LEITCHES WHARF - A hundred feet from the Patuxent River, the county road comes to a dead end. Tacked to the scrubby pine trees are a handful of "No Trespassing" signs. Beyond them lies a dusty footpath that leads to a secluded stretch of sand.
The beach here is quiet, sunny - and private. But that hasn't kept the public away.
Local anglers discovered long ago that the river cove is full of fish. Now, decades after their fathers and grandfathers wandered to the water's edge, a few dozen fishermen are caught in a hostile standoff with descendants of the family that has owned the land since Colonial times.
The owners, Thomas and Linda Weems, have grown disgusted with the increased littering and loitering by strangers on their beach. They decided to reclaim their privacy with a chain-link fence.
The fishermen believe the beach is public. The fence went up - and they cut it down. And since then, a rural tradition has turned into a 21st-century dispute, with both sides talking to lawyers, looking up land records and pleading their case to county officials.
It's a classic fight, pitting Marylanders' passion for the water against private property rights, a small-scale version of waterfront struggles that have played out on the shores of historic towns and expensive housing developments from Annapolis to Havre de Grace.
Maryland has 4,100 miles of shoreline along the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Yet in the increasingly suburbanized state, it's getting harder for folks to fish, canoe or simply stroll by the water. Public beaches and piers are often crowded, and unofficial access points are being closed off - often by new subdivisions.
"Here I am in Calvert County, surrounded by water I can't get to," complains John Goshorn, 50, a computer programmer for the U.S. Census Bureau who grew up across the river from Leitches Wharf. He has been putting out crab pots and reeling in catfish there since he was 6 years old.
"Where else can I take my boys to fish?" Goshorn says. "Yeah, we've got some public places, but it costs money to go there. Moneywise, with what three kids cost you these days, this was a thing where I could just drive up in my truck, take our rods and teach them to fish from the banks."
Fishing traditions run even deeper than the rivers in the rural stretches of Southern Maryland.
Generations of men in Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties were accustomed to walking across the fields to their favorite fishing holes. Farmers didn't mind if neighbors came to hunt and fish. Even today, it's not uncommon to see a couple of older men, poles in hand, come down a farm lane on a summer evening.
Leitches Wharf is such a spot. Located along a curve in the Patuxent River, west of the town of Prince Frederick and across from a Charles County power plant, the sandy stretch gets its name from a wharf that was used by farmers to ship tobacco to Baltimore.
The pier is long gone, but local anglers continued to come - with the tacit permission of the Weems family, which has owned the beach and farmland since 1764.
So popular did the fishing spot become that some forgot it was privately owned. The reminders were hard to ignore.
First, the current owners posted "Keep Out" signs. Last year, they asked the county to close the road. When that failed, they tried something else a few months ago: Above the footpath, they installed a tall fence.
Fishing might be a peaceful pastime, says Linda Weems, who lives with her husband in a modest home overlooking the river and leases out the farmland. But times have changed.
In the past few years, she says, strangers have turned up on their shore at all hours. Plenty of them don't have fishing in mind. Some drink beer and dump their bottles. Others cut down pines at Christmas. One man parked his Winnebago camper. Another man hung laundry on a piece of driftwood.
"Unless you have lived here, you have no idea what we've been going through," Weems says.
"We would love to go down on our shore property and have a reasonable picnic; we would love to walk on the beach," she adds. "But we can't in any privacy. It's our land. We wouldn't dream of going on someone else's private property. Here we are, having to fight to get our property back."
But in a county that has 110 miles of waterfront and fewer than a dozen public piers, local anglers weren't willing to give up. Some of them, young and old, black and white, staged a protest recently and cut down the fence.
"I don't see it as trespassing," says Sam Goshorn, 57, the brother of John. "They [the Weemses] might own it, but this is public. It was used as a public wharf."
James Hicks, 79, who has been fishing at Leitches Wharf for a half-century, agrees. "A place that's been open, all of my life anyhow, I don't think a person can come up and claim it and close it off."