It was a sad coincidence that when Maryland's resurrected rockfish season ended prematurely Sunday, so did the life of one of the Chesapeake Bay's premier rockfishermen.
Capt. Mike Sullivan, whose charter boats Miss Dolly and Dolly Diesel plied the bay from Baltimore to Tangier Sound for about 25 years, succumbed to lung cancer after a brief battle. He was 51.
Capt. Sullivan was a past president of the Maryland Charter Boat Operators Association and author of a recent instructional booklet, "Sportfishing on the Chesapeake Bay," in which he detailed techniques of fishing for rockfish, sea trout and blues.
Both his boats were named for his wife, Dolly, who died of cancer in September.
A part-time charter skipper, he founded and headed Westminster Press, a small printing plant in Capitol Heights that published his fishing book. He often said the printing business financed his fishing habit, which he said was not particularly profitable but always enjoyable.
Capt. Sullivan was an innovator who never fished in a pack of boats if he thought he could find his own school of fish elsewhere, no matter how far it might take him.
"Mike was a go-getter who was thinking all the time," said Shaker Black of the Rod 'n' Reel dock in Chesapeake Beach, where Capt. Sullivan kept his boats for years.
In the mid-1980s, Capt. Sullivan decided traditional bay-built craft lacked the speed and range to fish the big waterway properly. So he gave the older Miss Dolly to son Chris and commissioned the biggest, fastest charter boat in the state -- the 52-foot Dolly Diesel with two diesel engines that sent it hurtling along at 30 knots.
Dolly Diesel was so overpowered she nearly shook apart the first year, and other charter skippers wondered how long she would hold up. But with minor refinements and a conservative hand on the throttle, Capt. Sullivan brought the boat under control. Thereafter, his was a signature arrival wherever he went on the bay, as Dolly Diesel thundered in, throwing sheets of spray.
While most bay charter skippers contented themselves with abundant bluefish in recent years, Capt. Sullivan sought more elusive and desirable species. He was considered an expert on rockfishing before the statewide ban went into effect Jan. 1, 1985. Then he shifted attention to sea trout, wandering far in pursuit of them.
He also was a spokesman for conservation who backed the statewide rockfishing moratorium and encouraged anglers to release excess fish they caught. In the foreword to his booklet, he wrote: "You don't have to kill, sell or keep everything you catch to attain the goal of being a good fisherman. Your protection of the resource is the only way to insure future productive fishing trips."
Capt. Sullivan roused himself from his sickbed Oct. 5 when rockfishing season was reinstated after the 5 3/4-year closure, hobbling to his boat on crutches.
That sunny day, he took a party of four anglers all the way from Chesapeake Beach to the shadow of Baltimore in pursuit of rock, before finally finding a feeding school near the mouth of the Chester River on the Eastern Shore. After the anglers caught all they wanted, Capt. Sullivan asked them to catch one more so he could have it for dinner.
He fished the first three days of rockfish season, but by then "he could barely stand up when he came in here," said Mary Tyler of Tyler's Tackle Shop in Chesapeake Beach.
Still, as fishermen will, he remained optimistic. Ten days before his death, flush with rockfish success after a nearly six-year wait, he gritted his teeth and said of his illness: "I'm going to beat this thing."