After 35 years, it's time to dock this writing boat

January 10, 1992|By Bill Burton

In midsummer of 1956, when Tom McNally left Baltimore to take over the outdoor beat for the Chicago Tribune, I gave up the reins of the Plattsmouth (Neb.) Journal to replace him as outdoor editor at The Evening Sun.

When I arrived on a torrid Aug. 27, upper bay hardhead fishing was in its heyday, cobia were plentiful at the Davidson Wreck off the mouth of the Potomac River, Crisfield was a sleepy commercial fishing center where Alex Kellam and Charlton Marshall trolled for rock with hand lines, and local funeral director Harvey Bradshaw was hatching an idea to promote that city's sportsfishing potential.

The minimum size for rock was 12 inches (later to be reduced to 11, and now at 18), and George Gambrill, a fellow who was little only in size and served as president of the Maryland Rockfish Protective Association, was leading a battle to stop netting of the species. He was backed by such heavyweights as the Associated Sportsmen's Clubs of Central Maryland (led by outspoken Ed Long), the Pikesville Sportsmen's Club and the League of Maryland Sportsmen.

Maryland's governor was Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin, who the following year would fish the Susquehanna with guide Joe Wolney and get the idea to buy land on the Harford County side of the river to thwart development and create Susquehanna State Park. I was on that trip, and my guide was a quiet, little-known, but great angler -- Earl Ashenfelter.

The Bay Bridge wasn't old enough to gather many barnacles, so rockfishing wasn't big there yet; the hot spot was Love Point, where anglers drifted eels at night on an old wreck, and all stripers of more than 15 pounds had to go back. If anyone suggested casting to any bay fish, they would have been considered loony bin candidates.

Electronic fish-finders were illegal for locating any fish; the Rod and Reel Docks at Chesapeake Beach had many more slot machines than charterboats; an avid young bay angler was stationed in Ohio with the Army. His name, Ed Darwin.

Burt Dillon operated a class tackle shop on St. Paul Street, working nights on a budding fishing publication, Fishing In Maryland. At Wynne, Capt. Andy Scheible Sr. was saving up to buy the lower Potomac's first headboat -- the original Bay King, which was to change fishing down that way.

Out of Middle River, Capts. Albert and Frank Edwards and Lawrence Rye ruled upper bay fishing; Capt. Bob Joy based in the Magothy couldn't be beat at Snake Reef and Belvedere Shoals; and Capt. Harry Woodburn was a Solomons legend. Dr. L. Eugene Cronin was (and remains) the most respected voice of Chesapeake Bay environmental watchdogs.

The old Tidewater Fisheries Commission ignored all sports fishing issues and was interested only in nets. But that would be changed when Dr. Curley Byrd -- then at the University of Maryland -- would lay the groundwork for today's Department of Natural Resources at the urging of Gov. Millard Tawes, our best conservation chief ever.

Capt. Charlie Ford out of Kent Island was pioneering soft shell clam chumming so successfully, he was acknowledged the bay's best rockfish catcher. But at Tilghman Island there was a young newcomer by the name of Buddy Harrison. At his then little-known facility, one fished for $40; another $10 covered overnight accommodations plus three square meals family style -- including all the crab cakes you could eat, the same cakes he brought to the Inner Harbor when he set up a second inn complex a few years ago.

Baltimore-built Owens Yachts were the big boats on the Chesapeake, and elsewhere. The "in" place for pickerel was South River, and in the bay, bluefish were the exception. The Chesapeake's biggest ongoing fishing contest was the Chesapeake Bay Fishing Fair; prizes were cheap trophies and tackle.

The biggest bass roamed the Pocomoke, including the state record of 7 1/2 pounds. A hook dunked in the Potomac at Washington would corrode waiting for a largemouth. Deep Creek Lake turned up a few fish for fewer anglers, but fresh from the Army was Johnny Marple selling worms from a large packing crate along Route 219, where he now owns Western Maryland's biggest and best tackle shop.

One had to take a ferry that operated only occasionally to fish at Assateague Island, where roads were being built and few mansions were under construction. Eventually Louis Goldstein, then State Senate president, would spark a campaign to keep it from being another Ocean City.

At OC, marlin trips cost $100. The Jackspot was the hot spot. Capt. Reese Layton's 37-foot lapstrake Jersey Skiff named ViReese was the fastest offshore runner, though it couldn't do 20 knots. Blue marlin trips to the distant canyons were overnight affairs with extra fuel stowed in 50 gallon drums in the cockpit. Running the marlin docks were Capts. Josh, Bill and Talbot Bunting, and Jack Bunting, OC's best headboat skipper ever, was in the Coast Guard.

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