- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 17, 2007

DEALE, Md. — Once, long ago, I lay awake the night before a black drum fishing trip. Visions of the powerful pucker-lipped brutes wouldn’t disappear until a group of us finally headed across to the Eastern Shore and then drove south on Route 13 to Cape Charles, Va., where we tied into the bottom-feeding heavyweights every May. A 111-pounder was the biggest one ever caught in that part of the Chesapeake Bay. My best drum was an 87-pounder, brought to the boat — with a broken rod yet.

Then word got out that anglers could hook the broad-backed drumfish in June without having to drive a million miles. It could be done in the Maryland portions of the bay and a number of charter fishing captains and private boaters soon drifted around the Stone Rock and Sharps Island areas, generous pieces of soft-shell crabs on 7/0 hooks spreading their aroma through the water column, attracting drum and fat croakers.

Now, however, I’ve begun to hate those black drum. During recent outings, the only black things that were biting were nasty black flies — the byproduct of boats that carry “fragrant” baits on days when the temperature runs into the mid 90s and the humidity approaches 100 percent. The flies, by the way, do not show up en masse until one is swatted. They then begin to magically multiply. Kill one and three new ones appear.

Enter John MacEwen, the long-time captain of the Diesel-powered, 40-foot Janet M II, berthed at the Happy Harbor docks in Deale. MacEwen, who has plied the bay’s waters for more than 40 years, is known as a black drum expert. If MacEwen can’t find them, nobody can.

A few days ago when we boarded his vessel shortly after daybreak, MacEwen sounded pessimistic. “I found a couple drum last Sunday, but nothing since then,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going on with those fish. One day they’re here, the next day they’re gone. It’s not as easy as it used to be.”

My fishing partners didn’t want to listen to any of that. Charlie Coates, a frequent contributor to the Coastal Conservation Association’s Tide magazine and regular correspondent for the Sportsman Magazine, wasn’t worried. Neither was our volunteer mate, Bill Heflin, and Joe Dinoto, who owns a Chick-Fil-A restaurant, or Bob Moran, who drove to Deale clear from Libertytown in Frederick County.

MacEwen scoured the 18- to 25-foot-deep bay bottom near Poplar Island, then tried it not far from Sharps Island Light and Stone Rock, once in a while picking up a blip on expensive sonar gear and ordering us to drop our crab-baited, weighted bottom rigs. Nothing happened.

But the value of this captain is that he’s not about to waste an entire day responding to ghost-like images of the big fish. He knows when it’s useless and when it’s time to deliver something else for his charges.

Heflin quickly rigged a number of trolling rods, some for dragging heavy umbrella rigs normally used when huge ocean stripers are in the bay to spawn. A couple of rods were outfitted with little umbrella set-ups, which seemed to be the thing to use now that the big breeder cows have left and the smaller resident rockfish in the bay were the order of the day.

The lines had no sooner been released when we latched onto rockfish. MacEwen slowly chugged along just a bit east of the Chesapeake’s ships channel and the stripers, measuring anywhere from 17 to 22 inches long, and wasted no time attacking the rubbery Sassy Shad lures or bucktails. Dinoto and I believed the down-sized rigs he brought along would be far more productive than the large, outlandish-sized parachute bucktails. We were wrong. Even the smallest rockfish thought nothing of inhaling the big lures. Go figure.

MacEwen is a friendly, hard-working captain who will not rest until his customers are happy. If the drum won’t bite, he’ll switch to rockfish. If the rockfish don’t cooperate, he’ll find croakers or bluefish. Either way, everybody will take something home fit for a frying pan. He can be reached at 410/867-3273.

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