It's 1943. First light colors the summer Chesapeake off the Maryland fishing village of Rock Hall, MD, revealing a 6-year-old boy rowing a wooden skiff, struggling to do it quietly, so as not to scare the blue crabs his great-grandfather dips as they run their trotline.
The crabs back then came up "thick as mosquitoes at dark," several at once attacking the eel baits tied along the trotline. As they work, the old man teaches the boy skills he'd need in the water business; he also speaks with sadness about how the state arbitrarily changed the fishing rules, ending his long career as a top Bay captain.
If this were a novel, the boy would grow up - after many hard knocks and setbacks - to become the Bay's most significant waterman. He would lead other watermen to reform the way fishermen were treated in Annapolis.
In this case, the factual biography written by Larry Simns (with friend Robert Rich), truth trumps fiction. Simns, the little boy in the boat, is now 74. He has headed the Maryland Watermens Association since its founding in 1973, and MWA has been a player to be reckoned with ever since.
Those who equate commercial fishing with overfishing may find it surprising to read that the organization began from an effort by watermen to impose catch limits as harvest pressure and disease threatened oysters.
The book should be out by Easter - good timing, as that was around the time that Simns for decades enjoyed "the prettiest fishing."
It was when the dogwood blossomed and the wheat began to green that great shoals of American shad surged in from the Atlantic to spawn. Simns was as hard charging for a big catch as anyone, but was also able to appreciate the skill and choreography of multiple boats precisely laying and pulling miles and miles of net that drifted on the Bay's surface through soft spring evenings, intercepting the shad.
He still dreams of the shad's return, though a 1980 moratorium on harvesting them remains in effect. "By the time the state shut fishing down, we were almost out of business," he recalled.
Lessons from the shad failure, he thinks, pushed Maryland to lead other coastal states five years later in shutting down rockfish harvests - just in time, it turned out, as the species roared back to restored status six years later.
But it was a brutal lesson for fishing towns like Rock Hall: "We lost our charter boats, our winter netting, a generation of young watermen, our ice houses...the whole infrastructure; it broke our back," he recounted.
Yet Simns conceded the moratorium worked, and that it convinced him that the science on which to base such hard choices had improved.
This is typical of the book in that Simns is not aiming to reignite old fights or rehash the strident politics of Chesapeake fisheries. The working title is "Best of Times on the Chesapeake Bay - An Account from a Rock Hall Waterman."
Just so, it's an important addition to the literature of the Chesapeake. Watermen are often written about, sometimes compellingly, but mostly in the context of their catches. Too seldom do they write to reveal the rest of their lives and their communities.
Simns does this, offering insights of Rock Hall, death and suffering on the Bay and of his own progression from hard-drinking, angry fisherman to a more peaceful place.
"I got faith mankind is smart enough to someday clean up the water in this Bay...if we'd stop polluting, what people like to call overfishing wouldn't be that," he said over breakfast in Rock Hall recently.
"I want to leave a record of the abundance I have known, so people will have an idea of what we need to get back to. I don't want people to save this Bay, because it's not good enough. We need to restore it."
His Great-Grandfather Capt. Willie Stevens lent context to Simns' desire to give watermen a voice. Maryland's outlawing of purse seining made Stevens' beloved pungy, Lightning, obsolete overnight.
But the real fuel stemmed from his encounter as a young watermen with a new recruit from the Maryland Natural Resources Police. The officer boarded the boat and found more than 5 percent of oysters in one bushel under the size limit. He ordered Simns to dump his catch, some 150 bushels, back where he tonged it.
"No matter how I appealed for a recount, or to sample one more bushel, he wouldn't acknowledge me. I am certain looking back that this inflamed me enough to invest the next 40 years defending watermen."
It was a career that led to meetings with both Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and a day alone on his workboat sharing sodas and crackers with the late Sen. Charles McC. Mathias as the senator conducted a fact-finding expedition in the summer of 1973 that resulted in today's Bay restoration effort.
A long fight with cancer has slowed Simns: "They won't let me aboard my own boat alone anymore."
But he presses on, helping to guide the Blue Crab Design Committee, a novel effort with the state, environmentalists and watermen to give crabbers much more control of how they fish, within an overall quota determined by scientists.