Dave Wachter is kind to his mother, devoted to his dog and unreservedly loyal to the sport of fishing. If there were justice in the world, he would come home from weekends on the Chesapeake Bay covered with fish scales and smelling like a ripe eel. But the sad fact is, Wachter cannot catch fish.
"I have been not catching fish for a long time, in a lot of different places," says Wachter, of Takoma Park, who claims to have crammed a century of piscatorial disappointments into his 35-year-old life. "It has been so long since I caught a decent fish I don't know if I'd recognize one if I saw it."
On any given Saturday, there are hundreds of people fishing the Chesapeake and the Atlantic who, for lack of luck or skill, will not catch fish. That is part of the sport. After one or two fishless years, most will buy a sailboat or walk the plank.
Wachter has had his empty years. Yet he remains as fanatical a fisherman as ever wet a line. He has fished so often with so little success, he has become a minor legend. The people he works with at a mental health clinic in Bethesda, his softball teammates and his wife all volunteer tales of Wachter's woeful days on the water.
"When I first met Dave I thought from the way he talked he was some great fisherman," says his wife Patty. "Then we went out fishing and I was the only one to catch anything."
In the last three years Wachter admits he has not caught a fish larger than a pound, and that may be stretching the scales some. Once, upon a Chesapeake headboat, he hooked something that felt like a world record striped bass. Naturally, it got away.
So here we are on the early morning Chesapeake, fishing for striped bass, the most prized and elusive catch in the bay, at a time of year when there aren't many of them. Pessimism is probably too optimistic a word for the way all of us but Wachter feel.
"I can catch fish when I'm alone, but never when Dave is with me," says Mickey D'Antuono, the owner of the 17-foot runabout the three of us are fishing from. "It must be contagious."
D'Antuono and Wachter have been friends since grade school and fishing buddies since both came back from Vietnam. They began fishing from bridges, piers and the banks of rivers. And they were terrible at it.
"We kept thinking if only we had a boat, we could catch fish," says D'Antuono, who is round and friendly as a koala bear and teaches third graders in Maryland's Howard County. "Then I got the boat four years ago and we started not catching fish farther out."
Somewhere along the fishing line, fate took a run in D'Antuono's direction. He still gets his propeller tangled in fishing nets and crab pots occasionally, and he once ran his sleek, fiberglass boat aground. But he also started catching fish, including one 20-pound striped bass he pulled in two years ago under the Bay Bridge.
"It's my turn to catch a big one," says Wachter, his brown hair blowing as we pull out of Solomons Island and head toward a buoy in the bay. The day is all sunshine and blue skies. The water is pleasantly choppy. Gulls and jet planes from the Patuxent Naval Air Test Center fly overhead.
We are trolling for striped bass, also known as rockfish. Twenty years ago rock were plentiful in the bay. Lately they have become so scarce that catching just one can make a fishing trip a total success. Because of the technique and large lures used to fish for them, however, it is difficult when fishing for rock this early to catch anything else.
After half a day of slow cruising, first with and then against the chop, we have had not a nibble. D'Antuono is trying to get a new pair of contact lenses onto his eyes. I am fiddling with an ancient radio trying to tune in the Orioles game. Wachter is still fishing with intensity. He checks his rod, then stares at a spot behind the boat where his line enters the water.
Loyalty and perseverance have always been Wachter's strong suits. A few years ago I was fishing with him in a pontoon boat on the Potomac. We caught nothing but a sunburn all day. We were about to turn for home when Wachter's fishing knife fell overboard.
While the knife fell straight to the bottom, our boat continued to drift down river. At the same time Wachter began deliberately peeling off shoes and clothes. By the time he dove into the Potomac, we were easily 30 yards south of his lost knife.
"I knew there was no chance to find it," said Wachter after he climbed back in the boat, "but I had that knife a long time and it didn't seem right to let it go without making some kind of effort."
At 5 p.m. we were one of the last boats on the water. We had been absolutely skunked. There were only two consolations. First, our friend Wolfie, who is strictly a fair-weather angler, had threatened to come on the trip and bring with her a picture of a 26-pound striped bass she caught a few years ago. Fortunately, she never showed.
Our other consolation was the fact that during the day we had not seen any other boats pull in fish. Then we got back to the dock and saw a whole cooler filled with giant bluefish.
"I kind of feel like I've been here before," said Wachter, beaming his biggest smile of the day. "I'll be back and get them some other time."
While Wachter was characteristically upbeat, his friend D'Antuono sounded a note of half-mocking despair.
"When I get home the first thing I'm going to do is make a 'For Sale' sign for this boat," said D'Antuono. "Then I'm going to go stand on a river bank like everybody else and maybe catch a fish."