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Voices of the Chesapeake

Michael Buckley, David Harp and Lenny Rudow have created an encyclopedia of the Bay

We had seaweed beds so thick that they were a problem for navigation, and we had loads of crabs. We didn’t bother with hard crabs. If we went crabbing it was assumed you were soft crabbing. If you caught some hard crabs, and you wanted some hard crabs later, you’d have them before you’d have a soft-crab supper.

–Environmental activist John Flood

in Michael Buckley’s new book Voices of the Chesapeake Bay.

When I first arrived in Maryland 51 years ago, I saw and sometimes cursed the mats of aquatic vegetation that clogged the prop of my outboard motor when I eased close to shore to cast surface plugs for bass. That was a long time ago; ecology and environment weren’t yet household words. Conservation was the byword. It covered just about all quality of human, fish and wildlife issues of the time. If someone was said to be a greenie, it meant he was seasick.

We took Bay grasses for granted; they had always been there, always would be there. The wild celery fattened the canvasbacks, small fish, crabs; other small marine life used the vegetation as a sanctuary, a place to hide from larger predators. We could catch pickerel, bass, rockfish and perch, sometimes in lumps of grass, but gawd how it fouled the artificial baits we cast and the props on our boats. When fishing a place like the Susquehanna Flats, we’d spend half our time weeding grass from fishing line, rigs, baits and props.

We realized grass was important as fish habitat, but we wouldn’t learn what else it was good for for another couple of decades, when we started to lose it big time. I appreciate the words of John Flood because it has been so long since fish and crab habitat was so good that, sometimes, I wonder if I’m imagining things when I think back to the days when Bay tributaries were lush ’n’ flush.

Capturing the Voices of the Chesapeake

Michael Buckley is young. He can’t recall much about the hey days of shad roe, all the crabs and oysters, soft clams galore for the table so inexpensive that fishermen bought them by the bushel for $4 for chum and bait when fishing for rockfish. He missed the days when the Quaker Neck in the Chester River complex was so full of canvasbacks the water seemed white from their backs.

Then Buckley started interviewing people associated with the Bay, scientists, watermen, writers, fishermen, activists, boaters, even Native Americans who remembered stories told to them by their elders. He did hundreds of interviews for Annapolis radio station WRNR 103.1fm. The more he heard, the more he wanted to learn. He was hooked.

Only trouble is, in radio once it’s said, it’s gone. Seldom is it rebroadcast. Listeners retain only what they can remember. Not infrequently with subjects of this nature, so much of interest and information is said in such a short time the listener can only recall the highlights — while yearning for more.

Thus a book was born.

Buckley picked nearly 75 of his interviews for his new 452-page book Voices of the Chesapeake (softcover, $19.95) published by Lenny Rudow and his Geared Up Publications of South River. I doubt that any other book on the Chesapeake has covered such a wide range of voices, Bay history and science and just plain Bay living. It’s easy and pleasant reading, and it’s informative. I’d call it a masterpiece collection, you learn so much about the Bay, its history, its people and its resources from those who have lived on it, fished it for fun or profit, those who fight for its restoration and the scientists who study it.

Among the Voices

There’s former DNR Secretary Torrey Brown recalling the tough days following his appointment by then Gov. Harry Hughes. People were clamoring for Bay restoration; rockfish were following shad, for which a moratorium was implemented several years earlier. The old law allowed anyone to catch all year long, day and night, and keep as many as they wanted. Rockfish once were so plentiful no one thought they could be hurt by overfishing. They were the bread and butter of watermen, charter skippers and recreational fishermen.

Brown knew a moratorium would be unpopular but went ahead and recommended it to Gov. Hughes: “You just got to say ‘I think this is right, and I’m expecting it will work, and it’s the only safe thing to do’. And the governor was very, very supportive. He said: ‘If you think that’s right, do it.’ Imagine that today.”

Gov. Harry Hughes also has his say in the book, covering the early efforts of Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia to stop talking and start doing. That was back in 1983, when Critical Area legislation was highly controversial, but the public was supportive. Gov. Hughes gives the public much credit. “In parades,” he says, “people would yell ‘Save the Bay, Save the Bay’.”

What would a book on Chesapeake Bay be without former State Sen. Bernie Fowler, who, to this day, wades into the Patuxent River each year to see how deep he can go before his white sneakers disappear? He has seen the days when he could walk far out, but things have changed and water clarity is getting less and less.

Bernie was a Brooms Island country boy and to the book adds much color of the days long gone. Like Dixie Buck, the extraordinary crabber: “She caught crabs when nobody else could. She caught as many as 25 dozen soft shell crabs in a day by herself — sold them for a penny apiece 12 cents a dozen.” Those days are long gone.

Some of the contributors cling to high hopes for the Bay; others fear for the worst. As Fowler says: “I’m hoping that this is not Custer’s last stand. It may sound like it, and I hope our fate won’t be like Custer’s.

Why do so many fight so hard to save the Bay? Fowler says it best: “You can ride the big cars, you can have the big home, the largest bank account, but in the final analysis, when you are closer to the sunset of your life if you aren’t able to look yourself in the eyes and say, ‘I’ve done the best I could to make this world a better place,’ then I think it’s a cardinal sin, a shame on all our parts.”

This book covers the beginning of the Bay from 500 million bc to today. Bay people tell of their lives and their catches, charter skippers remember the good old days, and it all comes together to create an encyclopedia of Chesapeake Bay. David Harp handled the photo assignments splendidly.

Order Voices of the Chesapeake from Lenny Rudow: 410-708-4005;

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