“…the charm of the island was not so much the abundance of nature; rather, its juxtaposition of the human and the natural.” – An Island Out of Time, Tom Horton
I was just happy there was no one else around to see this. Had there been, I imagine that I would have become some sort of bumbling legend. That city-slicker architect fella who let his fish flop back into the water after catching himself as many times as the fish. I can laugh about it now. And I was laughing at it then. Laughing at myself, actually. At the comedy of errors that was slowly yet steadily unfolding on the mail dock off Tylerton, on a chilly November night on Maryland’s Smith Island.
For years I had hoped to one day visit this close-by far-away land. Centuries ago there were many such islands throughout the Chesapeake Bay. Now only a handful of habitable islands remain. One victim of the changing tides and coastal erosion is James Island, located at the mouth of the Little Choptank. It remains a favorite and bountiful fishing spot that I frequent with my fish-whispering friend and occasional partner in school construction. When I first cast plugs with him around James Island, it was still an island. First settled in the 1660’s, the last human inhabitants had left by the early 20th century. Today all that remains are a few spits of land and some barren trees trunks, often home to eagle and osprey competing for the same striped bass – or Rockfish as they are known on the Bay – that my fishing friend and I often seek. (You can read more about those exploits in one of my other posts – “Fishing and Catching.”)
It was my fishing friend who I have to thank for my first (of hopefully many) trip to Smith Island. Seeking a quiet place to try to conjure the dormant writing muse, the Fish Whisperer hooked me up (har!) with one of his old college buddies whose family is one of the very earliest to settle on Smith Island. Through the wonders of the smart phone, I booked my trip that day, giddy with excitement about visiting this long-anticipated destination. True to form, my friend supplied me with one of his dozens of fishing rods, rigged with an all-purpose lure, should I wish to cast a few out into the waters around this remote archipelago. I eagerly counted down the days until my long-weekend adventure.
My visit began with a wild sleigh-ride of a boat crossing from Crisfield to the island. The daily mail boat, under the expert hand of Captain Larry, was the sole way to access Tylerton, unless you possess your own boat. I do not, so I joined the handful of others who were heading out on this sunny but very windy fall Friday. My host was on the boat as well and showed me to the lovely house he rents out once we arrived at the mail dock. He gave me the lay of the land and wished me a peaceful stay. I settled in and then headed out to tour the town. Given that you cannot walk more than five minutes in any direction without hitting water, the tour didn’t take long. Yet I instantly felt at home in this foreign place. With a current year-round population of 37, it’s easy to be recognized as “not from here.” Yet every single person I met during my visit could not have been friendlier or more welcoming. It was refreshing beyond words.
As I awoke on my first morning on Tylerton, the previous day’s winds had departed, replaced by a chilly and sunny day. I was able to catch a beautiful sunrise before embarking on a series of wonderful activities around the town, including an in-person demonstration of how to bake the unique and decadent Smith Island Cake by the mother of my host. (Side note – she was directly responsible for getting this multi-layer delicacy anointed as the official dessert of a Maryland.)
Dinner that night was provided at the annual holiday bazaar in the only church in town. The entire Tylerton population was in attendance, including the waterman who had earlier provided me with some freshly caught and shucked local oysters for my dinner the next day. Wanting to try my hand at some fishing that evening, I asked him where he suggested I go. He told me of some folks from Pennsylvania who were recently here fishing and had caught a ton of fish off the main dock. However, he said I would likely not catch any there now, since they chose to clean all their fish and toss the carcasses into the water right off the dock. The obvious disgust he had with these off-island heathens told me not to repeat this fishing faux pas should I be fortunate enough to hook a rockfish myself.
Armed with directions to an alternate spot to try some casts, I left the festive church basement and returned to my place to grab my fishing rod. As I walked along the dark and empty path to the docks, I was struck by the near total absence of sound. Other than the rhythmically random noise of the water lapping against the bulkheads and the shuffle of my feet along the gravel path, there was nothing but silence. One gets so accustomed to the ever-present hum of noise in the city that it’s absence is almost deafening.
I made my way to the alternate dock my new local acquaintance suggested and began to cast my lure into the dark distance. The light from nearby docks provided just enough illumination to see. I made several cast-and-retrieves with nary a bump from a curious fish.
Resigning myself to the fact that this would be a night of fishing, not catching, I made a few more casts from the dark dock before heading back along the rickety walkway, careful to step over the gaps where wooden dock planks had once existed. Back on terra firma again, I decided that I had nothing to lose from seeing if the waters off the main dock were still empty of fish due to the thoughtless actions of those Pennsylvania yahoos. As I made my way along the walkway to the main dock, the near-silence was interrupted by splashes. Having been out on the water enough to know the sound of fish breaking the surface while feeding, I felt my pulse quicken at the prospect of perhaps catching something besides a cold after all.
The industrial lights along the dock were enough to reveal a fair number of “boils” on the water’s surface. I quickly readied my rod for a cast and chucked the lure towards the splashes. Within a few cranks of the reel I felt the electric jolt of a fish hitting my line. Remembering what my friend the Fish Whisperer had said, I set the hook and kept my rod tip up as I cranked the reel to bring the fish towards me. The striper I pulled up was too small to keep, so I removed the hook and let him fall back into the water. I quickly recast my lure and caught two more small rockfish before I finally hooked a keeper.
Here is where my relief in there be no one else around kicked in. Once I got the fish out of the water and on the dock, I first got the hook out of his mouth. It was then that I realized the first of my many strategic blunders of the night – I had nowhere to put the fish. No bucket or cooler or other suitable vessel for holding a caught fish. Nada. A quick scan of my surroundings yielded no suitable solutions to this oversight. With a death grip on the fish’s lower jaw, I picked up the rod and decided to head back to my place, confident that my host must have something that I could use to hold the other fish I was sure I would catch.
My immediate priority was to get back to land, away from the water, in the highly likely event that the now wriggling rockfish escaped my rapidly cramping fingers and their grip on his jaw.
(Cue strategic blunder number 2)
As I finally stepped off the wooden dock with great relief, I relaxed a bit knowing that the fish would not escape back into the water should I drop him before reaching the house. Which I promptly did. He gave a mighty jerk and wrested himself from my grip. As I bent to retrieve him from the grass and leaves, it was then that I realized I had neglected to secure the lethal lure that was now swinging wildly around the air. Designed for maximum fish-hooking, this lure was equipped with two treble hooks, meaning there were six possible pointy things whipping around me, looking for something to pierce. Someone was looking out for me as the swinging finally came to an abrupt halt, one of the barbs managing to become embedded in my heavy sweater. (Note to self – remember to not wear any knit clothing while fishing.) Fortunately no skin was broken, and the hook was now no longer swinging wildly. A minor victory that I would happily accept at this point.
I finally made it into the house, where I quickly deposited the leaf-covered fish into the utility sink. Then I set about extracting the hooks from my sweater. Yes, hooks plural. The other two neighbors on the treble hook all managed to join their buddy and find threads of my sweater to also become entangled in. I should also point out that these hooks were embedded in the right sleeve of my sweater. Being right-handed, this posed an added challenge in the process of hook extraction. After a few half-assed careful attempts to remove the barbs with minimal sweater damage, I finally just yanked, extracting the hook and creating a nice jagged tear in my sleeve. I decided it was now a future conversation-started, like an old war wound – “Oh that? Well, did I ever I tell you about my trip to Smith island?”
Next task, find something suitable for holding the other fish I was sure I would catch. I found nothing in the house and went outside to check the shed out back. I finally located an old plastic five-gallon bucket hanging from a nail, holding a few busted badminton racquets. I removed the racquets and returned to the house where I grabbed the rod – now with treble hook-laden lure secured to one of the line guides – and headed back to the dock.
Still all alone on the dock, I was thrilled to note that the water was still active with fish breaking the surface. I put the bucket down and once again cast out into the dark. It wasn’t long before the familiar jolt again indicated a fish on. Another keeper emerged from the dark waters, and was dehooked and placed in the bucket. He gave a few flops, causing a momentary panic that he might tip the bucket over and escape back into the Bay. As a precaution, I slid the bucket as close to the center of the narrow dock as possible, hoping to create maximum travel distance back to freedom should he manage to tip over.
Confident in my preventive strategy, I again cast my line into the still active water. Another strike followed by the setting of the hook and the landing of the fish, yielding my third rockfish of the night. This guy was far more active than the first two, and getting the hook out of his mouth was a real chore. I finally succeeded, only to precipitate strategic blunders three and four.
First, my fears of now having two flopping fish – including one that seemed to be over-caffeinated – tip over the bucket in order to return to the deep prompted me to decide to move it to safer location, further from the edge of the dock. This would have been a sound plan had it not been for one small but significant detail I had somehow missed. As I lifted the bucket by its handle, it suddenly felt way too light. The reason was quickly obvious – the bucket I found had a busted bottom, something that was only revealed when there something in it heavy enough to exploit the otherwise invisible crack.
There I stood, bottomless bucket in hand, staring down at my two fish, with nothing between them and freedom save a few feet of dock. Fortunately it took just a few seconds longer for their shock to wear off than mine, as I quickly released the now-useless bucket and dropped to my knees on the dock, pinning both still-stunned fish down, one in each hand. In my haste, I somehow also managed to become reacquainted with my old nemesis, the treble hook (aforementioned strategic blunder number four.) As I sat there with two now quite agitated fish pinned to the dock, I noticed that the lure had become securely fastened to the cuff of my jeans.
Time to regroup. Current to-do list (in no particular order or priority): remove hook from pants, don’t let fish escape, find a more suitable container for holding fish, carry fish to new container without releasing one or both back into the water, try not to kick rod into water, grow at least one and preferably two or more new arms.
I decided while that last one would be a great place to start, it was also not likely to happen. So with just the two arms and hands I had, I decided that I needed to extract the hook first in order to be able to get up and walk anywhere in order to find a new container. From my recent experience, hook extraction requires two hands. And a quick inventory confirmed that both of mine were currently occupied with keeping the fish secured from escape.
I have heard that people somehow find superhuman strength when faced with the need to do something that would be normally impossible. And while my situation was not as dire as needing to lift a car off someone, I felt that I was dealing with a certain level of impossibleness. Then I noticed the bottomless bucket sitting nearby. Another instance of divine intervention that night kept me from launching the bucket into the water in my haste to save the fish, and therefore it was available for use. As long as the bucket remained upright on the dock, it was capable of providing a suitable, albeit stationary container for the fish. A plan was slowly forming in my mind.
With my right foot – my only appendage that was free of any current restraint or obligation – I was able to work the bucket close enough to be able to quickly release my grip on the more docile of the two fish and place the bucket uptight over his more active partner. As I let go of the now contained fish, I pinned the other back down then placed him in the bucket as well. Now both hands were free for operation hook extraction. Remembering I had stuck a small penknife in my pocket while back at the house, I quickly dug it out and set about cutting out the hook. Despite the nearly blunt edge, I eventually freed the hook and was able to now stand and walk with ease. I spied a stack of old crab bushel baskets nearby and decided to borrow one to contain my fish.
With my to-do list effectively complete, I once again tempted fate and picked up the rod. A few more casts yielded a fourth fish worthy of keeping. I added him to the bushel basket and decided that I had managed to catch enough fish to satisfy my near constant appetite for seafood. Learning my lesson and remembering to secure the lure to the line guide BEFORE heading off, I picked up my borrowed rod and bushel basket of bay bounty and walked back to the house.
My final challenge of the evening was where to clean these fish. The job was way too messy to do at the sink in the kitchen or laundry room. I needed to find a fish-cleaning station. After texting my host for a suggestion, he offered a rather cryptic response about something in front of the house. After a fairly thorough search around all sides of house, I was about to give up when it dawned on me that the working harbor with a long dock and several sheds and shanties was technically “in front of the house.” So I wandered over and sure enough, partway down the dock was a fish cleaning table. Lady Luck continued to smile upon me as I also noticed that there was another one of those large industrial lights right by the station. The discovery of a nearby working hose completed the list of needs for turning my flopping friends into tasty filets.
Well, almost. There was also the matter of a properly honed filet knife. I worried that the dull condition of the penknife I had earlier found would be the theme for other knives at the house. Again fortune favored me as I located a brand new, still-in-the-package razor-sharp filet knife in one of the drawers. That plus an old oyster knife-come-fish-scaler were NOW all I needed for this final task. I tossed them into the bushel basket with my fish and returned to the cleaning station at the harbor.
Once more I tempted fate, as I set about scaling and filleting each of the four fish. As my fingers grew more and more numb from the cold air and water, I realized that should I manage to slice my own flesh during this process, the prospect of getting medical attention of any kind, let alone prompt, was slim to none. Throwing caution to the wind, I plowed ahead, taking care as I removed eight fat filets from the fish. I was also confident in the knowledge that unlike those goons from PA, I was cleaning MY fish in the proper location. Each denuded carcass I chucked into the harbor waters would be devoured by the various underwater inhabitants, including the prized blue crab. Circle of life. I hosed off the cleaning table, returned the hose to its holder, and packed up my tools and filets, no major wounds to show for my nocturnal fish cleaning.
I know there are far easier (and less expensive) ways to get eight fish filets. But none of those can compare to the satisfaction I felt as I packed my freshly caught and cleaned stripers into baggies and into the refrigerator. With very little preparation or planning, and needing to continually respond to my series of strategic blunders, I improvised, persevered and prevailed, catching four beautiful and tasty rockfish. I know it’s not like I survived on a deserted island like Tom Hanks in “Castaway”, but I did feel pretty good about my adventure. And I provided myself with plenty of entertainment to boot. And the Bay once again provided me with a tasty bounty to be enjoyed after I returned from visiting this incredible place. Till next time….