FRENCHTOWN, Md. -- Fishing with Chris Clarke is pure pleasure. He appreciates all the right things -- big water, small boats, big fish, do-it-yourself adventure and, best of all, good food.
Which is how we came to be in the middle of Chesapeake Bay last week in a stiff southwester, cresting whitecaps in his little 17-footer while jerking delectable sea trout from some ship wreckage on the bottom.
It was challenging sport, demanding sharp concentration and no little skill to keep the bucktails and jigs out of the tangled metal below, yet still get them deep enough to attract the bottom-dwelling trout. At three to eight pounds apiece, the fish were well worth the effort.
When the tide ran hard, fishing was good, but when it slowed the action slowed too and Clarke went to the cooler in pursuit of wonderful sustenance -- a plastic vat full of chilled ceviche -- chunks of raw sea trout he'd soaked overnight in lemon juice, onion, garlic, oregano, salt and pepper.
The lemon juice pickles the fish flesh to create a delicacy that's moist and tangy, with head-clearing flavor. "This fish," Clarke said, thrusting a cold, quivering hunk at me while gobbling one down himself, "was right out here yesterday, swimming around."
If it was great eating (and it surely was), it was doubly appealing to be out on this breezy day refilling the larder with still more trout, particularly since hardly anyone else was in sight. Trout fishing has generally been abysmal in the Bay this season; what a surprise in the midst of hard times to have good fishing almost to yourself.
"I've never seen it this tough," agreed charter skipper Mike Sullivan, who specializes in sea trout fishing out of Solomons Island. One day last week he sailed clear across the Bay to a honey hole off Crisfield and wound up catching 11 species of fish, from tautogs to sharks, but just one trout.
Normally, trout enter the Bay in spring to spawn. But amateur marine biologists theorize that this year (and last year as well), the trout and their seagoing buddies, bluefish, largely bypassed the Bay in the early season because it wasn't warm or salty enough to suit them after a cool, wet spring.
Whatever the reasons, Clarke, a wildlife watercolor artist in addition to being an epicurean of considerable passion, was sorely wounded when he missed his spring trout fishing and eating binge. "The trout were so scarce we wound up having to eat soft crabs almost every day," he said. Poor baby!
Then, two weeks ago word finally raced around Frenchtown (which doesn't take long, there being only 11 houses) that sea trout were biting in a particular location in mid-Bay. Soon, every Frenchtowner knew the spot and Clarke and his neighbors were making fast, daily forays to the west.
He caught close to 40 one day, all good size, filling the cooler and then catching and releasing what he had no room for until he ran out of soft-crab baits. He couldn't stop, he said.
By the time I arrived last week the run was petering out and he was concerned about catching any at all. "I've been calling you," he said. "You're never home."
But his worries were without basis. We found the mid-Bay wreck with no trouble, with just one other boat anchored over it. I dropped Clarke's grappling-hook anchor overboard and it stuck fast. The boat swung its nose into the whistling wind and began bucking in the chop. Hang on! On my seventh cast I felt a satisfying tug that said we were home free.
The good fishing held up for four hours, though it never was easy. The trout were safely ensconced in the thickest tangles of sunken wreckage; getting them out was a matter of drawing a mental picture of what lay below until you could cast a lure and work it through the maze without snagging and losing it.
"You'll get the hang of it," said Clarke after I'd broken off the third or fourth $1.50 bucktail. Each lure was dressed with a pork rind or soft plastic tail plus a chunk of soft crab over the point of the hook, so that when you lost a rig, you lost a meaningful mass of gear. And we lost plenty.
Yet slowly, a subsurface road map unveiled itself. I found I could cast up-current and divine where the lure was sweeping back with the tide, then jig it deftly through rusty stickups and sharp-edged trouble spots. Once you knew the lay of the land, if you felt an unexpected bump you knew it was fish, not foul.
Slowly, steadily, we put 10 beauties in the box. It was sensational.
I'd love to divulge Clarke's hotspot in detail, but unfortunately I'm sworn to secrecy.
Summer sea trout season should soon be coming on all over the Bay, when the fish move from deep-water spawning areas into 15- to 20-foot depths to feed on crabs, worms and other bottom-critters.
Traditional trout haunts that ought to light up soon are at the mouth of the Patuxent River near Solomons Island; along the shoals around Point No Point between Cedar Point and Point Lookout; in Cornfield Harbor at the mouth of the Potomac; around James Island and Sharps Island Light at the mouth of the Choptank, in Tangier Sound outside Crisfield and on various lumps and oyster bars around the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.