Until last weekend, Jada Fulton had never caught a fish. The 9-year-old from North East was more interested in her soccer team, Cecil Fire, than what swam in the water not far from her home.
On her first cast, she didn't catch a fish. She caught two. And then she caught two more. By the time she reeled in her line for the last time an hour later, Jada had landed nine yellow perch. Her soccer teammate, Rose Benjamin, caught six.
Jada was hooked. "Better than a soccer win?" someone asked.
Jada smiled and nodded, yes.
"Where can you take kids fishing and know they're going to catch fish?" asked Mike Benjamin, who spent a happy 60 minutes putting minnows on Jada and his daughter's hooks.
Given the dearth of blue crabs, oysters and menhaden, the Chesapeake Bay hasn't been a fount of success stories in recent years. The one big winner - restoration of the striped bass population - occurred while Ronald Reagan was president.
But maybe, just maybe, Maryland is on the brink of another eureka moment.
Yellow perch, once as much a harbinger of spring as Punxsutawney Phil (but tastier), are showing up in tributaries in numbers not seen in decades.
At Wayson's Corner in Anne Arundel County, boaters and bank fishermen have found enough fish for dinner. On the Choptank River near Greensboro, a reader reported catching and releasing 50 yellow perch in three hours. Anglers working the edge at Port Deposit on the Susquehanna River found a nice school of fish. And so on and so on.
What has opened the spigot on the spring fishery?
A vigilant recreational community, a responsive legislature and a Department of Natural Resources that has started treating recreational fishing like a big-time industry worthy of wooing.
Like spring itself, the battle to restore yellow perch started as an almost imperceptible change in the atmosphere, a whisper between a few fishermen who wondered how things had gotten so bad. Over the years, the whispers became chatter, and the chatter became grousing, and the grousing became, well, a movement.
When, under a previous administration, DNR attempted to give away the yellow perch fishery to commercial interests, recreational anglers pushed back, demanding more stewardship and a fair share of the annual take.
When negotiations bogged down, anglers went to the General Assembly, which directed DNR to gather data on the fish and adjust the season accordingly.
The commercial season was capped, and nets were required to be out of the water during the critical period when yellow perch go upstream to spawn. Fragile tributaries were protected, and recreational and commercial interests got their own fishing grounds.
The result? A season worth talking about.
A week ago yesterday, 19 boats bobbed in North East's harbor, and the shoreline near the town park was dotted with anglers. Jada and Rose caught so many portly perch that they attracted a crowd of other anglers who inched their boats and kayaks ever closer.
"I'm not saying we didn't have some fish before, but look at this," said Benjamin as he baited another hook. "Do you know what will happen if this happens year after year? You'll get a lot more people fishing."
Back on shore, Mike's mother and Rose's grandmother was working behind the counter at Herb's Tackle, the Main Street mainstay for anglers on the upper bay. Eleanore Benjamin was selling minnows as if there were no tomorrow: 1,200 little fish to entice bigger ones. When Herb's opened in 1964, the Benjamins sold 10 times that number on a weekend.
"This yellow perch fishing is the greatest thing that has happened to the fishery in 40 years," Eleanore Benjamin said before ordering her son back out on the water to replenish the minnow supply.
DNR biologist Marty Gary sampled several sites on the upper bay and called the fishing "spectacular," a boon to anglers and a balm for bad times.
"Economically, it's been so brutal. Everyone - everyone - has been feeling it," he said. "It just feels good to be out on the water with people and have a chance to relax and forget about things for a while."