It was another banner Chesapeake Bay fishing day, 1977 style. That means more bluefish than you know what to do with and, if you're lucky, a rockfish or two.
It hasn't always been that way. For decades, until three or four years ago, the Bay was a hotbed of rockfish action. The charter skippers could practically guarantee a basketful of the superb, tender eating fish.
Some blame the blues. These fierce, rapacious slashers eat everything in sight, sometimes even each other, and they do not coexist well with the docile rock.
Some blame Virginia laws, which permit anglers and netters to take big rockfish loaded with roe during their spawning runs up the Bay in early spring. Maryland closes the season on rock over 15 pounds from March 1 to April 30, then sets a limit of one per angler per day for the rest of the year.
Wyatt Dawson, who has fished the Bay since 1937, thinks pollution has a lot to do with it. He cites declines in crab populations and thinks back fondly to days when he could cast into shallow crab beds, using peelers for bait, and drag out big rock regularly.
"But the crabs are so scarce now that the rock arent' finding any food," Dawson said.
There was a tale making the rounds several years back about a group of Japanese marine scientists who visited the Bay and decided that properly managed, the Chesapeake could feed the entire Japanese population forever.
But it is not managed and maybe it never will be. Rockfish boom and go bust. Sea nettles thrive but the crab population dwindles; eel grass disappears; oysters are on a downhill slide.
There are organizations that keep tabs on these ups and downs, but no one knows what's going to happen. And the laws that might help to keep matters in check are a patchwork quilt from two states with different needs, philosophies and goals.
Late last month there was a three-day symposium of the four Bay-watching organizations that make up the Chesapeake Research Consortium. Scientists from the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, Johns Hopkins' Chesapeake Bay Institute, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and the Smithsonian Institution gathered to share their findings about the Bay.
It was the biggest effort in years to plumb the mysteries of the Chesapeake, and it may signal a new era of cooperation in management.
But there is strong opposition at the highest levels of both Virginia and Maryland state governments to a bi-state commission to regulate the Bay, though there have been recent signs of softening. In any case, it would be years, if ever, before that opposition could be overcome.
Meantime, the Bay manages itself. And the people who make their living or find their weekend peace on its murky waters must scratch their heads and hope for the best.
It has not been the best for Floyd Gross and the other charter skippers in the Middle Bay these past few years.
Gross had a good partly Wednesday, six firefighters from Baltimore-Washington International Airport who make it a point to fish with him once or twice a month each summer.
Gross does what he can for the men, but he can't promise them rock anymore.
He left the dock at 5:30, a half-hour before the other skippers. The yellow-pine bow of his 30-year-old Bay-built boat "Porky" cut a smooth path through the choppy waters before dawn.
By 6:30 we were rigged and ready to troll near The Gooses, markers six miles or so off the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant.
Gross had done well the day before on high-riding Tony Accetta spoons with only three ounces of lead. "The fish aren't deep," he said.
And they weren't. Within minutes came the first strike, a 10-pound blue nailing the hook on fire chief Jerry Henderson's line. The chief is an Oklahoman new to the area, and the power of the big blue took him aback.
It was rapid-fire action for the next hour and by 8 the bottom of the catch box was covered with blues ranging up to 15 pounds.
Then there was a strike on the deep line and Gross knew his day was complete.
The fish had none of the fiery fight of the blue. It simply took the lure and settled in for a muscle showdown, heading hard and firmly for deep water.
Unfortunately for the fish, on the other end was 250 pounds of Bradley (Duke) Carpenter of Laurel.
"That's a rock," howled Gross. "Get the net."
And sure enough, without fanfare, without surface-breaking leaps and circus tail-walks, the rock came to the net.
Years ago it would have been one of many, a fine 12-pounder that would have whetted the anglers' appetite for more.
This day it was a prize, the only one of the day, and the firemen agreed to take it back to the firehouse and cook it there.
"That's the only way we can split this baby up, fair and square," said Carpenter.