Tidewater Day Tripping: September 2009

Tidewater Day Tripping:
My Really Big Fish Story
Bonna L. Nelson

   Like everything else in life, fishing seemed a lot simpler when I was a child. Whether it was bottom fishing for flounder in Assawoman Bay during our annual family vacations in Ocean City, Maryland, or perch fishing in Harford County creeks in the spring, back then all it took to catch a fish for dinner was a fishing “pole,” some bait, and a picnic lunch. Or at least that is how it seemed to me at the time.
    I am sure there was much more to it than I knew back then, like purchasing the “poles,” finding live bait, and preparing the picnic lunch. How about renting the boats? I have no idea where all of that came from. I know we didn’t worry about sunscreen (we used baby oil and iodine when on the beach, but never bothered to put on anything when fishing in the sun with the double jeopardy of the sun directly burning the skin and a second shot of sun reflected off the water). I don’t recall that sunglasses were a particularly important part of our gear either. And, though now I wouldn’t fish without bug repellant on hand, back then we walked through mosquito-infested fields to get to creeks without thinking about the rosy red, itchy bumps that would be in full bloom that night.
    Back then I didn’t mind handling squiggly worms, cutting them or tearing them in two and attaching them to the hook on my “pole,” as I called it. And, sometimes we would catch a small fish and chop him up for bait to lure in the big boys. It was all fascinating to me.
    In my preteens and teens, fishing lost its appeal. Or, should I say that I was “fishing” for something entirely different. “It” wore khaki pants, blue oxford cloth button-down shirts, loafers and no socks. “It” wasn’t slimy and found in the creeks and rivers. No, “it” was found in the halls of school or on water skis or speed boats in the summer, and occasionally netting soft crabs along the shoreline.
    Yes, I CAUGHT my favorite BIG FISH, a real “keeper” for life…
    Over the years we have fished together on Maryland waters, sometimes on our own boat, sometimes with kids on board, and other times on vacations. We have also fished on charter boats in the Atlantic, Pacific, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico.
    One of my favorite adult fishing experiences – I call it the “Lady of the Manor” type of fishing – occurred on the Bay near Solomon’s Island. On a sizeable fishing boat with a captain and first mate, husband, John, and me, we left in time to see the sun rise. The crew readied the tackle, placed the fishing “rods” (not “poles”) in rod holders off the back of the boat and trolled through the calm water. Meanwhile, I lounged on comfy cushioned seats, drank a large cup of coffee and savored fresh pastries; my husband said that I also leafed through a magazine that I had brought.
    When the captain yelled that we had hooked a fish on one of the lines and handed me the rod, I reeled, and reeled, and reeled. There it was – a large mackerel. The captain unhooked the fish, put it in a cooler, rebaited the line, and cast it back out. And I resumed my position on the comfy cushion with coffee, pastries, and magazine. We caught more mackerel, blues and stripers. It was a glorious day!
    A trip to Ixtapa on the Pacific Coast of Mexico opened up a whole new world of fishing for us. We had fished off the coast of Ocean City many times. We kept a boat there for several seasons. But to me, the brutal two-hour crashing ride from the marina on the coast to the shoals and canyon where the fish could be found, and the same bashing ride back, though sometimes seeing shark, stingrays, and turtles, but not catching many fish, was just not my cup of tea.
    However, in Ixtapa, just 2 to 3 miles off the Mexican coast, we started catching Pacific sailfish. We chartered a rather antiquated fishing boat with a captain and crew, the facilities were a bit crude, but the fishing was fantastic. At one point we had four sailfish hooked on four lines at one time. The water was clean, clear and calm and so close to shore, so close, so calm.
    In the ensuing years we caught some fish here and there in the Bay and its tributaries, usually stripers and perch, sometimes blues. We taught our daughter, Holly, and her friends to fish and crab. We cruised the Bay and anchored out overnight, waking up to herons stalking fish nearby and gulls and osprey swooping in and out of the water for their breakfast.
    As time wore on we DIDN’T CATCH LOTS OF FISH…
    In more recent years, we settled into life on the Eastern Shore. John bought a small fishing boat and lots of fancy fishing gear and electronics. Fishing became more complicated. Special rods, special reels, special line, special lures – technology has overtaken good old fashioned fishing and I am not so sure that it results in CATCHING LOTS OF FISH…
    Oh, and then there is the decline in the health of the Bay and its tributaries, and over-fishing resulting in a major loss of marine life. I should mention here that John does not eat fish and usually safely returns all fish caught to the water.
    A few weeks back we set out on a fishing mission. John had been fishing the local area for a few years with some luck, despite the odds being against him, and had some special fishing spots to share with me.
    It was a breezy 88-degree day with 10 mph winds, a baby blue sky and a glistening sun reflecting on the water. We headed out the Tred Avon River past squawking osprey nesting on markers to Benoni Point, opposite the town of Oxford where the Tred Avon meets the Choptank River. We were hoping to catch perch in the water swirling around the rocks at Benoni Point.
    Geese were sunbathing on a small island off the point. The boat motor hit rocks and we had to raise the motor to float off. Sadly, the perch weren’t there or they weren’t biting that day.
    On another day we tried another favorite spot of the locals, called both Cook’s and Cook Point at the northwest corner of Dorchester County across the Choptank River from Tilghman Island. The wind was picking up and it was rough. Over the past three to four years the Point had eroded, becoming an island separated from the mainland with just a few trees remaining in the clay soil and tree trunks and stumps protruding dangerously from the water. Several tall trees stood guard on the lonely spot of land.
    This is usually a good spot to fish, John said, because baitfish and predator fish are attracted to the water currents and rips swirling around the clay banks between the new island and the mainland. The winds kicked up, cooking up the surf at Cook’s Point and we took a boat beating. John drove the boat toward the mainland to try to get us out of the wind. We bounced around in the water while sharing a picnic dinner with horse flies. Later we watched the sun set on the Talbot County side of the Choptank and cast a few more times before calling it quits.
    On our next outing we headed to Boone Creek, another favorite spot, to catch small stripers and perch in the changing current in the Creek’s narrow channel. Here again, nature is taking over. The approach to the sandy beach is silted in, and seagulls are in charge of the fishing. We couldn’t get near the channel without running aground.
    Did I mention that everywhere we went we could have “caught” sea nettles for dinner if they were a meal that attracted us? They were plentiful and seem to be taking the place of the fish that used to be plentiful in the old favorite fishing holes. Maybe someone could come up with a good recipe for cooking sea nettles! I’ve got it, a sea nettle cooking contest!
    The day was perfect for observing shore birds, cruising past attractive homes and admiring the variety of duck blinds scattered along the shores. However, even equipped with the latest technology, GPS, fish finder and an experienced fisherman, the day was again a bust.
    What’s a girl to do? How to write a fish story without catching any fish?
    As a last-ditch effort I suggested that we fish off our pier with no fishing boat, no fish finder, no depth finder, no GPS, not even a fancy rod and reel. And guess what? We caught nice, fat little white perch. A light breeze was blowing, the water was fairly calm, and the fish were in the shade of a large oak on the shoreline near the pier. It was good, old-fashioned, simple fishing, like I remembered from my youth.
    Lesson learned: Simpler is always better, and that goes for fishing too!!

   Postscript: John boated to the middle of the Bay one late afternoon, all the way to the channel. There he caught and returned 25 large rockfish breaking the surface of the water. I am hoping to have the same experience sometime, but meanwhile I am content to be “perched” on our pier, casting to the perch in the Cove.