Eddie Davis has grown thick-muscled and salty on a spit of land between the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. When he wasn't racing high-powered speed boats into total wrecks, he was on the water catching oysters, crabs and fish.
"I have spent 37 years with my feet in the water," says Davis, a curly-haired, green-eyed charter boat captain. "I'm just like a soft-shell crab. I peel every summer when the sun burns."
Davis' reputation depends on bringing paying customers back to his dock on a boat bulging with fish. So when we climbed aboard his 46-foot charter boat last week for a day of hunting big, nasty bluefish, Davis looked at our lightweight spinning rods the way an elephant hunter might look at an air rifle.
"I hope you got something more than that with you," he said. "But if you all are happy, I'm just tickled to death."
The eight- to 14-pound bluefish feeding in coastal waters as far north as Cape Cod are fighters. Powerful swimmers, they will jump out of the water, dive straight to the bottom, then try to wrap your fishing line around an anchor. Some captains call them "snakes" because of their sharp teeth, which have left more than one fisherman with a stubby handshake.
With the strongest line and the thickest rod, bluefish are a chore. But by using lightweight spinning gear, with four- and six-pound test line, reeling in a big one can take the better part of a morning.
"It may take 25 minutes to play one in, but what could be more fun?" asks Charlie Taylor, a Potomac River fishing guide and one of seven people in this party. Taylor's idea of fishing heaven would be to catch a marlin on sewing thread. On this trip he has a fly rod that is eight feet long and about as thin as a seagull's shinbone. It is designed primarily for farm ponds and mountain streams.
"I'll catch as good a fish on this as you will on one of those broomsticks tied to well rope," boasts Taylor to Davis, nodding to the heavy-tackle fiberglass rods that the captain usually supplies for his customers.
"I want to be here when that happens," Davis says with a grin. "I'll help you pick up the splinters."
There are many ways to catch bluefish. One of the most popular is to cast beyond the surf from shore, but blues aren't always obliging enough to swim that close. A surer method is to get a boat with an electronic fish finder and hunt them. When the fish are found, most captains will troll through their midst dragging bait or lures behind the boat. Many sport fishermen don't like that method because the speed of the boat takes much of the fight out of the fish.
"I'd rather catch a few bluefish chumming than a dozen trolling," says Rob Gilford, 26, who owns a fishing supply shop in Frederick, Md. Chumming is the fishing equivalent of the con man's bait-and-switch scam. Anchor your boat, then start throwing ground-up bait into the water to attract fish. It looks like a free lunch until they chomp on a concealed hook.
Many captains don't like chumming. It is messy and often not as successful as trolling. And with the boat anchored and the fish swimming wildly, the opportunities for getting lines hopelessly tangled become infinite.
This day we drop anchor in the bay at the mouth of the Potomac with a dozen other boats. The sky is dark with rain clouds and Davis doesn't like the feel of things.
"The weather's terrible and the fish is moody," says Davis as mate Will Mettam begins grinding up three bushels of six-inch bait fish we will use as chum.
Jerry Hoffman is more optimistic. He is 79 years old and one of three generations of Hoffmans on this trip. He has come from his home in Las Vegas to fish with son David, a Washington free-lance writer, and grandson Dayle, 26, who works in a mental health center in Ohio. There is one other Hoffman in this family fishing reunion, Kay, who is married to David.
Taylor is the first to hook a blue. He is using a spinning rod with four- pound test line to reel in a fish that weighs about 12 pounds and fights like most fish twice that size. The situation calls for more finesse than muscle.
"I don't know if he's got the fish or the fish has him," says the mate as Taylor moves from one side of the boat to the other, then back again. Twenty minutes after he has set the hook, the fish is in the boat.
The fishing is slow all morning. The eldest Hoffman seems to have the family's fishing luck. By the time he has boated five 10-pound blues, son David has hooked and lost five. The comparison is both odious and irresistible.
"Dave, I don't want to embarrass you or anything," says Davis with a grin that would attract lightning bugs at night, "but your father is twice the fisherman you are."
In the afternoon, the fish get hungry and the fishing gets hectic. Taylor has hooked a monster on his fly rod. With the rod bent into a question mark over his head, and Davis watching mirthfully for it to snap, Taylor works the fish calmly. It takes about half an hour, but he finally gets it in the boat.
Another blue is hooked on the fly rod. This time the captain takes the rod while Taylor watches and mate Kellam laughs so hard he almost falls on his fillet knife.
Says David Hoffman, whose luck has taken a turn for the better: "When the fish come we all get happy."