If I was a young man today, I'll tell you one thing for sure. I wouldn't be doing this. Not if I could get a job doing anything else."
Buddy Beck, aged 62, his voice a hoarse bark, was stripping off foul-weather gear after a day fishing nets at the head of the Chesapeake Bay.
Beck and Booty Elburn and Joe Kendall have been together for years. Buddy and Booty and Joe-Boy. Just about all they've every known is boats and nets and when times are good, striped bass. They've seen the best and the worst of times, and right now is pretty close to rockbottom.
Anybody who knows anything about saltwater fishing knows that the striped bass is in trouble. Fishermen from the sandy shores of the Carolinas to the rocky coast of Maine have watched this great game and table fish all but disappear in the last five years.
Nowhere is it flet more fitfully than in the Chesapeake, the ancient home for stripers, the place they return to year after year to reproduce.
The striper is an anadromious fish. Its roots are in fresh water, lakes and streams from which it was forcefully removed thousands of years ago by the advance of the Ice Age.
Striped bass found a way to survive in saltwater, but every year they returned to the rivers to spawn.As much as 90 percent of the East Coast reproduction of stripers, or rockfish as they are knwon here, is thought to occur in the Chesapeake and its rivers.
For 10 years that reproduction hasn't happened, at least not the way it must to sustain the striper population.
In 1973, fresh on the heels of 1970's boom year in reproduction. Maryland net fisherman landed nearly 5 million pounds of rockfish. In 1978 they landed 1.2 million pounds. This year, through September, they had landed 440,000 pounds.
One would suspect, with figures like that, that commercial fishermen on the bay would be racing away from the water to find something else to do.
But there's a catch. In 1974, when Maryland netters gathered 3 1/2 million pounds of stripers, they sold them for a little more than $900,000. In 1978 the catch of 1.2 million pounds brought $1.2 million at market, the second-highest dollar value ever.
Says Joe Boone of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, "We're taught in school the theory of diminishing returns, but it doesn't hold up with stripers. The increasing price is what makes the whole thing worrisome. There apparently is no ceiling on what people will pay for striped bass."
Which brings us back to Buddy, Booty and Joe-Boy.
Every winter day when the weather is fit, they leave home hours before dawn to set the nets before first light, when the stripers are most likely to be on the move.
They fish whether or not they have any real hope for a catch. "You can't make any money sitting home," said Booty Elburn, who runs the boat.
Might not make any money here, either," he said, gesturing at the flat expanse of bay. 'But you've got to try."
By noontime the men had set and picked up the nets twice. Much of the nylon mesh was tattered from underwater snags. Where the nets were whole they collected occasional fish, about 150 pounds in all, generally in the pan-size to three-pound range.
The smaller fish would bring less than a dollar a pound at the wholesale market; the two- to four-pounders $1.60.
"By the time you figure the wear and tear on the boat, the gas bill, the damage to the nets and your own time you haven't made anything today," Elburn said.
"At least we had a pretty day."
There are those who think commercial fishermen are largely to blame for the decline in striped bass stocks -- that the constant pressure of the market is pushing the rockfish toward extinction.
They will be buoyed to know that fishing operations such as Elburn's are on the downslide. The cost of gearing up for the kind of year-round fishing he does, the severity of the work and concern about the future of stripers is turning newcomers away from this hard and chancy life. As the oldtimers fade, no one is likely to replace them.
Ten years ago Elburn and Beck and Kendall would have been watching their children gear up to take their places. But these men talk proudly about their offsprings' careers at the Acme store in Chestertown or with the state police.
Many enlightened marine-life watchers suspect the problem is much deeper than fishing pressure, anyway.
Stripers, like all fish, have an innate ability to repopulate massively, regardless of such variables as fishing pressure or unusual conditions that decimate their stocks.
The problem is that something is wrong with the striper's repopulation chain.
Biologists working in hatchery operations have found alarming numbers of female stripers whose eggs are not visible. Grass beds in the bay, which traditionally served as nurseries for juvenile rockfish, have been on a perilous slide, victims of changing conditions and the impact of Hurricane Agnes nearly a decade ago.
No one knows whether the worst of it is that the eggs aren't viable, perhaps because of polutants from the water up and down the coasts, or that successfully hatched juveniles are not surviving.
At a first step to unlocking the mysteries of the striper's decline, the federal government is undertaking a three-year study.
Sen. John Chafee (D-R.I.) shepherded a bill through Congress last year inaugurating the investigation and $1 million has been appropriated to get things going this first year.
The National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will collect data with the hope of unearthing the cause of the striper's decline, and perhaps establishing uniform standards and limits for commercial and sport stripper fishing up and down the East Coast.
Meantime the people who love to fish that coast, to whom the striper is and always has been the sweetest challenge, wait and wonder what this year will bring.
The huge cow stripers will return to the bay in only a few months, carrying millions of eggs apiece up the Chesapeake to the spawning grounds. This year will the spawn take?After a 10-year dry spell will there be a boom year to re-establish the diminishing stocks and turn striped bass into the No. 1 saltwater game fish in the East?
John N. Cole, author of the Popular book "Striper" and a close friend to the rockfish, has his doubts.
In the December issue of Outdoor Life he writes, "My own observations and my recent conversations with sportfishermen, charterboat captains, marine biologists, saltwater fishing reporters, surfcasters, tackle shop proprietors, commercial fishermen and individuals from Maryland to Maine who share my affection for the striped bass . . . result in one blunt truth. 'It don't look good,' one of my fishing companions of many years used to say, 'It don't look good.'"