- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 15, 2003

PORT TOBACCO, Md.

“Come on, Little Red. You haven’t caught a fish all day,” said Peter Malnati, a Charles County, Md., veterinarian who quite obviously would rather fish than eat. Doc, as his friends call him, could give each one of us who take fishing far too seriously a lesson in the pure joy of the sport. Take the Little Red remark — it’s not directed at a diminutive human acquaintance; no, Little Red is a short, dark-red fishing rod.

The septuagenarian, who has healed more animals than any three of his colleagues combined, continues to work lovingly on ailing dogs and cats even though a contemporary would probably suggest retirement. Not Doc. No way. When he’s not pressing a stethoscope to the body of some sad-eyed pup, he usually can be found on his 18-foot boat, checking the waters of his beloved Port Tobacco River or casting fishing lines from the end of his own private dock.

Currently, Doc is busy with the river’s croaker population. Every morning and every afternoon, he stands on the wooden pier, making powerful casts far out into the Port Tobacco, closing the bails on up to six spinning rods and resting them in rod holders he fashioned from PVC pipe. He’ll stand there eyeing each rod, busily having personal conversations with them.

There is Little Red, Rhino, Ugly Stik, Kmart, Captain Lee and Bright Eyes, while Big Blue and Big Red — two large capacity spinning rods — wait in a corner of a barn on top of a tree-covered bluff that keeps watch over the historic river.

This day, Doc didn’t have to wait very long. “Ugly Stik is down,” he said suddenly, leaping up and snatching the rod from its resting place. “It’s a croaker. I’m sure of it.”

Moments later, a 16-inch-long Atlantic croaker that locals call a hardhead splashed on the surface, straining against the monofilament, then seeing itself lifted from the brackish water and flipped onto the deck.

Across the river, church bells chimed; a bald eagle flew about intently watching the river’s surface; ospreys were busy in the distance, fully aware that it doesn’t pay to get too close to a fish-eating eagle.

The sun steadily sank in the west, and the farther down it went the quicker the bites came.

Doc never slowed down. He busily spread small, whole squid bodies on the top of a broad dock piling, splitting them open and scraping the pink skin away with the backside of a fillet knife. He discarded the thin, bony membrane that is found in the center of a squid, then cut the snow-white flesh into vee-shaped finger-long pieces that eventually found themselves pierced onto long-shanked hooks — broad side up — soon undulating on the river bottom, signaling to hungry predator species. In Doc’s river, that means Atlantic croakers, occasionally well-fed white perch, almost always hefty channel catfish, now and then even a toothsome bluefish or a bewildered largemouth bass.

The late afternoon silence was shattered when one of the rods bent over sharply and Doc quickly jumped to the task ahead, shouting, “Rhino just got a hit.” How the man instantly recognizes the names of six different fishing rods from 20 feet away is an ongoing mystery as far as I’m concerned. You must understand, of course, that I’m one of those people who has to look at his driver’s license from time to time to see where he lives.

While Doc kept up to date with the various goings-on of six well-baited fishing rods, I was satisfied with watching my one and only outfit, a 6-foot baitcasting rod matched to a fine saltwater casting reel loaded with ultra-thin but powerful braided line. It did just fine, hooking enough croakers to make several delicious dinners.

One of these days, I’ll convince Doc that a quality baitcaster can outdistance a spinning outfit by 30 feet or more. The day he realizes it, there’ll probably be a Little Sven in honor of the Swedish manufacturer of the Ambassadeur reel, or Maxie for maximum casts, or Rocket for, well, you know what that infers. There’ll be an entire new cast of characters for Doc’s pier. I’m looking forward to it.

Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column every Sunday and Wednesday and his Fishing Report every Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washingtontimes.com

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