Forty-three years ago Ebbie Smith's father built him a wooden skiff to explore lazy Hunting Creek. The boat is long gone now and Smith isn't getting any younger, either, but somehow Hunting Creek stays as wild and fertile as ever.
"It hasn't really changed at all, not so's you'd notice," said Smith, his phrasing betraying half a lifetime on a Southern Maryland tobacco farm. "Maybe one or two houses. But we'll see the same logs and hangs where I caught catfish when I was a 9-year-old boy, and we'll catch 'em in the same places."
Smith had phoned in the spring to invite me on this voyage back in time. "I love my bass fishing," he said, "but every year I have to get out the old cane poles and go up the creek after the catfish and white perch, the old yellowfin perch and the eels. I guess it's in my blood."
The offer grew doubly appealing when Smith guaranteed a bang-up day on tasty catfish. "We'll catch every kind," he said, "blue cats, channel cats and mud cats." He said 50 or 60 was his average haul on these expeditions, along with a handful of other species.
The expectations haven't changed over the years, but it was clear when we started out that Smith's technique has. When we left the mouth of Hunting Creek, a Patuxent River feeder about 40 miles from Washington, he didn't even bother to wait for the tide to help him row upstream.
"Greatest invention ever," he said, patting the little outboard that propelled the aluminum skiff against a falling tide. The trip to the headwaters, which used to take him two hours, now takes 30 minutes, even bucking a foul current.
As we motored along under a hot morning sun Smith pointed out places of interest along the undeveloped banks. "That big flat over there was Willie's Bottom," he said, "because a fellow named Willie lived back in there. We used to buck-seine that flat for carp; it's not over two feet deep."
He admired the ospreys soaring above the creek and the great blue herons wading the shallows in pursuit of minnows. He called off the old names of the marsh guts and tiny feeder creeks that run off the main stem into the deep, green woods and remarked that the water in the creek was as muddy as ever.
The reason Hunting Creek has escaped the ravages of time seems fairly simple: Even though Calvert is the fastest-growing county in Maryland, Smith said, the tobacco and grain farms in this particular area are worked today much the way they were half a century ago, in many cases by the same families. Progress has bypassed the little Hunting Creek watershed.
And the creek itself is buffered on both sides by broad marshes that filter pollution. "I've trapped most of these marshes for muskrat," said Smith, who still works a small and productive marsh in winter. He said the marshes are unchanged.
It was odd to be in fertile waters so close to the city and see so little activity. A rowboat with three fishermen appeared around one sleepy bend, and four or five folks were fishing from a grassy bank halfway up the creek, but otherwise we were alone. We chuckled to think that somewhere at that moment bass fishermen undoubtedly were battling each other over some overfished hole in an overfished creek, while we had miles of shoreline to ourselves.
And a perfect tide. "Fishing's always best on the last half of a falling tide," said Smith as he unrolled the braided line from two, 16-foot-long cane poles. He baited the hooks with chunks of peeler crab and swung hook, line, bait, bobber and sinker out over a fallen tree and plunked the bait into tangled branches.
"Let the tide carry your bait back into the hang," he said, handing me a pole. "If ol' catfish is down there feeding, he'll pick it up soon enough."
Pick it up ol' catfish quickly did, jerking the cork under with a lurch. When I hauled back on the long rod a speckled channel cat came flying out of the submerged brush, thrashing the water with its tail.
Smith took me to all his childhood haunts as we drifted slowly back to our starting point, and at one after another the same, happy scenario was played out. By afternoon we had filled a cooler full of catfish, plus several perch, one eel and a few hard crabs.
The simplicity of this effort was intriguing: No fancy rods, no reels at all, no monofilament line, no expensive lures, no tackle boxes, no electric trolling motors, no depth sounders, no charts, no tide tables, nothing plastic. Just peelers (which in years past Smith would have caught by wading the shallows of the creek, but which he buys now), a stick, a cork, a hook and a length of string.
Just like the good old days.