The Chesapeake Bay offers an astonishing change of scenery, pace and lifestyle and a great resource to explore and plunder just an hour or two from downtown.

Saltwater and fresh mix there, creating the richest of aquatic habitats. Oysters, crabs and soft-shell clams thrive in the Bay; waterfowl flock by the hundreds of thousands to feed in winter; fish of prey battle over a groaning board of bait in the season that starts right now.

The sunrises over gray waters, the moonlight on a night sail are as grand as it gets.

The Chesapeake is the drowned valley of the Susquehanna River, which 15,000 years ago overflowed its banks with the end of the ice age. The rising sea backed water into every low place, creating the boatman's dream, a protected harbor around every bend.

It was in the protected Chesapeake that European travelers mothan 350 years ago found refuge from the pounding ocean, and then found fertile places up the rivers and creeks to settle, usually after displacing native Indians.

The tributaries are rivers so slow-moving they run backwards when the tide floods. Beautifully named -- the Nanticoke, Choptank, Wicomico and Chicamuxen -- they are spawning areas and nurseries for small fish like perch, spot, young rockfish and croakers and the summer homes of the most abundant Bay resource, blue crabs.

As the sun rises toward summer, the Bay becomes a battleground for marauding marine predators like bluefish, big rockfish, sea trout, drum and summer flounder.

Pursuit of these species is high sport fishing and one of the two big reasons, along with sailing, that modern man takes the time and summons the courage to tackle the Bay.

And now it is upon us.