You get to a certain point in your life and you know that your days are numbered. You have a lot of years to look back and reflect on the parts that you enjoyed the most. One of those things for me is the Chesapeake Bay.
I have traveled all around to different parts of the Bay. I have swam and fished in many areas, but most of my memories are on the lower Potomac River, about 18 miles up from the Bay.
I was born and raised in Washington, DC, for my first 9 years, a big city boy. I didn’t know about the Bay or any of its tributaries.
My first trip to Southern Maryland was for a week’s vacation on the Patuxent River. My first fishing attempt was with a hand line; a piece of wood with the line wrapped around it with one hook and a lead sinker. It didn’t matter because there were so many fish that you were always catching something. Sometimes it was fish you didn’t want to catch like eels and toadfish, but mostly it was spot and croaker. My first fishing trip and I was hooked (pun intended).
The spot were small and bony but I liked the taste after having eaten only frozen fish from the grocery store. The croaker were big enough to be filleted and my mother fried them in bacon grease. Yum yum! I learned that I really liked to fish and eat them, too.
Somebody suggested that I try to catch some crabs. What were crabs and how would I catch them? There was an old wooden row boat where we were staying. I placed a basket on the front seat, tied the rope around my waist, and waded into the water. I was given a crab net and told to scoop up the crabs with the net.
Of course, all of my first efforts were for naught. The grasses kept getting stuck between my toes and the crabs were pretty fast.
Eventually, I got the hang of it and caught a few crabs. The water was to my chest, about 4 feet deep and I could still clearly see the bottom. When I talked to old-timers, they said that you used to be able to see 12 feet down. The grasses are mostly gone from where I remember them.
The crabs were steamed in a big pot with what I learned later was Old Bay seasoning. Eating crabs was another thing I had to learn. I think most people did what I did and started eating the claws first. They were the easiest. You just had to whack them with a wooden hammer. Then you had to open the crab up to get to the chunks of good crab meat. I just watched others who knew what they were doing remove the dead man’s fingers. That term might be enough to turn some people off from eating crabs. They are the lungs, which just do not taste good.
After my first time experiencing what the Chesapeake Bay had to offer, I told my mother that one day I would have a place on the river. I had a friend whose parents bought a place on the Potomac River. I used to come down with them on weekends and vowed that one day I would have a place of my own.
I came to know a farmer who used to farm a long strip of shoreline that he had decided to sell as lots. I was only 19 at the time and could not afford a lot on the river but there was one lot on a tidal pond. The lot on the tidal pond had a patch of land with trees and brush that separated the pond from the river. He said that all I had to do was to pay him the interest, which I did until I went into the military service, at which time I made my final payment. (He knew that he could not hold me to a contract because I wasn’t 21. Thank you, Mr. Ernest Lane.)
In 1954, Hurricane Hazel came right up the river and tore down the trees and brush and killed all of the freshwater fish in the pond. The river then flowed into the pond at high tide and went out with the low tide. There was one good thing: I could pull my 12-foot aluminum boat out to the river.
One of my greatest experiments was raising oysters in floats off the end of my pier. When the pond was open to the river, it stayed salty. I bought floats with oyster spat that were about the size of the end of my thumb. I even got a break on my taxes by buying these floats.
I asked when the spat was set so I could gauge how long it would take for the oysters to get to 3 inches, the legal size. I was completely amazed when I found that some of my oysters had reached 3 inches in 14 months. It usually takes about three years in the river. When I contacted my supplier about this he said that was about right.
It was such a great convenience to get oysters out of the float any time I wanted. On one occasion when my sister and her daughter-in-law came to visit from Minnesota, I told them about my oyster operation and showed them how to shuck an oyster. They asked what I did with it after it was shucked. I picked up the shell and slurped the oyster into my mouth. They were not very receptive.
Things were great for a couple of years and I bought more floats. Then the little creek that ran in and out with the tide closed off. As the rains came, the pond became fresher and fresher. All of my oysters died.
As I got older, I learned to do things better. I got some nice fishing gear. I learned to troll for rockfish and how to use artificial lures to catch white perch. I enjoyed catching perch on light tackle as much as I did catching big fish on heavy tackle. I used to walk the beach early in the morning with a bucket and a crab net. I could usually catch all the crabs I needed this way.
As the years passed, the crabs became more scarce. I had to look on the jetties and the pier poles. Now I don’t see any crabs when I walk the beach.
I used to fish for perch at just about any place on the beach. I used to get just enough for a meal because I knew I could always get fish any time I wanted. Not so any more.
Once in a while I get lucky and come across a school and catch enough for a meal. People today catch a few fish and are satisfied that they have accomplished something.
When I started my family, I had the opportunity to share all of the good things about the Bay with my wife and two daughters. They learned to swim in the river. They did crab and fish some but never with the enthusiasm that I had. They liked to eat crabs but protested loudly about the spot and perch that they had to debone.
It is very sad for me when I look back at how things have changed. The water is not as clear and clean as it used to be.
We used to head over to the Ragged Point lighthouse to fish. There would be many boats there on weekends along with the marine police checking them out. We always wondered if they would get to us, but they never did because there were so many boats. Today there are few to be seen.
There is less wildlife in and around the Bay. I used to see large flocks of seagulls waiting on piers to watch rockfish and bluefish feeding on menhaden before flying out to pick up the scraps.
In the fall, there were many schools of menhaden all over the river, now they are mostly gone. It is said that the reduction fleet that catches millions of pounds of menhaden is not hurting the Bay. That is just not possible. Those fish are filter feeders scooping up phytoplankton and zooplankton by the ton and they are food for many other fish and birds.
I am thankful for the time that I have had on the Chesapeake Bay and all of the food that it has provided. I only wish that many more people would have the same opportunities I had.
There are people working to make things better. I hope they succeed.
Bill Bartlett lives in Leonard, MD.
The views expressed by opinion columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.