Not Burton on the Bay:
When Your Dish Needs Fish
by Bill Lambrecht


Last weekend, the editor of this newspaper invites guests for "freshly caught Bay fish." One problem: we have no fish.

The plan is for me to head out into Chesapeake Bay and get some. Then write about it, substituting for fishing expert Bill Burton, who's having cataract surgery. Sounds simple, except for one thing: I'm a lousy excuse for a fisherman.

If I were to debate former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, he'd put me in my place like he did Dan Quayle in that vice-presidential debate. "I know Bill Burton," he'd say. "Bill Burton is a friend of mine. And son, you're no Bill Burton."

Indeed. Bill Burton has a fishing rod named after him. He has at least two fishing extravaganzas that bear his name, including the New Bay Times '"Come Fishing With Bill Burton" outing Sept. 26 on Tilghman Island. (See the ad in this issue or call us for details.)

Me? I have a boat and some gear. And I've caught a few in my time, usually during those heart-thumping hours of breaking blues and stripers when there's so many fish that a chimpanzee with a $12 Zebco could load up a cooler.

But with me, things go wrong. My fish-finder never has worked, even though I sent it up to Massachusetts and waited half a season to get it back. I've invested the equivalent of 150 pounds of store-bought rockfish in that worthless unit.

When I head to the slip, the Bay always is calm. Then the wind shifts to the northeast and builds to 19 knots or so. Out on the water, a voice on the VHF says "waves one foot or less." But they're breaking across the helm and splashing me in the face.

Then the first thing I do is run a hook through my finger while listening to someone lament on the radio: "I'm headin' back to the barn. Hell, three hours ago, they were all over the top of the water."

Whaddya do when the pressure's on, when the guests are primed for a platter of "freshly caught Bay fish?" Call Capt. Rick, that's what.


Almost a Pro

Capt. Rick Blackwell, my neighbor, isn't a pro, but he's the next thing to it. He can smell fish and crabs. He thinks like a fish. The problem is that Capt. Rick, for sometime now, has seemed a little wary of fishing with me. That's because my bad luck rubs off on him.

New Bay Times readers may recall those incidents: When Capt. Rick's always trouble-free vessel broke down with me on board. When Capt. Rick ended up in the water amid highly curious circumstances. And even the time when, trying to rid me of my fishing hex, we motored out to a depth of 27 feet so I could drop overboard the skull I had brought back from a voodoo priest in Haiti. I am not making this up, as Dave Barry would say.

Truth be told, sometimes, I'm a little wary of fishing with Capt. Rick. When you go out with him, you'd better hug your family and dog fondly because you won't see 'em again for at least 11 hours. If he says he'll pick you up at 6am, you need to be ready at 5 because he'll be out there revving his truck. By then, he's been up for two hours sharpening his hooks and checking his knots.

When I'm in charge, I'll troll for about 47 minutes and declare: "Well, looks like they're not hittin' today. Time to head in." Bill Burton once said of me: "Hell, you're not a fisherman. You're a tourist."

On Saturday, Capt. Rick was free - for a couple hours only. Perfect. Heading out, I half expected Hurricane Dennis to switch courses and roar up the Chesapeake Bay at 600mph.


"Meat Fishermen"

I know fly fishermen who sneer at guys like me. "Meat fishermen," they call us. I believe in catch and release - when you release them into a frying pan.

I look at the world like Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. In The Great Shark Hunt, Thompson wrote about deep-sea dilettantes who rent boats, pay people to do every single thing and then call themselves world-class fishermen. He wrote about "a gang of redneck businessmen occasionally hauling dark shadows up to the side of various boats, just close enough to where some dollar-an-hour mate would cut the leader and score a point for the angler."

Thompson added: "The whole idea of fishing, it seemed to me, was to hook a thrashing sea monster of some kind and actually boat the bastard. And then eat it."

At 26mph, we reach the fishing grounds in a hurry. Things are looking grim. "I don't see nothing on the meter. Not a thing," Capt. Rick says. There are a few boats in the vicinity with fishermen standing on the decks, hands in their shorts. "Nobody's doing anything," he observes.

I'm thinking about tonight's dinner table. A fruity chardonnay. Three kinds of home-grown heirloom tomatoes with basil and mozzarella. Garlic mashed potatoes. And an empty space on the plate. Maybe we'd use those tiny white plates. Surely the guests will be polite. Little did I know at that point that this was their Last Supper on the eve of their Big Fast. Oh, my shame.

There's a commotion 40 yards away on a charter boat, Bay Lady, out of Shady Side. One fellow has just landed a big flounder. Hmmmm. I'm thinking. Maybe he'd sell it. I could ask Capt. Rick to ease up to the Bay Lady. I could talk fast and get out some money and nah Capt. Rick is too proud for that.

I'm drifting bloodworms, something you don't talk about at the dinner table. Capt. Rick, an innovator, has on hunks of crab that look good enough to eat. Hmmm. I start wondering how many of 'em he has and whether

Suddenly, my pole starts to bend. No doubt I'm hung up on an oyster bed. Heck, maybe I'll pull up a big oyster and it will feed one person. But no, at the end of my yellow monofilament line is a spot. A Norfolk spot. Some call 'em jumbo spot, and I see why. After we catch a dozen or so, I call 'em dinner.

Capt. Rick borrows a trick from Bill Burton's playbook: He cuts strips of smaller spot, drifts them, and presto he reels in a pair of fat, toothy bluefish.

I get on the cell phone and I call the editor, who is my spouse. "You can heat up the skillet," I say proudly. "You didn't have any doubt, did you?"

"Not really," she replies. "But I did just run out and pick up some nice pork chops."



If she hadn't frozen those chops, I'd have fed 'em to the dog. On those giant blue dinner plates Saturday night we made room for baked, lightly breaded spot and grilled, slightly smoked bluefish. Yum.

The next night, we're lucky enough to have dinner with Bill and Lois Burton. I ask Bill what he'd have done had he been in my boat, with fish-eaters coming over in a few hours and nothing in the refrigerator.

Turns out that Bill has been there; Bill's been everywhere. Lois once had 40 people on the way over. Talk about pressure.

"Well," Burton said, "I might go out to the mouth of the Magothy River. You can always catch little fish. But what I'd probably do is head farther out and troll for big rockfish. Then everybody could have a nice filet. And if I didn't catch fish, at least I'd have stories to tell."

Hmmm. Guess I have to learn how to make my stories taste good, too.

| Issue 35 |

Volume VII Number 35
September 2-8, 1999
New Bay Times

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