Carl Stone stands about a foot taller than your average toadstool and weighs a whopping 51 pounds. You'd expect a fair-sized perch to give this 7-year-old fisherman a battle and a three-pound bluefish to win every hand-to-mouth war.
So when Carl's rod suddenly bent itself into a bow, his father grabbed him by the shoulders to keep both rod and reeler from being pulled into the Chesapeake Bay.
"This is a tough one. It's gonna take both hands to reel this one in," said Carl, who had set his hook in the wing of a 30-pound stingray.
Despite recent reports of its demise, the Chesapeake Bay is still rich with fish and ripe with the stuff of memory. The bay is 180 miles long and up to 30 miles wide, making it this country's largest estuary. It is certainly not as fecund as it was in 1608, when Captain John Smith wrote of "an abundance of fish, lying so thicke with their heads above water, as for want of nets . . . we attempted to catch them with a frying pan." And there is no argument that fishing now is not as good as it was just 10 years ago.
But among both recreational and commercial fishermen, there is a fear that the regular reports of the bay's poor health hurt as well as help this body of water, which is still more beautiful than we have a right to expect.
"Every time some paper prints a bad-news story about the bay, we lose customers," said a charter boat captain who has worked the Chesapeake for a dozen years. "I'm not saying the stories aren't true. But the impression they give is that there aren't any fish left to catch and not much hope of getting them back."
The most recent bearer of bad tidings was a $28 million study of the bay conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency. The six-year study blames nutrients from sewage treatment plants and runoff from farm lands for causing a great growth in algae that has lowered oxygen levels in the water and killed all manner of aquatic life.
Identifying the problem, however, is easier, and cheaper, than solving it. Optimistic estimates call for spending $1 billion during the next decade to clean up the bay. Charter boat captains like Lou Tippett of Ridge, Md., insist there is no need to wait that long to find fish.
"We've had a good year for fish. There are a mess of little blues . . . and we had drum for four days just as hard as you could pull 'em. They weighed anywhere from 20 to 50 pounds," said the 37-year-old son of a Chesapeake charter boat captain.
Tippett does not need to exaggerate his catch to lure customers. He has such a loyal, long-term corps of clients that one fisherman I know says he had to spend three afternoons talking with Tippett before the tall, bearded captain would agree to take his money.
"I think I courted him harder than I did my wife," said the angler, who is still married, and asked that his name not be used so that he would remain so.
On a recent bay fishing trip near the mouth of the Potomac, Tippett displayed both the Chesapeake's variety and his own skill at tapping it. Our party of six began the day catching flounder with cut crab, then attacked a school of bluefish breaking on the surface. We finished with some bottom fishing for sea trout. Along the way, we also caught the aforementioned stingray, a sea robin, an oyster and more toadfish than we cared to.
Stanley Mooney, an insurance agent from Chantilly, and Carl Stone each caught five species of fish. By day's end, Mooney wore a slightly sinful expression of contentment.
"We all have our vices," said Mooney, who has been fishing the Chesapeake for 40 years. "I don't drink, don't smoke and don't run around with wild, wild women. I have to have something to do."
When our boat returned to its dock, another party of fishermen was waiting to go night fishing with Capt. Tippett. Among them was 85-year-old Everett O. Bailey, who has been fishing with Tippett and his father Taft, 74 and still working, for more than 30 years.
Bailey said fishing on the bay is not what it used to be. But it is still good enough to bring him back twice a month each summer.
"Two weeks ago, I caught enough perch to fill that boat box twice over," said Bailey, as Tippett cleaned the dried blood and scales from his deck and readied his boat for another run.