- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 24, 2003

MORGANTOWN, Md. -

The rain came down in buckets as daylight crept over the Aqualand Marina, but Capt. Steve Riha didn’t care. He was waiting, wearing foul-weather gear, looking into the stormy skies. “The weather forecasters said it would rain all day in various amounts, which is OK with me as long as the wind doesn’t howl,” he said. Then he added, “Do you think they’ll come in this weather?”

“They’ll come,” I told the tall, easygoing fishing captain.

“They” were Angela Brock-Smith and Gil Dukes, two ardent anglers who for weeks had looked forward to this day because dreams of delectable croakers danced in their heads. Who can blame them? This time of year and on toward fall, the Atlantic croaker is the table fish of choice for thousands of seafood lovers throughout the Washington area.

Just when yet another cloudburst drenched the marina grounds for the umpteenth time, a car came down the gravel lane and soon two smiling faces greeted us. “We wouldn’t have missed this,” said Dukes, a Navy veteran who normally fishes for largemouths from his bass boat. “We’re ready. Let’s go.”

Brock-Smith and Dukes stashed two empty coolers and several fishing rods on Riha’s 24-foot pontoon boat. The boat is perhaps the best thought-out fishing rig anybody has ever come across in the middle portions of the tidal Potomac River. It has a canvas top, a number of comfortably padded swivel chairs in the broad, open bow area, and enough rod holders to outfit the fishing gear of four, even five fishermen. While not recommended for the fickle weather and occasionally rough seas of an unprotected Chesapeake Bay, Riha’s river craft is never more than a mile from its Aqualand home port. He can be back in safe harbor in a matter of minutes.

Riha slowly left the marina channel and only five minutes later dropped anchor in 18 feet of water, not far from the Potomac’s Virginia shoreline. Sliced pieces of squid and thumb-sized portions of raw, unshelled shrimp waited on a cutting board. Riha attached standard double-hook bottom rigs with 2-ounce sinkers to 12- and 14-pound test lines which dangled from the ends of the spinning rods; he then baited the hooks with a piece of shrimp on top, a sliver of squid on the bottom.

The lady angler, Brock-Smith, who obviously has fished many times, expertly cast her bait rig toward the looming Harry W. Nice Bridge (U.S. Route 301) that connects Charles County, Md., to King George County, Va. Dukes did the same and as soon as the baits settled on the river bottom they stuck the rods into the special holders. The waiting game began.

It wasn’t long before Dukes leaped from his seat and snatched a sharply bending, shaking rod from its receptacle. “Would you look at this?” said Dukes with a laugh, rainwater dripping from his jacket. “This fish hit like Mike Tyson and now fights like Mike Jackson.”

Dukes’ comment concerning his first croaker’s fighting ability was accurate. These tasty saltwater river and bay dwellers indeed strike very hard when they make up their minds about wanting a bait morsel, but once the hook is set in their leather-like jaws, the “fight” consists mostly of reeling chores. Tooth-laden bluefish or muscle-bound stripers they’re not, but they easily beat both in the taste department.

Brock-Smith, meanwhile, didn’t waste any time setting the hooks to a number of croakers herself. She let Dukes do most of the talking, while she stuck the baited hooks to croaker after croaker, smiling gently, happy that the fish were in a feeding mood.

Pretty soon, both anglers’ coolers began to fill up with “hardheads,” as Marylanders call the croakers. Most of them were in the 14- to 16-inch class, but the occasional 18-incher was also hooked.

Croakers in our region must measure a minimum of 9 inches, with 25 of them permitted per day for each fisherman.

We never did count all the fish, but the last we saw of Brock-Smith and Dukes as they drove off long before noon, they appeared to be happy with their catch. We had to quit because the wind speed increased and Riha thought it best to stop.

Riha charges $100 per half day of wonderful fishing. The price is the same whether one fisherman shows up, or four (his preferred maximum, but he’ll take five anglers if he has to). Call him at 804/224-7062. The Aqualand Marina, meanwhile, has rental boats, bait, refreshments, a boat launching ramp ($6 per launch), boat slips and plenty of parking. It can be reached by calling 301/259-0288.

Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column every Sunday and Wednesday and his Fishing Report every Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: [email protected]


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