Trophy Catch on the Chesapeake Bay
When my son Rich was just a boy, he developed a great passion for fishing. Summer days were often spent reeling in scrappy bluegills from a meandering creek that was a stone’s throw from our back door. He squished earthworms and crickets onto a hook and cast a plastic rod into shallow waters. In quiet anticipation, he focused on a tiny red and white bobber as his dream to fish bigger waters took the bait. … Those were my thoughts as we boarded “Gotcha,” one of Captain Rich’s charter boats in his Chesapeake Bay Sport Fishing fleet which he launched in 2006.
The sky was blue, with a few wispy clouds that afternoon - a perfect day for fishing as we left for the Eastern Shore. Within minutes, we crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge – a grand 4 1/2 mile structure – and headed for Queen Anne Marina on Kent Island, Maryland where Rich’s boats are docked. Although I’m more comfortable at the end of a camera lens than a fishing pole, my sister Cheryl loves the sport! She’d been wanting to join one of (nephew) Rich’s charters for some time. My granddaughter Natalie joined us for the excursion.
We settled on “Gotcha,” a 40-foot Chesapeake Bay Built, the newest addition to Captain Rich’s fleet and, like his other boats, it is equipped with the latest electronics, radar system, and fishing gear. His larger boats, “Net Profits” and “Jesse Girl,” were just returning from morning charters with happy anglers who had all caught their limit. Cheryl’s eyes grew wide; Rich assured her that she, too, would catch a fish before day’s end. Recreational anglers, Alvin and Howard, soon joined us on board.
Captain John Bobnar was at the helm and Captain Rich worked as first mate. Before leaving the dock, the captains talked about safety procedures, told us where the life jackets were, mentioned the two-fish limit, and briefed us on what anglers have been catching in the past few days – mostly 18-28-inch rockfish, also known as striped bass or stripers. These fish put up a mighty fight, which makes them the premier sport fish on the bay. They’re also known for their tasty, delicate flavor.
We pulled away from the marina in a warm breeze, the sun sparkling on the water, with the three captains – all rockfish gurus. Captain John said we’d be trolling for fish, but he lost me with the technicality of it all -- something about running spreads … multiple rods … planer boards to cover more ground … umbrella rigs that mimic a school of baitfish … This fishing strategy was new for Cheryl and Natalie, both novice anglers. But the gist of the technique seemed to be – if rockfish are in the vicinity, the anglers on board would have a pretty good chance of catching them.
Captain John cut the engine when he arrived at his chosen fishing spot. The captains then set out the troll gear, which included several heavy-duty lines to handle the strain of the beefy fish that Cheryl and the others were sure to catch. Meanwhile, they asked us what kind of music we’d like to hear. In jest, I suggested something by the Russian composer Rachmaninoff. “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that,” Captain John quipped with a grin, turning on country which had Natalie dancing and singing on deck.
Merrily we trolled along.
I’ve been on several charters with my son Rich, but this was the first time I noticed how exhausting and strenuous it can be to work as first mate. And, it can be quite dangerous too. Weather can change quickly on the bay. And change soon came – first with sporadic drops of rain. A storm was brewing, coming from the southeast. We could see waves breaking just north of the shore. Our “perfect” fishing day began to look bleak. We worried that the storm would intensify, but it didn’t. The bay was calm - just a bit of haze, but we could still make out the Bay Bridge and Sandy Point Lighthouse.
Before long, a few of our trolling lines got tangled. At one point, Captain Rich was clinging to the boat’s side while untwisting them – not something a mother wants to see, especially when there’s a storm forming in the distance. After a few attempts, all was well and he was back on board.
Gulls were diving into the water nearby – a sure sign of fish below. They hovered above the bay and then swooped down, grabbing a fish with their talons - surely flying away with Cheryl’s prize catch!
Although there was no rockfish action our way, Captain John was cheerfully optimistic, saying that he’s seen some spreads, as many as 17 poles, bending all at once. Then wham! A striper found the bait and Howard’s pole was bending under its weight.
Captain Rich yelled “fish on, fish on” and set the hook. The battle began. Howard was relentless and Rich soon netted the fish and hoisted it on board. We were just 30 minutes from the excursion's end when the bites started coming, one after another; a few made their will known and let go of the bait, but it didn’t take long for Alvin, Natalie and Howard to bag their limit.
Cheryl’s promised catch remained elusive. But somewhere, out there, we knew that her fish was just waiting to tug on its dinner. Before long - wham! A striper hit the lure and was fighting pretty hard! Rich could tell it was a good-size fish; Cheryl was in for a great struggle. He strapped a fighting belt around her waist to anchor the rod. It was a heart-pounding experience for all of us as her fish kept pulling and pulling with force. Despite the bruising strain of its weight, she finally muscled it in – with barely enough strength to pose for a picture. Then, just a few minutes before heading back, she mustered enough energy to catch another one.
The sun was setting as we headed to shore - a wondrous magenta ball against a dusky blue sky. Coming into the marina, we were met by an osprey resting on a hefty nest built with shoreline debris. Yes, it was a perfect day for fishing. The anglers on board caught their limit – rockfish big enough for a few dinners and then some. But, for me, the day's trophy catch came when my camera caught Cheryl's smile as she proudly held up her striper!