Volume 14, Issue 52 ~ December 28 - January 3, 2006

Burton on the Bay

By Bill Burton

A Look Back at the Best of ’06

Bill Burton’s far-ranging commentaries have been a part of Bay Weekly for more than 650 issues, since 1993, earning prizes for Bay Weekly year after year in the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association’s annaul competiton.

For Burton, we get to enter two columns: one sporting and one general.

To help us pick Burton’s best pair for 2006, email the name and dates of your favorites, one of each sort, by Thursday, January 11 to [email protected]

We’ve narrowed the field down to our favorite five, two for sport and three for general. If you want more choices, browse Bill Burton issue by issue for 2006 in our online archive at www.bayweekly.com.


Dreams Are What Fishermen Are Made Of

At this time of year, rockfish, the king of the hill in our Chesapeake, are moving in.

–March 9

Spring officially comes March 20, but these delightful fish of silver with long stripes comprised of a series of black scales don’t go by the calendar. God gave them their own way of knowing when a young man’s (and woman’s) fancy should turn to love. Now they’re staging for the spawning run in tributaries of the Chesapeake, where 80 percent or more of the East Coast’s striper hatch takes place.

Meanwhile, for this Izaak Walton and countless others, comes building anticipation. The fish are coming, surely once again in goodly numbers, and we will be ready with hooks to catch some. Maybe somewhere out there will be a true snollygaster, possibly even a record. And maybe I (or you) will be lucky. Hopes and dreams are what fishermen are made of.

Reefs Are Where the Action Is

In the game of marine dominos, as a silverside you’d be the domino with two blanks on the playing side.

–June 22

If you think living in Baltimore, Miami, Chicago, New York or Los Angeles can be hazardous, for a few days try being a Chesapeake silverside, which is too close to the bottom of the Chesapeake’s food chain for even a moment of carefree existence.

From Norfolk spot and perch of ounces to rockfish of 50 pounds or more, you’d highlight the menu. The smaller the fish, the more predatory species on the hunt for it. Other than fishers with hooks and nets, the big rockfish need only to worry about the porpoises that enter the Bay in springtime for a brief stay as far north as the Hooper Island complex, or the occasional shark that might also stray from the ocean, sometimes even north of the Bay Bridge.

Ah, but if you were a little silverside of a few inches, you’d have so much to hide from: practically any fish bigger than you, plus loons, ospreys, cormorants, gannets, sea gulls and such, as well as fishermen with cast nets seeking bait. Sanctuary would indeed be difficult to find.

Chasing the Deer

How hunters look at Maryland’s resurgent ruminant

—December 7

With most hunters, antlers are the prize. Seldom do you hear a hunter say only I got a fine buck. No, it’s I got a fine four-, six-, eight- (you fill in the number) point buck. Unless it is exceptionally big, you seldom hear the weight of the deer.

Bragging rights are based on points. Four points or less is a deer; six points signifies a good deer, eight to 10 points is a fine deer, anything above that — if the rack is high, wide and one side fairly matches the other — is an awesome deer.

That’s when the measuring tape comes out to determine whether the rack might qualify for the state or world record book.

Serious hunters on the trophy trail can tell you the nickname of the most awesome bucks ever taken (Hole in the Horn, Old Mossy Horn and such), the hunter’s name, antler points, score of the rack, where and when it was bagged. They’re aiming to be among the elite hundred or so listed when the next record book comes out.


They Didn’t Put Me Down Yet

Burton’s back, writing and rolling — in his wheelchair

–June 1

Here I am, wheelchair bound for some weeks to come, paying back for more than ignoring a healthy lifestyle in years long past. If you’re wondering why this publication has recently been running some of my past columns, truth is a phony rockfish did me in.

With a little help from the cell phone market, which in the past I have lambasted in this space — especially the use of the cellular gadgets while driving — here I am something akin to Barbaro, who’s hobbling around these days after that bad misstep at Pimlico’s Preakness Stakes.

They didn’t put Barbaro down as often is done with horses, and neither did they put me down — though there were some moments when I’d have considered the bus ride if offered. Unlike Barbaro, I didn’t have the promise that survival would mean spending my remaining carefree days enjoying hand-fed carrots and apples — not to mention servicing mares at a posh horse factory.

A Sailor’s Revenge

I could be in front of all those officers with a full beard — and there wasn’t a damned thing they could do about it.

–July 6

On the giving end, paybacks can indeed be satisfying.

Officers deprived me of joining in the celebration of three most noteworthy occasions in my young life as the war was winding down. I spent V-E Day pretty much alone as my comrades enjoyed the festivities in the streets marking the end of the war in Europe because I failed to salute an ensign. He had me confined to barracks for three days, the first of which fell on the big day.

I missed my high school graduation at Arlington (Vermont) High School because I was in sickbay. A captain denied me a three-day pass to attend, though I really wasn’t sick, just undergoing some fitness tests. His reason; he feared I’d be drinking.

I wasn’t among those celebrating V-J Day, the biggest occasion yet in my 80 years. Early that day, I had seen reconnaissance photos of where my underwater demolition unit was to land in the planned invasion of Japan. We prematurely raised a few cups, which irked a young Marine officer.

Three days detention — while every other sailor and Marine on base was out reaping the affection of the adoring citizenry.

So when I got an invitation from the president of the Naval War College, Newport, R.I., to be guest speaker at the formal retirement ceremonies of a decorated captain who nearly 50 years ago I taught to fish and hunt, I chomped at the bit.

Here was my chance. I could talk on and on, make them wait for chow. Officers couldn’t be discourteous and leave. What a turnabout from 60 years past.

Instead, as I looked into the audience and saw the faces old and new of officers from top to bottom, all Marines and Navy men, I wanted to salute them, one and all.

My paybacks, I realized, were in anticipation of the power I briefly held, but didn’t implement— beyond flashing an old face covered with whiskers.

The Roads I’ve Taken

Reflecting on 50 Years in Maryland

–August 26

In life, there are many roads, also many divergences, and one never knows where they might lead. We’re mere mortals who can only ponder what might have been had we taken that other road.

This I think of as I write: August 26 is Saturday, and on that date 50 years ago, I arrived in Baltimore to take over as outdoor editor of the Baltimore Sunpapers.

It was 1956, and in those good old days of journalism the number 30 with a dash in front and another in back signified the end of a story. When an editor got to the –30–, it was a given that no more of that piece was to come. Finis.

Though I was 30, the occasion certainly was not the end, but nearer the beginning of my association with the calling I prefer to call reporting. Journalism is an uppity word; reporting is what journalism is all about.

There were many roads diverging in the woods before I finally arrived here. The roads I traveled were not infrequently the less traveled, and Robert Frost was right. As I look back, they have made the difference.

As a kid in the Great Depression, I learned that any job that would feed, clothe and house you was something to grab and hold. There weren’t many around, especially in New England villages and textile mills. For anything better, you had only hopes of being in the right place at the right time.

I must have had a rabbit’s foot in my front pocket and a horseshoe in the hind pocket. My grades certainly didn’t qualify me for much; I was so close to the bottom that I prized the occasional C on my report card.

But the most invigorating aspect of life is all those roads ahead. Choose enough right ones, and you might end up not necessarily rich and powerful but satisfied. There can always be a road ahead to better things.

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