Gudgeon fishing goes back generations — at least in some families

April 30, 2011

The tiny fingers of a baby born four months ago closed around a bamboo fishing pole as her grandpa beamed.

On a stream in the Gunpowder watershed Saturday morning, a fifth-generation gudgeon angler was welcomed to the fold.

It's been that way for 83 years, since Vernon Byus built cane poles, waited for the blooming dogwoods to signal the season and sent handwritten invitations to his extended family to join him catching fish no bigger than the palm of your hand.

For two to three weeks each spring, gudgeons by the tens of thousands pulsed up the Gunpowder watershed to their spawning grounds, where Byus and his clan waited. As Maryland's first Eagle Scout and only the 25th in the country, he was well-versed in the outdoors and eager to share his love of it.

They fished with gusto, knowing that the morning's catch would become the evening's main course. The passion extended beyond that one day.

Byus's great nephew, Steve Upton, remembers pitching a tent with friends along a productive stream for several days of intense fishing. "We'd catch nothing but gudgeons. They were breakfast, lunch and dinner."

Nothing's changed since 1928. The minnow-like fish still make their annual run and Byus's kin still wait.

Upton taught his wife, Lorraine, and then his daughter, Stephanie, who took her first gudgeon trip when she was just three months old. Saturday, Stephanie brought her infant daughter, Brooke, the recipient of a new bamboo pole built by her grandpa.

"There was no way she wasn't coming," said Stephanie as she grabbed a fishing pole while relatives fussed over the baby. "For me, growing up, this was like Christmas."

But it's not just Uptons who keep the tradition alive. Staking out spots along the sandy bank or wading out to the middle are the four Renzi brothers, the Paiges and the Corcorans. Some of them have moved away from the Gunpowder watershed, but they always come back for this.

Vic Renzi, a gudgeon fisherman since 1956, teased brother Mike that he can remember "putting a fish hook in your eyelid," as Mike grimaced and nodded.

Diane Upton, Steve's cousin, said the Corcorans — Teddy, Tommy, Timmy and Terry — "were like my brothers. I called them the Terrible Ts."

They finish each other's stories and are artists with a well-placed needle.

"If we don't catch enough fish, we'll have to eat the bait," hollered Diane Upton when she sensed fishing was taking a back seat to talking.

Gudgeon fishing is "a sport peculiar to Baltimore," according to a 1984 history book, "The Amiable Baltimoreans."

"Many a Baltimore sportsman will tell you that his career began in quest of the lowly gudgeon," the book reads. "On such adventures he would be armed with a tiny fly hook baited with a worm, a spool of cotton for a line and a switch cut from the nearest sapling for a rod. When word goes out that the gudgeon are 'running' the fishermen — father, son and often mother, too — hurry off to enjoy the sport."

A May 14, 1893 New York Times fishing report told readers, "Gudgeons have been biting freely in the waters near Baltimore. A good day's catch is from 25 to 75 dozen. Bulletins are posted in telegraph offices in Baltimore which tell the conditions of the water in the streams."

The newspaper went on to describe a "first-class outfit for gudgeon fishing" that included a three-section, 5 oz., ash rod, a line spreader and a dozen hooks.

The description made Upton laugh as he pointed to his first-class outfit: A stalk of bamboo, some monofilament, a size 14 hook, a bobber and a worm.

You can get fancier than that or spend gobs more money, but that would make it something else — like fly fishing.

Upton said gudgeons are the perfect starter fish.

"They come up by the thousands," he said. "As quick as you put a pole in, you have a fish on. Kids don't get bored."

By 11 a.m., the bite was slowing and Upton invited everyone back to his waterfront home in Harewood Park, where he handed out chores. As peanut oil heated, kids learned to clean the tiny fish while the adults sliced red bliss potatoes into strips.

The fillets, no longer than an index finger, were dredged in seasoned flour and fried along with the potatoes.

"Absolutely sweet," said Upton, smiling almost as broadly as when his granddaughter made the gudgeon connection. "They're the prime rib of fish sticks."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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