David Bryson is only 14 years old, but he has already drowned so many worms trying to catch fish that if you laid them end to end they would reach from Washington to Baltimore. Until last week, however, Bryson had never caught a fish big enough to put a bulge in a vest pocket.
So when the youth from Alexandria pulled a bluefish from the Chesapeake Bay that looked as if it had swallowed a watermelon, he jumped around the deck of the charter boat excitedly.
"Never in my life have I fought anything like that," said Bryson, who spent 15 minutes reeling in his 12-pound trophy. "Oh, jiminy it was great, wonderful, terrific."
The fishing season on the Chesapeake Bay has had one of its best starts in years. For the last three weeks, anglers in private boats and charters have been finding schools of hungry bluefish, big enough to tire the strongest pair of arms.
There is no guarantee that this early bounty will lead to summer-long success, but after last season's disappointing catches, most anglers and charter boat captains are optimistic.
"I've had days this spring when we filled this boat up in two hours," said Eddie Davis, 38, who, like most of the Bay captains, was hurt last year by both the lack of fish and the publicity about it.
Last year, for example, during a fishing trip to promote the Bay's largesse, Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes caught just one bluefish. Last week the governor tried again with significantly different results. Hughes, his wife, a few aides and several reporters aboard the Kathy C out of Solomons caught 31 fish. Hughes' only disappointment, according to reliable sources, was the $5 bet he lost on who would catch the biggest fish.
By noon, when Hughes and his party had filled their coolers and headed for shore, the dozen fishermen on our boat were still waiting for our first fish. The men, a group of friends who get together on a midweek day on the Bay at least once a year, seemed not at all upset about the unplanned calm. They drank beer, talked about snapping turtles, interest rates, wives and secretaries, not necessarily in that order.
Capt. Davis, on the other hand, was not happy. He has a reputation for bringing home fish and he guards it zealously.
"I believe they put some acid on my bait this morning," said Davis, talking on his radio with another captain. "The fish won't even smell it."
The traditional way to catch bluefish is to troll through them dragging bait or lures behind the boat. Our party chose to drift with the tide and chum for them with ground up fish bait. It is not as sure a method, but provides more sport, especially when using light spinning gear and thin rods.
While the anglers waited for the fish to come, they could not resist having a bit of fun at Davis' expense.
"Are you sure people actually catch fish in this bay?" asked Tim McCue, a real estate developer from Alexandria.
"I'll tell you one thing," shot back Davis. "If the fish start biting, we'll have so many in this boat you won't be able to walk around."
"I don't think I can afford to wait that long," said John Bryson, a lawyer and David's father.
A few minutes later, David hooked his fish. It was hard to tell if he had the fish or the fish had him as the blond-haired boy was dragged from one side of the boat to the other.
During the next three hours, about two dozen bluefish were hooked. Half of those managed to escape before being pulled into the boat. The ones that did stay on the line put up a fight that surprised their captors.
"I never would have believed it," said John Kennedy, a social worker for Fairfax County, after reeling in a 12-pound bluefish on an eight-pound line attached to a fishing rod that was designed for small, freshwater fish.
Another angler using light tackle, Robbie Robinson, almost plunged into the water trying to keep a bluefish from breaking his line by swimming under the boat.
Robinson, a stocky social worker who sports a full beard and the nickname "Bear," looked like he had tangled with one after hauling in his second fish. "I'm sold on this light tackle," he said. "It's you against the fish, rather than the rod against the fish."
When Davis turned the boat to shore, there were 11 big fish in the box. One of the party thought it would be fitting to include the names of those on board who did not catch any. But Davis, Charlie Taylor and the outdoor writer decided that would be a bad idea.