- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 18, 2006

DEALE, Md.

At 6 a.m., boarding the Janet M II charter vessel that was still tied to her slip in the Happy Harbor Marina could have been a dicey proposition. The stern side of captain John MacEwen’s sturdy boat was slippery with rainwater, and it didn’t look as if the sun was about to dry it up. All we could see in the East were more rain clouds pushed about by persistent winds that turned the Chesapeake Bay into a choppy mess.

But five of us came to the bay to search for a fish known as black drum, and if anybody could find them it was MacEwen — an old hand at this sort of thing. In the past, he had delivered the roly-poly bottom feeders as easily as he could find the more readily available rockfish and croakers.

“It doesn’t look good, boys,” said MacEwen, steering his charter boat out of the harbor entrance, her diesel engine clacking softly at first, but then roaring loudly when he pressed down the accelerator. He aimed the boat toward the spring feeding grounds favored by the big bottom feeders: the eastern side of the bay, around Sharps Island Light and Stone Rock.

A steady rain fell and the bay forced the boat to roll through increasing waves, but she handled it smoothly. MacEwen was concerned because the drumfish that show up only for a short time in late May and early June before they return to the Atlantic hadn’t been very cooperative.

“We had a good bite last week, but for the past four days they’ve been playing hard to get,” MacEwen said. “I’ll watch the depth finder for a while around the traditional hangouts, then head down toward James Island where I heard a school of drum has been staying around.”

MacEwen is a master of reading and interpreting the arches, waves and dots of a color sonar unit that is mounted above his steering wheel. He can tell if a certain blip on the screen is a rockfish or an errant electronic signal. When drumfish are in an area, he’ll see them as chubby oval splotches, almost like a deflating balloon, close to the floor of the bay. But this day there were no telltale signs.

“Don’t know what’s happened to them,” MacEwen said as he slowly ran in large circles, watching the “fish finder” screen and sipping canned lemonade.

After four hours of searching and burning expensive diesel fuel, MacEwen knew his bleary-eyed guests were ready for some kind of fishing action — any action at all.

“Well, fellows,” he finally said, “it looks like nobody is home today. Let’s troll around a little and have everybody return home with a couple of rockfish.”

One of the anglers, Bill Heflin, who has been a mate on charter fishing vessels, quickly removed the sturdy drum rods that held 7/0 hooks, juicy soft crab baits and 50-pound testline. He discarded the crab baits, then brought five trolling outfits from below and attached small umbrella rigs to the lines. The spreader rigs were loaded with chartreuse or white Sassy Shad lure bodies. Each umbrella rig had one lure body pierced to a hook, trailing a little farther away from the rest because it was tied to a 2-foot-long leader line that kept it away from the hookless Sassy Shads.

The moment the Janet M II entered 35 to 40 feet of water and the drop weights began to lower the plastic lure bodies that looked like baitfish and the rods were stuck into their holders, the charter skipper said, “Get ready. I just ran over some fish.” He had seen the proper electronic arches that told him they were striped bass.

Bang! The first of five rods was shaking violently in its receptacle and Joe Dinoto, who owns a Chick-fil-A restaurant in Columbia, picked it up and soon boated a fine 3- or 4-pound striper.

That was followed by Bob Moran who had driven all the way from Frederick to fish for black drum but now was busy landing a rockfish. Everybody did fine, but Dinoto had the high rod. After eventually keeping two stripers, he had landed and released two others and a bluefish.

The fact is, had we not asked MacEwen to return to port so we could beat the rush-hour traffic, we would have caught dozens of stripers and certainly more than one bluefish.

MacEwen saved the day, and we were happy. You will be, too, if you spend some bay time with him. Call MacEwen at 410/867-3273.

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

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