It was cold but sunny when we turned onto Wynne Road and drove through wind-whipped fields to where the mouth of Jutland Creek faces Maryland's Potomac River. The faded sign reading "Courtney's" was barely visible. One would have to know this was a restaurant to even find it. No cars were outside, and it appeared Courtney's was either closed, or Cap'n Tommy Courtney was out on the Potomac, tending the gill and pound nets that supply his restaurant with the freshest seafood.
The door was open and he sat at one of the tables, sorting a pile of junk mail. The rest, he said, were bills.
"Business is down 50 to 60 percent," he said. "It was off 40 percent in January. I think this economy's still on the downslide. Worst I've seen since I've been in business here."
He looked out the door at nothing in particular except maybe the caricature of President Barack Obama pasted to the glass. Only one of his regulars, whom he calls the "local Taliban," had shown up that morning. "I don't have nothing to do with progressives," he mumbled.
"How 'bout liberals?" I asked.
Courtney didn't answer. Instead he offered, "I can cook you up breakfast."
We placed orders, and in the back Courtney's wife, Julie, began preparing the eggs and fixings. The tab for my friend and I that morning was less than $11.
Courtney said he had been out fishing his gill net the previous morning and caught six rockfish, gesturing with his hands to show fish of a couple feet in body length.
I thought that a pretty modest take for a cold morning's work, but he was satisfied. "I beat the winds that come up; gusts to 50 on the Chesapeake overnight.
"I watch my catch carefully, just take what my clients and the restaurant need. These fish-served up-are worth $200 apiece to me." His math surprised me, but when checking the market later, fresh, wild-caught striped bass fillets cost $24.99 a pound. With each of Courtney's fish yielding 3-4 pounds of fillet, and a serving size of about 6 ounces, plus fixings, I saw the retail potential for a man who catches and serves his own fish.
Courtney said that when he checked the fishes' stomach contents, he found about 100 bloodworms, the striped basses' last meal plucked from the rich bottom fauna of the lower Potomac. "Worms must be coming up," exposing their heads to feed, so the cruising rockfish could pull them from the bottom, he reflected.
Courtney has fished this river since he was a boat bailer at age 4. His ancestors were Connecticut whalers in the 1840s. Their business, along with a declining fishery, finally failed when kerosene replaced whale oil in lamps. His grandfather, David T. Moore, came here from Long Island with his family around 1900. He fished seven pound nets until quitting the trade in the late 1930s. Those were halcyon days for fishermen, with 10- and 20-pound bluefish, as well as long runs of anadromous herrings and shad. Courtney's father continued to follow the water, fishing and taking out fishing parties for 57 years.
A glass case in the restaurant contains souvenirs from the family's years harvesting the Bay: the largest oyster shells found, a huge crab carapace, 19th century bottles, a fossil vertebra from a Miocene Epoch whale.
Courtney left fishing to serve in Vietnam, a big strapping guy with a shock of yellow hair and ruddy complexion, the result of light skin and decades of sun. The G.I. Bill stipend was waiting upon his return, and he entered Southern Maryland's St. Mary's College, a liberal arts and sciences arm of the University of Maryland system.
Courtney continued to work his nets while earning his bachelor's degree. There's a photo in the restaurant of him taken in the early 1980s, lean and tall, standing alongside a 9-foot bull shark caught in one of his pound nets. There must have been some cachet from this at the time: "Girls would sidle up to me, wantin' me to take them out, but I had no time for that stuff, working full-time and all the rest." The biology courses opened his eyes to relationships between water quality, seasonal changes and the catches he was making as a commercial fisherman.
Virtually unique among Chesapeake watermen, Courtney recorded data on seasonal patterns of temperature, weather, and the kinds and poundage of different species he was taking. There were maybe two other watermen who kept records, according to Paula Johnson, curator of maritime history at the Smithsonian Institution, but not with the environmental connections that Courtney was recording.
His journals taught him a great deal, but also emphasized how little control he, as an individual, has over the political and economic conditions of the Potomac. He's come away very skeptical of government and its willingness to enact and enforce the changes necessary to make the Bay whole.
"The grasses out here have about gone," he said. "There was two kinds-I didn't study them so I forget their right names-but there was one kind out here in front-at the creek mouth-we called 'seaweed.' It was round. You could see the color of it down to 5 or 6 feet and it helped us navigate in the channels. There was another kind we called 'eelgrass' up the heads of the creeks."
Courtney, discouraged, has mostly given up recording his data. He doesn't think much of the natural resources police in Maryland or Virginia. "They come up here wantin' to shoot me sometimes," he complained. "More interested in writin' you a ticket than taking care of the life out here."
He also resents what he feels is real competition from hook-and-line recreational fishermen, including those out on their own and those on commercial "headboats."
I had seen other watermen up by Breton Bay preparing their pound net gear for the summer season: yards with a hundred long, pine saplings laid out with their ends sharpened like pencils and nearby coves, where similar stakes, with their ends tied together, floated in rosettes about 60 feet in diameter, soaking up water to make them heavy and easier to drive into the estuary floor. "In some kinds of bottom, they will float up on you," Courtney said. The Breton Bay fishermen had piles of nets up along the tree line, blood red from application of copper paint to discourage fouling by marine organisms.
I asked Courtney if he coppered his nets. "No, I tar them," he said, gesturing toward the paved road in front of his restaurant. "I use the same stuff in that asphalt; cut it with kerosene. I keep as much chemicals out of the water as I can."
Courtney sets his one or two pound nets in early March, where his grandfather had, with help, fished seven nets. Courtney's are just visible from the shore here on Jutland Creek.
Nets would have been destroyed by strong gales and moving ice floes during this long winter, so he pulled them all out when the water hit 37 degrees, and reset them shortly before the spring, when anadromous species migrate into the Bay.
His pounds nets are built starting with a long line of stakes-each as much as 30 feet in length-running hundreds of feet from the shallows into deeper water. This "hedging" is usually perpendicular to the flowing and ebbing tide.
Most of the stakes today are young pine trees with a dry weight of 200 pounds, but Courtney prefers gum and buys six stacks of 24 poles. Driving them is back-breaking work and requires an assistant. A long, surface-to-bottom curtain of net is suspended from these poles. A large pound net rig, in 1992, could cost $10,000.
When the tide runs, fish swimming up current encounter the net and instinctively turn toward deeper water, swimming along the hedge.
At the outer end, a set of heart-shaped sections of net baffle direct fish into an enclosed "crib," or "pound," of the net. There, confused, they mill about and-the fisherman hopes-accumulate in large numbers. The floor of this impoundment is loose net that is hauled up to the surface, bringing the fish with it. There, they can be dipped out.
There's some culling or direct release of undersized, out-of-season or unneeded fish. Courtney claims to have once released 20,000 pounds of fish in one day. He estimates an annual total around 50,000 pounds.
There is cursing if a school of heavy, unwanted cownose rays-with dangerous spines on their tails-have blundered in.
The market species-striped bass, perch, herrings and flounder-are sorted. Schooling fish are separated and "bulked" to a wholesaler for processing. Part of his fishery is bait fish-including menhaden-which can be left to accumulate in the net until there is enough to sell. In 2007, this brought him no more than 300 bushels of fish. Courtney hasn't had a big menhaden catch since 1993.
Fishing is dicey business. Courtney, as his grandfather had in the 1930s, experienced runs of large blues in the 1960s and '80s. Bluefish are smaller today.
Pound nets also have ecological consequences. Sometimes, overcrowded fish die. Courtney also claims that a net full of blues can eat 500 pounds of other fish before they're taken out of the pound.
Other species that are not supposed to be there, like diamondback terrapins and migrating loggerhead turtles, can get entangled and die. Often, the time out of water during the netting and handling is enough to kill fish. Non-target species, called bycatch, are released. Courtney takes care of these, recognizing that they fit into the Bay's living fabric. He feels differently about occasional large sharks that tear up the nets.
Pound net tops are usually are lined with piscivorous water birds: gulls, great blue herons, cormorants and osprey, which occupy almost all available pilings.
The last couple of decades have brought increasing numbers of brown pelicans which, in the decades of DDT, were headed for extinction because this pesticide thinned their eggs, which would break as the parents tried to cradle them with their big, clumsy feet. The DDT ban in the United States reversed this trend, and pelicans are again abundant in the Southeast.
As global warming lengthens summers, pelicans are testing the northern boundaries of their historic migratory range, moving farther up the coast where their dive-and-gulp capture methods of fishing have less competition. These birds now nest farther north than at any time since the late 1500s, when they were described by John White in North Carolina's Albemarle and Pamlico sounds.
Pelicans are now a feature on the ropes ringing pound nets all over the middle Chesapeake. I have counted as many as 45 on one pound net. But at Chesapeake latitudes, the spring arrival of the north-migrating adults allows too short a time for courtship, breeding, fledging young and building their strength to migrate south before winter.
Courtney was in the newspapers this winter for saving stranded pelicans. Severe conditions along his part of the Potomac led to scores of them sitting forlornly on piers with no reserves left, just waiting to die. "I baited them in," Courtney said. "It's illegal, but I fed them. It's strange, with 50 pelicans following you around, but I took fish left from my nets and fed 'em by hand, throwing a piece to each, making sure each had something to eat."
He caught the young ones by hand and gave them to a wildlife restoration organization. "I had a problem with the adults. They attacked me! So, I baited them into my outdoor freezer [turned off for winter] and didn't quite close the door, blocking it with a piece of 2-by-6 lumber. If I locked 'em in, I could get a summons. The big, strong birds pushed the door open and got out! I called DNR and they told me to lock 'em up. I did and could hear them in there, banging on the door to get out, but the DNR fellow came and got them next day. They're either in rehab, or they're dead."
Courtney was nursing a swollen right hand. "I think I've finally got the rockfish disease," he said, referring to a bacterial infection that strikes some people who handle fish. With his hands covered in fish slime and torn off scales, his vulnerable skin was cut by the sharp, gimlet tip of a protruding screw on his boat, allowing bacteria to invade his bloodstream. "It attacks the tendons," he said, rubbing the back of his hand gently. "I had surgery in February; they were trying to get rid of it." He thought a while back that it was healing, but he had been on antibiotics for two months.
His hands are in the water most of the time. "If I get re-infected," he said, "the antibiotics won't work."
As we left his restaurant, I hoped that Courtney would be OK. It seems unfair for a man who has watched out for the water not to be able to keep his hands in it.