Armed with an ancient stopwatch and a brand-new hangover that made the glowing numbers on the digital clock seem as piercing as the searchlights at Alcatraz, I picked up the telephone at 4 a.m. New Year's Day and dialed my way into legality.
By 4:09, I was a federally registered angler, a process that proved to be less painful than the throbbing inside my brainpan. All it took was remembering who I was, where I lived, when I was born, my phone number and the three states where I hope to fish this year.
You know, the same kinds of things a cop would have asked me had I not partied at home like a good girl. Minus the fishing question.
Millions of anglers in eight coastal states, including tens of thousands of my fellow Free Staters, will have to get on the phone or go online (countmyfish.noaa.gov) in 2010 to sign up for the new National Saltwater Angler Registry. It's the law, passed by Congress and signed by then-President George W. Bush.
No one likes to register. It seems, somehow, anti-American. And given the fact that although free this year, the registry will become a paying proposition in 2011, it strikes a lot of folks as another money grab by government.
With few exceptions, we live in a pay-to-play world. Anglers want fish to be in the water to be harvested. That means paying to nurture the crop. Accurate surveys of the fish populations must be carried out, and scientists have to be there to interpret the numbers.
For too many years, policymakers and fisheries managers were stuck with the Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistical Survey (MRFSS), a census tool ill-fitted for the business of setting fishing seasons and quotas.
Everybody from charter boat captains to recreational fishing groups to state fisheries managers complained endlessly about it. But MRFSS remained the only game in town.
In October 2006, one writer summed up MRFSS this way: "What bozo decided that the best way to get an accurate picture of fishing effort was to open the phone book and randomly select folks? That's right, one of the major components of MRFSS is no better than those stupid pre-recorded political endorsements that fill up your answering machine and interrupt your dinner. ... The other 'scientific' component is to hang out at docks like some floozy waiting for the fleet to come in and ask people who just came off the water what they caught."
Bozos and floozies nationwide complained that I was completely unfair.
But that same year, the National Research Council, a scientific panel that advises Congress, recommended a new census system, saying MRFSS contained "serious flaws" and "inadequate analysis methods." A more elegant summation of the charges, but the same conclusion.
The damning critique woke the sleeping dwarves on Capitol Hill, who demanded change they - and anglers - could believe in. They even slipped a couple of bucks to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to fix things. Thus, the National Saltwater Angler Survey was born.
So now it's showtime for Maryland saltwater anglers who fish the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries and downy ocean and the coastal bays behind Ocean City - time to pick up the phone or fire up the computer to register with Uncle Sam.
A small group of folks are exempt: anglers younger than 16, people who fish on charter or head boats and anglers who hold a Highly Migratory Species Permit. But residents and nonresidents who have been exempt from buying a Bay Sport License aren't exempt from the registry: anglers on a pleasure boat with a state decal, anglers fishing from private land, anglers fishing in state "free fishing" areas.
The next step in sorting things out involves the General Assembly. In an election year.
The Department of Natural Resources is going to ask state lawmakers to authorize a new saltwater license that will satisfy NOAA's registry requirements. It might take the form of a consolidated license for the Chesapeake and the coast or a separate coastal license. I'm guessing for simplicity's sake it will be a single license.
The danger of not authorizing a Maryland license means that in 2011, when NOAA starts charging for the registry ($15 to $25 annually), all the money will go to the federal Treasury.
"It makes sense to act," DNR deputy secretary Eric Schwaab says. "The Maryland option will be cheaper, and all the money will stay here."
I've written my number-letter combination down, and within 30 days - when my New Year's hangover is a mere memory - I'll have a water-resistant, smudge-resistant wallet card to carry.
What's in your wallet?
The new rules
What: National Saltwater Angler Registry
Who: Maryland anglers who fish in tidal waters, including the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries
When: Registration began Jan. 1
Cost: Free for 2010
Exemptions: Anglers younger than 16; anglers on charter boats or head boats; anglers with Highly Migratory Species permits
How: Call 888-674-7411, 4 a.m.-midnight, or go to countmyfish.noaa.gov