Sure It's Spring Just Ask the Fish

March 13, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

VIENNA — Vienna. -- Under gray skies occasionally spitting rain, surrounded by cold gray water and miles of winter-brown marsh, we're out on the Nanticoke River in a couple of small boats wondering about spring.

It's here all right, though it's only early March and sure feels like winter to visiting outlanders. In the river the white perch know it's spring and are on the move. A trio of commercial fishermen, local people, know it too; a little below Vienna they're emptying big perch into their skiff from a fike net.

Ospreys, who also fish for a living, obviously can tell it's spring. We see several checking out nest sites. They're the first any of us have seen this year, and they must have arrived within the past day or so. Their presence cheers us. It wasn't too many years ago that they were a species in trouble; pesticide residues were weakening their eggs. But now they're back and successfully reproducing, symbols of a healthier Chesapeake estuary.

Of the eight people in the two boats, Steele Phillips probably knows better than any of us that it's near-enough spring. He farms on the river's west bank near here, tilling land that's been in his family for generations. If he hadn't been out in a boat with some Chesapeake Bay Foundation staff members and a couple of hangers-on, he'd have been in his fields taking soil samples and getting ready to plant corn.

He also does some fish-farming in his farm ponds, and tends more than a hundred muskrat traps in his marshes. On this cold March day, beneath his SWAT (''Save Water And Topsoil'') baseball cap he wears a look many farmers display at this time of year. It's the slightly preoccupied look of a man with a lot to do, and the awareness that as long as he doesn't slow down even a step, he should have just enough time to get it done.

The Nanticoke is a big river teeming with life. It drains much of southern Delaware before it enters Maryland on its way to Tangier Sound. Especially below Vienna, where the marshes stretch away for miles, it has a lonely aspect which -- along with the mosquitoes -- has tended to keep intruders away.

For years, one famous cruising guide warned yachtsmen not to bother with the Nanticoke, even though it's navigable most of its length, and tugs and barges regularly make their way to Seaford, Delaware. There's nothing to see on the river but marsh, the guide said. Most chartbooks published for recreational boaters don't include the upper river at all.

This neglect has been a blessing. But because the Nanticoke river system is so unusual, and ecologically so significant a part of the Chesapeake estuary, the half-forgotten river is starting to get more attention. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Nature Conservancy both have special Nanticoke River programs in the works. Maryland and Delaware natural-resources officials have also come to realize that this isn't just another river.

Vienna's about at the Nanticoke's midpoint, where the scenery starts to get more wooded and less marshy. It's a small town where many pass by, usually on Route 50 on their way to the beaches, but few stop. Traffic crosses the Nanticoke on a big new bridge, so oddly placed with relation to the channel that tugboats and barges bound upriver often hit it. From the water, Steele Phillips points out the battered bulkheading around one of the bridge's main supports.

During the Revolution the Royal Navy sent a boat up the river to Vienna. The crew, for no particular strategic or tactical reason, shelled the town. During the War of 1812 the British came back for another look but didn't fire. Since then things have been fairly quiet around here.

After a morning on the river below Vienna, Steele heads home to his farm and the rest of us take a look at the Delaware portion of the Nanticoke. We go above Seaford until we're almost out of water, then down to Broad Creek, a major tributary. At Bethel, Delaware, in the late 19th century, ocean-going sailing vessels were built on the banks of Broad Creek. A hundred years later, we try to guess where the shipyard might have been, but can't be sure.

As the day ends, still gray and still cold, we get back to the launching ramp in Seaford and leave the river. We figure we've traveled about 50 miles in all, and besides the fike netters near Vienna and one tugboat with a barge, we've only encountered one other boat.

John Page Williams, who captained one of our two boats on this trip, observes in his ''Naturalist's Almanac'' column in this TC month's Chesapeake Bay Magazine that ''March on the Chesapeake is an acquired taste.'' True enough.

It can be a confused time which sometimes sends mixed signals. home earlier in the week I'd seen swans flying north; the next day I saw what looked like the same flock headed south.

But it's also a portentous time, filled with the sense that important things are about to happen. That was the theme of our message from the Nanticoke.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

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