat skipper confided in me that he was seriously thinking about giving up fishing.
“Much as I like it, I have to pay bills and eat, and there’s no money in it,” he said.
Basically, the same words that came from my grandmother as she was getting old. But farming was her life, so she stayed farming though cutting back. She couldn’t give up the soil.
Yes, Capt. Andy Scheible was right. In these days, farmers and charter skippers are in the same boat, a boat under torpedo attack by a submarine named the USS Development.
I know of two big charterboat operations now quietly on the market, both reputable and long-time operations and both sitting on land eyed by developers. There are also three of the Bay’s best skippers struggling to make a living while their homes and docks sit on property that could bring them enough to retire comfortably.
They’re like the farmers laboring to make ends meet while real estate developers beat on their doors offering outlandish prices for their spread. Sadly, there appears to be no end to the trend.
The farmer doesn’t want to see the land converted into a Happy Acres housing development. The fisherman cringes at the thought of waterfront condominiums on the shore adjacent to his dockage. But the pressure is on and it increasingly jeopardizes independent ways of life.