Some of the usual suspects, and a couple new faces, arrived at the marina on Tilghman Island around 6:30am to load our gear on board the “Nancy Ellen.” Moored nearby were two workboats preparing to take a large party out to hunt sea ducks. We stood along the stern sipping coffee in the early morning darkness watching these hunters arrive, one of them decked out in full Scottish regalia, and commenting on who - anglers or hunters - would have the better day on the water.
We threw off our ropes and slipped our mooring into Knapp’s Narrow for the short trip down to Harris Creek and into the broad mouth of the Choptank River. The sun was just beginning to rise above the eastern horizon as we motored past the sleeping village of Tilghman to starboard. Soon we were rounding the southern end of Tilghman Island at Fairbanks and Black Walnut Point and passing into the open Bay. As we did, Captain Bill Fish was keeping a watchful eye, staring through his binoculars toward Cook’s Point and the southern shoreline of the Choptank River and observing the movement of birds across the water. They are the tell-tale signs of where the fish might be.
The previous day’s strong winds had churned the Chesapeake into a froth of whites caps and sea spray as I crossed the Bay Bridge from Annapolis to Kent Island and I was afraid the trip might be canceled. Earlier in the month we had come to Tilghman to catch a boat out to Poplar Island but the rough seas forced it to remain at its slip in the Narrows. Fortunately, the winds calmed somewhat overnight and both the river and the Bay had a pretty good chop with a steady breeze blowing out of the southwest. When not gazing through his binoculars, Captain Fish was in constant contact by radio and cellphone with other captains. “Looked good here the other day,” he commented to the others. “We are not fishing the other day” came a reply from one of the boats.
After an hour or so on the water we arrived off the mouth of the Little Choptank River where we joined a growing fleet of boats, most of them from the Western Shore. We all jockeyed for position as we watched for the arrival of the fish. Baitfish were passing beneath us in growing numbers and birds worked the surface in search of an easy meal. It was not long before we began to spot rockfish moving into False Channel. At 8:30am Captain Fish gave us the signal to “drop the junk in the water” and we were soon trolling a slough known to the local crabbers and fishermen as the James Island stone piles with white Shassy Shad and a chartreuse bug recently concocted by the good captain.
The first fish hit after trolling for 15 minutes - 17 inches, a nice fish but too short by an inch. Back over the side it went. A few more tossers hit before I landed the day’s first keeper squeaking by at just over 18 inches. How cruel are the fates that a fraction of an inch can make the difference between freedom and the cooler. It looked like we had found a promising but precarious spot for fish as we maneuvered among sets of crab pots scattered among the rock piles and shallow ledges northwest of James Island. We had fished this general area back in May during the trophy season, but then in deeper water, closer to the shipping channel. Now we were watching for rocks as well as fish and we lost lengths of expensive fishing line and a few rigs that snagged on bottom structure or a derelict crab pot while landing several more fish . . . a few for the cooler and more returned to the water to be caught another day. Those are the breaks.
Slack tide arrived mid morning and the birds disappeared and with them the fish. We kept trolling the shoals but the only thing to come aboard were a couple of blue crab. With only three fish in the cooler after two hours of fishing, the captain broke out an umbrella rig as we reset our lines at different lengths and depths. This became a time of mostly quiet reflection as we watched and listened to what the other boats were doing (not much) and Captain Fish tried to figure where we might go to get back on the fish. Some dozed or nibbled on the provision we had brought with us. I sat in the wheelhouse with the captain and made a few notes.
This was my fourth trip with Captain Fish. He sees me coming like a chef sees a restaurant critic sitting at one of his tables. I pull out my pocket notebook and the captain closes his eyes and gently shakes his head. “Oh no, what is he going to write about this time?” No worries. The captain always puts us on the fish and he wants his sports to come home with fish in the cooler. But whether they are large or small, keepers or tossers, in my book they are all fun to catch. And even if there is not a single fish in the cooler when we arrive back at the dock, it was a great day to be out on the water. Good friends, great scenery and a captain who knows his stuff. He has nothing to fear from my pen.
With a flooding tide the baitfish and the rockfish returned and we moved south of James Island and into deeper water. For every fish that went into the cooler we returned three or four to the water. The action was quick as we continued to move our rigs around. By 1:45pm we had eight fish in the cooler as the wind and the chop returned. We needed two more to make our limit and we finally had these by 3pm when it was time to make our way back to Tilghman Island. As we pulled our “junk” aboard and stowed our gear, someone commented that it was a perfect “Sherwin-Williams” day. We had “covered the world” looking for fish and we were going home tired but with smiles on our faces. The tossers were fun to catch and I did not mind setting them free. I look forward to making their acquaintance again when they have grown up a little bit. Maybe in the spring.
That evening we had rockfish for dinner before I headed back across the Bay and home. Captain Fish had filleted our catch upon our return to the dock and these were broiled and served with roasted red potatoes. The meal you eat today was asleep last night in Chesapeake Bay. May can’t here soon enough.