A getaway place to fish Patapsco River: For blacks, the shore in Cherry Hill offered a haven when they were unwelcome elsewhere. And memories and the fishing still draw many back in search of peaceful relaxation -- and a tasty meal.

July 27, 1996|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Used to be that if you were black and lived in Baltimore, one of the few places you could fish without drawing stares or worse was here: a grassy milelong section of the Patapsco River's southern bank, from the Hanover Street Bridge to the Reedbird marshes.

Robert Teal's father would bring him during the summer, and the crabs and catfish were so plentiful his arms would ache by lunchtime. Now Teal, 55, returns twice a month, fashioning wooden pallets into a pier, where he sits on a folding chair, holds a rod and pushes back bottles of Bud.

"This is the African-American Inner Harbor," says Teal, a shift supervisor for a building materials company. "Every time I'm here, I think about the old days, and I can feel my father's presence."

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These days, fishing is a serious business even for recreational types, who pack up their cars at 4 in the morning so they can be on the Eastern Shore by dawn, when the fish are awake and hungry. But the mood here on Cherry Hill's watery northern border is still relaxed, still peaceful, even if many of the old regulars have died.

Their children come back on weekends to carry on a habit from childhood.

Predominantly male and African-American, they are here for the white perch, catfish and Maryland blue crabs, which they eat or in a few cases sell to a couple of Eastern Avenue restaurants. But many of the fishermen come because friends told them about the place, or because they want to show their children a city area that is not so tough.

It is a beautiful view, with the water and the ships, and a panorama ranging from the downtown skyscrapers and Canton piers in the west to the green brush of Fairfield in the east.

But for fishermen with long memories, it is a bittersweet scene. Many recall when the part of the city they saw from their fishing spot wouldn't fully accept African-Americans, when black GIs back from serving their country in World War II were pushed south to Cherry Hill.

"It's like that today in a way," Teal says. "I'll take young black people out here, and I will tell a kid, 'Take your finger and point it in every direction. Point it at those ships you see. Everywhere you look, you see things that white people own.' "

L The Cherry Hill side of the river is "our place," Teal says.

On the hottest of days, a few of the regulars will put aside their poles, sit on whatever is handy (a bucket, a rock, an old tire) and enjoy the uncitylike atmosphere: gulls flying over the water, a breeze that makes it seem 10 degrees cooler, another precocious carp that just leapt out of the water and back in again.

"Come back here, fish," Leon Hebron yells.

Hebron, a 41-year-old roofer, comes out here now and then. He feels no historical call to the site, only an appreciation for the willow trees that provide shade.

"Most of the guys are here to get away from their old ladies," he says, drawing a warning from his new friend and fellow fisherman Gregory Taylor.

"If that comment ends up in the paper," Taylor says, "it could really thin out the crowds."

Taylor was born in Cherry Hill. But he didn't make it back to the fishing hole until a couple of Saturdays ago. A "higher authority" approved of his return so much that he and a buddy collected 20 pounds of catfish -- enough to fill the red-and-white cooler where he keeps his grape sodas.

In a typical expression of local etiquette, Taylor gave the fish to a fisherman with a large family to feed.

Some experts have raised questions about the toxicity of the water and whether the fish are safe to eat. The state says they are safe in limited quantities, though children and pregnant women should avoid catfish and eels from the harbor area.

The locals agree on the taste, however.

"Those catfish are good eating," Taylor says.

The seemingly bottomless mud and sediment in the Patapsco make for tasty fish, he says. His favorite is white perch. "I love to catch them, though I have to throw back those that aren't frying-pan size," he says.

If he is lucky, he can grab a carp. And once in a while a school of rockfish will swim through and bite at a line.

"These people here are like me -- local people who don't want to travel far," says Taylor, 37, who works in shipping and receiving at the Johns Hopkins University. "If you get nothing else out of this, you will be good and relaxed."

But Lionzell Mosley, like most, takes something more. Her mother brought her here to crab when she was a baby, and she caught her first -- a giant blue one -- when she was 6.

These days, from noon until she pulls up the wire crab nets one last time and watches the sun set, she and her children sit on the sidewalk of a little span that takes part of Hanover Street over the marshes and the Middle Branch. Mosley, a 31-year-old nurse, catches the family's dinner.

"It's a nice place to bring the kids to keep them out of trouble," pTC says the West Baltimore resident. "They are out here, so no one can say they are into anything bad."

Sometimes, Mosley holds a competition with the boys -- Marshall, 12, and John Jr., 8 -- facing off against the girls -- herself and Deborah, 8. The team that catches fewer crabs must wash the dishes.

"Oh, yes! Yes!" Mosley shouted one recent Sunday afternoon, as she pulled the net up from the water 20 feet below and eyed a blue crab. She ran to her other net. It had a crab in it, too, and she gave daughter Deborah a high-five.

"Marshall," she said to her son, "I do believe you're going to be doing some dishes tonight."

Pub Date: 7/27/96

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