In a deep slumber, I feel a hard, calloused hand grab my foot and vigorously shake it. This is Dad's traditional signal to communicate to me that it is time to go. Neither of us utters a single word; just a simple shake of the foot and I know exactly what to do. Like clockwork, I leap out of bed, throw on a few layers of clothes and sprint to the 18' Carolina skiff tied up to our dock. I jump into the boat where my Dad is impatiently waiting for me to untie the bow so we can cast out on our usual Saturday morning adventure.
There he sits in his captain's chair, with his arms folded tightly and perched atop his belly, giving me the "you're-almost-late" look. In a crumpled up 7-Eleven bag, I spy two cream-filled doughnuts atop the steering console: our usual Saturday morning treats. I rush to release the bow lines as I anticipate biting into a creamy, chocolate covered doughnut while watching the sun perch above the Chesapeake. My seven-year-old spirit bubbles with excitement as I hear the roar of the outboard motor gear up for another big day. Racing the rise of the springtime sun, we chart out through the cool and misty open waters.
When the calendar falls on April 20th in Southern Maryland, people drop their boats in to the frigid, brackish waters and set out to stalk the king of the Chesapeake: the striped bass. The morone saxatilis, better known as the rockfish, striper, and/or striped bass is a highly respected and cared-for population. In 2007, President George W. Bush issued an executive order that the coveted striped bass be considered a protected game fish. The striper is one of Maryland's most vital commercial and recreational fish; so important, in fact, it has been declared the Maryland state fish. The rockfish provides the people of the Chesapeake Bay watershed with delicious meals but also a challenge that fosters intimate relationships amongst those who seek to catch this special species.
We finally reach the prime real estate for our hunt of the coveted striper. Dad rushes around the boat, gathering the rods, fidgeting with the lures, attempting to steer clear of neighboring vessels and keeping a keen eye on the depth finder. At the tender age of ten-years-old, I stand in awe as I watch him perfect the process. Flawlessly, he executes the preparation and gracefully drops two lines into the depths of the Chesapeake. With our bellies full of sugary sweets, we sit side-by-side anxiously awaiting a bite from a striper. It is during these idle times that the true pleasure of fishing is elicited.
I listen to Dad tell me about how things were back in his day; he narrates stories of adventures and triumph in an animated and fabricated manner that keeps me on the edge of my cold, plastic seat. He talks about how he walked five miles to school, uphill both ways and tells innumerable tall tales of his childhood. I reciprocate the story swapping by rambling on about the boy in school that I like and how he never waits for me after lunch and how he always pays more attention to my friend Chelsea. He listens intently and advises me to move on; my ten-year-old spirit is devastated but there is a sense of safety in his voice that compels me to take his advice. We sit and talk until we see a sharp bend in one of our rods; the secret sharing stops and the action begins.
Trolling is the most popular strategy used to capture stripers in the Chesapeake. It consists of setting up fishing lines, dropping them over the sides of the boat and slowly cruising through open water as the lures drag behind. The slow glide of the boat gives the tacky, brightly colored lures a lively spin which makes them look quite appealing to the hungry stripers who lurk within the dark waters of the Chesapeake. The infamous striper is known as a "lazy feeder," meaning that when it feeds, it travels with the current and simply eats what it comes across rather than fighting the current and searching for prey; this fact is crucial to ones success in capturing the coveted striper. Within the charter industry, trolling is a very popular strategy because it is a relatively simple and hands-off process. This allows the attendees on the boat an ample amount of time to kick back, enjoy a few beers and simply revel in the beauty of the Chesapeake. It should be noted that even though this is a relatively simple process, when the striper finally bites the trolling lures, a dramatic bend in the rod warrants grown adults to propel themselves into a mass hysteria of excitement. These fish are true fighters and it can sometimes take upward of half an hour to get one striper reeled in.
Other techniques used to capture the striper also include jigging, bottom fishing, and surf fishing. One of the most exhausting and exhilarating strategies used to capture the striper is the jig. Jigging is a technique where a boat anchors near a submerged structure in the water such as pilings or docks. From there, the striper-seekers take a rod with multiple fish shaped lures on the end and bob it vigorously up and down in the water at a considerable depth. This makes an illusion of a school of fish and stripers go crazy at the sight of fast movements and bright colors of the lures. This technique is used less on charter boats more so for the individuals who consider themselves true anglers. Trolling seems to be the charter strategy of choice in the Chesapeake because of the perfect dichotomy between action and relaxation that it provides.
I am looking at a photograph framed in my room. Twenty-years-old, there I stand on that same dock that I raced down each Saturday morning as I anxiously awaited our fishing trips. My Dad and I stand closely with excited eyes after one of these exhilarating mornings spent fishing the depths of the Chesapeake. I am gripping the mouth of my thirty-inch rockfish with both hands, trying to hold back laughter as my Dad cracks a joke about how he can barely hold it up. My face indicates that I am struggling to keep it in my hands; looking at the photo, I can feel my arms quivering and my grip slipping from the slimy coating of the fish. I am reminded of how hard I constantly tried to impress him with every detail of my life; if I drop this fish, I will never hear the end of it. I am the strong daughter; the closest thing to a son that Dad has and I can see myself in this photo filling those shoes.
Dad stands next to me with his entire forearm stuffed up into the gill of a forty-eight-inch striper. Effortlessly, he holds up the humongous fish; he is truly the last John Wayne. Never one to crack a smile in a photograph, I can see the faintest look of excitement in my father's eye and I can see that the times we have spent together on the Chesapeake have given us much more than just a few big fish. Looking at this photo, I am reminded of the striking dichotomy of both the closeness and distance between us; we stand together with only our elbows gracing one another. Close enough to touch but far enough away that it doesn’t appear too "soft."