The meeting room was at the top of the stairs. Kenny approached it like a doomed man. It was his first meeting. He didn't want to go in.
Yet he knew if he didn't, the downward spiral could accelerate. He thought of his wife and kids, his friends at work, the little house at the head of the creek he'd worked so hard to buy, his hard-earned respectability.
None of it, he knew, was worth risking for that exciting, illegal, irresistibly appealing, head-shaking tug at the end of the line. And all of it was at risk. He looked over his shoulder to see if anyone he knew was on the street, peering back in the same, furtive way he scanned the water these days when he fished, checking for police boats.
All clear. He stepped inside, climbed the steps.
"Welcome," said a sunburned man at the top.
"Hello," he said. "I'm Kenny, and I'm a rockfish addict."
Kenny was taking Step One on the road to recovery.
He'd been on Chesapeake Bay the day before when the compelling need for help hit home. He was jigging for rockfish on the Bay Bridge pilings, tossing 1 1/2-ounce bucktails up-current and letting them sweep back against the barnacle-encrusted columns. When a big rockfish lurking down there hit with a bump, as many did, Kenny set the hook and took the strain. It was headier than any drug; it was just as Kenny remembered it 20 years ago, when he was a carefree boy. For a moment, time's winged chariot stopped.
With one small difference. Instead of tossing his catch in a cooler to take home, Kenny immediately freed each fish he caught, never even lifting one from the water. He felt confident he was not injuring the fish, though he also knew he was violating a state regulation barring anglers from intentionally catching protected rockfish.
The state had even recently circulated results of a scientific survey indicating the risk of mortality from catching and releasing rock that way was almost nil in water like this, where the salt content was more than 5 to 8 parts per thousand.
But while Kenny felt he was doing no harm in pursuing his pleasure, he also knew it was against the law and he worried about the judgment of others. He felt growing concern at the presence of a lone fisherman nearby, trolling around and around the pilings. Kenny felt a cold chill. "Natural Resources Police," he thought. "Undercover. Am I going to get busted?"
In fact, it was no policeman. But Kenny heard in that surge of fear an inner cry for help. Disease was taking him to a place he shouldn't be, outside the law.
Rockfish harasser! He could see the neighborhood kids jeering, taunting his own kids. He put the little skiff on plane and sped home, worried and confused.
That night Kenny called a psychologist. "Doc," he said, "I'm hung up on rockfish. I can't stop myself. I know it's illegal to fish for them but I keep going anyway. There's so many of them out there. I can't get 'em out of my head. I see stripes in my sleep; bucktails with pork-rinds in my dreams. I don't know what to do. I stayed off them for four years during the moratorium, when they were scarce, but now everywhere I go out there -- rockfish, rockfish, rockfish. They're there and I can't stop myself.
"I know the state still lists rock as a threatened species, at least until they reopen the limited rockfish season this fall. I know it's illegal to fool with them until then. But with no blues or trout around and all those rockfish sitting there, I can't help myself. What can I do?"
"Kenny," said the doc, "face facts. You're an addict. You have to confront your disease. Your days of denial are over. That's the bad news. The good news is, you're not alone. There are others out there like you, more and more every day, and they're organized. They meet Wednesdays. This week you've got to be there with them. Write this down:
Which is how Kenny came to be at the head of the stairs, making confession in the bright light that issued from the doorway. Inside, healthy looking men murmured in soft tones. He could hear bits of conversation -- "Twenty-pounder on a fly . . . schoolies hitting bunker . . . three acres of breaking fish . . . got him on a floater-diver . . . surf-casting at night."
A balding man introduced himself as founder of the group. "We try to take it one day at a time," he said. "We talk about the good days and bad days. We share. We do crafts -- carve lures, make paintings. We sing rockfish songs. It's not easy, but you find a way."
"Is there a cure?" Kenny asked.
Kenny found a folding chair in a corner. The speaker that night was a man from DNR, who showed the agency's new videotape, "Keeping Score -- Releasing Fish for Tomorrow," which was about catch-and-release tactics for anglers to employ if they accidentally caught protected rock while fishing for other species.
Kenny squirmed and fidgeted as rockfish after rockfish came to the net in the video. "Why couldn't they have used bluefish or trout?" he asked the man next to him. "I can't take too much more of this."
"It's a test," whispered the man. "They're trying to see what we can handle. It gets worse. In July they're taking us out under the Bay Bridge at night on a full moon to listen to rockfish busting bait in the shallows. They figure if we can survive that without going raving mad, we're on the way to a useful life."
Sweat beads popped out on Kenny's brow. "I better go," he said. "I'm feeling sick." He raced noisily from the room.
No one stirred to help. "He'll be back," murmured a voice, finally. "No one lasts for long out there alone."