Howard Tyson would like nothing better than to take his 8-year-old son fishing on the Choptank River bridge, but with traffic streaming by and only a short curb and sidewalk for protection, he hasn't the nerve.
"He wants to come so bad it hurts him," Tyson shouted over the din of an 18-wheeler speeding by two feet from where he stood. "But I can't bring him here."
Tyson is a bridge fisherman, a member of the humble fraternity of anglers who haven't the money for a fancy boat, but who want to fish the good spots anyway. His favorite haunt is the 1 1/4-mile, two-lane swing bridge over the brooding Choptank. He often drives two hours from his home in Baltimore to ply the river for its healthy supply of white perch, spot, rockfish, blues and blue crabs.
Tyson didn't know it, but next spring the state will start building a new Rte. 50 bridge over the Choptank, which will be a four-lane arc 100 yards from the old bridge, and will speed tourists to the ocean beaches.
Normally, that would spell the end for bridge fishermen, since you can't fish from a 50-foot-high bridge and even if you could, these days they don't build sidewalks along superhighways.
But because of unusual local interest in retaining the old bridge, and some 15,000 fisher-folks who use it, the Department of Natural Resources has offered to assume responsibility for the bridge.
After the steel swing section in the middle is removed and barricades are erected -- ending forever the bridge's usefulness for vehicular traffic -- the two ends will become the state's longest fishing piers, one 4,000 feet long, the other 2,000 feet.
Jerry Bandelin, director of administration for DNR's Tidewater region, said the piers will be the first ones designed and run by the state specifically for fishermen. He said money to operate them will come from the state's new $5 Chesapeake Bay fishing license, which goes into effect Jan. 1.
"With approval of Gov. Hughes' Chesapeake Bay initiatives by the legislature, we have funds for fishing improvements, like piers and fishing reefs, for the first time," said Bandelin. He said the only state piers used for fishing now are ones built to accommodate boaters at state parks.
State planners say the scheme actually could save money, with demolition costs set at about $2 million and development expenses likely to be less.
Tyson, imagining the tranquility of a bridge without traffic and the pleasure his son could have, thinks it's a wonderful idea. "Even if they charge $1, that ain't bad," he said. "Nobody would mind that."
The chat with Tyson was cut short when the tip of his fishing rod began a dance and he set to work reeling in two fat white perch, a doubleheader.
Others on the bridge shared his enthusiasm. "That's what they should do," said Bob Koerner, also of Baltimore, who had a bushel and a half of hard crabs and a few bluefish to show for his morning's travail.
"I just hope they have some place to get good bait," said James Beattie, who has been fishing the Choptank bridge with his wife, Nellie, for 25 years. The Beatties were struggling with mushy grass shrimp, bait which kept falling off the hooks.
Stewart White, who operates a restaurant in an old ferryboat beached on the Talbot County shore and a motel a half-mile up the road, said bait will not be a problem. It was White's idea to save the bridge, and he intends to open a tackle shop in the ferryboat to serve the crowds who come.
White said he grew concerned four years ago when the first proposals to replace the old bridge came up. He drove across the river one Sunday morning, counted 140 people fishing and decided the loss of that resource would be a shame.
White took his plan to the Talbot County chapter of the Izaak Walton League, a national conservation organization, and its board wrote Gov. Harry Hughes suggesting the bridge be turned into two piers. Three years later, Hughes' natural resources secretary, Torrey Brown, came to Talbot to speak and White bugged him about the plan.
"He said, 'Oh, we're going to take that bridge over,' " White recollected, "and then he pointed to the reporters and said, 'You can put that in the paper.' "
Brown's lieutenant in charge of the project is Joe Knepper, a DNR planner, who said the 15,000 anglers who use the bridge each year come for sport and for food. "With parking and better safety conditions, it would probably be more," Knepper said.
He said the new bridge will take two to three years to build. When it's done, the state highway administration will remove the old bridge's center span, erect the barricades and turn over the facility to DNR, he said.
In the meantime, DNR is working out plans for concessions, parking and parkland on both ends, and even dreaming a little.
Knepper likes the idea of roving golf carts to serve the bridge fishermen, and when he started thinking about it, he didn't see any reason why there couldn't be roving waiters, too, and rental beach umbrellas for shade; colored lights; little transit buses like the ones on the Ocean City boardwalk; booths selling food and mai tais; flags flapping in the breeze. "We could make it just like the Baltimore Inner Harbor," he said. "Why not?"
Bridge fishing might never be the same.