Bennieville is where fun, fish are

OUTDOORS

June 05, 1994|By PETER BAKER

RIDGE -- By early afternoon Thursday, the skies had cleared, the wind was down to a loud whisper, and Billy Parks' Over the Hill Gang and The Cisco Kid were doing their damnedest to break the bank at Bennieville.

But the morning had been a long, hard ride.

Shortly after sunrise, the northwest wind had been up, as Parks, Bennie Mitchell, Abner Sacks and Steve Mitchell gathered on the dock at Scheible's Fishing Center.

"Eighteen to 22 knots in here," Capt. Bruce Scheible was saying as he looked upwind across Smith Creek from the Ellen S., which was loaded with baskets of frozen fish and soft crabs. "It's probably stronger outside. Though I can't believe it's going to blow all day like they say it will."

For the Over the Hill Gang, however, there was an issue of greater concern -- the engine box was covered with gear.

"How are we going to play cards with all that stuff up there Capt. Bruce?" says Billy, 74, as Scheible steers the Ellen S. away from the dock. "Got a new deck and a pocket of change -- and I know that I am going to take Abner's and Bennie's money."

"That would be the first time, wouldn't it?" says Bennie, 64, moving coolers and clothing and pulling a deck chair to the playing table.

Abner, at 75, is an adjunct professor of economics at Northern Virginia Community College. He had careers in the military and with the Bureau of Economic Analysis. He closes a side shutter to block the wind, and the game begins.

And the Ellen S. rumbles down the creek to the Potomac River and out beyond Point Lookout to the Middle Grounds, rolling easily in the troughs of 4-foot cross seas, while the players pitch their cards, and nickels and dimes change hands as freely as conversation flows among friends who have fished together for more than 15 years.

Scheible, meanwhile, has his eye on the weather and his thoughts on whether the bluefish that have been taking baits fast and furious for the past week will be off the bite. Whether discretion might be the better part of valor.

"Don't know about this wind," Scheible says as we pass south of the wreck of the American Mariner. "Every bit of 25 knots at times. But if the waves don't knock us all silly, the boat will be all right and you just never know what the blues are going to do."

With the Ellen S. swinging at anchor in about 30 feet of water on the Middle Grounds and Scheible grinding frozen fish into chum, the card game breaks up. Parks is up a dime.

"Told you I'd take their money," says Billy, retired from the federal government for nearly 20 years and now in corporate development with Labat-Anderson Inc. of Arlington, Va. "Though wish I had taken it all.

"First catch takes a dollar from everyone."

Abner, after quick analysis of the situation, while getting his rod and moving his deck chair to the rail, adds, "But it has to be of legal size and it has to have scales!"

Bennie, also retired from the federal government since the 1970s, says, "If it's a fish, it has to have scales, Abbie, and I guarantee I will take your dollar."

Shortly, with Scheible spooning out a slick of chum that winds away south toward Smith Point, Bennie has a slight bend in his fishing rod and a grin on his face.

"Fish on," he says. "Get those dollars ready."

The fish brought to the boat is an oyster toad, and Bennie misses his chance to take the first fish pool, Abner says, because toads don't have scales.

Bennie, of course, argues with good nature that a fish is a fish is a fish, a dollar is a dollar is a dollar, and the pool should be his.

The pool later goes to an on-board observer for a 2-pound bluefish, one of only a handful that come up into the chum line over the period of a couple of hours.

Scheible, deciding that the wind does indeed have the tide out of phase, pulls anchor and runs the Ellen S. north-northeast toward the Mud Leads, a 30- to 40-foot trough on the eastern edge of the Middle Grounds west of Smith Island.

The wind has fallen off somewhat, the cloud cover is thinning from the west and Scheible has his mind set on catching sea trout and hardheads on soft crab and squid baits.

"Hardheads are better this year than at any time in almost 30 years," says Scheible, who has been a charterboat captain on Maryland's lower bay for as many years. "They are big, they are plentiful -- and they will hit soft crab with surprising passion."

Abner, meanwhile, is taking a ribbing from Billy, who is recalling a trip last season when Martha Sacks was catching fish nonstop and her husband couldn't catch a cold.

"You remember, don't you, Abbie?" Billy is saying and winking at Bennie and The Cisco Kid, Billy's 18-year-old grandson. "Martha hooked another fish, turned and asked if you wanted to reel in just one?"

Abner smiles, sends his double-hook rig to the bottom and says softly, "Yes, I remember. And today, it seems, has been too much the same."

Abner and the Cisco Kid have yet to catch a fish, and it is well past noon.

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