QUANTICO -- When it comes to telling fishing yarns, few can top Martin Shuff's tale about the one that got away.
While fishing from a dock that is part of the Poplar Hill Pre-Release Center in Wicomico County, inmate Shuff absent-mindedly rubbed the left side of his face with his hand. His artificial eye popped out, fell between the wooden planks and disappeared into the muddy waters of Quantico Creek.
"I was in kind of a pickle," Shuff said later.
Shuff and some of his fellow inmates who were standing nearby wanted to jump into the creek immediately to look for the lost prosthesis.
But safety regulations at the minimum security prison prohibit inmates from swimming in the tidal creek, although they are allowed to fish and crab there. There was little the 46-year-old Baltimore native could do but tell prison officials about his predicament.
"After we had a good laugh, it got serious when we found out how much it would cost to replace it," said Chris South, a Poplar Hill correctional officer who was among the first to learn of Shuff's plight.
The plastic eye is not spherical, but curved to fit over a glass ball Shuff said doctors implanted in his socket to replace the organ he lost as the result of an accident when he was 16 years old.
The hand-painted device resembles a natural eye when it is worn, but actually is slightly curved. By itself, the small and lightweight prosthesis looks much like a water-worn seashell, a feature that nearly stymied attempts to recover it from the water.
Shuff said doctors told him it could cost as much as $3,000 to replace the device. Health coverage provided to prisoners by the state would not pay for it, said corrections officials, because the artificial eye is considered to be primarily cosmetic.
Shuff, who has completed half of a 120-month prison sentence for drug violations, said all he owns are the clothes in his dorm locker and $25 in a bank account.
"If they didn't find the eye, I didn't know what I would do," he said.
Hopeful that he will be released from prison after a parole hearing, Shuff said he worried that potential employers would shy away from him if he showed up wearing an eye patch.
Mr. South said efforts to recover the eye by using dip nets would have been fruitless because the device was out of reach in 6 feet of water directly beneath the pier.
An 18-year veteran of the Salisbury Police Department when he joined the state corrections system, Mr. South called friends who are members of the Salisbury Underwater Recovery Unit, a diving team made up of police and firemen.
The divers responded and tried unsuccessfully for three hours to find the eye. Despite the small area to be searched, visibility was poor and the creek bottom was covered with small rocks and shells. They pulled up an old fishing rod and a pair of pliers, but no artificial eye.
For the next three weeks, Shuff wore an eye patch. And he fretted.
"It felt like an emptiness, like I had a hole in my head," he said. "I felt like I had lost my best friend."
Cheryl Shores, who keeps medical records at the Poplar Hill center, said she was so concerned about Shuff's missing eye that she and some inmates walked to the fishing dock and prayed for its recovery. Prayer was offered again at a weekly breakfast she had with friends.
And there were the attempts to humor Shuff. Guards told him the eye had been found. When he stuck out a hand to accept it, he was given a golf ball marked with a felt pen to resemble an eye.
"It was funny, sure," said Shuff. "I used to play jokes like that on people myself when I dropped my eye in a glass of beer."
When the Salisbury diving team returned to the creek last weekend for a practice session, Shuff's luck improved.
Using a 15-foot length of rope and routine underwater search techniques, divers found the missing eye after combing the creek bottom for an hour.
Lt. Richard Hagel Sr., a Salisbury police officer and dive master for the recovery team, said he grabbed some small objects from the creek bed and surfaced, opening his hand so observers on the dock could see what he had brought up.
"I had no idea I had got hold of the eye until I came up and heard the screams," he said.
The device was not damaged, and Shuff put it back where it belonged.
Lieutenant Hagel said finding the eye was the most unusual recovery in his career as a police diver.
"We've searched for handguns, trucks, vans, bodies, but never anything like that or that small," he said.
Shuff said he now removes the artificial eye and wears sunglasses when he goes to the dock.
"I might have had to wear an eye patch for the rest of my life," he said, adding that he is grateful for the help of the guards and the divers.
"They worried about as much as I did about getting the eye back," he said. "I appreciate it."