On most weekends, Joe Woodson looks forward to working in his yard, going to church, and settling back to watch some television. While chatting with a neighbor a few weeks ago, he was told about an upcoming fishing tournament on the Chesapeake Bay, and the two began rehashing fish stories.
Woodson said he was a "pretty good" fisherman who had caught his share of perch and snapper. But now they were talking about saltwater fishing on the Chesapeake, and Woodson decided it was time to explore what he would later describe as a "whole new world."
For William Patton, a charter boat fishing trip sounded exotic, a long way from the hustle and bustle of driving a cab through Washington's congested traffic. His wife, Helen, thought it would be a nice change of pace from the life of a retired government employe. But she didn't know much about fishing, or so she led her tournament teammates to believe.
In all, 132 people--small businessmen, government employes, retirees and students out of school for the summer--decided to try their hand at fishing on the bay, taking time off from jobs that rarely let them get outside the city.
It was billed as the second annual Jerry Phillips Fishing Tournament, named for a WOL radio station personality who grew up in Southern Maryland. The main purpose of the trip, Phillips said, was to introduce more Washington residents to the serene world of the bay, so close yet so far away.
In that spirit, the Phillips fishing tour loaded onto 32 boats and headed out into the bay from Deale, a tiny town about 30 miles from Washington.
The fishing boats pulled out as the fog burned off the bay, blue-green suds churning up in the wake as sea gulls skimmed the waters. There were seven poles to a boat and the rules of the tournament were set: The biggest, the smallest and the most fish would win their captors television sets and radios. Plus, there would be a giant fish fry at the end of the day.
"Anything bigger than a black-eyed pea is game," said George Smith, an outdoor vendor at North Capitol Street and Missouri Avenue. But he also had a contingency plan. "If I can't catch fish," he said, "I'll catch some sleep."
Indeed, a day of trolling along the bay proved restorative, and people sometimes began laughing for no apparent reason. The sun was a sedative and many just snoozed the day away. Although there was plenty of boat traffic, there were no traffic jams; no red lights and stop signs.
"When I told my family I was going fishing instead of to church, they thought I was crazy," said Oliver Bell, who works for the Litton Medical Systems. "I just couldn't miss this fishing trip. They are supposed to have wheat fish out here--sweetest fish in the water."
The water was alive with crab traps and nets, coal barges and tugboats, waterskiers and sailboats. The boats cruised the water for hours and fishing reels cried out as the bluefish bit. There were tales about the ones that got away--always two arm-lengths long. But almost everybody caught something this day, even if it was something that was three inches long.
When the time came for the weighing in and awarding of prizes, the talk got tough. "Put those little bitty things up," said one man hauling a big box of fish. "Everybody!" he cried. "The contest is over."
The fishermen had consumed a lot of beer, and the banter was characteristically lively. With fish flung over their shoulders and with others so large they had to be dragged across the ground, the fishermen boasted of the winnings that were sure to be theirs. The arguments served to prove that while you can take people out of the city, you can't take the city out of them.
"Mine is the biggest," the man continued.
But a contest judge scanned his fish and exclaimed, "The rules say only bluefish--and that's not a bluefish. So you're disqualified."
A roar of laughter went out as the man was left holding the dead fish.
As is always the case, those who didn't catch any fish had the best excuses for losing.
"Our boat captain rode around in circles," complained one man. "Our driver went too fast for the fish to catch up," said another.
The best excuse came from the crew of the Queen Mary, who had renamed their boat the African Queen for the day. They forgot to put the hooks out, they said. They just drank beer and went to sleep.
As it turned out, the winner of the big fish contest was Helen Patton, whose husband William lugged her 19-pound bluefish up to the weigh station. "I didn't know she could fish," he said.
Mark Middletown, captain of the Bay Runner, on which the Pattons were fishing, was thrilled that once again he had proved his knowledge of the bay. Two years ago, a crew member on his charter boat, a 14-year-old youth, caught a 55-pound rockfish; that is still the state record.
"I would have been working in my garden," said Mrs. Patton. "But this was more fun."
"No comparison," said William Patton. "There's nothing like getting away from the city."