In the good old days, Chesapeake Bay fishermen called it quits when they filled their catchboxes. That was the signal to go home, and back ashore they'd tell folks, "It's all you want out there."
But times changed and full catchboxes grew rare. Now, suddenly, the good old days are back.
"It's all you want," said captains from Baltimore to Point Lookout last week as sea trout, hardheads, bluefish, spot and even protected striped bass (rockfish) attacked their baits with old-fashioned abandon.
Delighted fishermen came up with three explanations for the unexpected abundance, and Maryland biologists who watch the bay for a living generally concurred.
First, they said two straight mild winters evidently gave spot and hardhead populations a chance to mature. These delectable bottom-feeders have been hard to find anywhere outside Tangier Sound for a decade or so, but last week there were good catches of spot in the lower Patuxent River and hardhead were thick in the main bay near Buoy 54.
Second, a dry spring gave the bay an unusual early jolt of salty sea water, attracting large numbers of ocean-dwelling blues and sea trout into the estuary. Bluefish were just about everywhere in the bay last week, and trout were thick in lower portions from Smith Point to Cove Point.
Third, anglers said a Maryland ban on striped-bass fishing kept commercial netters and sport fishermen from pressuring wintering stocks, and as a result rockfish are more abundant than they've been in years.
The three factors together created a midsummer seafood smorgasbord that had old acquaintances running to the phone to spread the word.
Mike Sullivan, president of the Maryland Charter Boat Operators Association, called me at breakfast Thursday with instructions to get to Solomons Island at the mouth of the Patuxent "right now."
"We're bailing big trout and hardheads," said Sullivan, who does not give false alarms. "It's all you want."
That afternoon, after anchoring in 120 feet of water near Buoy 54 in the middle of the bay, his fishing party of six plumbing suppliers hauled up 91 fish, about half jumbo sea trout and half hardheads, in 3 1/2 hours.
Sullivan was on the two-way radio as the day evolved, telling his colleagues, "Come on down. It doesn't get any better than this."
But his colleagues were busy having a time of their own.
Jim Webb, who runs the Phyllis Kay out of Chesapeake Beach, said bluefish have been "wall-to-wall" in the middle bay the last couple of weeks. Nancy Broderick, who skippers a small boat out of Deale, said boats are loading up on blues there.
Junior Langley, greybeard of the Solomons skippers, said those who don't care to brave the main bay are catching large Norfolk spot in the protected areas at the mouth of the Patuxent.
Ed Darwin, dean of striped bass fishermen around the Bay Bridge, said he's been catching stripers from one to 30 pounds by accident when he goes white perch fishing.
"It's the best I ever saw," said Darwin, who is obeying the statewide ban and turning loose all the stripers he catches.
Bluefish are thick above and below the Bay Bridge, as well, said state biologist Bob Lunsford. "We had one captain take some underprivileged Baltimore kids out from Sandy Point," he said. "They caught 70-some blues in two hours."
The only things bay fishermen aren't catching are the tagged fish the state put in the water in its "Maryland Catch-A-Fortune" sportfishing tournament.
These string-tagged bluefish, perch and sea trout, worth $1,000 to $37,500 apiece, were tossed in the water starting in May in an effort to stimulate interest in fishing after the striped bass ban was imposed Jan. 1, but so far only one, a white perch worth $1,000, has been caught in the $468,000 program.
Nor is the tournament sparking noticeable interest. Even with the current abundance of fish in the bay, "I've got open dates for the first time in years," said Darwin. Bruce Scheible, down at Point Lookout, echoed that lament. "There's fish all over the place and the captains are sitting at the dock," he said.
Perhaps the current abundance will do for the fortunes of charter fishermen and bait and tackle shops what the state contest did not.
For the moment, it's all you want out there.