A fishing derby gives kids who have lost loved ones an outlet for their grief.

Angling to help families find solace on the bay

August 05, 2005|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

For a few hours yesterday, they left most of their worries at the dock.

The widows grieving husbands and the children mourning parents and siblings found relief in the sparkling waters of the Chesapeake Bay and the tug on a fishing line.

Shrieks of laughter and palms slapping congratulatory high fives provided the soundtrack for the sixth annual Joe Judge Fishing Derby, a two-hour excursion aboard the Old Bay for 11 children and some of their parents and volunteers.

And the fish - particularly the striped bass - played their part to perfection. Every young angler reeled in a silver-sided fish with black racing stripes.

Donna Judge, wife of the late Joe Judge, recruits families at Camp New Dawn, a weekend sleepover camp on Kent Island for youngsters whose family members have died. The camp, sponsored by Eastern Shore Hospice, provides an outlet to talk about anger and fears and learn that others are experiencing the same feelings.

"It's an outing," said a smiling Kellie Elliott of Ingleside, who fished with her three sons. "It's as much for parents as it is for them. It's something off the normal routine, and it gets them out with other kids."

"Can I go next year, Mommy?" asked Cole Elliott, 9, who just hours earlier had tried to beg off.

The derby is a labor of love by a group of Eastern Shore recreational fishermen and a Deale charter boat captain brought together by a woman who would not let the memory of her husband fade.

Joe Judge owned a hunting lodge and was an avid fisherman who won the 1986 Bahamas Billfish Championship. After he died of cancer in 1999 at the age of 58, his wife decided to combine his passion for fishing and his love of children into an annual free fishing trip.

"I just acted on his inspiration," Donna Judge said. "Kids have a hard time grieving. They don't know how to react when a loved one dies. They try to stay strong, and some of them don't know that it's OK to cry."

Kellie Elliott, whose husband, Eugene, died last Thanksgiving morning, agreed. "It was good for them to express their emotions about it. I had one who didn't want to talk about it, and another one who couldn't stop."

Each year at the derby, there are quivering lips and tears among the dangling rods. For a child who enjoyed fishing with a sibling or a parent, the trip can bring back memories. But camp counselors are aboard, and the other children often stop fishing to offer support.

Two near-catastrophes almost scuttled this year's derby. In December, Judge was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Although the prognosis is good, chemotherapy has left her weak.

"There was just no way I could do this," she said Wednesday night. "I was so worried that the kids might not get their trip. I needed someone else."

Members of the Coastal Conservation Association picked up the ball.

Diane Baynard recruited the families, signed up volunteers to assist the children and arranged goodie bags of fishing gear for each of them to take home. Members of the Kent Narrows chapter signed on as mates.

And the Harris Crab House on Kent Island restaurant planned a cookout for them on their return.

But before anyone could breathe a sigh of relief, they faced another obstacle. Early last month, the charter boat used each year by the derby sustained serious damage when it was struck just off Tilghman Island by a speeding cabin cruiser.

"I thought we were dead in the water, literally," said Jim Brincefield, owner of the damaged Jil Carrie. "I didn't want to disappoint the kids, but I wasn't sure my boat could be repaired in time."

Another Deale boat owner, Dave Wooldridge of Annapolis, stepped in, donating use of the 53-foot Old Bay.

"I'm just so fortunate that each problem had a solution, and this is continuing," Judge said. "It warms my heart."

Yesterday morning, as the sun turned the bay to bathwater, Brincefield made a half-hour run from Kent Narrows to a fish-rich area on the bay known as the Triple Buoys, where he dropped anchor.

"I hope they know the way back," whispered a slightly nervous Cameron White, 8, of Stevensville as he looked around the vast expanse of the bay.

The volunteers moved quickly to their tasks, baiting hooks, giving advice and helping small hands reel in big fish.

As a veteran of last year's trip, Dalia Holland, 8, of Stevensville, knew exactly what to do. She donned her too-cool yellow shades and dropped her line over the side.

"This is fun even if I don't catch a fish," she said. "I like watching the other people catch them."

At the other end of the boat, Dustin Elliott's eyes widened as his rod bent under the weight of a 16-inch striped bass. He cranked the reel hard to bring the fish to the surface. Although two inches below the legal limit, it was clearly a prize in the eyes of the 5 year old.

Dustin beamed as he held his trophy for photos, then watched as the fish was released. When asked for his secret weapon, he pointed over the side.

"I think a person put it on the hook," he said.

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