Fishing is good on the Chesapeake Bay right now and promises to get better as summer settles in. From Crisfield to Point Lookout to Solomons Island to Chesapeake Beach and points north, charter captains and private boats are doing well on croakers, sea trout, rockfish, scattered blues and a few spot and perch.
Last weekend we managed to load up quickly with prime eating fish on back-to-back days. Friday evening, neighbor Andy Hughes took my son and I chumming for rockfish near Annapolis. Armed with a bucket of last year's frozen chum and a few frozen herring, we anchored his 25-footer in sight of Bloody Point Light to ladle the ground-up goo overboard and drift cut-baits in the resulting slick. A flood tide ripped along, just as you want. Within minutes, rod tips were dancing and we were fighting plump rock in the 20- to 24-inch range.
A half-hour later we had the limit of six (two per person) and were speeding back to the dock with grins as wide as our faces. The broiled filets for dinner were as fresh as fish gets.
The next morning I hit the road south at first light with another neighbor to fish with Billy and Linda Brener of Great Falls, who keep their 30-footer, Char Lady, near Point Lookout at the mouth of the Potomac. Billy lured us with the promise we'd be joined by Gheorghe Muresan, the 7-foot-7 former Washington Wizards center with whom he frequently fishes, but the human tuna tower was called away to Atlanta on business and couldn't make it.
No matter, Brener said, fishing was so good we wouldn't be sorry. He wasn't kidding.
We sped across the bay into a rising sun, stopping twice to cast unsuccessfully to small schools of breaking fish that wouldn't strike topwater lures, and arrived at the Mud Leads off Smith Island just as a warm southerly wind kicked in. Pelicans cruised around, looking for breakfast.
Brener monitored the fish-finder and idled around till he spied a school of fish on the bottom in 30 feet of water. We baited double-hook bottom rigs with chunks of fresh soft crab, lowered the baits down with three-ounce sinkers and drifted them across the undulating bottom contours.
"I'm having a bite!" Brener said, and we all laughed, remembering a Spanish colleague who used that curious expression. Soon we all were having bites, mostly croakers in the 10- to 14-inch size range, with occasional sea trout of 14 to 18 inches thrown in.
Minimum size for croakers in Maryland is nine inches but Linda Brener won't let you put one in the cooler unless it's 11. Most made the cut, and she added a doubleheader of 14- and 15-inch whoppers that struck her twin hooks simultaneously and gave quite a fight on light tackle.
Just past lunch time we stopped to count and came up with a total of 10 trout, 25 croakers and 1 bluefish. Under the rules we could have kept going till we had four times as many but why make a pig of yourself? "We've got enough," Linda said. "Let's go back. We can try for a flounder for my dinner on the way in."
Billy struck a course for home. Back in the Potomac, he idled along a channel edge looking for signs of flounders below. The flatfish arrived early this year, he said, and he's regularly been catching a few.
We switched from soft crab baits to live bull minnows, which he traps at the dock using fish offal for bait, and began drifting them with the tide along a dropoff near Point Lookout State Park. Flounders (actually they're fluke, but in the bay everyone calls them flounders) hang along channel edges waiting for bait to be swept along by the tide. They bury in the mud or sand and when they strike, the bait simply stops dead in its tracks, the sign for the angler to rear back and set the hook.
We didn't exactly tear them up. We'd caught a half-dozen throwbacks before Linda set the hook on one that barely made the minimum size, 15 inches. "That's it!" she crowed. "I've got dinner. Let's go in."
I recount these trips in detail for two reasons: One, to show that fishing indeed is productive enough that even amateurs can have a good catch on the bay without the help and cost of a charter; and two, because in both instances the skippers were sensible enough to quit when they had enough.
Years ago, if fish were biting we'd have kept going till the bait ran out, then spent hours cleaning fish only to give them away or bury them in the freezer, where as often as not they'd be forgotten.
Times change and most anglers have come to realize that marine resources are not inexhaustible. My personal philosophy these days is to bring home no more than our family can eat fresh. Forget the freezer. That rule might not work as well for others who don't get out as often as I, but even in these times of increasingly tight creel and size limits, it's okay to say "enough" before you reach some arbitrary limit set by someone in an office reading computer printouts of estimated fish populations that may not bear any relation to reality.
It's great that fishing is good on the bay. It's even better if we do our part to help assure that it stays that way.
Bottom fishing is hot in the lower Chesapeake. Headboats in Crisfield, Md., report excellent catches of croakers and good catches of sea trout. "The hardheads [the local name for croakers] are plentiful," said Bill Ward, who books parties for his son Keith's headboat Prime Time II. "We're making two trips a day most days." Call Ward at 410-968-0074, the headboat Barbara Anne at 410-957-2562, or Capt. Sully Culpeper at 410-546-2140.
Capt. Doug Scheible runs day trips every day for rockfish, croakers and trout on the headboat Bay King II out of Point Lookout and says bottom fishing "is the best I've seen it in years." The Bay King also runs night trips Wednesdays and Saturdays. Call 301-872-5185.
The headboats Tom Hooker and Lady Hooker run day and night trips seven days a week out of Chesapeake Beach Rod 'n' Reel, with best catches coming at night, according to mate Brenda Bertrand. Call 1-800-233-2080.
CAPTION: Fishing on Chesapeake Bay is great now for humans and birds alike, and everyone needs a break sometimes, even the pelicans near Smith Island.
CAPTION: Linda Brener boats doubleheader of croakers off Point Lookout. Her size limits for fish are tougher than state of Maryland's; both of these qualified.