Long before dawn yesterday, thousands of folks were filling coolers with ice, searching for a lucky hat and envisioning dinner on the grill.
After the coldest winter in memory and endless days of rain, the promise of a brilliant spring day on the water proved an irresistible tonic. And it came with a chaser. Yesterday was the opening of the spring striped bass season.
When the bright orange sun popped up between the Chesapeake Bay and low-slung clouds about 6:30, it illuminated hundreds of boats, all on a quest for the same thing: silver-sided monsters with black racing stripes.
"Everybody with a propeller is out here today," said Capt. Jim Brincefield, who runs a charter boat out of Deale's Happy Harbor. "People have been counting this one down for a long time."
Aboard his Jil Carrie was a group known as "The Legends," men who have been fishing the Chesapeake together since 1992. Capt. Al Smith, the first mate, and anglers Ed Mechlinski and Dennis "Ed" Greenway each celebrated his 75th season on the planet by chasing the big fish.
On the pier in Matapeake on the bay's eastern shore, anglers bundled against the morning chill to claim what they hoped would be a prime spot.
Around the bay, an ebb tide clashed with winds out of the south to produce a chop that dampened clothes, but not the level of enthusiasm.
"It was like the parking lot at Ocean City," said Scott Miller of Littlestown, Pa. "We've waited a year for this, and I don't care if gas is $4 a gallon -- we're going fishing."
Later in the day, 150 partyers gathered at the Boatyard Bar and Grill in Eastport to enjoy live tunes and rum drinks while they cheered the winners of the third annual striped bass tournament.
The striped bass is as Maryland as Fort McHenry, the Orioles or a pile of steamed crabs on brown paper. And like the others, there's a season for the striped bass, also known in these parts as the rockfish.
The "trophy" season is pegged to the northward migration of huge fish that stop in the Chesapeake to spawn. It runs from mid-April to May 15. Maryland allows anglers to keep one fish larger than 28 inches each day.
Bound by tradition
Capt. Buddy Harrison, the patriarch of Tilghman Island fishing, knows his traditions. Until this year, he hadn't missed an Oriole opening day or the start of striper season. But recovery from hip replacement kept him from both this time around.
He understands the winter-long itch that the trophy season scratches.
"It's something you can't do -- like a kid and candy or doughnuts or cake," said Harrison. "You can't have it. You can't have it. You can't have it, and then all of the sudden, it's a holiday and it's yours again."
And for charter captains who made their living by filling their boats with customers, the opening of the season is like the sound of a cash register. "After a month and a half of rigging up and spending money, it's time to make some of it back," said Harrison's son, Capt. Bud Harrison. "Everybody rigged up is out there."
The younger Harrison and others estimate that 300 charter boats and 1,000 recreational fishermen were patrolling the waters between the Bay Bridge and the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Calvert County.
"You probably have 45,000 to 50,000 out there, the same as the Orioles on opening day, and we don't get TV coverage or ESPN Sports Center," said Bud Harrison.
$1 billion industry
Fishing is worth more than $1 billion to the Maryland economy, attracting 700,000 residents and nonresidents a year. They come to wet a line at Deep Creek Lake in Garrett County, entice a trout to swallow a dry fly on the Gunpowder River or surf cast in the waters off Ocean City.
But the rockfish is king -- the official state fish.
The population collapsed in the 1980s from North Carolina through New England because of overfishing and poor spawning conditions. That prompted a five-year fishing moratorium that began in 1985 and eventually brought the species back.
Since then, state officials and anglers alike have been protective of their royalty.
On the opening day of the season, it's up to Natural Resources Police officers such as Roy Rafter, skipping across the bay in a 21-foot Boston Whaler, to remind people of the regulations. Times are tough. The agency is understaffed and hasn't had a training academy class in two years.
"With being shorthanded, you come out to fly the flag and let people know you're here," said Rafter. "The good people come up and tell you to watch a certain boat. With all the fishermen out here, they're your backup. They've got your back."
A lucky break for one
Rafter arrived at the Matapeake pier just in time to see a whooping Stephen Baum of Damascus haul in a glistening 31-inch fish.
His lucky break was made even more so by a break of another kind. Arthur Jordan of Baltimore had asked Baum to watch his tackle while he went to the bathroom. He started back just as Baum started yelling.
"It was my rod, my cast. It even had new line on it and everything," he said, moaning and shaking his head. "The worst thing is that I was on my way back and had to see it."
Baum put a friendly hand on Jordan's shoulder and offered condolences.
"Think of it as charity work," he said.