Howard Crouch was tumbling into a pit of self-doubt when the untended deep lines went off with a screech.
We were three hours into a bluefish expendition and Crouch had lost everything he'd latched onto, and he'd latched onto more than a few. But we were matching light and ultralight gear against the tarpon of the north, and so far Crouch was losing the battle.
He's a proud man and when Captain David Rowe thrust the heavy, dancing deep rot at him, Crouch wanted no part of it. The other anglers bore in. "Grab it, Howard, let's break the ice."
He did and, while the others cheered him on, he cranked up the heavy meat line until the silver shadow of the big fish's slabsides was clear six feet down. Rowe manned the landing net and moments later, in a rush of flashing action, the 12-pounder was in the boat.
Crouch, a veteran bluefish angler on his first outing of the year, had regained his feel for the fighting fish. He went back to his own light line and started hauling them in.
Feel is a big part of success when you pit eight-pound test line against a rough-and-tumble ocean blue. And there's no better feeling in the angling world than underpowering yourself and still managing to land the big ones.
Most charter skipper don't go along with that. Show up for a blue or rockfish charter with a little crappie or trout rig and they'll give you a where-do-they-get-these-guys-and-now-they-find-me look.
Rowe is different. Over and over during our day at the mouth of the Potomac he'd look up from his chores to muse, "Hey, I sure get a kick out of watching you guys fight those fish with that light gear."
The day before he'd been at the opposite end of the spectrum. A party showed up with deep sea fishing gear, 80-pound test line and rods as thick as your finger at the tip. "They'd take three turns on the reel and the fish was at the side of the boat. It was downright dangerous. We'd get them in the boat so fast they still had all their fight," said Rowe.
That was one problem he wasn't having with us. By the time our fish were ready for the net they were practically dead from exharstion, and so were we.
The technique that makes all this possible is chumming, where bait fish are ground into a putrid mass of blood an guts and swept over the side bit by bit to lure fish to the anchored boat.
Most bluefishing parties in the Middle Bay are trolling adventures. Lures are tied onto heavy trolling rigs and the skipper idles about a prosperous-looking area waiting for blues to impale themselves on the moving hooks.
Trolling is reasonably productive but there's not much sport. Once the fish is on the line it's a simple matter of reeling it in.
Plenty of Lower Bay skippers favor chumming. They buy a trush can full of menhaden, which otherwise would go to a cat food factory. The bait fish are run through a motorized meat grinder and the resulting gruel is flicked off the stern to lure the big fish in.
The anglers cast cut bait or whole menhaden into this chum slick, and they can use their choice of gear. Our party was cutting it about as fine as you can, with rods ranging down to five-foot Fenwick ultralight and line as light as four-pound test.
Anyone who hasn't had a bluefish on a rig like that simply doesn't know what wonderful fighters they are.
I had one on the that still gives me goose bumps to think about, and it was one that got away. The others guessed it weighed about 13 pounds. All Rowe would say was, "That was a fine fish."
The blue took the bait up close to the boat and took a dive for deep water that had six-pound monofilament zinging off my little spinning reel. The run was straight for the bow and within seconds I was crawling forward to keep my line from fouling.
Just as I was running the rod under the anchor line the blue made its first leap, an incredible circus jump 150 yards out to sea. It hung suspended for seconds, dancing on its tail and shaking its shiny head in fury at the big hook.
The leap took its toll and the fight eased. Slowly I worked the big fish in, drawing the reel up to my ear, then easing it down and cranking in line. With 100 yards to go the big blue leaped again, this time shorter, but spectacular still. Again the hook held.
But with 50 yards to go and the fight clearly won, it ended as suddenly as it had begun. The line went slack; the fish was gone. I reeled in and found the terminal tackle intact. He just go off; heaven knows how.
Power to the fish, who gave a fight worth 50 bluefish meals and 100 successful landings on heavier gear. We were not short on food; we'd end the day with 70 blues in the boat. It was a fine day, but the thrill of that fight alone was reward enough.