The old Hotel Wachapreague on Virginia's Eastern Shore is gone. Built in 1902 on a grand design, it attracted what its owner called "a refined patronage" -- most of them leisure-class Yankee sports who rode the Old Point Comfort and Norfolk Express south from Wilmington for the ocean breezes and some of the best fishing and waterfowling on the Atlantic coast.
The hotel's tiered verandas overlooked the barrier islands and the vast salt marsh that have retained their remote, mesmerizing beauty. Local people weren't welcome at the hotel, according to native Jimmy Lewis, who now runs the Wachapreague Marina for his brother Randy. Randy Lewis bought the shuttered hotel to fulfill a lifelong dream, but fire gutted the top story four years ago. He sought restoration grants until hope ran out and he finally had the building razed, ironically providing the volunteer fire department behind it with a great view.
"I'm still not sure I did the right thing," says Lewis, who used the insurance to help build a seafood restaurant next to the marina. He named it after the Island House, an extension of the Hotel Wachapreague on Cedar Island until the '33 hurricane blew the building away.
The new restaurant has a rowing skiff for a salad bar and walls decorated with carved replicas of canvasback, redhead and black ducks. On weekends, Wachapreague is full of cars from Washington, Baltimore and other northerly points. Their owners, often wearing the pinks and greens of the migratory tourist, feed crackers to the laughing gulls on the dock. After dark, they watch the red-billed skimmers glide silently beneath the spotlights, scooping baby menhaden from a channel that teems with fish.
The 275-pound blue marlin hanging on the restaurant wall was brought in by Captain Ray Parker, one of 22 charter boat operators in Wachapreague, where career opportunity is limited to what's known as the three Fs -- "fishing, farming or forget it." Parker and his brother Earl have each spent more than 40 years in a business they learned from their father, when charters lasted a week instead of a day. Their grandfather worked out of the Hotel Wachapreague when a horse and buggy met clients at the railway station; nowadays they stay at the motel.
Ray Parker's Sea Bird, a 44-foot trunk cabin cruiser, has twin diesels that will take it almost anywhere, and a commodious stern deck rarely found on newer craft. Parker has taken out as many as four generations of clients; one man came every season for 45 years. Parker's albums are stuffed with photographs of marlin, tuna, pompano, sea bass, flounder and enough sea trout to feed Accomack County.
Parker's a lean figure in a windbreaker and a long-billed fisherman's cap. I first went out with him on a windy spring day in 1979, when the ocean piled out of the dawn between Parramore and Cedar islands, and Parker deftly steered me to the rail. There I gave up my "Bob" -- the Wachapreague marina's equivalent of an Egg McMuffin. "Now we know you can chum," said Parker's genial mate, Pete Briggs, refering to the practice of throwing smelly ground bait overboard to attract fish. I spent most of that trip on my back, dreaming of Dramamine.
I returned to Wachapreague just recently. The marsh grass was heavy with seed, the herring gulls had arrived and trout were being caught -- all signs of an early winter. Parker met our party at the marina before dawn, drinking coffee from a plastic cup. Fortunately the ocean was too rough to fish "outside" and we went after flounder, bass and trout, enticed by squid and minnows to be dragged along the bottom, in the shelter of the islands.
It has been a good year in Wachapreague. Parker has caught 400 bluefin, yellowfin and big-eye tuna, and an unreckonable number of lesser fish. But Sea Bird has brought in only four marlin. Parker blames the shortage on changing currents and the Japanese longline fishermen offshore, who catch thousands of swordfish and marlin.
"Twenty years ago," he said, with an Elizabethan cadence, "you could find pretty water within a mile of shore, along with Gulf Stream grass" -- from the Sargasso Sea -- "Portuguese man-of-war, flying fish and dolphin. That's where the marlin are. I've caught double-headers of white marlin within 10 miles of shore. Now you've got to go out 40 miles or more.
"There used to be big oysters in the marsh, providing spawn. Now there aren't as many fish, what with all the netters, and crab pots going 24 hours a day. You used to be able to catch 10 or 15 barrels of crabs a night on a trotline."
The birds, however, are more plentiful. Teal, sprigtails, coots, butterballs, many species of gulls and rail birds ("marsh hens") feed among the grass, and drift on the endless "guts," saltwater creeks that confuse the novice. Brown pelicans have come to Wachapreague; before this year they were rarely seen as far north as Cape Hatteras. And there's an abundance of curlews: "Fifty years ago they were almost extinct. The decoys carved then bring $2,000."
Tiny migratory American redstarts flying south sometimes use Sea Bird as a rest stop. "They land on the rods or the railings," Parker said. "You can pick them up in your hand. Once I saw a 'start flying behind us, too tired to make the stern. He fell in the water, and I stopped and scooped him up with the net." The birds rest and fly on.
We pulled in behind Rebel Island. The air, clear and cold, bent the marsh grass and brought tears to our eyes. Four of us, alternately fishing and seeking the warmth of the cabin, caught a dozen bass and as many flounder in less than an hour; Briggs measured them against a mark on the stern before dropping them into the fishbox.
The best bass fishing lay out in the ocean, over the wreck of an oil tanker that may have been torpedoed by a German submarine in 1943, and was discovered by Parker. "I knew it was out there, but it was marked wrong on the charts." He spent a decade searching for it. "I always kept my depth recorder going, and sure enough, one day I saw something unfamiliar on the bottom. For years I had been catching a whiff of oil out there and thinking it was freighter bilge. It was oil from that tanker."
Oil still bubbles to the surface, though not enough to be seen from a distance; the bass love it. "I can go out there without a compass or a recorder. When I smell the oil, I turn to leeward"-- he pronounces it looard -- "and follow my nose to the wreck."
He has found other wrecks, including Merida, 42 miles offshore in 200 feet of water. "On the recorder it looked like a fodder stack in a field. What's recorded is the huge shoal of fish over the wreck." That's what drew him there in the first place, not the fortune in jewelry said to be aboard. Parker has fished many wrecks, catching bigger bass over wooden wrecks than metal ones. He still fishes a sunken coal barge discovered by his father. "At the end of the day, you find bits of coal in the fishbox."
We crossed the inlet between Parramore and Hog islands, feeling the roll of the ocean. Waves broke on the pristine barrier beaches, luminous in the sun. Hog Island used to have a school and a post office, but erosion drove the people off. "Once during a high tide I saw waves washing among the tombstones in the graveyard. It was a strange sight."
He has seen stranger, including what appeared to be a body floating upright in the ocean, black hands thrust above the water. "I went back to investigate. I told the mate" -- not Briggs -- "to look over the stern, but he was afraid. I didn't want to look, either, but I was obligated." It was a rubber diving suit, full of air.
Parker once found the floating carcass of a whale. "There must have been 100,000 birds feeding on it. The sharks were all around, tearing off chunks." Four years ago he and Briggs saw another odd object bobbing in the water: 50 pounds of hashishng wrapped in plastic and buoyed by an inner tube. They turned it over to the Coast Guard -- promptly. "I didn't want somebody coming to look for me."
And there's the giant sea turtle, 20 feet across.
"May that turtle rest in peace," said Briggs, making the captain laugh. "Nobody believes me," Parker said, "but there are people alive today who saw it, too. It looked like a platform out there in the ocean. I used to lie awake at night wondering how I would catch that turtle, if I ever saw it again, just to show to people."
The channel marker at Hogg Island supported the jumbled sticks of an osprey's nest. We stopped nearby, and Briggs baited the top hooks with squid. But the trout were not biting. Instead, we hauled flounder over the gunwales, as did the occupants of six other boats drifting on the wind.
Parker stayed on after the other boats had gone, picking up a fish or two on each pass. "My father never fought nature," he said. "He went along with it, and that made his job easier." His father's boat was one of the first with a short-wave radio, "an old 10-watt Islip. We listened to it constantly. Once we heard of a man fishing out in the Norfolk Canyon. He was considered a daredevil in those days. Gradually we went out further, and further . . ."
There are moments that stick in his mind, like 1950, the year the big blues arrived and brought boats from a hundred miles up and down the coast. The night he caught 15,000 pounds of mackerel in nets, almost swamping the boat. The many times he sat at home as a young man, and grabbed the edge of the kitchen table, thinking he was still afloat. "You have to learn to be a charter captain as you go along. It's like watering, you can't read it in a book. Being a charter captain is a hard life, but it's a good life. It's a clean life," he added, meaning, I think, that one lives outdoors, far from collective decisions.
By three o'clock we had caught more fish than we cared to clean. On the way back to Wachapreague, Parker pointed out egrets, black ibis, herring gulls and a great blue heron watching Sea Bird's passage with a baleful eye. A pair of ospreys treaded the air above the marsh, looking more like eagles than fish hawks. Behind us, a string of lavender clouds hung in the sky, and the islands floated on a mirage.
"I'd like for more people to come here just to see what's here," the captain said. "It's a God-given thing, and more people ought to appreciate it. Some people don't realize what's in their own back yard.""