Radios and boats are like pickles and graham crackers: They don't go together. Yet every year I'm convinced I need one.
Last Sunday was the unofficial opening day of the Chesapeake Bay fishing season, so designated because May 1 is the date upon and after which recreational anglers may keep one striped bass over 32 inches in length per day.
There probably were more fishermen out in pursuit than there were big stripers in the Bay, but somebody undoubtedly caught one. With a radio aboard I might have heard his delighted yelp. If he were a real greenhorn, he could even have given his position when the mighty fish bit, and I and a thousand others could have burned fuel and churned water to get near the promised water. Ah, for a radio.
Instead, I sailed alone, plying waters my heart said were fertile, catching nothing and longing to know how the others were doing.
It gets lonely. I listened to the seas slapping at the hull sides and watched the depth-finder to stay close to the ship-channel edge. I watched the charter boats and tried to gauge trolling speed to theirs, since they do this sort of thing every day. I listened to the motor.
I thought deep thoughts and foolish ones, sang a little and checked the drag on the reels from time to time. I watched the sky and wondered if that blue-tippped cloud could turn nasty, which it did before day was done.
The rod tips bounced as the lures swam along 20 feet down. The seas were up a bit and the little skiff rocked in the chop. It was a good idea to keep a hand on something solid and not move around too much.
I thought about Billy and his 25-footer, the Chum King. He has CB and VHF radios aboard, plus a portable AM-FM. Fishing with him is like going to a party.
A couple of years ago he had to sail down to Point Lookout from Shadyside. That day, I was fishing on a friend's boat out of Deale. I told Billy, "If you pass us, come on over and say howdy."
Sure enough, about noon he turned up, tooting his horn and waving. He came alongside and we hollered at each other for a minute. When we drifted apart he yelled, "Turn on your radio," and gave a channel number.
What a treat. We chatted away as if we were in the living room. Before he took off south, he promised -- since we were catching zilch -- that if he saw anyone tearing the bluefish up he'd ring us up again.
An hour later we'd just about forgotten about fishing and were breaking out the beer when a shriek interrupted the crackle of the radio.
"Chum King to Angus! Chum King to Angus!"
It was Billy with the news that the charter boats were bunched up at the mouth of Parker's Creek and a lot of wriggling silver stuff was coming over the side. We took off and nailed a boatload.
Of course you pay for a moment like that by listening to a lifetime of prattle. Some fishermen buy radios with the idea that they can pick up information listening to the charter captains, but charter captains weren't born last week. The only locations I hear them give out are, "Where yer at" and "Where I'm at."
A typical conversation:
"Hooker to Striper Swiper, come back."
"This is the Striper Swiper, and how you doin' today, Frankie?"
"Not too bad, how you doin' where yer at?"
"We got half a card of greenies and a goldfish but it's slowing down. How you doin' where yer at?"
"About same. You heard from George? How's he doin' up where he's at?"
"He's doin' nothing. Got no tide. He's coming down here where I'm at."
If you can catch a fish using that sort of information, you're a wiser man than I.
As for safety, I figure a radio is like four-wheel drive; when you get stuck you're just that much farther from home. If you start counting on a radio, what do you do when the battery runs out?
I keep a gallon jug of fresh water aboard, just in case I wash up on some waterless marsh island.
And if I should wash up on some waterless marsh island, I'll be right at home, listening to wind and water and watching the sky, with no electronic gadgets to interrupt my reverie.