Robbie Robinson grew a Solzhenitsyn beard over the summer. Now this veteran Chesapeake waterman not only has the heart of a poet, he has the face to go with it.
September brings a smile to Robinson's face because it carries the promise of change, and change is the basic appeal of the water -- the way the wind picks up with a shifting tide, the way the water clears as winter advances, the way the Bay darkens beneath storm clouds.
A crab comes up on the fishing line, clinging to a chunk of bait. Robinson measures him by eye. "Nice one," he says.
"He'll be nicer when he sheds one more time," someone suggests. But this crab is done shedding, says Robinson. By the time the next full moon comes around, this crab will be buried deep in the mud somewhere, hunkered down for winter.
Oystering season opens Tuesday. "Oystering opening day?"
"Nope," Robinson says. "Maybe the next week. Right now oysters is nothing but water. It takes a good cold snap to fatten 'em up. Daddy used to say the first killing frost did it."
Robinson will be oystering this winter. He put together a half-hearted bid for a shoreside winter job but it didn't pan out, which no doubt relieved him mightily. "It's hard to find work on shore," he said. "I looked all around, even went over in St. Mary's County, but I couldn't find a thing."
So it'll be life on the water when the northers blow. He'll be hand-tonging around the mouth of the Patuxent River in a 20-foot outboard skiff. He and his dad used to use his father's larger, Bay-built boat, but his dad has passed the age for oystering. The boat has been sold. Robinson will oyster alone in a small, cold boat.
"It's honest work, I'll say that. It keeps you honest. When you get done a day hand-tonging you don't want to go running around to any bars. You want to go home and sleep. Many a night I've gone to bed so sore I had to hang my arms over the edge of the bed just to get to sleep. Then you wake up at 6 in the morning, get your breakfast and go out and do it again."
A good day tonging oysters would bring five to seven bushels, the dock price being $10 a bushel. You don't get rich, but it keeps you out of trouble, Robinson says.
He's a confirmed bachelor. If he had a dependent it would be his own 42-foot Bay-built workboat, Miss Regina II, which is immaculate. He won't foul it with oyster mud and spat. It's strictly for fishing. But fishing hasn't been kind to Robinson this year. He books sport-fishing charters out of Solomons, but for unknown reasons business has been in a tailspin.
"Bad this year, too," he said. "In August we had the (sea) trout over in Hooper Straits so thick I could barely get the boat home some nights, we were so loaded up. I phoned all my parties, but even then I couldn't fill out my bookings."
Now the trout are scarce again, though Robinson expects them back for a couple of weeks before the cold sets in in earnest. But bluefish are on the rampage.
Fall is a beautiful time on the Chesapeake, particularly around Solomons and nearby Point Lookout, where the shoreline remains largely woods and where the bright colors of autumn ring the water.
It is a fine time to fish. Bluefish and sea trout stage a last feeding fling before debarking for deep ocean waters. Crabs are plentiful, though the commercial crabbers have largely put up their pots and rigged for oystering.
The high sport of fall fishing is marked by the arrival down the rivers of striped bass, which spend the summers upriver in fresh water and return to deep holes in the Bay in winter.
In September and October stripers are on their way to those deep holes, and they stop to feed at all the appropriate way stations. Robinson has a few staked out at the mouth of the Patuxent, where on a cool autumn day he can take his boat into shoal waters and work the rocks and dropoffs, trolling bucktails or drifting soft crab with the tide in pursuit of the highly desirable striper, known to Marylanders as the rockfish.
He showed me one spot, below the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant, where the water shoals up to six feet over rocks. "One fellow got 20 stripers in here last week, up to 20 pounds," he said. "You have to watch yourself or you'll run your boat onto the rocks."
We trolled up and down the rock ledge, jigging bucktails forcefully. Each time I dropped the bucktail back I tensed. I could almost feel the strike of a big fall striper. But it never came.
"This kind of fishing, you want a nice frost in the air," said Robinson. Words of a poet, who knows how things ought to be.
Bluefish and sea trout should remain in profusion south of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge for the remainder of September, and most longtime saltwater sport fishermen regard this and May as the pleasantest seasons on the Bay.
Last week my wife and I trolled the area around the mouth of the Choptank for blues and managed to bring home enough for the neighborhood. With Robinson, we brought in a small bunch of blues and three sea trout. If he had concentrated on blues, we could have loaded the boat.
Around Point Lookout the bluefishing in September usually explodes. Catches of up to 300 blues to a boat have been recorded.
But the charter fleets largely stay home after Labor Day, victims of declining interest despite the general abundance of fish.
Some charter boat headquarters worth contacting: ABC charters in Deale, Md.; Rod 'n' Reel in Chesapeake Beach; Bunky Charter Boat Marina in Solomons; Scheible's in Ridge. All have licensed captains and boats available. But the days are dwindling down.