If you ask any offshore fisherman how he or she got started, they will all have a similar story. They started fishing for some small variety of fish, graduated to a little larger type of fish, then to inshore species and finally on to pelagic fish. Our story is no different. Our fishing pre-‐school began with catching bluegills and sunfish on the shores of Loch Raven Reservoir in Baltimore. As we gained skill and knowledge, the size of the bluegills increased and we began to catch a few crappie, bass and pike.
The next stage in the quest for ever larger fish involved graduating to fishing from a boat. This allowed us to explore areas on the lake that had been out of reach. We made our mistakes but through a lot of trial and error we started to become fairly successful. We may have been satisfied with this type of fishing if not for my father getting a boat to fish on the Chesapeake Bay. This was a game changer.
Now the small fish caught on the bay were bigger than the large fish caught in the lake. The fish fought harder and overall this type of fishing was just more exciting. We were catching perch, sea trout, croaker, bluefish, and the occasional striped bass. We also were catching crabs. How could it get any better? For years we didn’t think it could.
While I was in the Air Force in the panhandle of Florida, I tried to duplicate the fishing experiences I’d enjoyed in Maryland. The only problem was that there wasn’t a Chesapeake Bay so I had to try other types of fishing. After buying a boat, I fished just offshore catching bluefish, mackerel, and occasionally small tuna. This was just as much fun as the bay fishing and the tuna fought harder pound for pound than anything I’d caught before.
Once I returned to Maryland and got through starting-‐up two businesses, I was back to fighting fish on the Chesapeake. By this time the striper population had recovered from all-‐time lows and was back as the apex predator of the bay. This was great for spring fishing, but once summer rolled around the fishing slowed and crabbing took over. Not that we were complaining but it was overkill to use a boat capable of going offshore to catch crabs. We decided to go offshore and try for tuna.
This turned out to be a bigger game changer than moving from the lake to the bay. We went tuna fishing every chance we could. We went 60 miles offshore. We went 90 miles offshore. We couldn’t get enough tuna fishing. That is, until we caught our first marlin.
What is it about fishing that makes someone so passionate? If you’ve never fished, you probably think that everything just falls into place, works out perfectly and you always catch fish. Otherwise, why would we be so committed to fishing? The truth of the matter is that things rarely work out as planned. That is part of the draw of fishing – the unpredictability.
More often than most fishermen would like to admit, they go home empty handed; they have equipment malfunctions; or they do something stupid that would ruin most peoples’ days. The difference between fishermen and normal people is that to a fisherman these failures account for as much enjoyment as the successes when they are relived. And relived they are, each time with a little nuance that didn’t make the last version.
How We Got Started Fishing -‐ Loch Raven Reservoir
When I was growing up, I was part of a group of friends that would spend all day throwing a football, playing baseball or shooting hoops. The core group was my next door neighbor Mike Griffin, my cousin Don Bartenfelder and me. Don and I had been hanging out since we were toddlers. I spent as much time at Don’s house as I did at mine. I met Mike when I moved into the neighborhood in 1973. He was the one guy that might have been more into sports than Don and I were – well, at least close.
There were always a bunch of other kids playing but they didn’t have the same dedication as us. They would come and go during the day while the core three stayed out the entire day. The only time we would go inside was to eat lunch and dinner, and of course, at the end of the day once the sun had set and we would hear the dreaded bellow from our parents.
One day, right after school let out for the summer vacation, we were playing basketball and making a lot of noise. Mike’s dad was working the night shift and we were keeping him awake. He knew from experience that we weren’t going to quiet down any time soon. Out of desperation, he took Mike, Don and me to Loch Raven reservoir to fish. He dropped us off, gave us a little instruction and said he would pick us up in the afternoon. I don’t think he realized it at the time but Mike’s dad had created a three-‐ headed fishing monster.
The three of us had someone’s parent take us fishing every day that summer and the next two. We were so into fishing that we would ride our bikes the 10 – 15 miles to the lake when we couldn’t get a ride from our parents. We caught sunfish, crappie, and if we were really lucky we caught bass. We never got tired of it. If we had a good day, we’d clean the fish and get one of our moms to fry up our catch.
Crappie Day of Fishing
One of our best fish fries almost didn’t happen at all. As was typical of any summer day, Don, Mike and I wanted to go fishing. However, this particular day my mom had a girlfriend visiting her. I don’t even remember the woman’s name but I do remember that her kids were bad. The boy, I think his name was Brat or something, was especially annoying. My mom told us we could go fishing but that we would have to take Brat with us. We discussed it among ourselves and came to the conclusion that we were stuck with him no matter what, so we might as well be fishing.
My mom dropped us off at the Delaney Valley Road bridge on Loch Raven or as we liked to call it, the second bridge. It was the closest bridge on the lake to our house and everyone knows that fish like to hide under bridges. At least that was our theory at age 13. We piled out of the car and mom told us she would be back around four to pick us up. We had four good hours of fishing ahead of us.
After about an hour of fishing from the shoreline we had only caught a couple of sunfish and the sky started to get dark. How bad was our luck? Not only were we stuck with Brat but now it was going to rain and we weren’t catching any fish. Brat decided to try another spot and we all encouraged him to go. Ten minutes later he came back carrying two really nice fish. All of a sudden we all wanted to be his best friend.
After some begging, he finally told us where he caught them -‐ off of one of the pilings out in the middle of the bridge. We knew it was illegal to fish from the pilings but figured we could out-‐run the DNR police, so why not try it? What Brat had forgotten to tell us is that the piling was the resting place for every pigeon in a forty-‐mile radius. There was pigeon poop five inches deep. At first we were apprehensive about climbing down amongst the poop. Brat climbed down and almost immediately caught a nice sized fish. Don yelled, “look at that crappie” referring to the species of fish. We jumped down and cast our lines into the water. At about the same time it began to rain. Then it poured.
Soon we were catching fish after fish and weren’t paying any attention to the rain or the pigeon ca-‐ca. By the time my mother showed up to get us we had caught over a hundred fish and looked like we were wearing wet painter’s drop cloths. My mom looked shocked and started to say something but I stopped her and pointed to the cooler of fish. I heard Brat’s mother ask if that was pigeon poop all over us and he replied “yeah, but they’ve been calling it crappie all day.” We ended up stripping to our underwear for the ride home. It turned out that Brat wasn’t so bad after all. Funny thing though, after hearing the entire story, mom never invited Brat and his mom back again. Go figure.
Prop Me Up
After promising never to climb on to the bridge piling ever again, Don, Mike and I spent the rest of the summer fishing from the banks of Loch Raven Reservoir. We fished from every spot we could access by foot. We caught our share of fish but in the back of each of our minds was the fact that we just couldn’t reach the best spots on the lake; the spots that were listed in the annual Fishing in Maryland magazine. The magazine’s foldout map showed all of the spots guaranteed to hold big bass and pike. We needed a boat.
Loch Raven Reservoir only allowed electric motored boats and unless “you were rich or something” and had your own boat, you had to rent one from the Fishing Center located at the reservoir. The big issue for us was that to rent a boat you had to be at least 16 years old with a driver’s license. We tried to talk our parents into taking us but they wanted no parts of it. We tried our uncles and anyone over 16 but came up short each time.
In July of 1977, I became the first of the gang to get my driver’s license. After years of fishing from the banks we were finally going to be able to get to the good spots, only accessible with a boat. We pooled our money and got to the Fishing Center at 7:00 when it opened. We filled out all of the paperwork and listened to the safety briefing. We decided we were going to go to the far reaches of the lake, so we got a second battery for our electric motor. With two batteries we should be able to go anywhere on the lake.
We loaded up the boat with every piece of fishing gear that we owned and off we went. Since the electric motors only pushed the boat along at four or five miles per hour, we trolled to our first spot highlighted on the mystical map from the Fishing in Maryland magazine – the fourth bridge on the lake
(five miles away). Along the way we caught a really nice large-‐mouth bass on a crank-‐bait (a deep diving lure). That night we went to the tackle shop and bought out all of their crank-‐baits. It turned out to be a tradition that we still celebrate today. If we catch a big fish on a new lure, we buy out the store. We want to make sure we have enough of the lures for our next trip. Even though we’ve never used more than one of the new lures on the next trip, or for that matter, ever again. It’s amazing how many unused lures are filling up space in our tackle boxes.
When we arrived at the far end of the lake we started fishing the weed lines that were always just out of reach from the shore. We caught a couple of fish and were in fishing heaven but the wind was picking up making it harder to stay in position. On top of that it was blowing us farther away from the Fishing Center so we decided to head back towards the bottom of the lake to fish for a while. After about fifteen minutes of running, it appeared that we weren’t making any headway and might even be going backwards. We changed out the motor batteries but still weren’t moving. We checked the motor to see if it might be clogged with weeds and found that the propeller was missing.
Mike shrieked, “The WHAT is missing?” We were five miles away from the boat dock, the wind was blowing against us and our motor wasn’t working. This was way before cell phones. We weren’t near any roads to flag someone down. We were on our own. We broke out the oars and started rowing. After going in circles for about 15 minutes, we used the oars as push poles and got to shore. We then walked the boat down the shoreline for the next hour and a half until one of the DNR police passed by in the only gas powered motor boat on the lake. We waved at him and he waved back and went on up the lake.
About 30 minutes later the DNR guy came back down the lake and saw us waving a little more frantically. He decided to investigate this time and rode over towards us. His boat needed more water than ours so he could only get to within a quarter mile of us. We had to push our boat out to him to explain our problem. Being sympathetic to our plight he rode off to the Fishing Center and brought us a new motor with a prop. We swapped out motors, gave him the broken one and off he went.
It was only after he was out of sight that we realized that we had drained the batteries earlier trying to move the boat without a prop. With the tiny charge left in the batteries we were barely moving and the wind was in our face. We decided to go directly to the Fishing Center and almost made it. We had to paddle the last 100 yards. By then it was 4:00 and we couldn’t go back out on the lake.
We loaded everything back into the car and relived every painful detail of the day as we drove home; nine hours on the water; less than two hours of fishing; sore muscles from trying to row the boat; and wet clothes from slogging through the water for hours on-‐end. When we got home and started to unload the car Mike said, “That was the worst day ever.” After a short pause, Don looked at him and asked, “Are you going fishing with us tomorrow?” Mike said, “Are you kidding? Pick me up at 6:00.”
Lightning Strikes Again
Fast forward to the summer of 2008 and my nephews Phil and Zach are discovering fishing and trying to find where and how to fish. My sister Ginger told them about Don and me being into fishing at their ages and they started asking us all of the usual fishing questions. I decided to take them to my favorite spots on Loch Raven. Phil now had his driver’s license and was anxious to learn how to rent a boat on the reservoir. Zach couldn’t go, so it was just Phil and I. We caught two nice pike and a big bass. Phil was hooked and so was I, again.
We made plans to go the next week. This time Zach could make it and my buddy Dale wanted to go too. We needed two boats. Dale and Zach had never been out on Loch Raven so Phil and I decided to split the team up. Phil went with Dale and Zach went with me. We got there just as the Fishing Center opened and were soon on the water fishing. We went to all of the same places that Phil and I had gone the week before but didn’t have any luck. Dale decided to go to the other side of the lake. We kept in touch by cell phone. Zach eventually caught a sunfish so I called in the report to Dale.
Around ten o’clock, my sister Vickie called Ginger to see if we actually went fishing – Zach stayed at Ginger’s house the night before because he and Phil were leaving so early. Vickie was watching the weather radar and noticed the heavy thunder storm over Loch Raven. Ginger told her not to worry. The boys were with Dale and Mike, responsible adults.
The responsible adults had forgotten to check the weather. At about 9:30 I noticed the sky was getting really dark. Because it was coming from the other side of the lake I could see the storm coming well before Dale and Phil would see it. I called Dale and told him about the weather coming. He decided to stay on that side of the lake until it blew over. Zach and I made a run for the closest bridge. A light drizzle started and Dale called and said he had changed his mind and was heading over to the bridge too.
Zach and I made it to the bridge just as the sky cut loose. It was pouring buckets and the bridge had drainpipes spewing eight-‐inch wide floods of water. I kept fishing. That is until Zach yelled that he was getting wet. I turned to see one of the plumes of water hitting Zack and filling the boat. I tried to back out but the boat wouldn’t move. Then I tried to go forward but that didn’t work either. We were going to sink.
We were only 40 feet from shore so I wasn’t too worried about our safety. Although, I remember thinking no one is going to believe this, I had better come up with a good story on how we sank the boat. Just as my story was starting to come together, we got out of the way of the downspout. The boat was about a quarter full of water and Zach was soaked. We high-‐tailed it for shore. Maybe the other boat had a responsible adult.
Dale and Phil made it about half way across the lake when the deluge started. Their first battery was dying so Dale decided to change it out. Phil recalled looking back at Dale just as the largest lightning bolt ever, hit somewhere close by. Dale made the sign of the cross and they didn’t speak the rest of the trip across the lake. I’m assuming they were too busy praying. By the time they got to the bridge the rain was subsiding.
We bailed as much of the water out of the boats as we could and wrung out our clothes. Another boat that had waited out the storm under the bridge made a bee-‐line for the exit. I yelled at them for being chickens – I may have called them pussies. Dale was cold and wanted to go home but didn’t want to be called names. So we fished on. Besides I hadn’t caught a fish yet and we weren’t leaving until I did (not that I’m competitive!).
We fished unsuccessfully for two more hours until I had to go to the bathroom. Since there wasn’t a head (marine toilet) on the boat I told Zach to stay still while I peed over the side. However, he decided to get a drink out of the cooler and grab something to eat while I was standing up to go. This sent the row boat rocking in all directions. I scrambled to catch my balance and I yelled at him to “stop rocking the damn boat” as I peed all over the back of the boat, the tackle box and myself.
An hour or so later, I checked out the scene. Both boats were close together, drifting. Dale was shivering and Phil was working on his tan in their boat. In our boat, I was actively fishing and Zach was playing with his phone and kept asking when we were going to leave. I changed to the smallest hook in my tackle box and caught one of the tiniest fish in the lake. But it was a fish. Zach put his phone down and asked if we could leave.
Since the fishing was obviously picking up I could have stayed longer but I sensed some subtle clues from the rest of the crew that they might be ready to leave, like the fact that Dale immediately started the motor and headed towards the dock with Zach yelling not to leave him behind. So not being one to overstay my welcome, we left. I guess everyone must have gotten busy over the next couple of years because no one has asked me to go back to Loch Raven.
Fishing on the Chesapeake Bay
My father and his brothers had been fishing aboard charter boats for years and decided they wanted to give it a try on their own. So my dad bought his first boat. The typical weekend was to leave around 2:30 – 3:00 Friday night/Saturday morning, trailer the boat to some far off boat ramp on the Chesapeake Bay, fish all day and make the trip home around 6:00 at night, clean the boat and go again the next morning. The regular crew was my dad, two uncles (Fran and Jim), Don and me. By that time Mike Griffin had started working weekends and couldn’t go fishing with us on the bay.
My father was a wheeler dealer when it came to boats. His first run started with a little 16-‐foot long run-‐ about that he paid $400 for and bartered his way up to a 30-‐foot cabin cruiser worth $10,000 (a lot of money in the 1970’s). He would do a little work on a boat, sell it, take the profit and buy the next. He always doubled his money.
He got tired of the constant maintenance needed on the cabin cruiser and sold it off for a huge profit. We went without a boat for a month or two and then started the process all over again. By the time it was all said and done, he had had over twenty boats in ten years. Once, I asked him why he always sold the boats off and he told me “if you can double your money you have to sell.” I said, “But they aren’t for sale.” He jokingly replied, “Everything I have is for sale, even you kids – at the right price”.
Don and I kept an eye on the market price for kids, just to be safe in case he wasn’t joking, but kept on fishing. Even after we got our driver’s licenses, Don and I would come back from a night of partying and jump in my dad’s truck to go fishing. We’d grab a nap sometime during the day. We even made sure our girlfriends knew that dates had to be over in time to go fishing or scheduled during the week so as not to interfere with fishing. We had full-‐on fishing fever.
All Ramped Up
Unlike the swine flu, there wasn’t a vaccine for fishing fever. Everyone my father worked with caught it. Soon all of his friends had boats. My dad’s friend Henry was the last to succumb when he bought an 18’ aluminum boat on a trailer. He bought that boat because it was light and could easily be towed with the Chevy Camaro he owned. The only problem was that Henry had never backed a trailer into the water, but to quote Henry, “How tough could that be?”
One Saturday about two months later we found out. Henry stopped by to see how we had done fishing on the bay. He had obviously had a couple of beers before walking over to the house. We had caught a bunch of bluefish that day. So we gave him all of the specifics – location, depth, lures, and tide. He had a couple of beers while we relayed all of the pertinent information and told the usual fish tales about the one that got away. We then asked him how he had been doing out on the bay. He had a couple of more beers and then told us his story.
He said that the first time he tried to put the boat in the water, there was a big line waiting for the boat ramp. He tried to hurry and screwed up numerous times. He jackknifed the trailer, he nearly hit the dock, and he almost ran over his wife, who was holding the rope attached to the boat. Each time he screwed up, his wife would yell, “Oh Henry!” Soon everyone at the ramp was joining in and he became so embarrassed that he gave up and went home without getting the boat wet.
After a week of practice in the super market parking lot (after hours, of course) he decided to try again. This time he went when there wouldn’t be too many people at the ramp. After three tries, he gave up on backing the boat up and disconnected the trailer from the car. He figured the boat was light and he could just back it into the water by hand. As he started down the ramp the boat and trailer picked up steam. He tried to slow them down but the ramp was wet and off the end of the ramp the trailer went. His wife yelled, “Oh Henry!”. He lowered his head, walked a quarter mile to the pay phone and called a tow truck to get the trailer out of the water.
The next week he was back at the super market parking lot for more practice. Soon he was backing up like a pro and off to the ramp for another try. He backed the boat down the ramp but it wouldn’t float free of the trailer. In fact, the trailer was floating too. It turned out that he had forgotten to remove the safety strap from the boat. He pulled the trailer back up the ramp, removed the strap and backed down again. The boat floated free and kept on going. He had forgotten to attach a rope for his wife to hold. As usual she yelled, “Oh Henry!” and he lowered his head in embarrassment. He had to get someone in another boat to give him a ride to his boat which by this time was floating out in the channel. His wife was pissed, so he loaded the boat back on the trailer and went home.
It took him two weeks to talk his wife into going again. This time he had a check list. Remove safety strap – check. Attach rope for his wife to hold – check. Back down ramp -‐ check. He backed down until the boat floated free. He had finally done it. He ran out to help his wife tie-‐down the boat. Just as he was getting there he heard her yell, “Oh Henry!” Following her eyes, he looked back at the car and could see the back window filling with water. Because of the slope of the ramp he had to back down a long way to float the boat but that meant his car was under water too. He took another walk of shame out to the pay phone to call the tow truck again, leaving his wife at the ramp to answer all the questions of why the ramp was blocked. She was really mad by the time he got back.
After getting the car fixed and allowing his wife to cool off, Henry was at it again. This time he watched the other guys at the ramp for an hour. They would back down the ramp and hit the brakes, allowing the boats to slide off the trailer into the water. He had seen a lot of people do the same maneuver at this ramp, so why not? He backed down the ramp and hit the brakes. Nothing happened. He tried again and still nothing. He got out and checked. He had forgotten to disconnect the winch cable (Henry’s mental note: need to add that to the check list).
After disconnecting the winch cable he tried one more time and heard the familiar “Oh Henry!” It turned out that his depth perception wasn’t as good as he would have liked because within seconds of hitting his brakes everyone at the boat ramp burst into laughter. Henry had launched the boat onto the concrete and not into the water. Once everyone stopped laughing, they helped Henry load his boat back onto the trailer. He had owned the boat for almost two months and he still hadn’t been out fishing on it.
It turned out that this last incident had happened that day and Henry had just returned from the boat ramp. He said his wife chewed his butt all the way home, told him she was never going on a boat with him again and that he had to sell that damn boat. By the time they got home he said she was so mad that she told him she was going to her mother’s house and would see him if and when she had calmed down. He said that after a couple of beers it all became funny to him and he had to tell someone. This wasn’t the only time he showed up at the house buzzed, having to tell a story.
Of course Henry wasn’t the only one with a story to tell. We had a few. Like the time the boat engine caught fire, or the time we forgot to put the plug in and almost sank the boat. Then there was the time Don and I smashed the windshield of the boat or when we had forty gallons of gas leak into the boat. Maybe we had more than a few stories. In fact, almost every fishing trip had at least one good story and sometimes an entire library of stories.
My First Real Boat
After I joined the Air Force I tried to keep up with the stories from back home while making my own. I didn’t get to do any fishing the first year in the Air Force because I was too busy getting through basic training and tech school. However, when I got to Fort Walton Beach, I met my new roommate Dale Thompson and discovered that we both liked to fish. We started fishing for bass in the many lakes and ponds in the Florida Panhandle. That stopped after I nearly stepped on the coral snake and ran across the top of the water like that lizard you see in the National Geographic shows. I ran a hundred yards across two feet of water and didn’t get wet (although, I don’t remember the lizard screaming in the Nat Geo show).
After a couple of years I finally had enough money to buy my own boat – a 20‘ Sea Ray run-‐about with a 135HP Evinrude outboard. We took it in the Choctawhatchee Bay and out into the Gulf of Mexico, however, we never went too far offshore. We caught redfish, bluefish, king mackerel, and tuna. We fished every chance we got and when it got too hot to fish, we went water skiing. It turns out that there are great stories from water skiing too. More than a few times we would be laughing too hard to even turn the boat to go get the poor bastard that had just done the face plant trying to barefoot ski; or been sling-‐shot onto the beach trying to impress the girls; or cart wheeled 200 yards off of the tube trying to prove that he could handle a turn at full speed.
This fun lasted for four years until my enlistment was up and I got out of the Air Force. I brought the boat home with me to Maryland. At the time my father didn’t have a boat (one of the few times I can remember). So the old crew now moved to my boat. We fished every weekend and had a blast until my dad sold my boat out from under me, literally. I was cleaning the boat to go fishing when one of his buddies asked if we were cleaning the boat to sell. My dad said without missing a beat “yeah, give me five grand and you can have it.” The buddy said yes. What could I do? I only paid two grand for the boat so I had to sell it. I knew the rule.
Henry was the friend that bought it, yeah, that Henry. Ten years after the boat ramp fiasco and Henry was back into boating. I haven’t talked to Henry in the years since selling him the boat and I never heard any stories about him having problems with that boat but if you’re ever at a boat ramp and you hear someone yell “Oh Henry!”, tell him and his wife that Mike says hello. And ask him to tell you about the time he accidently super-‐glued his dentures to his wife’s fingers. “Oh Henry!!!”