ANNAPOLIS -- "Hang on, a roller is coming," shouted the skipper of a small boat bobbing on waves a couple miles above the Bay Bridge. Heck, there was no need for concern. If the angler fell overboard, he would have landed in another boat.
That's how busy things were in the upper bay on the opener of the fall rockfish season. And this was not one of those disappointing affairs where someone forgot to call the fish. They were there.
Welcome to Love Point, the Chesapeake's most popular spot for drifting live eels. When those of us aboard Capt. Ed Darwin's charterboat Becky D approached the fleet it loomed like a city with tuna towers breaking the horizon like skyscrapers.
The hard bottom stretch frequented by rock in the fall isn't very big, but there had to be 250 boats squeezing in for a crack at big fish, and they ranged from 14-footers to the huge Magic Marlin and Liquidator, which normally fish the distant canyons off Ocean City.
Some fishermen spent as much time fending off other boats with their hands as they did handling a rod. Believe me, things were as crowded as the floor of the Chesapeake Bay Boat Show on a Saturday afternoon.
But, anglers were catching fish -- also losing them as their striper ran under a nearby boat. The pops of line snapping could be heard above the gusts that topped 15 knots, which also added to boat handling problems.
It was like the opener of the baseball season; everyone found an excuse for skipping work. Morris, Jeff and Bill aboard our boat for instance. "No last names please," pleaded Morris.
Bill got the first fish of the day -- a 12-pounder -- when we briefly tried several miles below Love Point, but with 50 boats there we thought things were crowded, and moved north. Darwin, who considers trolling something akin to kissing one's sister, wanted to drift eels where there was room to get them wet.
After a few futile passes at Love Point, he decided to leave for waters above there, but no rock responded. "If they're around, they'll bite as soon as the eel hits bottom," said Darwin, as he headed back to the traffic jam.
After 15 minutes we decided again it was too much, but it took us another 15 minutes to get out of the jam, complicated when the small boat Hammer whizzed through the fleet fast enough to tow a waterskier as fishermen shouted obscenities and waved their fists.
Had we wanted blues, they were available. One big school was breaking on the Dumping Grounds with birds diving to snatch fleeing bait -- but we already had too many blues slash our eels. Rock take the whole eel, blues only want a third of it.
And it's expensive feeding blues to eels at from 95 cents to $1.25 for each bait.
Next we set up shop at the Bay Bridge where we drifted eels close to pilings. There was less traffic there -- until someone caught a fish. Then it was like a gold rush. The sight of a man holding a net ready attracted all other boats within sight.
At Piling 41 there were probably 30 boats taking turns rounding ** the pile when the sailboat SeaScape moved in too close to watch and got caught by a gust of wind. It came charging through the fleet, its mast blown at such a severe angle it appeared destined to catch the piling while the bow smashed into two small fishing craft.
Suddenly the gust died, and somehow or other it made it through the congregation without mishap -- other than shrieks from irate anglers whose drifting pattern was broken by the uncalled-for intrusion.
Finally, at a piling the number of which I won't disclose for obvious reasons, we struck fish, and other boats skippered by fellows who played by the rules waited their turn to move in and make their pass. Almost as soon as the baits hit bottom, rock grabbed them.
They were of 6 to 12 pounds, long, lean and hungry, but with other boats crowding in there was no time to play them. It was reel them in quickly or chance losing them. In 28 minutes, we had the seven that filled our boat's creel of eight, two for each angler.
That's what fishing is all about; waiting, then catching. All good things come to those who wait, congestion or not.