OCEAN CITY, MD. -- When Barney Rowe retired from the Frosty Root Beer Co., 10 years ago at age 50, he figured to fish his summers away here in peace. Unfortunately, he failed to factor in the cost.
Soon he faced an old equation with a foul, new twist. Everyone knows a boat equals a hole in the water to pour money into; only experience teaches that the hole gets bigger the more you use it. Rowe found to his horror he couldn't afford to fish every day.
A child of the Great Depression, he looked for a practical solution. The answer was clear: Get someone else to pay.
So Rowe, a licensed captain, put an ad in the local paper offering his services to tourists as a small-boat fishing guide for flounder and sea trout, something he said was distinctly lacking. When he told the first caller his price -- $100 a day -- the man asked, "How about for the whole week?"
Rowe was off and running. A decade later, he is baron of the Ocean City Guide Service and the Mid-Atlantic Sea School, a vertically integrated corporate mishmash that covers the spectrum of fishing needs, if you're looking for a bit of a bargain and are willing to rough it.
Rowe turns amateur seafarers into licensed charter skippers at his sea schools in Alexandria, Laurel, Annapolis, Baltimore and here, then puts the best of them to work as part-time fishing captains in his guide service.
The result is a stable of about 15 boat owners who, like Rowe 10 years ago, enjoy saltwater fishing but need help covering their considerable costs.
"Chartering pays for my hobby," said Al Knepper, a Pennsylvania teacher who took Rowe's course, got his Coast Guard license and now books his 25-foot outboard-powered Grady White, Never Satisfied, through the guide service. "I don't make any money at this, but at least it covers my expenses."
Last week Rowe and I and two other offshore adventurers accompanied Knepper on a voyage 37 miles out to sea in his little boat in pursuit of bluefin tuna, which lately have been turning up with some consistency hereabouts. We didn't catch any, as it happened, but we had astonishing luck with big bluefish, which seemed incapable of leaving our lures alone.
"We're covered up in bluefish," Knepper told a colleague over the radio at one point, and by the "Snap! ZIZZZZZZZ!" of another line popping out of the outrigger and monofilament sizzling off the reel, the colleague could hear for himself.
It was disappointing not coming up with any tuna after the long ride, of course, but it was interesting to fish on a sort of semiprofessional basis. Knepper carried no mate to help handle the lines, which meant whoever could handle the job was welcome to it.
Which is how I came to be in the back of the boat hauling in the leader hand-over-hand after Charlie Pritchard brought a 13-pounder as close to the transom as he could. By then we had all the blues we wanted and were releasing any we caught.
I got the blue alongside the boat and slipped a gloved hand under its gill plate to relieve the strain on the line. I was easing the hook out of its lip, staring down the fish's toothy, gaping white maw, when suddenly half a crab appeared at the bottom of its gullet.
Then it was a whole crab, and then it was airborne as the bluefish expelled the last thing it had eaten, thinking the crab, not Pritchard's hook, was what was causing it distress.
This happens in fishing, but never had I seen anything so graphically appalling as a whole, undigested crab escaping its destiny to whizz by, inches from my nose, and land splat on the ocean. "This ain't no party," I thought, "this ain't no disco, this ain't no messin' around."
But if fishing semipro has its little rewards, it has some drawbacks as well.
Since they don't go every day, or even close to it, Rowe's captains fall out of touch with the daily peregrinations of tuna and other desirable fish. They aren't in the information loop the way every-day chartermen are, and can't radio a host of fellow anglers for advice on the daily hotspot. That, in my view, is probably why we never breathed a whiff of fresh tuna.
And an oversight that drove me nuts was Rowe and Knepper's failure to make any provision for fish-cleaning at day's end. I wound up on my hands and knees, filleting 12 giant blues on a public dock while the greenhead flies tried to eat me alive. That won't do.
On the other hand, it was the first offshore voyage for Pritchard, who runs a flower business in Forestville, and he got plenty of help enjoying it. He was much taken by the sight of freighters steaming off for China and Europe and who-knows-where, and by the bright, blue, endless expanse of the ocean and the electronic gadgetry Knepper had aboard.
Happily, Knepper and Rowe aren't jaded by a lifetime of struggling to make a living at this hard game, and shared the newcomer's enthusiasm by happily answering questions and cogitating about the splendor of the surroundings.
Now, if they'd just line up a decent fish-cleaning station . . .
Capt. Barney Rowe's Ocean City Guide Service offers a $100 family fishing trip -- four hours for four people fishing in the Bay for flounder. He also offers a $150, four-hour inshore shark trip for three, plus other options ranging from $300, all-day offshore bluefish trips for four up to $750 all-day marlin trips for up to six people.
For details, write him at 704 St. Louis Ave., Ocean City, Md. 21842, or phone (301) 289-5520.