Going rat fishing in America

August 23, 1994|By Robin Miller

I GOT OUT of my cab in front of the Omni Hotel on Fayette Street and, without bothering to check in, headed straight for the bell stand. "Hey, fella," I said to the first bellman I saw, "Where's the best place to go rat fishing around here?"

Bill Walters, the bellman, pondered for a moment, consulted a co-worker, and said, "Probably down on Redwood Street, after 10 at night when there aren't too many cars around. Lots of big ones there."

His co-worker Ezana ("Call me Easy") Mengistad, disagreed. He said the best place was "In the alley below Baltimore Street, where all the restaurant dumpsters are. You can get at least 20 an hour there, some this big," Easy said, spreading his hands about a foot apart. He agreed that the traditional rancid bacon was probably the best thing to put on one's hook. It was a pleasure to get such excellent guidance from hotel employees who, so obviously, wanted to make a guest's Baltimore experience as complete as possible.

The fact that Baltimore hotel bellmen know where to find quality rat fishing shouldn't surprise anyone. As local TV stations, USA Today, and daily newspapers from Florida to South Africa have recently discovered, Baltimore is home to an annual rat fishing tournament sponsored by Chuck Ochlech, who owns The Yellow Rose, an East Baltimore bar.

That makes me think of Richard Brautigan, who in his book, "Trout Fishing in America," wrote, "Mooresville, Indiana, is the town that John Dillinger came from, and the town has a John Dillinger Museum. You can go in and look around.

"Some towns are known as the peach capital of America or the cherry capital or the oyster capital, and there's always a festival and the picture of a pretty girl in a bathing suit.

"Mooresville, Indiana, is the John Dillinger capital of America."

Baltimore apparently is the rat fishing capital of America, but there is no book called "Rat Fishing in America." Baltimore doesn't have a Rat Fishing in America Museum. The annual Yellow Rose rat fishing tournament is not endorsed by any official group. It is something that was whipped up by a small group of the bar's regulars four years ago that has taken on a life of its own. The Yellow Rose isn't listed in phone books, so a tourist who wants to indulge in the very Baltimore sport of rat fishing probably won't be able to find the place and get the expert advice Chuck and his buddies could offer. And a tourist who wants to find out about rat fishing will get little help from government agencies, which don't know nearly as much about the sport as the bellmen at the Omni Hotel.

A call to Donna Ferguson of Mayor Schmoke's Public Information Office netted no information on rat fishing. Ms. Ferguson said the only city employees who knew about rats worked in the "Rat Rubout" office, and that I should call them for information on rat fishing. I tried, but ran out of patience after 10 minutes on hold.

The Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors' Association had no brochures on rat fishing, nor any plans to print any. Spokesman Gil Stottler said rat fishing "probably isn't going to be in the Attractions Guide any time soon." While he, unlike Ms. Ferguson, was aware of the publicity this wacky sport has brought Baltimore, he said, "I don't know whether it's in a good vein, or a not-so-good vein." At least he laughed.

A call to the Maryland Division of Tourism and Promotion, after a brief excursion through a voice-mail maze and several wrong extensions supplied by human operators, got spokeswoman Andrea Thomas on the line. New in her job, and new to Baltimore, Ms. Thomas didn't know anything about rat fishing, however, after a little research, she managed to find out that such a sport existed and was apparently unique to Baltimore. When asked if the state had any plans to promote rat fishing, she said, quite flatly: "No." She did not laugh.

It seems that rat fishing will remain an underground sport for the foreseeable future. There will be no city-sponsored tournaments, with beer company placards and celebrity guests, and no trophies presented to champion rodent anglers by beauty queens wearing too much lipstick.

Perhaps this is for the best. We've all had favorite restaurants and bars ruined by tourist inundation. Crab harvests have declined to the point where various state officials may soon want to license the children and old men who dangle chicken necks from bridges and piers, nets and baskets at their sides. Professional baseball has become so expensive, and so popular among the corporate crowd, that blue-collar fans can afford to attend few games at Camden Yards.

Before long, rat fishing may be the only sport ordinary Baltimoreans can enjoy without paying admission or buying a permit of some sort. Perhaps the tourism promoters realize this, and it is compassion for working-class Baltimore residents, not a lack of vision, that makes them treat rat fishing as something little more important than mayonnaise.

Robin Miller, a Baltimore cab driver, writes on the city's curiosities.

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