Snowflakes the size of silver dollars were falling in the Potomac. And the wind had the bite of an ill-tempered bluefish. But the Chesapeake Bay charter boat captains, trolling a carpeted meeting room of a downtown Holiday Inn, had landed a record catch.
"These people are hungry for this," said Mike Sullivan, a captain standing rock steady in a crush of area fishing fanatics at last weekend's seminar on how to fish the Chesapeake Bay. "They came out of the woodwork."
Sullivan and 60 other charter boat captains hosted the two-day seminar that was unprecedented both for what it had and what it lacked. Unlike most fishing shows, which are dominated by equipment salesmen, the captains at this one weren't trying to sell anything but their knowledge and reputations.
It proved to be uncommonly alluring bait. Friday night, after 600 people had paid $2.50 to squeeze into the show, 300 more were turned away.
"I guess you could say these people are suffering from cabin fever," said Bob Lord, president of the Chesapeake Bay Charter Captain's Association. "We didn't know if we'd even have one person show up."
The captains brought color slides, short films and artificial lures they pulled out of deep pockets like magicians producing bunnies. The audience came with questions aimed at prying from the normally secretive fishing masters some treasured lore.
"I came here to find out why I'm not catching more fish," said David Wachter, a rehabilitation coordinator at a mental health institute in Bethesda. For three hours on Saturday, Wachter and his fishing friend, Mickey Dantuono, an elementary school teacher from Howard County, listened to advice on catching everything from flounder to striped bass, learned refinements to reading electronic fish finders and heard predictions for the coming year.
But Wachter discovered there were some secrets the captains wouldn't share. "They'll tell you how to catch the fish, but they won't tell you where to find the bait."
Some said it was worth the price of admission just to rub shoulders with 60 landlocked captains, a species that has managed to retain its eccentricity despite the press of modern times.
"I'm not a public speaker I'm a charter boat captain," said one of the audience favorites, Charles Mariner, who at nearly 300 pounds is a match for any fish he's likely to encounter in the bay. "I'm here to tell you all my secrets."
Mariner and the other captains who volunteered their time said they were hoping to win friends and future charter customers at the show. And they conceded help was needed.
"Right now we're worried more about the economy than we are the fish," said Sullivan, who has been renting his services for the last 12 years on the Chesapeake. "A lot of people are getting laid off and furloughed and that makes a difference."
"We're in a business they can do without," said Mariner. "Everybody's running scared."
Bob Goldsteen, a captain who works out of Chesapeake Beach, said the rising cost of fuel has persuaded many pleasure boaters to drop anchor and learn to fish. And the same rising costs have encouraged those already fishing to become better at the art.
"Fish have gotten harder to catch in the last 10 years because there are less of them," says Goldsteen, who teaches a 16-hour course on bay fishing each winter and spring through the Montgomery County Department of Recreation. "As people spend more and more money on fuel, they're getting desperate to find fish without having to travel all over the bay."
Except for the people who were turned away at the door, reactions to the show seemed uniformly ecstactic. Ron Cox, who works for the Government Printing Office, said it was the best fishing show he'd ever been to. Best, in fact, he'd ever heard of.
"I learned more in two days than I have for the past 10 years," said Cox.
Wachter and his friend Dantuono left the show convinced that they had discovered the reason they weren't catching more fish.
"We don't spend enough time doing it," said Dantuono with the force of a New Year's resolution. Then he pulled up his collar and walked out into the snow.