SOLOMONS, MD. -- In the face of a two-year-old ban, they fished and crabbed the other night from the bulkhead of this rapidly evolving island on the Patuxent River.
Ken Rossignol caught no fish on his line in the hour-long "fish-in" he organized to protest the ban.
But Eric Scott had better luck crabbing off the bulkhead, filling half a bushel basket. Eric, 9, who lives up the street, wasn't part of the protest. He and his brother, Billy, 13, were there just to catch crabs, he said.
They were all risking a $25 fine by violating the ban instituted by the county at the behest of business owners unhappy over fishermen littering, loitering and taking parking spaces the merchants prefer to see filled by shoppers and restaurant-goers.
The parking lot and bulkhead face the lone commercial street on the tiny island. Formerly a fishing village, it has nearly 1,000 slips for pleasure boats, several bed-and-breakfasts and hotel rooms with Jacuzzis.
Although the debate over fishing is framed in terms of litter and crabs, the larger issue is the lack of public access to the mostly private shores of the Chesapeake Bay. "All the shoreline's been sold," said Naomi Bowers, hostess at the Solomons Visitors Center. "It's private. We need a public fishing place for people."
She said she sends would-be hook-and-liners over the Thomas Johnson Bridge and 30 miles down the road to a pier at Point Lookout in St. Mary's County.
This was the second "fish-in" organized this spring by Rossignol, gadfly publisher of the "Solomons Islander," an often tongue-in-cheek monthly newspaper that has undertaken a serious crusade against the bulkhead ban.
Thursday night, in addition to Rossignol and the young crabbers, there were three others fishing and about a dozen supporters and spectators.
To avoid a confrontation during the first fish-in on May 20, Calvert County commissioners had the "No Fishing or Crabbing" signs removed the night before and put back the morning after the protest. This time, law enforcement officers cruised by without stopping, despite official assertions earlier in the week that no infractions would be tolerated.
"When you get right down to it, I feel like there are a lot of things more important than maybe citing a person for catching a fish," said Lt. Eddie Bowen of the Calvert County Sheriff's Office. "Calvert County has a lot higher priorities than spending a whole lot of money and manpower on this."
Here in Solomons, 60 miles southeast of Washington, the issue has a high priority, however.
"It's been so much more pleasant, so much cleaner since the ban," said Joanne Kersey, Solomons native and owner of the Sandpiper Gift Shop. "There were mounds of trash every morning -- rotten chicken necks, dirty diapers."
Said her friend, Christy Blake, who owns another gift shop, "All of a sudden, we're the wicked witches of Solomons, and all we wanted to do was clean the place up. It looked like a band of gypsies had come down and taken over."
Rossignol, a Rockville native who lives in nearby St. Mary's, has attacked the bulkhead ban as an "elitist" effort by the merchants "to make room for the yuppies" by pushing out the mostly blue-collar fishing and crabbing crowd.
In so doing, he has angered other members of the Solomons Business Association, which briefly discussed excommunicating him. "The way Ken's going about it is not in everyone's best interest," said business association President Richard Fischer, who, like many Solomons business people, says he would like to see public fishing away from the shops.
Indeed, all factions are lobbying the state to open a pier under the Patuxent River bridge where it already operates a public boat ramp. But there's been talk for two years, and nothing official has happened.
So there they were, admittedly breaking the law to make a point.
They were not welcomed by Gladys Bowers, a Solomons native who supports the ban. She was especially angered by outsiders who had come to protest.
"Are you trying to tell me because I don't live here and pay $100 a night, you won't let me come over here with my children?" asked Betty Woods, who lives in St. Mary's County. "Where does she want us to take our kids?"
Bowers stormed off and Rossignol declared the event a success.
"They didn't gives us a citation or tell us not to fish, so I guess it's all right," said Rossignol. Then he reeled in his empty line, vowed to return until he hooks one and crossed the street to the Fishermen's Inn for dinner.