RIDGE -- At the mouth of Smith Creek, Capt. Eddie Davis throttled down the Edith Rose, and Willie Dean, a St. Mary's County menhaden fisherman, brought his skiff alongside as Davis went to the rail of his charter boat with four empty bushel baskets.
Dean, wearing chest waders and a hat that read, "Thou shalt not kill . . . unless," slogged across the bottom of his skiff, nearly knee deep in his day's catch, and with a long-handled net filled the bushel baskets with wriggling menhaden.
"Can't get it much fresher than this, can you now?" Davis said, as the bait for a day of chumming in the lower Chesapeake Bay was aligned along the starboard side and the Edith Rose cut across Calvert Bay toward Point Lookout, where the Potomac River enters the Chesapeake.
"Got to have the boat, the bait, the fish," said Davis, who grew up in St. Mary's County and has been running charters for 26 years. "We got two now -- and pretty soon we're going to have all three."
On Friday morning, Davis had a party of three Department of Natural Resources biologists aboard, along with Frances McFaden, a public affairs specialist with DNR's Fisheries Division.
"The fishing reports from this area have been so incredible the past few weeks," said Martin L. Gary, who compiles a weekly, statewide fishing report for DNR, "that it seemed we should get out and see how good the rockfish action really is down here."
According to Davis, who with his two sons, Steve and Jeff, and a handful of part-time captains runs several charter boats (301-872-5871), this is the best year for rockfish fishing he has ever seen in the lower bay.
"Pre- or post-moratorium, this has been unreal," said Davis, one ear to the VHF radio, with which he was communicating with Steve aboard the Miss Valerie, and one eye out for Jeff, who was running crab pots nearby aboard the Enchantress. "And maybe it's not so many fish that's unreal, but the size of them is.
"I'm going to tell you something, the fishing is good. Very good."
It is the kind of fishing that has been expected by biologists Don Cosden and Jim Markham, both of whom are part of DNR's stock assessment program, which measures, among many other things, the spawning runs of rockfish and annual survival rate of juvenile fish.
"We've had some very good [spawning] years for rockfish recently -- most notably 1989 and 1993," said Cosden, who heads the stock assessment program. "Those 1993 fish will enter the fishery this fall [18-inch minimum] and the 1989 class should be legal size now, and that probably is part of what is going on here now."
The waters of the bay between Crisfield on the Eastern Shore and Point Lookout on the western shore long have been prime fishing waters. Although only about 60 miles separate Bloody Point in the middle bay and the Chesapeake's confluence with the Potomac, the higher salinity of the water in the Maryland's lower bay, Cosden said, draws a greater variety of species -- Rockfish, bluefish, croaker, sea trout, channel bass, spot, croaker, cobia and others.
But for the moment, at least, rockfish is king. And on Friday, Davis was having a hard time getting to "a pile of rocks" east-northeast of the Point No Point lighthouse because more than a dozen rockfish tournament boats from Reedville, Va., had the location surrounded.
"Not bad enough that there are boats on my rock pile," said Davis, as he worked the Edith Rose south of the tournament boats and began to ladle out a slick of ground-up menhaden or chum. "But what's a Virginia tournament doing being fished in Maryland waters, anyway?
"Got no tide, the wrong moon phase, a flat tide and a Virginia tournament in Maryland waters. Maybe we came the wrong way today, but we'll give it an hour and see."
While Eddie Davis ladled chum off Point No Point, Capt. Steve Davis had set his anchor a few miles southwest in the Triangle area off Point Lookout -- and by 10 a.m. reported he had chummed up 14 rockfish, including four keepers well over the 28-inch minimum.
"Smart boy, that Steve, taught me everything I know," said Davis with a smile as he fired up the diesel and, like-son-like-father, headed south-southwest toward his son's spot.
In the lower bay, said Davis, rockfish is a relatively new game in town, but when the chum lines are working well, the action is fast and furious.
On Friday, all aboard Edith Rose caught a keeper, and although the action was spotty at times, virtually all of the two-dozen fish chummed up would have been legal tomorrow (Monday), when the minimum size drops to 26 inches.
"Used to be that we'd come out here in the spring and troll for bluefish," said Davis, as he set the Edith Rose on a drift close by the Miss Valerie at mid-morning. "Rockfish was never the big thing years ago. But then someone started chumming them up and no one wants to go trolling anymore."