Ted Slick picked a shiny herring from his gill net, turned it over and flicked it easily into a gray gypsum bucket halfway across the boat.
"I ought to 've been a basketball player," he said, grinning. "I ain't missed that herring bucket yet."
Slick could have been a basketball player or anything he wanted. At 6-foot-6 and an eighth of a ton, "who's going to stop him?" asked his father-in-law, Ivan Payne.
Slick elected 20-plus years ago to be a Potomac River waterman and take his livelihood from the broad, glassy waters in front of his house, 40 water miles downstream from Hains Point and the nationhs capital. Today he's one of the rare watermen on the East Coast who doesn't yearn endlessly for the good old days.
He'd doing just fine on the Potomac, thank you.
These are the easy days for Slick. He's only fishing a few nets for white perch, rockfish, striped bass and the occasional herring he can't avoid catching. Things haven't really begun yet.
Soon the rockfish run will start in earnest and he'll be battling to fish 2 1/2 miles of net and process up to 1,800 pounds of stripers a day. As that cycle hits its peak around mid-April the eels will arrive. Eeling makes up the backbone of Slick's operation. He'll be working dawn to dusk to set, bait and fish 250 eel pots while relatives work the fish nets.
Then there are 200 crab pots to set if the eeling ever drops off enough to give Slick time to crab.
"To tell the truth, between April and the end of November when we quit eeling, I hardly ever finish, really," Slick said. "Eeling is hard business. I'm usually up a couple of times in the middle of the night, checking the air and water pumps. A 70-cent pump goes out in one of the tanks and 3,000 pounds of eels could be dead in an hour."
Slick came to Fairview Beach as a lad in the early '50s. He started working the water for pocket money as soon as he was old enough to run a boat. By 10th grade he'd made up his mind. He quit school and went into fishing, eeling, oystering and crabbing fulltime.
He's wise enough now at 37 to regret not finishing school, but he's never regretted being a waterman.
"It's the only thing I know," he said as we set off from his house on the western shore with the rising sun in our eyes. "I've been my own boss all my life."
Slick has four boats now, the handsomest a fiberglass T-Craft that he uses for eeling. He fishes his nets from a sturdy old wooden skiff with a 40-horsepower outboard, and all his fishing is done within sight of home.
The Potomac is three miles across here, as broad as a bay. Years ago Slick obtained permits to fish the channels and flats off his home, which commands a 10-mile view of the Potomac.
Those permits have protected him over the years as more and more locals turn to the water when money is hard to find.
"Seems like all a guy has to do is lose his job and he's a waterman," Slick said. "He finds an old boat and a handful of net and here he is."
For Slick the work has been constant. Until 1971 it was year-round because there were oysters to carry him through the winter.
The freshwater intrusion and silting from the floods of Hurricane Agnes killed the oysters here and for 25 miles on downtstream, Slick said, and the shell fish never have regained a foothold north of Colonial Beach.
That gave Slick a little breathing room.
Now he starts in March and works through December, leaving January and February to repair equipment. He's been maintaining catch levels, but every year it becomes a little harder to do.
"When I was a kid we'd set five pounds of net and catch 1,000 pounds of rockfish. Today I have to set 50 pounds of net to catch 100 pounds of rockfish," he said.
That's about Slick's only complaint these days as he gears up for another season of exploiting the bounty of the Potomac. Eeling is his main business and he just plain loves it, partly because the resource seems so boundless. "I feel like I'm not hurting anything," Slick said. "Sometimes I feel a little guilty about catching rockfish, the way they've been going lately."
There are other benefits to eeling. Slick does it alone, which he likes, and he sets his pots for eight or 10 miles on either side of the river between Quantico and Nanjemoy creeks. That puts him in some uninhabited backwater.
"I'll show you some territory when we go eeling," he said, waxing lyrical about miles of shoreline with no signs of human life at all.
And eels bring a nice profit. They are gourment fare in some Western European countries. Slick sells them live to a wholesaler down river for 70 cents to $1.10 a pound. The wholesaler ships them overseas where they fetch up a $4 a pound.
On a good day Slick can bring in 800 to 1,000 pounds of eel, and the season lasts well into winter.
For now, the big man is enjoying the easy times. We fished his nets for three hours, feeling the warm March sun beat on our necks and listening to the wavelets lapping at the flat skiff bottom.
We didn't catch much-maybe 40 pounds of fat roe perch and 20 pounds of rockfish, plus a few herrings. But there is no great rush. The fish will arrive in time.
Slick puttered around from net marker to net marker, never pushing the big outboard past trolling speed.
"Sure I poke around out here," he said through a huge growth of bushy brown beard. "I'm not in any hurry." CAPTION: Picture, Ted Slick heads back home with a day's catch on the Potamac River, where he has been fishing for more than 20 years. By Angus Phillips-The Washington Post