There is a supremely happy place down here at the end of the world, a place where life refuses to gnaw at the spirit and where people willingly share. They pass their days in the lazy sun, content to watch the water, rising occasionally for a bit of exercise. By night they sleep out under the stars or retire to a mattress inside a van. Few are actually friends, but all are kinsmen--bound together by the culture of bluefish.
Anyone who has ever pursued bluefish in Maryland's waters knows of Point Lookout State Park, the curving finger of land--it is about 200 yards wide--that marks the grand juncture of the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. Those who have actually visited the park, however, also know its most curious, most wonderful habitat. I mean the causeway, that narrow stretch of road where, every weekend, hundreds of sportsmen park their well-stocked campers, take out their lawn chairs and coolers, set up their rod holders and proceed to do what man and woman were put on earth to do: relax.
"The causeway is its own little community," park manager Daryl DeCesare told me one afternoon. "If I were to get my doctorate, I'd write about the causeway." He laughed as the title of his dissertation came to him. "The Causeway People."
The next morning, before dawn, I went in search of them. Down I drove toward Point Lookout, down through that dark frontier whose road signs--"Bloodworms," "Alewives," "Chum"--confirm the falling away of business as usual. I entered the park, drove through a forest of pine, past the official campsite, rounded a bend, and found myself suddenly, utterly there: perched on a strand by the fragrant, lapping bay.
At first all I heard was the roll of gentle waves. All I saw were broad, hazy gradations of blue, yielding across the water to a paleness in the east. Then the place itself rose, in distinct, shadowed shapes.
Here was the road, a strip perhaps 50 feet across, bounded on one side by a marshy lake and on the other by the bay. It ran for several hundred yards before curving off into the woods again, down toward the point. And here, parked on the shoulder just inches from the bay, were the trucks, the cars, the campers--sunken in sleep.
And I began to see the sleepers, too. A young couple lay comfortably blanketed on the road's shoulder beside the bay, a half-empty beer bottle at the head of their casual bed. A woman, hugging her blanket about herself, had managed to fold her body into the awkward angle of her plastic lounge chair. Families lay together among their rod racks, gas stoves and nets. One man slept on the wide rear fender of his camping rig, as peaceful as a hobo asleep between railroad cars.
It was after the sky had lightened and most of the people had begun to rouse that I met Thomas Rodgers. Rodgers, who has been coming to Point Lookout from his home in Annapolis for about 14 years, and who this season has made the trip almost every weekend, is what ranger DeCesare would call "one of the diehards, a hard-core fisherman."
But there is nothing hard about Rodgers, except for his build. At 61, he is a sturdy man with a physique befitting a bricklayer of some 40 years experience. The rest of the man is pure enthusiasm and simple joy.
"They call me The Midwife," he laughed, explaining that he has gotten a reputation for ministering to skates, which bear their young live. The skate (or cow-nose ray, the species depends on whom you talk to) is a flat, triangular fish with a whip-like stinger-armed tail. Skates are as heavy as boulders and fight like bulls. They get caught by swallowing bluefish bait, and increasingly, they are welcomed. The fishermen keep the wings, from which they cut "plugs." Some say the taste is hard to tell from scallops.
Rodgers is often asked to help land a skate, because he has an exceedingly long net. He lengthened it himself, drilling holes through the pole and bolting on another length. He will watch as the skate is dismembered. But before the wingless torso is shoved back into the bay to feed the crabs, he will examine the creature. He has learned to recognize pregnant females, and, when he finds one, he'll cut a flap from the belly, break the victim's water sac, and deliver the baby. He's delivered eight so far this year.
Of course, Rodgers would rather deal with bluefish, and he is particularly well equipped to do so. He has transformed his Ford pickup into a self-contained fishing camp. The truck's fiberboard "cap," which he made himself, encloses a one-room cabin, complete with built-in bed, built-in shelving, refrigerator, gas stove, curtains, portable television (there is an antenna on the roof), and Rodgers' very own patented fish alarm.
The alarm allows Rodgers to fish all night or take a nap during the day. When a fish tugs at his line, a set of wires running through a hole in the fiberboard will set off a battery-powered buzzer and flash a big light bulb. Since The Midwife has been known to sleep through the alarm, however, he is working on a refinement. The alarm will also be connected to a tape recorder, which will shout in his ear, "You got a fish! You got a fish!"
Rodgers does catch his share of fish. Last year--a good year by everyone's account--he hauled in an 18-pound slammer, the term for a big blue. And one day in late August he and a friend caught 96 snapper blues (the little ones) in the space of an hour and a half.
Some people I know find it jarring to think that here at land's end, where one might wish to commune in solitude with the deep sense of limits and the equally deep sense of limitlessness, the roadway should be strewn with recreational vehicles. True, on a hot Saturday afternoon the causeway does tend to look a little bit like a transplanted stretch of suburban sprawl. It's "rod-to-rod" fishing, as the regulars say. Lines get tangled all the time.
But, strangely, tempers seldom flare down here. After talking a while with Thomas Rodgers, I strolled along the causeway and watched its rituals and folkways. I saw that those who decided to give up and leave invariably offered their remaining bait to their neighbors.
This being fish culture, I also heard plenty of stories. Harry C. Rupert of Ingleside, Va., told me how just a few weeks before, a bluefish had snatched his rod right out of its rack. "Believe it or not, that rod sailed out of here like an arrow. A college kid went in after it, but he couldn't catch it. It was just a ripple moving through the water."
I believed Rupert, for Daryl DeCesare had told me the day before that hundreds of rods are lost each year. Blues strike fast and hard; if the drag on your line isn't loose enough, your rod may be gone before you even have time to drop your beer.
I also heard tales of "feeding frenzies," those fabled, hysterical moments when immense schools of blues come in, chasing schools of alewives or other bait fish. Rupert told me that once the panicked alewives were fleeing so furiously that they jumped right up onto the causeway--"You could have taken a rake and raked them up."
And DeCesare described for me a frenzy of blues. "It was pandemonium. They were churning out there, boiling the water, about 100 yards offshore, and heading right for the causeway. They were like little torpedoes. The people were frantic. Some of them, instead of throwing their lines out, were just running back and forth, shouting, 'Look at that! Look at that!' "
I learned, too, about the healing powers of the very air down here. Rodgers sagely insists that the salt air helps his spinal arthritis. And Rupert, who is 68 and retired, gives the air credit for the nights of sound, refreshing sleep he enjoys at the park campsite.
The great art in the culture of bluefish, of course, is the art of waiting. As the sun rose higher on the day of my little pilgrimage, as the warm rays and easy roll of the tide began to induce their peculiar serenity, I saw how people moved their chairs into the strips of shade left by their cars and vans.
Some dozed off, knowing that if their lines began to bend, a neighbor would wake them. That's the way life is on the causeway. As Rodgers told me, standing beside his home-rigged truck, the first rule of fishing is patience. I asked him what the second one was, hoping to hear some folklore about bait or casting or the secret life of bluefish. The Midwife thought and told me: "Courtesy."