Anywhere sport-fishing fleets gather is prime territory for jabs, jibes and insults. Fishing may not be a competitive sport, but when 30 captains push out of the same dock to search the same waters for the same fish, the ones who come back with their coolers full make no secret of it.
Down at the Rod 'n' Reel dock in Chesapeake Beach only a few captains are still sailing, the brunt of the season having passed. Still, idle skippers like to drift down on weekend afternoons to watch the diehard boats come in.
On Sunday they gave Capt. Mike Sullivan the looney-of-the-month award. They chuckled and guffawed as he limped home from a storm-tossed sea. Then Sullivan opened the fish box and had a chuckle of his own.
Serious skippers at the Rod 'n' Reel have come to expect an autumn run of sea trout in midbay. This year it never happened. "We had some good days," said Sullivan, who runs the twin-diesel Miss Dolly, "but it was never anything you could count on. The minute you thought you had 'em figured out they'd disappear."
Normally the run starts in late August and continues into early October as sea trout pile up over oyster bars and gobble bait and lures. Sullivan promised to call me as soon as that happened so I could come along and shoot pictures. He didn't call in August or September.
He called Oct. 17 at 10:18 p.m. to say, "We got 'em, finally."
He'd caught 38 sea trout up to 12 pounds that mild, sunny day, trolling in 55 feet of water at a place in the middle of the bay called the Winter Gooses. He'd been exploring with a couple of friends when they made the find. Like almost all the Rod 'n' Reel boats, Sullivan had no fishing party booked the next day. He and his friends decided to go back for more.
I called marine weather. Southeast winds, the man said, 10 to 20 knots, shifting in the evening to northwest, 20 to 30 with gusts to 40 -- typical wild fall conditions on the Chesapeake.
When Miss Dolly nosed out of the breakwater Sunday morning it was death valley days revisited. The sea piled up in steep combers, hurried along by the southeaster, and the big bay-built workboat groaned up the front of the rollers and plunged down the back side.
Sullivan set the diesels at 3,000 rpm and felt Miss Dolly shake as she rammed into a hole. Green water came over the bow. He backed off to 2,500, then 2,200, 2,000 and finally settled at 1,700 rpm, loping speed. "Come on, Nellie-belle," he whispered to the boat. "Hold together."
Ninety minutes later he eased the throttles to idling speed. Four other boats were near the Winter Gooses, a lump in the bay floor. "None of 'em are where the fish are," Sullivan said.
But when the others saw Sullivan put his lines over they headed his way. Word of his catch the day before was out.
George Coleman, Miss Dolly's backup captain; Dave Logan, a friend of Sullivan's, and I manned the rods. Each line had two small bucktail lures rigged over sinkers of 16 to 28 ounces, to keep the lures near the bay floor where the trout lay.
We had two strikes almost instantly and lost both fish.
It was rough going. The tide ran against the wind, keeping the seas high. When gusts came you could see little williwaws whipping across the tops of the combers. Our job was to man the rods constantly, bouncing the sinkers off the bottom and keeping the bucktails moving.
Sullivan's job was to keep the boat over a hill of hard bottom no more than 50 feet wide, running the boat as slowly as possible.
With the wind astern the boat went too fast, so we dragged a bucket to slow it down. Against the wind we barely made headway with one engine. Gusts pushed the bow side-on to wind and current.
On one of those unintentional sideways jaunts all three rods went down with sea trout strikes. Success!
Miss Dolly pitched and rolled and gasped and groaned through three hours of trolling side-on to wind and wave. The "talent" in the stern, as Sullivan called us, lost as many fish as they caught. The wind kept rising. We were battered and bludgeoned by the motion of the boat and impatient to crank in fish when they did strike.
At last Sullivan turned for home. "We haven't even had the best of it yet," he said. "The tide hasn't changed. But this is ridiculous."
Miss Dolly ran home with the wind on her transom and scudded down steep waves into harbor. The naysayers were waiting on the dock, slapping each other on the back and popping beer-can tops.
They thought it was pretty funny that anyone would try to slow-troll for trout on those stormy seas. Funny, anyway, until a dozen fat sea trout came out of the fish box.
There's no telling how long the trout may stick around before heading to their winter homes at sea. Sullivan guesses it'll be three weeks or so, but he's been wrong on trout all season. When they go, it'll be winter blasts that drive them out.
The northwester arrived that night, as predicted.