On the Bay, as on Land, It's the Living That Counts

Capt. Ed Darwin, left, and his client of 43 years, Morris Morrell, show off a rockfish near the Bay Bridge.
Capt. Ed Darwin, left, and his client of 43 years, Morris Morrell, show off a rockfish near the Bay Bridge. "I don't take vacations," Morrell said. "This is it -- one day a week." (By Angus Phillips For The Washington Post)
By Angus Phillips
Sunday, July 15, 2007

Among life's great mysteries is how "Tuesdays With Morrie" became a best-selling book. An opportunistic hunk of sentimental claptrap about dying, it was on the New York Times list for ages, making a pile of money for sportswriter Mitch Albom.

He's already churned out a tear-jerking follow-up, some navel-gazer about people you'll meet in heaven. If he hadn't, I'd propose one called "Wednesdays With Morris," which would be the polar opposite of "Tuesdays with Morrie." It's about living, not dying.

The protagonist is Morris Morrell, a crusty, thoroughly unsentimental Baltimore businessman who takes off every Wednesday in the summer, as he has for 43 years, to fish around the Chesapeake Bay Bridge on the charter boat Becky D with Capt. Ed Darwin. He usually brings a friend or two, though many of his friends are gone now.

That happens at his age. Morell will be 88 in October, but still goes to work daily at the business he started the best part of a lifetime ago. He pioneered renting televisions to hospital patients. "We don't rent them anymore, we just service the sets," Morrell said. "It's just me, Charlie Huffman [his chauffeur], a secretary and a service man. We're losing money, but it's someplace to go."

Morrell described Wednesdays with Darwin as his form of vacationing. "I never traveled much," he said, and he doesn't take time off in the winter. "I don't take vacations. This is it -- one day a week."

These days it's quite a production. Huffman drives him down to Darwin's Boatyard on Mill Creek in Annapolis about 7 a.m., then Huffman and Darwin's beefy mate, Jim Stickney, each grab an arm and assist Morrell down the dock to the boat.

A deck chair awaits. Morrell plops down in the shade with the morning newspaper while others scurry around, casting off lines, fixing breakfast (sweet rolls are favored) and preparing bait and tackle.

Morrell keeps an account with Darwin, so there's never any unseemly talk of fees, but the ride out always includes deep deliberations about the day's bets. Everyone kicks in $20 and the kitty is split for biggest fish, first fish, oddest fish, first big perch, first croaker and so on.

Morrell and Darwin, an ex-Baltimore schoolteacher in his 70s, have their own long-standing side pools, which are inscrutable to everyone but them.

The fishing grounds are as familiar to Darwin and Morrell as the streets where they live. Darwin even has a spot named after him -- Ed's Lump, just below the Bay Bridge on the western side. The Becky D is an old-fashioned wooden boat that goes only 8 or 10 knots, so range is limited. But it's comfortable and stable, and with his extensive local knowledge, Darwin almost never gets skunked. This year he's been tearing up the rockfish.

"It's as good as I've seen in the last 20 years, especially for big ones," he said.

The preferred bait has been small, live white perch, so we stopped at Hackett's Bar off the mouth of Whitehall Bay and caught several dozen using tiny hooks baited with bloodworms or grass shrimp. Morrell let us do the dirty work while he read and munched.

With plenty of perch tucked away in an aerated barrel, we were off to the bridge, the Chesapeake's most recognizable landmark and its perennial premier fishing hole. Rockfish, perch and other predator species cluster around the pilings, feeding on the worms, crabs and baitfish that congregate there. Rock feed best when the ride runs hard, and the ebb tide was flying.

It took awhile to find an area where the tide was perfect -- strong enough to bring on the rockfish but not so strong it made boathandling difficult. Darwin worked east until he found the right conditions, then backed down with the current and had us cast live perch at the concrete. Bang! Fish on!

It was mayhem for the next hour or so as feeding rock struck the baits hard and fought gamely amid the massive obstructions. Huffman pulled Morrell's deck chair to the stern rail and the old warhorse had at it. "He'll fool you with that business of hobbling down the dock," said Darwin with a chuckle, "but don't get in his way when the fish are biting."

We quickly had our limits of two rockfish apiece, the largest a 33-incher that was kind enough to strike my bait, putting me in line for the lion's share of the betting pool. No, it's not Mitch Albom-style money, but every little bit helps.

We headed back to Hackett's to look for some big perch for the fry pan. On the way, Morrell described the origins of his Wednesday affliction.

"I started going with a bunch of doctors that took Wednesdays off. They liked me because I could untie their knots. That was quite a group, but they're all dead now."

Back before World War II, when no Bay Bridge existed, he used to book skippers from Rock Hall who would sail across the bay to collect him and his buddies. "It was $8 a day, and they provided three gallons of grass shrimp" for bait. Prices obviously have gone up.

Morrell began fishing with Darwin in 1964. "I saw him fishing the Bay Bridge with two anchors out. Somebody said, 'That's that Baltimore schoolteacher.' "

Forty-three years later, they're still hard at it every Wednesday.

Maybe some clever writer should come out and interview Morrell on the secrets of his longevity. You could get a magazine article out of that, at least. For some stupid reason, I prefer to leave the question unasked. Sometimes it's enough just to watch and learn.

Hard work, clean living, and something to look forward to each week -- that sounds like a pretty good formula for a full life. My old friend Bill Burton, another octogenarian, says it boils down to keeping busy.

"If you have something to do tomorrow," he says, "you probably won't die tonight."

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