What is a summer without fishing? Without making a pilgrimage, tackle box in one hand, fishing pole in the other, to a body of water, almost any body of water, as the day cools and the sun swells and evening gives way to night?
And what is fishing without hooking a big, fat snag?
It's Stacey Jones's turn to find out, again. For the second time in 15 minutes or so, Jones whips his fishing rod from side to side, jerks it up and down, bends the rod's tip into a dangerous-looking, upside-down "J." And still the fishing line, a faintly lavender strand of 20-pound test, goes straight down into the leafy murk of the Patuxent River's bottom. There it has caught something other than a fish, and there it is destined to remain with its lure, a brand-new spinner, long after Jones has given up and cut the line.
"This is the stuff you never see on fishing shows," Jones said. "Every cast of the boat, they catch a whale. I may catch a snake before it's all over."
Jones, of course, is being philosophical. Fishing does that to you.
This is what he has come to expect of fishing since he went with a buddy a few years ago on the Chesapeake Bay. His buddy knew the captain, who knew how to find the fishing hot spots around Solomons Island like the back of his hand, etc., etc. They conjured visions of hitting school after school of bluefish, of filling their coolers with enough bluefish to toast themselves and their friends with a fish fry, of bluefish in biblical numbers practically hurling themselves into their boat. They had chartered the vessel at $50 a head. By the end of the trip, he and his buddy had netted five bluefish, maybe.
So this is what he has come to expect of fishing, as he casts his line on a recent night from a dock near Waysons Corner: snags, bugs, bad luck -- and he loves it just the same.
"Whether you catch something or not, that's not the point," said Jones, 39.
The point, if there is one, is tranquility. Along the banks, the blossoms on the honeysuckle bushes are long since ruined, but the air still smells sweet. Several days of rain have left the river fat and brown, about the color of creamy coffee. Mist hovers near the water's surface in wisps, giving the landscape a soft focus. A red-winged blackbird calls from a dead tree in the water. A beaver chugs downstream.
"I guess I just want to be somewhere where things are moving slow," Jones said. As he talks, his thumb absently plays with the fishing line as if it were a banjo string.
Out here, even with the Route 4 bridge overhead droning nonstop with the traffic of commuters hurrying home, Jones can get away for a while from the stresses of work, such as a day spent training 42 Montgomery County firefighters in Rockville. There is time to daydream about the days when his father, a swing shift worker at a paper mill in Virginia, took Jones fishing when he was a boy. There is time to think about the camping trip Jones has planned with his 13-year-old son, who lives with Jones's former wife in Georgia. Time lingers beside the river, the moments marked only intermittently by the ringlets on the water's surface that open, expand and vanish.
It doesn't matter that a jet flies in overhead for Andrews Air Force Base. It doesn't matter that he has two snags and no fish. It doesn't matter that the water breaks with a fish jumping 15 feet away as if in spite.
Thinking of the days when he would go to Kent Island, in the Chesapeake Bay, to find repose while staring at the "Babylon" on the side of the bay he left behind, Jones said he thinks the sight of water alone, any water, has a calming effect. Someday, he said, he would like to own waterfront property so that he can stare at it whenever he wants to. But for now, fishing on the Patuxent will have to do.
"That's the kind of thing you think about -- the kind of stuff you can do with your son or daughter," Jones said. "Do nothing. Talk about stuff. Talk about nothing."
The only thing better on a summer night, he said, might be sitting on the porch of his house in Upper Marlboro watching a thunderstorm.
"Around here, people spend so much time trying to make a living, they forget how to live," Jones said.
Stacey Jones of Upper Marlboro fishes more for the tranquility than for the fish: "Whether you catch something or not, that's not the point."