A day long on talk, short on fish

OUTDOORS

May 15, 1994|By PETER BAKER

TILGHMAN -- Inside an hour after leaving the Chesapeake House docks on Tuesday, Capt. Buddy Harrison had seven lines out and was making his first pass along a drop-off at the Diamonds, a trough in the floor of the Chesapeake Bay within sight of Sharps Island Light at the mouth of the Choptank River.

The initial fear of the day, as expressed by Ray Landon, a businessman from Wilmington, Del., had been overcome. Yes, there were two lawyers aboard the Pleasure Merchant. But no, there were no business cards, pagers or cellular phones -- aside from the one that rang from time to time at the helm, where Harrison was in contact with the skippers of 10 other boats out that day.

Roy Cowdrey, an attorney from Easton who specializes in medical cases, was running through an extensive repertoire of jokes.

Between jokes, Ed Banks, a utilities lawyer from Salisbury, Stan Minken, a vascular surgeon from Baltimore, Pete Jensen, director of Maryland's Tidewater Fisheries Administration, Bill Burton, retired outdoors editor of The Evening Sun, Landon and Cowdrey were talking, among other things, about rockfish, women in combat, politics, euthanasia and, occasionally, fishing.

It was the day of the eclipse, and 11 boats from Harrison's were out for the annual pro-am tournament, a low-key affair in which the boat with the most keeper stripers might or might not win a prize.

Fish on.

Seven minutes after Harrison set out the trolling lines, the first striper hit, a 28-incher. In other years, Harrison and his customers who have fished the bay would have slipped it into the cooler.

These days, however, the legal minimum for stripers in the spring season is 34 inches. So after getting admiring glances from those aboard, the fish was slipped carefully over the side.

Fish on.

Another striper around 28 inches, and as Cowdrey put it to Jensen, who has been the driving force behind the recovery of rockfish populations in Maryland waters -- and to great extent along the East Coast:

"Another one of your babies, right? When are we going to be able to fish on them again, like in the old days?"

Jensen smiled and said, "Yes and never. Not like the old days, at least."

Two fish on -- a 31-incher and another in the high 20s that wasn't even measured.

"Cordwood. We used to stack them up like cordwood on the docks," Cowdrey was saying. "It wasn't a good day unless you caught rockfish until you were too tired to catch anymore."

Fish on. A keeper -- 34 inches.

Four hours to the height of the eclipse, and Banks and Jensen were talking about rockfish, Banks asking what survival rate -- from egg to larval stages to small fish -- would be considered a successful spawn.

"If we get 1 percent survival, it will be a successful spawn," Jensen said.

The survival of 1 percent of 100 million eggs would mean the recruitment of a million juvenile fish.

"And there are hundreds of millions of eggs spawned each year," Jensen said. "One 50-pound fish will produce more than 4 million eggs."

Fish on. Another striper in the high 20s.

Two hours from the height of the eclipse and the fishing has hit a lull. Minken, the Baltimore surgeon, and Cowdrey, the medical lawyer, have entered a discussion about Jack Kevorkian, the doctor who has assisted in the suicides of patients with terminal illnesses.

The legal issues are complex, the culpability of Kevorkian unclear, they say.

Minken notes that in China and The Netherlands, for example, the alternative of a quick and painless death, rather than a long, painful and futile struggle against a terminal disease, is an accepted practice. He predicts that Kevorkian will be vindicated.

"He might not realize it in his lifetime," Minken said, "but I predict that in 10 years Kevorkian will be a hero in this country. He is providing a type of service that could and maybe should be provided in extreme cases, with the consent of the patient and the consent of the family."

Three fish on. Two throwbacks and a second 34-inch keeper.

Behind thick cloud cover, the eclipse has begun. Somewhere someone will see it. At the Diamonds there is but a slight darkening of the day.

Burton has a fish on and is jubilant. He is on his umpteenth lure selection, a large, motor oil-colored plastic eel fitted on a head that he had found at the bottom of one of his many tackle boxes.

"Buddy, I told you so," Burton chortles toward Harrison, who again is on the cellular phone. "It might be ugly. It might be old. But I told you it would catch a fish."

Burton's rod, placed in the center of the transom, has caught more fish than any aboard, and each of his lures has caught at least one fish.

The eclipse has passed. Twenty-five fish have been caught, all but the two trophies have been released, and Harrison has begun the run back to the docks.

In the cabin, Cowdrey again is telling jokes. "What are these?" Cowdrey asks after drawing two dots on his pinkies with a pen.

One supposes that they are something else, but answers, "ink spots."

L "What is this?" Cowdrey asks, placing a pinky in either ear.

His question is answered by silence, so Cowdrey delivers the punch line -- "A [very stupid person] listening to the Ink Spots."

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