It took no time to spot the serious fishermen among the throngs of worm dunkers at Sandy Point State Park.
Along the broad band of coarse red sand and out on the jetties were scored of laid-back anglers, young and old, brandishing homegrown mismatches of fresh-water reels and three-foot whippy rods.
They were out for a lark on the long Labor Day weekend. "I don't care if I never catch a fish," said one. "It's just a lazy weekend, nothing to do. If I catch something I don't want I'm just gonna throw the whole mess back in the water, rod and all."
At the opposite end of the intensity spectrum was John Kim of Bowie. Legs spread, feel firmly planted in the soft ground, he stood guard over two immense surf rods which he had planed in the sand at a cove near the tip of the point.
Kim's paraphernalia was neatly arrayed on the beach. His tackle box was immaculate; the various sinkers he'd need to deal with the changing tides were set out in separate shelves; there was a tray of sparkling bucktails, a bucket for keeping fish "fresh, a cutting board. Off to the left he kept a big cooler, in it the cleaned remains of the five small to midsized bluefish he and his son had caught over the long afternoon.
Still, Kim was not satisfied. "I want to catch a big rockfish. That is my goal," he said firmly.
That's a longshot goal these days at Sandy point and at its sister state park, Matapeake, at the other end of the busy Bay Bridge.
As Jim Kirkley of Columbia was saying at the close of his fishing day off Matapeake's free fishing pier, "Six or seven years ago you could do pretty well on rockfish off Sandy Point in the fall. Now it's just a matter of luck."
If it is just luck, Kirkley and Kim are the ones likely to have it. They came equipped with the kind of gear to get out where the big fish might congregate. The folks with the little rods must accept severe limits on their prospects. Tiny spot and white perch are the best they're likely to do.
Even with the best equipment and the most serious approach, fishing off the beach near the Bay Bridge is iffy.
State Park Service Ranger Bob Nelson, whose beat includes both parks, figures the only way to be sure you'll be around when the big fish make a rare inshore run is to be out looking every day.
"Once in a while the blues will really come in here," he said, pointing to the crumbling pier at Matapeake."When they do the fishermen will tear them up." But the chances of lucking onto a big run are slim.
Still, Matapeake and Sandy Point offer close-by opportunities for Washington anglers to practice up on surf techniques, and the price is right.
Both parks are open 24 hours a day and do a good trade among night fishermen. There's no charge at Matapeake, but crossing the Bay Bridge to get there is a $2.50 round-trip expense. Sandy Point on the west side charges $1.50 per car.
One drawback is that neither place has bait and tackle for sale. Kim solves that by catching his own. He brings worms and catches spot with them, then cuts up the spot for bluefish bait.
"They won't hit anything else," he said. "We've tried squid, clam snouts, bucktails, surgical hoses, even cut bluefish. But they want cut spot."
For those who won't be content with the on-again, off-again fishing near the Bay Bridge, Point Lookout offers better surfcasting prospects. This park at the mouth of the Potomac, a two-hour drive from Washington, attracts some larger bluefish and big sea trout, as well. Recently a shore fisherman hauled in a 94-pound red drum, a rarity that still has the naturalists there scratching their heads.
And of course the real aficionados won't settle for anything less than the shifting sands of the North Carolina Outer Banks, where waves of blues, drum and countless other seafaring fish make success a tangible reality, especially during the coming fall months.
It's there that Kim got bit by the surf fishing bug, and that's where his thoughts rest, even as he works the difficult waters of the Bay.