The tarred road on the way to Nanjemoy Creek starts just before Welcome Acres. It passes the Welcome Mission, then the plowed fields and tobacco barns. Two deer sprint across the road. A dirt lane winds down to the water where J. Willard Dutton keeps his boat.
Dutton is a last angry man for all seasons, a stocky outspoken trapper, waterman, farmer and philosopher whose mission this morning was to catch as many perch as possible before the winds welled up to blow them out to deep water, beyond the reach of the staked nets close to shore.
"Oh, Lord, we got some forbidden fruit out there this morning," Dutton, 65, said as he steered his flat-bottomed bateau into the broad creek with the Indian name that feeds into the Potomac River.
Dutton was fishing for perch because the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, or DNR (which he says stands for "Destroyer of Natural Resources"), has banned the taking of threatened rockfish to allow the supply to be replenished.
His was the only commercial fishing boat on this body of water in Charles County, whose watermen's association -- once headed by Dutton -- is defunct.
Life is difficult these days for men such as Dutton who cling to the rural ways in the Washington metropolitan area. The oysters are long gone from the upper tidewater reaches of the Potomac. Muskrat trapping for meat and pelts has declined along with the marsh grass, possibly from pollution. The farms are being subdivided or sold to speculators.
"Life in this country down here used to be trapping in the winter, fishing in the spring, farming in the summer, oysters in the fall," Dutton said. "They drove us out of the river. So much of the marsh hadn't changed for so long; it's naked now. I didn't have but three or four dozen traps set this year. The marshes were very poor. You haven't got the land. You got houses clear up to here."
Dutton himself sold 190 acres of his farm adjoining Prince George's County, keeping 17 acres around his house but leasing back land to grow six to eight acres of tobacco, a cash crop for him and his tenant farmer. The new sewer line skirts the land he once owned, making growth inevitable, he said.
When he returned from war 40 years ago, the county had 15,000 people, he said. By 1970 it had 47,678, and by 1980, 72,751. And the number is expected to grow again in 15 years to 120,965.
"I don't even like to go to Waldorf; there's too much traffic up there," Dutton said. "If I go to Washington, I get someone else to drive."
A Republican, Dutton recalls when a majority of the county's voters was similarly registered, thanks largely to the loyalty of local blacks to the party of Abraham Lincoln. All that has changed now and Dutton, an unsuccessful politician who twice lost bids to be a county commissioner and once a state senator, sits on the county planning board at the sufferance of two Democrats.
He is often the dissenting voice on the board, "the one that wears the black hat. I'm the one who says no."
He also relishes the role of unofficial gadfly at the monthly meetings of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, the bistate agency that rules the river. While he opposes the rockfish ban, he is often at odds, too, with many of his fellow watermen.
"They're always talking about modernizing," he says. "Hell, you modernize anymore, we will be out of business."
So there he was on Nanjemoy Creek, which he has worked for 50 years, doing things the old-fashioned way. Dutton brought his boat up to poles to which the fyke net -- a 12-foot cylinder of netting and metal hoops -- was tied. He and Thomas Chisley, his helper, pulled the net up and dumped its contents on board.
They did this three times, throwing back the small perch under the legal eight-inch limit, and a handful of rockfish -- known outside Maryland as striped bass, for their zebra-like markings. They also checked a catfish net anchored offshore and located only by a landmark. The catch: two bushel baskets of white perch, weighing 124 pounds, and four catfish weighing 8 pounds.
"We should be catching more fish than that, but the other day we didn't have 15 pounds," Dutton said. "The weather's been so common -- cold, wind blowing, tides low. When we first set the nets out here three weeks ago, there was plenty of fish. Then nobody was catching anything except that damn rock, which there aren't supposed to be any of them."
The shoreline looked pristine and uncluttered, but to Dutton it was neither. Once there were two farms totaling 3,500 acres. One was a slave-breeding farm before the Civil War, he said.
"Now, it's all cut up in lots and sold off," Dutton said. "What's built up is back up the creek."
In his time, he said, oystering thrived on the river almost to the mouth of the creek. Then Hurricane Agnes in 1972 washed away the oyster beds. And the watermen declined with the catch.
"It's hard to part a waterman and his money," Dutton said.
Dutton was born in Indian Head, where his father, a businessman, went bust in the Depression. The family then turned to farming, especially tobacco. The tobacco barn that still sits back in the woods was raised by Dutton and his brothers in 1935, "when you counted the nails you used."
Dutton no longer strips his own tobacco. It's not the manual work of ripping the leaves from the stalks, then bunching them together into "hands" that bothers him. It's just that lately he is allergic to dust. So John Ford, a tenant farmer for 28 years, does the job and he and Dutton split the proceeds. When Dutton sold his land, he arranged for Ford and his family to remain.
This year, the tobacco buyers come to the barn to buy the crop, saving Ford and Dutton the cost of trucking it to market in La Plata. At $1.50 a pound, Dutton figures that he did okay.
On Dutton's coffee table are copies of the National Fisherman and Cooperative Farmer. The sign on his side door says: "Charles County -- A Nice Place to Live."
But Dutton worries and wonders how much longer that will be true.