Doug Carson plopped himself down in the makeshift captain's chair, his black foul-weather gear slick and shiny with salt spray. "Welcome to the lower Chesapeake Bay, Maryland side," he said, chuckling.
Carson had reason to smile. He'd put a couple of city slickers on a run of big sea trout on a day when no sensible man would have left the house.
Indeed, the Lower Chesapeake Bay, Maryland side, was all ours this rambunctious, windy day. Even the big charter-boat skippers figured it wasn't worth the risk and discomfort to battle four-foot seas in unprotected waters near Tangier Island.
But to Carson, who makes his living tending crab lines when he doesn't have a fishing party, it was just another working day. If he hadn't taken us, he'd have been out alone in the dame broad-hipped skiff, hauling up pots full of blue crabs to take back home to Crisfield.
Carson is a rare bird among charter men. He loves to fish and he has his own way of doing it. If Curt Gowdy wanted to fish with him, Gowdy would just have to fish Doug Carson style.
What that means is climbing aboard the roughest cob of a crab boat and taking your lumps from mother nature. There's no windshield on Carson's 23-foot flat-bottomed T-Craft; there are no rod holders; there are not seats; there's no ice box; there's no spray rail or head or spare foul-weather gear. There are absolutely no creature comfort.
Almost as an afterthought as we left the dock, Carson grabbed a couple of old kitchen chairs, one plastic and chrome and the other a beat-up wood and upholstery model.
"Just put these back there and hold on," he advised, gesturing toward the stern. "You boys got any foul-weather gear"
With that, Carson gunned the 120-horse OMC stern-drive unit and ploughed into the seas. It wasn't 15 seconds before both anglers were soaked to the bone. Carson was neat and dry in a full set of souwesters.
The run out in the bay was a good 40 minutes. After five, I retreated to the bow and took a seat on the deck, where I was spared the spray but beaten unmercifully by the pounding hull.
"Might find it a bit rough up there," howled Carson. Uh huh.
The skipper had his spot picked. He was sighting in on landmarks from Tangier and Smith islands, checking the depth-finder to put us over a ledge where the deep-ship channel meets shoal water.
We set the anchor in the pounding seas and the nose of the boat pointed up into the wind. "This should do her," shouted Carson in the 20-knot winds. "We caught bushels of fish here last night. Course it was flat calm, not a ripple on the water."
Pitching and rolling, we fixed chunks of peeler crab onto bottom-fishing rigs and set to. Two hours later, we had the same baits on, not a fish in the boat.
"Funny thing about these fish. You can catch them by the hundreds in one spot, but if you move 15 feet away you won't get a bite. Think I'll move," said Carson.
Move we did, powering ahead until the anchor broke free, then dragging it behind till we hit our new spot.
It was 20 feet and a world away. Our lines had barely hit the soft, grassy bottom 40 feet down when Carson had the first bite. The rod tip leaped up as he set the hook by reflex. Moments later, we were cranking in the first of 50 handsome gray trout we would land by noontime.
The fish are strong fighters, as we would find later when we went after them unsuccessfully on ultralight gear. They have a tendency to run straight up once they're hooked, which leaves you scrambling to keep up and wondering at the same time whether the big fish is already off the line.
"I got him," Carson would say. "Oops, he's off. No, he's on, I think . . . Yeah, he's on . . ."
These fish were in the four-to 10-pound range. Many people consider them delicacies, but I found the meat mushy, whether broiled or baked.Next try frying: if that fails, bring on the chowder pot.
Sea trout, also called gray trout or weakfish, move into the bay about this time every year. They are not the same as speckled trout, which favor shallower waters.
The trout generally do not move into the middle bay for any length of time. Last year, there was a stretch of 10 days or so when they hit Bloody Point, across from Deale. The middle bay fishermen went wild, catching them by the boatloads on jigs. There is hope for a longer run this year in these northern waters.
Meanwhile, anglers looking for a shot at the king of the bottomfish in these waters can take the long ride to the lower bay - Crisfield on the Eastern Shore, Point Lookout or lower to the west.
If you go with Doug Carson, go prepared to be outfished. For prizes, there were two doubles (two fish on one line), one biggest fish, one first fish and one last.
Carson got them all.