All the fishermen were present but one, which left the captain pacing the dock and muttering.
"We're losing it," he said. "Somebody go up and look for that guy. If he ain't here, we go without him. We're losing it right here."
Time was wasting. You wouldn't get many November chances that included sunshine, the softest northern breeze and the knowledge that a few miles across the Chesapeake Bay striped bass, looking for their morning meal, were ranging along rocky bottom in 15 feet of water.
At 7:15 Capt. Mike Sullivan fired up the twin diesels, cast off lines and left the tardy angler behind, wherever he was. By 9, sure enough, there were stripers in the catchbox and more lurking on the bottom, ready to strike.
To many Chesapeake anglers the catching of stripers, known locally as rockfish, is a dim, happy memory. A little over a decade ago the rock was the No. 1 sport fish on the bay, but Hurricane Agnes in 1971 and a number of other environmental factors conspired to all but remove it from the fishery, only temporarily, it was hoped.
Stripers never disappeared, but they became difficult enough to catch that most folks abandoned them in favor of more plentiful bluefish and sea trout. Yet there remains one time of year when the desirable rock still is vulnerable to hook-and-liners.
"It's the only game in town," said Sullivan, explaining why every November he moves his charter boat, Miss Dolly, from her summer slip at Chesapeake Beach up the bay to the Magothy River. "The trout and blues are gone. Nobody is catching anything from the mouth of the Potomac clear up to the Bay Bridge, so anybody who wants to fish has to come here."
Miss Dolly is part of a small fleet of charterboats that will finish up the year in pursuit of schooled stripers, which are migrating from their summer homes in tidal rivers to winter residences in deep holes in the middle of the bay.
Along the way they stop to feed near the mouths of the rivers, and that's where the great November interception takes place.
It's highly technical fishing, with the fish on specific spots and nowhere else. If you don't know the spots, you don't catch. On a good day, a boat can bring in anywhere from 20 to 60 stripers, mostly in the one- to four-pound range.
Sullivan nosed Miss Dolly from the Magothy and headed northeast across the calm, sun-washed bay toward Swann Point, where a few boats were trolling. He observed the boats with binoculars. "You use the glasses, the (marine) radio, the depth-finder and your instincts," he said. His instincts told him Swann Point wasn't producing. He headed north.
A few miles up the bay, Sullivan stopped on the edge of a shipping channel that had produced rockfish for him a couple days before. A few boats were working there, too, but no fish were coming over the side.
The charter party, a crew of White House electricians celebrating Veterans Day, put their rigs over the side and bounced the heavy sinkers along the bottom. Each rig consisted of a pair of tiny bucktails trailed on separate leaders 15 or 20 feet behind the sinker.
Don Stewart startled himself by hooking a fish. He cranked it in. Harold Jones got another and chuckled as he rolled it in. Frank Wallace caught one.
Two more stripers came over the side. Sullivan was giddy. Jones, who hadn't caught a striper in years, sat on the engine box and shook his head. "Catching fish in November," he mused, "and all of them stripers."
The rest of the fleet fell in behind Miss Dolly, the skippers of the other boats trying dutifully to match Sullivan's maneuvers.
Rockfish bite best when the tide is running right, and when it's wrong they clam up. About the time a dozen fish were in the box the ebb tide started to stream from the bay and though the fishing continued, the catching stopped.
After an hour Sullivan moved south to join a fleet of boats that were catching occasional fish off Swann Point. Nothing doing.
He moved up the Chester River, past miles and miles of commercial nets set to capture stripers, and fished some channel edges there without success. The electricians had signed on for a $175 half-day charter, so a little after noon Sullivan turned west for home. A winter wind was building.
He stopped along the way and trolled near Love Point. Nothing doing. He turned the boat to hold it on the channel edge. I felt my sinker hit bottom and stop. Stewart felt his hit, too.
"I think I'm snagged," I said.
"Think I am, too," said Stewart.
But when we raised the rods the tips danced, the sign of life at the other end. It was a double doubleheader, four stripers in all, two on each line, each about three pounds.
A perfect way to end the day.