Mary Syrett - February 2008

The Arc of the Line
on Chesapeake Bay
Mary Syrett

   For a long time, fly-fishing intimidated me. The grace, beauty, and seeming expertise it must take to master the sport (or so I thought). Fishing purists flock to fly-fishing – it’s angling the most natural way possible – no worms, minnows, bobbers or spinning lures. The object is to mimic flies gliding by and hatching on or just below the surface of the water, tricking fish into gulping down your offering, which just happens to have a hook attached.
    When I tried fly-fishing for the first time in 1979 on Chesapeake Bay, I discovered that my preconceived notions were unwarranted. After an hour or so on a Bay tributary with a guide, I was fly-fishing. Not expertly, but good enough to catch fish big enough to fit nicely into a skillet.
    Many an angler, reveling in the beauty of the great outdoors, has whispered something akin to Izaak Walton’s classic dictum: “I have laid aside business and gone a-fishing.” There’s something about fly-fishing that attracts people from all walks of life.
    Fly-fishing has a certain cachet. From the Norman Maclean book-turned-film A River Runs Through It, to the Howell Raines memoir Fly-Fishing through the Midlife Crisis, to the provocatively titled Sex, Death and Fly-Fishing by John Gierach, fly-fishing is awash in metaphors. It’s about wading through water and trying to fool a fish into believing your artificial fly is actually a tasty bug.
    History. Fly-fishing was “invented” when primeval man first caught a fish by tying feathers to a sharpened bird’s beak and then tossing the “lure” into the water, fastened to the end of a stout vine. By the time Juliana Berners wrote The Treatyse of Fisshynge with an Angle, published around 1496, artificial lures were already being hand-tied in fine detail. Izaak Walton (1593-1683), a London iron merchant, further refined and romanticized the fishing technique (and country life) through his writings in The Compleat Angler, published in 1653. It is socially significant that Walton, a founder of fly-fishing, was a mercantilist. Despite that, the sport’s image has long been linked to aristocratic stature.
    Europeans brought Walton’s fly-fishing ideas to America. New World fishing rod builders catered to the gentry by creating custom-built rods and charging considerable sums for them. This expensive equipment did help to enhance the image of fly-fishermen as being a cut above, at least financially.
    Chesapeake Bay is a national treasure. Its wonders unfold along winding rivers, in deep forests, lush marshland, sheltered coves and on open water. The extraordinary environment of America’s largest estuary shapes its special places and traditions.
    I know the vital statistics of the Bay almost by heart. Composed of 150 winding tributaries, it is filled with 2,700 species of oyster, crab, fish and other living things; it provides upward of one billion dollars a year to the shellfish industry; a finely calibrated mix of salt water from the Atlantic and fresh water from tides and rain help Chesapeake Bay sustain a rich combination of marine and plant life.
    Although the Bay’s watershed stretches deep into Virginia and Pennsylvania, there is something about it that epitomizes Maryland, defines what the state is all about. “Nothing in my native Maryland is more sacred than the Bay,” author Tom Horton wrote in an essay. “It is no accident that the state boat is an oyster skipjack, the state dog a Chesapeake Bay retriever, the University of Maryland mascot a diamondback terrapin, or the state fossil a mollusk.”
    The Chesapeake Bay from Maryland to the Virginia Capes, the rivers that feed it, as well as the adjacent offshore waters of Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina, make up one of the most spectacular fisheries in the world. Persons who have had the opportunity to fish this special place feel fortunate.
    The Chesapeake Bay has one of the longest fish attracting structures in the world: the Bay Bridge Tunnel Complex, which fish hover around day and night. Add to that offshore towers, shipwrecks, nearby inlets, and a relatively short run to the Gulf Stream, and you quickly realize why the mid-Atlantic coast is a fishing wonderland.
    Fish To Be Caught. It is amazing how many different kinds of fish one can catch in the waters of Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries with an artificial fly. Species include black bass, gray trout (weakfish), striped bass (rockfish), bluefish, perch, sunfish, flounder and croaker.
    Fly rods have definite advantages when a person gets seriously involved with fly-fishing. A lightweight floating bait may look more like “real” food to a fish than does a plastic lure. Think about it: what looks and sounds more like a grasshopper hitting the water? A crankbait smacking the water with a “kerplunk,” or a nearly weightless cork-bodied bug that lands softly as though it fell from a tree, leaving only a tiny ripple? After using spinning gear for years, my first season using a fly rod on Chesapeake Bay convinced me that fish can’t resist striking feather-light, natural-appearing bugs.
    Equipment. The term fly-fishing refers specifically to angling with disguised hooks wrapped around fur, feathers, silk or hair in different shapes and sizes designed to imitate minnows, worms, small crabs, grasshoppers, frogs, mice or beetles. Just about anything fish eat can be imitated by an artificial fly. Some 20,000 fly patterns exist, each tied differently and having a distinctive (often-fanciful) name.
    How To. The first thing to learn about fly-fishing is how to cast. It’s similar to spin casting, only the opposite. That is, if you’ve ever used a spinning or bait-casting rod, you know that you cast a lure out and the weight of the lure pulls the line behind it. In fly-fishing, by contrast, what you’re casting is the considerably lighter weight of the fly line, at the end of which is an artificial fly.
    To discover what fish are consuming today, take a foot of household screen and nail both ends to a sawed-off broom handle. Unfold the screen perpendicular to the current and turn over some rocks. Then look to see what bugs get caught on the screen. That’s what fish, more than likely, are eating today. Now look inside your tackle box for something that resembles what’s on the screen and fish with that.
    Remember: fish are lazy creatures at heart. All they really want in life is a vantage point from which to watch – and occasionally sample – the never-ending cafeteria line of food sweeping by them. Often this means a place where fast water meets slow, where shallow water meets deep, where shaded water meets sunny, where a log, weed bed, or rock sticks out of the water.
    Chesapeake Bay affords year round fly fishing opportunities from its northern-most reaches on the Susquehanna Flats, south to the Delmarva Coast. On the waters of Chesapeake Bay, the striped bass, or “rockfish” as they are called here, are king. Other species that anglers seek include bluefish, sea trout, Spanish mackerel and flounder.
    Chesapeake Bay Fly-Fishing Season Highlights. *Susquehanna Flats Catch and Release Striped Bass Season – March 1 to May 3. Provides anglers with one of the best shots at a trophy-size striped bass caught on fly fishing tackle.
    *Ocean City Fly-Fishing and Light Tackle Fishing (Inshore) – May to September. Great fly and light tackle fishing for a variety of saltwater species, including bluefish, shad and sea trout.
    *Delmarva Coast and Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel Fishing. September/October to January. Offers anglers a chance at some great fishing for stripers along their winter migration route towards the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
    Fly-casting is beautiful to watch. It’s also an easy way to catch fish. Some people would have you believe fly-fishing requires the muscle control of a trapeze artist, the patience of Job, and the pocketbook of someone with the last name of, say, Gates or Buffett.
    Fly-casting enthusiasts have a term for this kind of belief. They call it nonsense. Sure, you can spend huge sums of money on fishing gear. Yes, you likely will have your fly line fall like a tangled bird’s nest at your feet a few times before you catch on to the rhythm of casting. And do forever keep in mind Izaak Walton’s classic comment: “Angling is like Mathematics in that it can ne’er be fully learned.”
    The single most important thing to be said in favor of fly-fishing is that it gets you out of the house. Fish have the good sense to live in some of nature’s most gorgeous settings, places you might never visit if you weren’t trying to catch them. In addition, there’s the simultaneously calming and stimulating aspect to the endeavor. This is difficult to express in words. But when it all comes together – the rhythm of your casting, the energy of moving water, the way your mind is focused yet relaxed as fly line with a tiny lure at the end becomes an extension of your will – it is magical. And it does help keep one’s mind off never-ending war, a root canal, tax audits, old age and trying to figure out who is not seeking a party’s nomination for the U.S. Presidency.
    Some days the big ones like the look of the flies you’re presenting; other days they don’t. But, regardless of whether or not you manage to get a fighter on the line, the Chesapeake Bay scenery is guaranteed to send you home with a smile on your lips. And whether you eat your catch or throw it back, the activity is both unforgettable and invigorating. Enjoy.