Mill Creek, just north of Annapolis, was socked in by fog Friday morning as Capt. Ed Darwin moved about the Becky D, lighting the kerosene heater, warming the engine and chatting easily with a late-season charter party.
"This is the fifth straight morning like this, and even though I should know the channel by heart, I think I'll wait at least until I can see across the creek before we take off," Darwin said as he stowed a horde of bloodworms in the ice chest.
"There's some nice fish out there -- big white perch and a lot of really nice rock. The trout seem mostly to have moved on, but we might get lucky."
Darwin, who retired from the Baltimore city school system some years ago, has been running charters on the Becky D for more than 25 years, specializing in light tackle fishing from Poplar Island to the Patapsco River.
Bob Dobart, former bass fishing angler of the year in Maryland, booked the trip to learn more about feather jigging for sea trout in the Bay Bridge area from Darwin, an acknowledged master.
"I have wanted to learn this for years," said Dobart, president of the Bass Expo, Saltwater Fishing and Fly Fishing Show, held each January at the state fairgrounds in Timonium. "After I heard Ed give a seminar at the show last year, I thought he was probably the guy to teach me."
But by the end of the day, with the wind close to 25 knots and 3-foot seas rolling up Chesapeake Bay, Dobart and his good friend, John Melzer, were teaching the master a few tricks.
"You take what you learn in bass fishing, and you can use it anywhere," said Melzer, as Darwin steered the Becky D through a thinning fog out the narrow, horseshoe channel into Whitehall Bay. "I gave up bass tournament fishing about 10 years ago and started fishing the bay, and the difference amazed me. There are just so many different species out here."
But to Darwin's way of thinking, there were really only two good possibilities Friday -- white perch and rock -- and only two sure-fire ways of catching them.
"I think what we'll do first is try jigging the rock piles at the bridge, and then, if the wind doesn't come up early, we'll run north and try bottom bouncing," Darwin said, as the Becky D ran out past Hackett's, where a half-dozen patent tongers worked the bar for oysters.
Jigging small bucktails at the rock pile produced a handful of perch and a dozen rockfish, including a half dozen over 20 inches, and a pair of nice sea trout. But after an hour or so, the action slowed and Darwin headed the Becky D north toward the lumps and edges off Gibson Island, just south of the mouth of the Patapsco.
Normally, Darwin would set up for bottom bouncing, trolling with just enough weight to hold bottom while small bucktails trailed behind just a few inches above.
Instead, Dobart asked to drift over the edges while jigging a 2-ounce silver spoon he said had been steadily stinging rockfish and trout in the Solomons area.
Off Gibson Island, however, the spoons did little Friday, even though the Becky D's fish finder showed plenty of tightly packed fish.
"Look at this," Darwin said a number of times as he repeatedly positioned Becky D to drift over an edge. "They're there. They're stacked 6 feet deep on the bottom -- but they sure aren't biting."
In the meantime, the wind and seas were building, a cold front was approaching from the west and Melzer was wondering what had taken the sting out of his secret weapon.
"With this wind and this tide," said Melzer, a forklift operator at the General Motors plant in Baltimore, "maybe we need to go to 3 ounces just to hold bottom -- but these fish just aren't feeding."
So Darwin headed south, head to the seas and a wind building past 18 knots, and the Becky D rocked and rolled its way to the Bay Bridge, where the captain found a pile of rockfish and perch in the lee of the concrete abutment at the western stone pile.
With Darwin using his small bucktail rig and Dobart and Melzer using the 2-ounce spoons, fishing was suddenly entertaining. Perch, rockfish, hickory shad and trout.
Darwin positioning the Becky D, lines down, fish up and the wind whistling overhead hard enough to carry away caps and mild curses.
For 90 minutes or so, the silver spoons out-fished Darwin's traditional rig, but the master was nonplused.
"I like a day of fishing when I learn something," said Darwin, as he paid off $5 side bets for first, largest and most fish caught. "Silver sting, huh. These work pretty well, and that's a very good lesson at a very cheap price."