Bluefish never have been considered beauties of the deep. They have stout bodies, nasty dispositions and razor-sharp teeth to let you know. But even as bluefish go, the one Geary Insley pulled out of the Atlantic this weekend was too plug-ugly for even a mother to love.
"You talk about strange things, I've never seen a fish like that one," said Insley, a Silver Spring landscaper, standing over his 32-pound, hump-backed monster in the sand. "That is one ugly fish."
Insley was sharing the beach this windblown weekend with about 130 surf fishermen competing in the third annual Mid-Atlantic Surf Fishing Championships. They were fishing for trophies, equipment and bragging rights to the Ocean City surf. Mostly they were fishing for the excuse to get their feet in the sand and their faces into the ocean breeze.
"I do almost every kind of fishing there is, but I get more satisfaction out of this than anything else," said John Williams, 38, a construction contractor from Silver Spring. "Here it's more of a challenge. Man against the sea."
Williams and Insley were part of a six-man team, most of them from Silver Spring, that routed the rest of the competition this weekend. As a team or individually, they took four of five first-place awards, including the biggest and most fish caught. Naturally they also caught the brunt of the good-natured barbs about how their fish were hooked.
"That is a mighty nice-sized fish you got there," said one of the Ocean City locals gathered at Insley's catch. "What store did you buy it from?"
Surf fishing and incredulity seem a normal mix. Perhaps no other type of fishing suffers such a poor reputation for productivity with the nonangling public. Fall and spring are the seasons when surf fishing is most productive. But during summer, when the beach is jammed with suntans and the water is often empty of fish, people get their idea of what the sport is about.
"People always come up and ask 'Do you guys ever actually catch anything?' " said Rick Senger, 34, an Ocean City native who works for a soda distributor and fishes for a company team that is called, what else, The Jerks.
Senger, who has sea-green eyes and a wad of tobacco in his cheek as big as anything he caught this weekend, answers those questions with a show of confidence he doesn't always feel. "Surf fishing is just plumb unpredictable. You throw it out and hope and pray a fish comes along."
Even when the fishing is bad, surf fishermen say conditions are good. There is something fine about a sport that puts you on an ocean shore with eyes pointed toward the horizon.
"You just think happy thoughts," said Insley, who has a beard and brown eyes that alternate between delight and surprise. "You can fish a long time and not get anything. But when the fish are there, you reel in so many your arms fall off."
Fishing with Williams and Insley was Geary's brother Steve, Ken Kuhn, a Silver Spring tree surgeon, John Goode of Crofton and Mike Carroll of Silver Spring. Carroll just started surf fishing this year. He caught a few fish, but they weren't big enough, joked his teammates, "to smell up a frying pan."
Insley and Williams said the secrets to successful surf fishing were fresh bait and knowing where to cast it. Crucial is knowing how to read the shore to determine where the holes are in the ever-changing ocean floor.
Sunday morning the two backed up their boast. With condominiums behind them, they fished 100 yards apart, heaving their mullet-baited hooks into the sunrise. At 7:30 a.m. Williams caught a bluefish that he measured at 36 inches. Half an hour later, Insley pulled in his misshapen monster. The same tape measure showed it to be 35 inches.
"If somebody catches one bigger than mine I'll shake his hand," said Williams as the 11 a.m. deadline passed. Twenty minutes later he was shaking Insley's hand. At the official check-in station, Insley's fish was magically one quarter of an inch larger than it had been that morning, while Williams' fish seemed to have shrunk an inch.
The hooting was again good-natured. But this time it was Williams giving his own teammate the fish eye.
"Now how in the world did that happen?" he asked, looking at the tale of the tape. "Geary must have run over that fish with his truck a couple of times."
"That won't work," said Rick Senger. "We've tied fish between two vehicles to stretch it. It just won't work."