Waiting at the dock at Solomon's Island in Chesapeake Bay is Bunky Conner, our captain for the day, and the mate, Simon Dean, who, like so many in America, receives no pay but relies on tips. Bunky, who will talk if you ask him nicely, prefers to chew on a toothpick. Simon, for whom work just interferes with the other fishing he wants to do, prepares a wad of shredded tobacco and sticks it between his lower lip and his jaw.
Apparently this can give some sort of buzz, but the only visible return is some very unpleasant black goo, which he spits into the little polystyrene cup he has brought along for the purpose.
As the boat picks its way out through a channel which appears to have an osprey's nest atop every marker post, Dean prepares the rods. There are nine of them, two on the wheelhouse roof, two on each side and three along the stern. The line is wire, not gut, and the bait is in the form of spongy rubber fish, about five of them, hung below a wire cruciform, but the two business ones - you are allowed only two per rig - patrolling each side are sassy shads with hooks in them.
Once out in the bay these are all lowered into the water, and the line is let out to set each one at a different depth. Then off we go, trolling them through the water. The first success is also a big disappointment.
We are after striped bass, known locally as rock fish, and a strike is followed by Simon taking the rod out of its holder, in case some dumb client in the excitement throws it overboard, and handing it to whoever is to be given the task of reeling the fish in.
Bunky himself acts as net boy and I successfully bring in a fish about 2ft long, much bigger than I could normally hope for in the Solent at home, only for Bunky to take it off the hook and, without even asking me, throw it back in the water.
No one had told me that there is a 28-in minimum size before a fish can be a "keeper", and for a moment there the disappointment is a bit hard to take.
A couple of similar fish later there is a big take, the line sings out, and the rod is handed to Angus, only for the thing then to go slack. The lure is reeled in and the hook, which is about one-eighth of a inch in diameter and is made of tempered steel, has been both twisted and straightened, the only evidence that a fish is to blame being a little bead of white cartilage left behind.
Since we cannot bend the hook back to shape, even with a pair of pliers, there is much animated discussion about what kind of monster could have been powerful enough to do that. Fifty pounds, maybe 60? Angus is as disappointed as I was a short while ago, but compensation soon comes in the form of another strong run, a great fight, and the eventual landing of a 25-pounder to be taken home.
To England. Back at the dock, using a knife so sharp that you would want to be wearing gloves even before picking it up, the fish is filleted, leaving only the head, ribs and backbone, tail and guts to be thrown into a trash barrel. One side is given to me, put into the freezer, transferred to a cool bag, flown across the Atlantic and driven from Heathrow to the south coast.
It is still mainly frozen when I arrive home. That evening it feeds six, accompanied by a delicious celery sauce, and is a conversation centre- piece containing that other essential ingredient of every fishing story - the one that got away.Reuse content