The adage is that the best time to go fishing is whenever you can, but men both wise and foolish keep trying to improve on that.
We present the great black drum caper of 1978.
Every spring the area around Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel at the mouth of the bay becomes a haven for saltwater fish moving into the estuary. Biggest of these fish is the black drum, often 75 pounds or more, so massive that the approved method for scaling one is with a garden hoe.
Shortly after black drum arrive they move a few miles up the bay and settle in for a brief feeding spree near a place called Cape Charles. The black drum fishing there has become so predictable the natives could set their calendars and navigational charts by it, if calendars and charts were things you set.
According to the 1981 "Salt Water Sports fishing and boating in Virginia," for example, the right place to catch drum is "around Buoy C10, about a mile straight off Cape Charles Harbor on the Eastern Shore. And the right time is almost always between the 5th and 25th of May."
The magazine also maintains that "Virginia's black drum probably offer East Coast anglers their easiest touch for catching a truly large fish." It adds, "Very little skill is needed. Novices are rewarded."
Just my speed.
All these impressive claims were backed up by reports from eyewitnesses. So about the beginning of March 1978, my fishing pal Gerry and I decided to give it a shot. When visions of 90-pound fish dance in your head in the still-dead of winter, you get a little excited.
"What date?" I asked Gerry.
We pondered a while and came up with May 2, for no particular reason.
I called King Creek Marina, from which several charter boats depart in pursuit of black drum, and asked Mary Walls, who does the booking, to set aside May 2 with her best skipper. She said fine.
If we'd simply sat back, toasted our wisdom and let it be, this would be a happy story. Of course we didn't.
Toward the end of March Gerry and I got the itch. It felf like spring; we ignored the fact that it always takes water longer to warm than air. Someone said flounder were biting at Wachapreague, where the Eastern Shore flatfish season traditionally begins. Off we went, bundled up and in a hurry.
And drove. And drove.
It turns out Wachapreague is about halfway to Charleston, S.C., but still somehow this side of Cape Charles. It seemed to take about 1 1/2 days to get there, though in fact it couldn't have been more than four hours. That's a long way to go, if when you get there, the natives look at you blankly and say, "flounder?"
They were right, and a cold day later we were on our way home emptyhanded.
The last thing Gerry and I agreed on was that we wouldn't repeat this fiasco with the black drum. If they weren't in, we weren't going.
I started calling Mary Walls about mid-April.
Black drum in yet?"
"They'll be in. Don't worry."
"But are they in yet?
By the end of April I was in panic -- four days to go and still only an occasional fish or two were being caught. Walls said conditions were getting right, that the drum could bust loose any day, but that's what marina operators always say.
On April 30 I called. No change. I began making apologies. "I'll call again tomorrow, but you have to understand. That's a long, expensive trip. We'll set it back a couple weeks. We'll do it next year . . ."
"You could be making a big mistake," Walls said.
On May 1 she reported that still only occasional fish were being boated. One last time she said, "These fish are ready to break out."
I told her they'd have to break out without me.
Two weeks later I called to see if the vaunted black drum run had ever materialized.
"Phillips? Aren't you the fellow from Washington? The fellow who was supposed to fish the second? Mister you made the biggest mistake of your life.
"My son and I went to Norfolk that morning. When we got back to the marina the boss was jumping up and down. He said everyone was catching drum. He told us to take his boat. Between 3 and 6 o'clock that evening we boated eight drum. My son had one 88 pounds and I caught one 80.
"The people who sat out there all day had so many they had to turn 'em loose. They couldn't get 'em all in the boat."
I called around just to make sure it wasn't sour grapes. Everyone said the same thing.
May 2, 1978, was the finest black drum fishing day in the history of Cape Charles.