view counter

Articles by Dennis Doyle

How else to explain such a catch?

Pulling on the trotline one final time to straighten it and ensure proper tension, we dropped the red trailing float and released its anchor into the water, completing the setup. It was just after sunrise, an early start being a necessity when hoping for a good catch of blue crabs. Still, we also knew our job was not going to be easy.
    There had been nothing but bad news this season on the local population of jimmies. My friend Frank had invited me on this trip with the understanding that he needed a basket of crabs for a gathering later that very afternoon. But, perhaps, if we caught enough, a few fat males might come my way.
    That possibility, I knew, was slim to none. But hope springs eternal on the Chesapeake. We also had two lucky charms with us: two of Frank’s granddaughters, Emma and Sydney, ages nine and 10.
    If anything tugs at the heartstrings of crabbing’s Lady Luck, it’s a youngster on board, and two female youngsters pull on them that much more. Frank and I, of course, had no idea how much good fortune the girls would bring.

Fishing a Trotline
    A simple crabbing trotline has the chicken neck baits tied directly onto the line, generally one every five to seven feet. There is a drawback to that simplicity. When the line begins to be pulled up off the bottom, the weight of the crab grasping the neck flips it over. Often that startles the critter enough to cause it to drop off.
    Our trotline, however, was rigged with snoods. A snood is a dropper line about six inches long knotted onto the main line and rigged with a slip loop to hold the chicken neck. This tends to keep crabs holding on all the way to the surface as the line is pulled up.
    Our first run was startling. In recent seasons, the number of crabs in the Bay has dropped significantly, to about half that of years past and worse in some areas. If a sport crabber nets just a few legal (51⁄4 inches) males off a trot line with some 200 baits, lately that’s considered a good catch.
    When we reached the end of the line and lifted it off the roller, we rushed back to the culling basket and counted. Fourteen keeper-sized jimmies crowded the bottom, fiercely brandishing big, bright blue claws and daring us to come closer. It was an awesome beginning, but, we feared, unlikely to continue.
    Then it did. Taking turns, the girls netted crab after crab. Occasionally, the girls relinquished their nets to do a share of the culling, allowing us adults to make the catch.
    Within an hour, keeper jimmies were filling the big orange basket, climbing up and over the top to scuttle into the confines of the boat. That wouldn’t do. So we put a lid on the first basket and pulled out a second.
    Well before the end of the morning, the impossible was accomplished: Two bushels of big, beautiful blue crabs, one for Frank, and the other, quite miraculously, for me. Motoring back to the dock we all congratulated ourselves and, especially, our lucky charms.

Recreational anglers deserve their fair share of the catch

Our white perch have long waited for Maryland Department of Natural Resources to give them a formal management program. A plan proposed in 1990 stalled over opposition from commercial fishermen. A 2005 effort failed again.
    Finally, an updated management program is under way and a draft released for comment. In reading the 2015 Review of the Maryland White Perch Fishery Management Plan, I was pleased and only a little disappointed.
    The good news is that DNR officials thought enough of the species for another attempt at implementing a management plan. Disappointing, however, are text and the tone, which indicate that all is well so nothing needs to be done: “Restrictive measures on either the commercial or recreational fishery does not appear necessary at this time.”
    One of the management plan’s goals is to “Provide for fair allocation of allowable harvest, consistent with traditional uses, among components of the fishery.” Yet no specific allocations have ever been established for either commercial or recreational fishing. Essentially, the white perch fishery remains a free for all.
    I fish for white perch a great deal, and over recent years the number of 10-inchers I catch has fallen significantly. My experience is confirmed in conversations with fellow anglers. There seem to be a lot fewer nice perch in the western mid-Bay.
    In updating white perch management, I wish DNR would note the imbalance between approximately 500,000 saltwater recreational anglers in Maryland and fewer than 500 commercial watermen fishing for white perch. Yet the commercials take is two to three times the recreational harvest.
    Springtime white perch is one of the most popular of the early-season recreational fisheries on the Bay. Yet as soon as commercial white perch nets go up each spring, the majority of the tributary sportfishing dies for good-sized white perch.
    Once commercial operators have removed their desired take (estimated at 1.5 million to 2 million pounds annually), the remaining white perch may very well not be worth the effort of fishing for them.
    Since Maryland’s recreational fishery generates about 10 times the income to the state (per NOAA studies) as the commercial fishery, and the dollars generated from the sale of recreational fishing licenses make up the majority of DNR’s operating ­budget, should not a priority be placed on more equitable scheduling aimed at providing a better quality experience for the sporting angler?
    Also problematic is by-catch, including the by-catch of perch during the rockfish gill netting season and the by-catch of rockfish, spot, croaker and young menhaden via perch netting. The waste of valuable marine life is lamentable and avoidable with proper planning, scheduling and the proper gear.
    The 2015 White Perch Management Plan has every potential for affecting all of these issues. I wish the plan all possible success.

A waterspout may get you if you don’t watch out

I focused on drifting the edges of a Bay Bridge pier, where I was hoping a big rockfish would inhale the chunk of soft crab I was presenting below. Conditions ­couldn’t have been much better, with overcast skies and a slack tide. Then my cell phone buzzed.
    I cleared my line and fumbled with my shirt pocket. Finally, freeing the phone, I heard a familiar voice, my neighbor Capt. Frank Tuma, who was fishing a party just to the north of me.
    “Did you see the big waterspout behind you, just south of the bridge?” he queried. “It’s gone now, but for a few minutes I was afraid it was going to get you.”
    I turned and eyeballed the large, dark and menacing cumulus clouds poised low and close to my position.
    “I wasn’t looking in that direction.” I replied. “Maybe I should have been. Those clouds look like they could make bad things happen.”
    It turned out that some nine waterspouts had been sighted in the middle-Bay that morning. Though I had no close calls with a waterborne whirlwind, Candy Thomson, spokeswoman for Maryland Natural Resources Police, had been caught up in that nearby spout while on board a patrol boat.
    It is fortunate that nothing more serious than some brief, brisk winds and a short burst of intense rain descended on the police crew. That is sometimes not the case with these mini-tornados.

Their Rise; Your Retreat
    Waterspouts — dark, whirling funnel clouds descending from stormy skies — form in the Florida Keys more than any place in the world. But the spouts are fairly common from the Gulf of Mexico all the way up Chesapeake Bay.
    Fair-weather waterspouts, such as we experienced that day, are spawned by dark, flat-bottomed storm clouds traveling at low altitude. Typically these waterspouts dissipate before causing damage or injury. Tornadic waterspouts borne of severe weather conditions can be more violent.
    During the hot days of summer, fierce late-afternoon and evening squalls often erupt across the Bay. These small, violent storms are capable of producing more intense waterspouts. Winds have been clocked above 150 mph in ocean-borne tornadic versions, often accompanied by heavy seas, torrential rain, hail and intense lightning. They have sunk or damaged watercraft of all sizes. Violent water spouts are suspected to be the source of some of the mysterious accidents in the Devil’s Triangle off the Keys.
    The primary defense while on Bay waters is keeping an active weather channel open on your marine radio. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Coast Guard broadcast alert warnings whenever and wherever waterspouts are sighted.
    Avoid a spout by heading at a 90-degree angle away from the direction of the funnel. Evasion might not be possible in poor visibility or if a water spout descends from overhead, as apparently happened to the Natural Resources Police crew. So it is wise to steer clear of any area where the mini-tornados are reported.

Rockfish crave spot, but in a pinch white perch will satisfy

I strained to keep my severely arced rod from touching the gunnel as I plunged the tip deep into the water. A large and powerful fish about 20 feet down was intent on crossing under my skiff. Had the line, humming from the tension, contacted the hull it would likely have snapped. On the other hand, if the stressed graphite rod banged the gunnel, it could shatter. I was doing my best to avoid either catastrophe.
    My partner in the bow was handling his own critical situation. He had also hung a big fish that was running deep, equally out of control. Things would soon get worse.

Our Shared Affliction
    Mike Fiore and I often planned to fish together, but either the weather or our work schedules had cancelled out each attempt. This time we hoped it would be different. It was, and in more ways than we had imagined.
    Mike and I work together at Angler’s and often exchange information on where the rockfish are hottest, the best new baits and the hangouts for white perch. I knew the 18-year-old was a skilled angler for his age and that he fished the same kind of gear I did, bait-casting tackle, an affliction not shared widely in the Chesapeake. We wanted to compare techniques.
    Finally we were both free on the same day. Meeting in the early morning, we acquired ice and a bag of bloodworms. We’d agreed that we wanted to live-line for stripers, a technique special to the tackle we both favored.
    The problem with our plan was the scarcity of small Norfolk spot, the number-one bait to live-line for stripers. Once on the water we ­couldn’t find spot the right size anywhere. But we did find some smaller white perch.
    We reasoned that if the rockfish had as much trouble as we did finding spot, the spikey white perch just might work. A sharp-spined, thick-scaled perch is a distant second choice, compared to spot, for predatory striped bass. But if they were hungry enough they should eat them.

Bait in the Water
    With barely enough whities for bait, we headed for the Eastern Shore around the area of the Sewer Pipe. Running well out into the Bay a few hundred yards north of the Bay Bridge,  the pipe is the outflow from a sewage processing plant on Kent Island. Protected by steeply piled rock for the entirety of its length, it creates underwater structure that is a magnet for marine life. That marine life often includes big rockfish.
    A small, tight school of fish below produced marks on my fish-finder that strongly indicated striped bass below. Dropping down a couple of wriggling perch, we lightly thumbed our spools, feeding out line and feeling the actions of the baitfish as they strained for the bottom.
    Within seconds, we’d had that double hookup. We kept the big rock separated as long as we could, but as we drew them close the inevitable happened: Our lines crossed. Mike was fishing braid and I mono, so the situation was dire. Under tension, the ultra-thin braid will slice through mono like soft butter.
    Luckily for us the fish were played out and docile. Though we had a line tangle to undo, both stripers (twins at 34 inches) were quickly netted and in the cooler. Over the next hour we then enjoyed another double header (both released as too big) and then two 26-inch singles to manage our last two keepers. (The daily individual limit for rockfish is two fish over 20 inches, only one of which can exceed 28 inches.)
    That day, white perch were on the rockfish menu and rockfish were on our own.

We found success in a pair of fat stripers at the Bay Bridge

Drifting next to the towering structure, I eased my bait over the side. With only a quarter-ounce weight, it took the chunk of soft crab a while to near the bottom. Thankful that the slow tidal current allowed us to work close on the massive piling, I lifted my rod to be sure that my rig wouldn’t get fouled on the old construction debris below. It was irritating to find that my bait was already solidly snagged.
    I pulled harder in hopes that the rig would break loose but with no effect. Easing my skiff up-current to try for a better angle, I realized that my line’s position in the water was changing faster than the boat was moving. I lifted the rod firmly to test my suspicion. That was when it really bent down. My reel’s drag sizzled as line poured out following something big and deep and now headed in the direction of Baltimore.

Our Last Choice
    The morning for once had started exactly as the weatherman predicted. Overcast skies, light winds and moderate temperatures made a perfect day for fishing the Bay. Armed with a fresh supply of menhaden direct from the netter and a frozen bucket of chum, we were as prepared as possible for a good day. But just for insurance, at the last minute I had also packed a half-dozen soft crabs.
    Arriving on-site with my partner Moe, we noted a friend had beaten us to the fishing. The location, at the mouth of a nearby river, had had a hot bite for the last few days, and we expected nothing less than that this morning. However, our friend did not, have good news. Though the conditions were still superb and he had been grinding chum over the side and set up with bait as fresh as ours, he had not had so much as a nibble.
    Cruising the surrounding waters with my eyes glued to the electronic finder, I confirmed his results. Baitfish galore lit up the screen, but we could mark no rockfish or anything that might have been a gamefish. We headed farther south with the assurance that our friend would call us if the fish showed.
    But there were no stripers at our next spot either, despite the presence of a scattered fleet of boats already anchored and fishing. Venturing even farther south and with similar results, we hadn’t so much as wet a line as the morning wore on.
    Off in the distance I saw the Bay Bridge was not yet clustered with boats, a surprise with the holiday weekend so near. The lack of boats meant that either the structure was still empty of fish or that an opportunity was finally upon us.

One Big Pair
    Our first two tries at drifting soft crab among the pilings were blanks, but our next was golden. After finally spotting some good marks on our screen and dropping our baits, Moe was soon fast to a 25-inch striper. Five minutes later at the same spot, my rod was bent to the corks as my own powerful fish headed away deep.
    It took quite a while to get the fish under control and to the boat. At the last minute, it even looked like our net was too small. But Moe managed the hefty striper in and over the side. After that we boated two or three more rockfish that, while over the minimum legal size of 20 inches, looked meager compared to the beauties we already had in the box. We foolishly released them, hoping for more of the big guys.
    That was when a school of white perch arrived and began gobbling up our supply of softies. With our 6/0 hooks intended for stripers we caught few perch, but within 15 short minutes we were out of crab.
    Though we subsequently attempted to fill out our rockfish limits using our fresh menhaden, it was not to be. The bite proved dead wherever we tried. But with a really nice pair of stripers in the cooler it was hard to be disappointed.

If you want to catch fish, you can’t wait for a perfect conditions

Even as we headed out, the day already looked challenging. Wind predicted at eight knots was easily twice that, and my small skiff was rocking and rolling under overcast skies. Donning foul weather coats, we soldiered on, ignoring a chill spray blowing down the port side onto both of us.
    The day before in perfect weather, my short morning scouting run met defeat. In my hour cruise over recently productive areas I had marked nothing, no bait and no rockfish. Running out of time (I had to ferry some house guests to catch their planes that day), gloom settled over me. Where had all the fish gone?
    Now we were trying a more northerly area, heading out just after sunup with a good supply of chum and bait. At our target location, we saw that if the weather got any worse, we would have to pull the plug. Instead, it stayed only miserable.
    I had seen widely distributed marks on my fish finder as we arrived, but the boat was heaving about so that the screen got little detail. Were those marks scattered baitfish, rockfish or both? Were they even fish? I couldn’t even guess.
    The alternatives were simple: Keep looking for better marks or hunker down in the snotty weather (did I mention it was beginning to rain?) in hope the stripers would come to us. We threw in our lot with staying put.
    We finally got the anchor set, the chum bag over the side and our four rods rigged and baited and trailing out nicely in the swift tidal current. As usual of late, the currents seemed to be running at least four to five hours later than the printed schedules indicated.
    It took a long and uneasy half-hour for the first striper to find our baits. My rod tip dipped, then plunged down, and line began pulling off my reel. With the clicker making merry sounds, I dropped the reel into gear. My rod bent nicely as I set the hook. Within a few minutes we had a fat, healthy, 22-inch rockfish in the net. Breathing a sigh of relief, we declared the looming skunk banished.
    It didn’t take long for the next fish, but it was too close to the minimum size, 20 inches, to trust in the cooler (they shrink some once iced, and measuring was difficult in the heaving boat), so it went back over the side. Another throwback, then another came on board. Were we going to be swamped by shorties?
    The next fish answered that question. It was another 22-incher, followed quickly by a 23, then another 23 and we were done, two quick limits.
    Now getting our gear cleared became the problem. We had three rigs still in the water after netting the last fish, and two were bent over from fish running with our baits.
    Struggling to boat the extras, we had to face a disquieting trend. The rockfish now coming over the side were bigger than the ones in the box.
    Exchanging a rockfish already in your possession for a larger one more recently caught is called culling and is outlawed by Maryland Department of Natural Resources. It is also a death sentence for the fish. A significant percentage of fish released in this practise, even if they appear vital, expire from the stress, especially with the warmer water of summer.
    Shrugging off temptation we released the interlopers and headed for the ramp in victory.
    That’s when the sun broke through the overcast, the rain stopped and the wind died to a gentle breeze. As we arrived at the ramp there ­wasn’t a trace of the miserable weather we had endured. It was now a balmy, bluebird day.

Here’s how to make it work for you

Chumming has always been an excellent way to catch rockfish in the Chesapeake. It’s not particularly demanding in technique or equipment, so just about anyone with a boat who is willing to invest some time can consistently score some really nice fish with this method. As a bonus, it can be easily done with medium-weight spin or bait-casting tackle.
    The basics are simple. Anchored up in a moving tide, the angler suspends over the side of the boat a mesh bag that contains a frozen block of ground menhaden. Also commonly called alewife and bunker in the mid-Bay, menhaden are the favorite food of rockfish.
    The ground menhaden thaws and disperses into the tidal current, attracting rockfish sometimes from great distances. Cut pieces of whole baitfish are then hooked and fished suspended on the bottom for the rockfish to discover and eat. It is a very simple yet effective technique.
    There are, however, strategies that can improve your chances. The first and most important is locating and securing a supply of really fresh baitfish. Top-quality is evidenced by a minimum amount of blood in the bag and the high sheen of silvery white fish that are firm and have a good odor.
    That’s not to say you can’t catch stripers with a bag of two- or three-day-old fish that are off-color and a bit soft. All of us have. But the fresher the bait, the better the bite. Plus your chances of scoring bigger fish increase.
    Keep that bait buried in ice. Menhaden degrade rapidly. If not kept well iced, they immediately begin to soften and spoil. Leaving bait exposed to the sun or warming on the boat is self-defeating. Keep your bait cold, always.
    Buy plenty of baitfish. This is not the place to save money. The first vertical cut of the menhaden, just behind the head, is the prime piece. It contains the internal organs in the body cavity. In the middle of that gut will be the heart. Put that gob on your hook first (with your hook through the heart), then add the piece of fish. You will be surprised how often this draws the first bite and the biggest rockfish.
    Rockfish are a school fish, and when one fish begins to eat, it sends a signal to all of them to eat as well. Change your baits every 20 minutes; by that time most of the scent will have been washed out. Rockfish will find your baits and eat them much quicker when their scent trails are clear.
    The chum bags available today are generally made with a mesh size too small. Cut a few extra holes (about an inch wide) in the bottom of the bag to let the bigger chunks of the chum wash out. You want to attract rockfish, not make the chum last as long as possible.
    The last tip is to use a large enough hook and leave the point and barb well exposed. Hook the menhaden, not too deeply, near the spine at the top of the piece of bait. A rockfish is used to feeling sharp things in its mouth. Just about everything it eats has spines or hard points so the incidental prick of a hook will not frighten or alert it.
    Early in the season (until mid-July at least) a size 5/0 to 7/0 bait hook is not too big if you’re seeking fish in the 30-inch class. After that, as the bigger fish leave for the ocean, gradually reduce your hook size to match the schoolies that remain.

Conservation News

    Natural Resources Police received a complaint on May 12 concerning a large number of dead fish floating near Town Creek, a tributary of the Patuxent. Searching the area, officers saw a commercial vessel, the McKenzie Leigh, unloading fish at a nearby pier. The vessel was holding about 14,000 pounds of croaker and other species. Officers from four counties were assigned to measure the entire catch in an effort that took 12 hours. Approximately 3,500 pounds (about 10,000 fish) were found to be undersized. Charges are pending.

So many variables are at play it can sometimes be baffling

We arrived at our fishing spot at 9am, two hours after the predicted low tide. Consultations with tide and current charts told us that at our location about a quarter-mile below the Bay Bridge, the incoming tide would just be starting. It ­wasn’t; the current was still going out.
    Anchoring and expecting the change at any moment, we set out our chum bag and flipped our baits over the side. After an hour with no tidal change and no action, we headed farther south, reasoning that the outgoing tide would be starting earlier there. Again we were wrong.
    We debated going down the Bay farther still but decided to stick it out. Our fish finder was showing a substantial population in the waters around us. Logically, we concluded that all that we needed was a tidal change and an increase in current to get the stripers feeding. After all, the tide sooner or later would have to change, right?
    Undoubtedly that was true. Yet four hours later it became clear that it was not going to change while we were there. With the tide still inching out and our baits going untouched, we headed home.
    Tides are the result of the gravitational pull of the moon as it orbits the earth. Ocean tides are regular and predictable. It seemed inconceivable that in the Bay an outgoing tide could continue for over 12 hours.
    I decided to renew my acquaintance with how the tidal functions in our great estuary can behave so erratically. The Chesapeake, I was reminded, has a unique and vastly more complex tidal operation than the ocean.
    The moon sets up the basic tidal rhythm of two high tides and two low tides during a typical 24-hour period. But those tidal surges have to travel the length of the Bay, 200 miles. Much can happen in that distance, and many variables can impact the flow of tidal water.
    One of the more important variables is caused by density differences between heavier saltwater coming up from the ocean colliding with lighter freshwater from the Bay’s tributaries. Because of the Coriolis Effect, generated by the turning of the earth on its axis, the incoming tide is always stronger (and saltier) on the eastern side. The fresher water exits the Bay on the western side’s stronger outgoing tides.
    This difference between salt and fresh creates a stratification of Bay waters and generates a secondary circulatory current with the heavier saltwater tending to sink to the bottom as it moves up the Bay and the lighter freshwater tending to float on top and moving south to exit the estuary.
    There are also secondary currents and eddies created as the water moves over different depths. More than 25 percent of the Bay is less than six feet deep, but the channels coursing down its length often average 50 to 60 feet deep.
    Wind is another factor. Sustained high winds can delay, accelerate or even cancel tidal phases. Northwest winds associated with high-pressure areas can push water away from the Atlantic Coast, resulting in very low tides. Northeast winds and high pressure can create exceptionally high tides.
    The interactions of these many variables can also generate seemingly impossible effects. Occasionally currents flow in one direction on the bottom of the Bay and the opposite direction on the top. An outgoing tide that seems to continue for 12 hours can be caused by conditions some distance away and invisible to those experiencing the phenomenon.
    Considering all these forces, the overall accuracy achieved by our tide and current charts is remarkable. It wouldn’t surprise me if the old saying Just go with the flow was coined on the Chesapeake.

Whenever you can

Everything conspired against my going fishing. When I had the time the weather went bad, high winds or rain, sometimes both. When weather was right, my schedule turned on me: guests from out of town, family gatherings and, of course, work.
    When finally I got a break, it wasn’t until the afternoon that I could get away. The worst part of the fishing day is the high-sun, high-heat of the day from noon until at least 4pm. Then again, everyone knows that the best time to go fishing is whenever you can, so I did.
    On the water by 2pm and supplied with some nice, fresh menhaden and a bucket of frozen foul-smelling chum of the same species, a cooler full of ice and a couple of cold bottles of water, I made my way to a spot just off of the mouth of the Severn in 25 feet of water.
    Anchoring and getting set up took about 20 minutes. I had to re-rig my four rods, as the leaders were kinked and scarred from use and the hooks were not particularly sharp. Cutting off about 10 feet of line, I retied it to the swivels, clipped in some new live-lining sleeves and knotted on a two-foot section of 25-pound fluorocarbon for the leader. I finished with fresh and very sharp 7/0 short-shanked bait hooks.
    Setting my chum bag out about halfway to the bottom, I baited up and set out my rods to begin the wait. Wrong time of day, but the tide was making up and in the same direction as the wind, so my lines streamed out nicely from the stern. All I needed was a little cooperation from the fish.
    Three boats were nearby, and the one I had queried earlier indicated that the bite had been dead, so I prepared for a slow afternoon. Then, almost immediately, one of my rod tips twitched. Retrieving the rod from the holder, I released the reel’s clicker so there would be no resistance on the line.
    The spool began to turn, slowly at first, then more rapidly as a fish swam off with my bait. I counted slowly to six. Then put the reel in gear. When the line came tight, I set the hook.
    As I fought this fish, one of my other outfits had a run, the clicker chattering away. I reached over and threw the reel in gear. The fish hooked itself. I threw the other two outfits in gear as well, still struggling with the first fish.
    It was a long battle. By the time I finally netted the muscular devil, all the remaining rods in the holders had bent over double. Laying the gleaming 31-inch striper, still in the net, on the deck, I attended to the three straining rigs.
    The next outfit had a plump 19-incher, which went immediately back over the side. The second rod proved a disappointment as the fish slipped the hook the moment I picked up the outfit. The last rod, though, after another lengthy fight, resulted in a husky 27-inch fish, almost as fat as the first.
    I considered continuing, given the suddenly red-hot bite. But the thought of deep-hooking a beauty that would only have to be released dampened that urge. Looking around at the other boats nearby, I also saw that my good fortune had apparently gone unshared.
    I gave thanks to the fish gods and put my remaining bait and chum back on ice for another day.

To experience our past, I had to travel to Argentina

“Seven at 11 o’clock,” I whispered. “They’re headed right for us.”
    My son John tensed and hunched lower behind the foliage of the water blind. So did I. Seconds passed slowly as adrenaline seeped through our systems.
    A group of ducks swung to our right to adjust to the wind direction, then cupped their wings to descend. They were about 20 yards away and just over our decoys when I hissed, “Take ’em.”

The Waterfowling Tradition
    I’ve been an avid waterfowler for well over 50 years, ever since my earliest days at my Pennsylvania birthplace near Presque Isle Bay on Lake Erie. When I moved to Maryland many years ago, it was only natural to embrace the Eastern Shore and its long tradition of duck and goose hunting.
    I also submerged myself in the wealth of literature describing the heydays of waterfowling when the Chesapeake was choked with widgeon grass, eel grass, wild rice and the hundreds of thousands of migratory birds that stopped to feed on their way to southern wintering grounds.
    Over the years, we harvested some fine ducks and geese from the Shore and had some great hunting experiences. We also saw that the migratory bird populations were a mere shadow of their former numbers. Our sporting activities were really homage to the bygone days of water fowling rather than anything close to the original experience. That was lost to the ages.
    Then last winter a long-time sporting friend told me of a place that was perhaps as close to those days as would ever again be encountered. It was the Pampas of Argentina, a giant plain of grass and agricultural fields interspersed with countless lagoons, small lakes and wetlands. It also was sparsely populated — except for waterfowl.

On to the Pampas
    April and May is early winter in Argentina, and the ducks are in full migratory plumage and movement. They are not the glamorous canvasbacks, mallards and redheads of the old Tidewater. But there are vast numbers of American widgeon and cinnamon teal as well as South American species such as yellow-billed pintail, white-cheeked pintail, Chiloe widgeon, speckle-head teal, rosy-bill pochards and black-bellied whistlers, among others.
    Arising each day at 5am and after a quick breakfast, our party of five would shoot ducks until 10am or so. The limits were generous, but we were under a strict allowance of just 100 shells per gun. In the afternoons, we would drive out to the edge of vast millet and sorghum fields and pass-shoot mourning doves from the endless waves of those birds heading for their evening roosts.
    The experience was as close as we would ever come to reliving the glory days of birding on the Bay.