Summer. For many, it means being outside and enjoying great weather. For the lucky ones, it means only one thing -- rockfishing on the Chesapeake Bay. Catching sunfish in a small pond may be a nice introduction to this sometimes frustrating pastime, but there's nothing like angling in North America's largest estuary.
I haven't always been a die-hard angler. When I was young, it was something to do to kill summer boredom. As a college student it was something to share with my boyfriend at the time. I had to prove I wasn't one of those squeamish girls who couldn't bait their own hooks.
It was only in recent years that I finally figured it all out -- the camaraderie, the excitement and the art of catching the big one. It took some help from my dad and Capt. Bob "Hoot" Gibson, who had hunted and fished together all over the watershed for decades.
We would begin the season in Rock Hall, Md., on Hoot's boat, Daddy's Girl II. Each of us would bring a contribution -- deviled eggs stuffed with oysters and crab, my dad's famous slow-cooked pork shoulder, rolls, assorted chips, soda and beer -- the soda to quench our thirst, the beer to celebrate the first keeper.
Slightly resembling a benevolent Captain Quint from the movie "Jaws," Hoot is a master fisherman with stories and kind advice for anyone, whether an expert, novice or just passenger. His charters include bait and tackle. Buster, Hoot's mate, handles the technical tasks, such as cutting bait, making chum, untangling lines and answering a lot of crazy questions.
On the water, you can see bald eagles and great blue herons flying overhead and skate swimming beside your boat. Always the first to spot something, my dad taught me how to be on guard for nature's rare finds, those animals we don't see in our back yard.
For a long time, I had a difficulty telling the difference between a hit and the current. With an unusual show of patience, my dad taught me the difference.
"Now watch your rod," he'd say. "If it bends in one good snap, then you know. If it keeps going up and down, it's just the current."
Being the less patient angler, I'd reeled and cast several times until I got the hang of it. I still go through that ritual, patience being a lifetime study for me.
With Hoot we always catch fish. He knows where they like to swim, what they like to eat -- soft-shell crabs, eels, menhaden -- and when they like to eat it. Rockfishing is a true science with a little art thrown in. It's not simply a matter of casting and catching. You have to know where the fish are, what they like to eat and which works better on a particular trip, casting or trolling. Sometimes we do both.
Often I've been the only girl on board, which is fine, although my appalling upper-body strength is a standard joke. Still, the workout is well worth it. Reeling is great for the upper arms and casting is just plain fun.
Too superstitious to say much until we start catching some, we remain closelipped at first. After our first fish is caught, we make a toast and dig into our food. Then the stories start to flow, mostly about the monsters that got away in years past. Our refrigerator doors and photo albums chronicle the various keepers, some so big they almost hide our smiles when held up in front of us.
Our last season was bittersweet. My dad was not with us, having passed away suddenly just days before rockfish season began. We went ahead with our annual opening day trip with heavy hearts to honor his memory.
The water was calm to fit our collective mood and the day went slowly, but by late in the afternoon we were just two fish shy of our limit. I was the only one who didn't have one bite. Suddenly there was a hit on my line. I reeled in a 30-inch rockfish. I cast again. Within seconds I reeled in another -- 32 inches -- the biggest fish of the day.
It was a poignant moment, since our commander-in-fun wasn't there to see our catch.
Or maybe he was. I like to think so.