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Features (Boating)

Dress warmly if you want to get in on the nighttime bite

Darkness had fallen. The scattered fishing boats had headed home with little success. I was alone on the water, and it was a good deal colder than a few minutes earlier, when the sun was shining its last.
    But I had dressed well. Zipping up the neck of my fleece turtleneck under a flannel-lined shirt and closing my foul weather coat around me, I settled down to wait.
    Arriving just as everyone else was leaving was a little chancy. If the fish had shown up earlier, the commotion of anglers hooking, battling and landing them would have driven them off. But I was counting on the school of rock’s delayed arrival. This area had been fished hard the last few days, and I was guessing the bass were finally getting a little weary of all the attention.
    About a half-hour after full dark, I began to cast. Working a half-ounce Rat-L-Trap-type bait over submerged structure, I started to search. Feeling the plug occasionally banging off of sunken rocks below gave me focus. I couldn’t allow the bait to get so deep that it would hang up, but caroming it off the scattered remains of old riprap was a strike trigger.
    Pausing the retrieve for just a second after the initial contact just might emulate a fleeing baitfish that had stunned itself in its panic to escape. Could any nearby striper resist such an easy meal?
    A quarter of an hour passed as I concentrated on casting and retrieving. Then at the pause, my lure hung up. Reflexively I set the hook but felt only the solid resistance of failure. Then came a healthy headshake, and my rod bent down as an unseen torpedo headed away and out toward the channel. The drag sang, and I relaxed.
    Patiently waiting out the fish’s powerful didoes for escape and holding the rod tip high to minimize line contact with the rocks below, I let the fish exhaust itself. Slipping my net into the water, I eventually guided the striper into its folds and lifted it on board. My first night fight of the season had been a success.

Nighttime Primer
    One of the difficulties in fall fishing, especially in shallow water, is that the sweet spots become well known almost at once. It is first-light and last-light action, so the window for success is usually little more than an hour or so on either end. If a few boats gather, it can be even shorter.
    The evening bite usually dies as darkness falls. Wait about a half-hour longer, and the feed often starts again. Fishing after dark is usually not as frenetic as at sunset, but it can be very productive and the fish can get substantially larger.
    I use a Rat-L-Trap-type bait as a searching tool because I can cast it farther and cover more water. As it’s a noisemaker, it tends to draw the fish from farther away.
    If the bite slows after the first few fish on the Trap, I’ll then go to a swimming crank bait such as a Yozuri Crystal Minnow, a Bomber Long A or a jointed Rebel. If that’s not successful, I will change again to a BKD or a Bass Assassin and work it deep and slow. One of them usually does the trick.
    The only cautions about this type of angling are that you should never fish an area or run a water route you haven’t gotten to know in daylight. Always wear some kind of life jacket, have a good waterproof radio or phone and let someone know where you are fishing and what time you‘ll be back. Dress warmly and bring a lot of lures. The rocks below, as well as the stripers, are famous for eating them up in the dark.

You’re missing out on the fun if you don’t have a boat

It’s almost impossible to look out over our Chesapeake Bay without also gazing at a graceful waterman’s workboat or anglers in a skiff speeding to the next honey hole, a family in a cuddy or cabin cruiser slowly trolling for trophy rockfish or heading for dinner at a waterfront restaurant. Sometimes all of them at the same time.
    The plain fact is that if you live in our area and don’t have a boat, you are missing out on enjoying one of our nation’s largest maritime playgrounds.
    At 4,500 square miles with 11,000 miles of shoreline and hundreds of tributary rivers and streams, the Bay is the biggest and most complex estuary on the North American continent. It is also home to 300 species of fish, 170 species of crabs and shellfish and visited by more than a million migrating waterfowl each year. Our Bay is a recreational heaven and a naturalists’ wonderland. A boat is the key to experiencing it fully.
    It isn’t necessarily true that owning a watercraft is a seasonal, expensive, time-intensive and dangerous pastime. Today’s marine craft are safe and robust. The motors, once the bugaboo of seafaring, have become models of reliability and efficiency. Modern materials and refined technologies have much reduced maintenance requirements and breakdowns.
    Today’s boater can expect to enjoy almost eight months of comfortable use in an average season on the Chesapeake. Stalwarts willing to endure more uncomfortable conditions (sometimes including myself) often log in full 12-month calendars.
    While there is no upper limit on the size or expense of a craft that will allow you to enjoy our maritime cornucopia, a boat of 21 feet or slightly larger with outboard power is a good starting point. Such a boat will get just about any adventure under way from a crabbing excursion to sightseeing, bird watching, visiting waterfront restaurants, catching a rockfish or filling a cooler with perch and spot.

My Requirements and Desires
    My own boating usually involves just me and sometimes a friend. My wife, a high school art teacher and successful sculptor, generally has a full schedule. Our three sons have mostly flown the nest.
    Spending at least three or four days a week on the water in fulfilling my duties as a sporting columnist for Bay Weekly, I have chosen a simple 17-foot center console skiff. It is easy to tow, launch and handle solo or with a friend. Powered by a 50-horsepower Yamaha four-stroke motor, the relatively light and slender craft (800-pound hull, six-foot beam) can max out at 30 mph, cruise easily in the mid 20s and fish all day on about three gallons of gas. Its modified V-hull with a wide, flared bow runs dry in a chop and handles just about any kind of weather I’m apt to fish in.
    I’ve equipped the skiff with a stern Power Pole or shallow water anchor, an electric trolling motor for stealthy shoreline running, a good quality GPS/fishfinder combo and a handheld compact VHF marine radio. This setup excels for shallow-water plugging and fly fishing and is quite satisfactory for deeper water tactics such as chumming, live-lining, jigging or just bottom fishing with bait.
    I’ve come to prefer keeping the craft ready on its trailer, having found that one of the keys to angling success on the Bay is getting promptly to where the fish are — even if that entails a road trip to a distant public boat ramp.

Try It!
    Whatever your requirements and desires, being on the water is a life-expanding experience.

How I resurrected a 1971 sailboat

Making old things new again is part of my family history. When I was a boy, my mother furnished our home with used furniture purchased at auction. I would often help her strip the paint or varnish from the wood and apply a new finish.
    So I wasn’t daunted by the challenge of restoring a 1971 24-foot Ventura MacGregor sailboat. Wife Clara has long had a desire to own a sailboat. When we were offered this one, with trailer, for $1,400, I tested the hull for soundness and purchased it.
    After hauling the boat to Upakrik Farm, I backed it into the barn, where I used car jacks to lift the boat from the trailer; then I supported it three feet above the floor with beams attached to barn supports. Using putty knives and scrapers, I removed a five-gallon pail full of barnacles from the hull. From the cockpit we removed several bushels of leaves as well as several more of composted leaves.
    I tried to lower the swing keel by loosening the cable, but it was wedged in the housing. The keel is made with 100 pounds of steel and 400 pounds of lead with wood filling the voids, and the whole thing is covered with fiberglass. Inspecting the keel with a powerful light, I saw that the fiberglass had split open and barnacles had attached themselves to it.
    Removing the swing keel from the housing took me several years: Farm work occupied most of my time during spring, summer and fall, and in the winter it was often too cold to work in the barn. Finally, I extracted the keel in pieces. Then I fit it back together and made an accurate outline of the original. Using one-inch band steel welded to the steel shank and conforming to the original outline, I made a new swing keel. With the guidance of Garry Williams, owner of Osprey Composites of Deale, I covered the reconstructed keel with several layers of fiberglass.
    Once the keel was resurrected, I spent months sanding the hull, deck and cabin. Cracks in the fiberglass had to be ground down to a solid surface and filled with new fiberglass. I did so much sanding that I wore out a DeWalt orbital sander as well as countless pads of sandpaper. All of the fiberglass work was done under Garry’s guidance, and I hired his painters to spray paint the boat. Most of the chrome fixtures had to be ­factory refinished.
    The tabernacle that holds the base of the mast had been ripped from the top of the cabin, demanding major repair. The interior of the cabin also needed major refinishing and refurbishing; I installed ceiling lights, ship-to-shore radio and wood moldings.
    Clara had the task of naming our boat. After much research on boat names, she chose The Happy Heron.
    Nine years after purchase, The Happy Heron was launched at Herrington Harbour North in Tracys Landing and navigated to Paradise Marina, where it has been berthed on a lift when not in use.
    Since its launching, I have sailed it at least five times with a friend and twice with Clara.
    In the spring of 2013, I had a serious accident the day after Thanksgiving followed by a second worse accident resulting in permanent damage to my left leg. I have difficulty getting in and out of the boat and can no longer stand on the cabin to hoist the sails. Clara also has developed bad knees, so it appears that the time has come to sell The Happy Heron.
    That’s all right. Restoring that boat was a challenge that I enjoyed probably more than sailing it. Making something new again is in my blood.

The fishing is great; the ­dangers of hypothermia grave

Finally I had to face it; with morning temperatures in the low 50s, socks are a necessity. With regret, I moved my fishing shorts and warm-weather shirts into winter storage last week. Hauling my insulated long-sleeved undershirts and heavyweight long pants from the back of the closet broke the final link with summer. It’s going to be pretty much a cold-weather game from here on out.
    The good news is that the fishing is getting more exciting. With rockfish and bluefish gathering and feeding up for the winter, breaking schools are going to become more and more common. Tossing lures into a cauldron of feeding game fish always provides exciting memories to hold us over until next spring.
    However, there is a serious downside to the colder weather, especially on the water. Hypothermia is a medical term that describes the condition that occurs when your body begins losing heat faster than it can produce it. It’s a dangerous condition. About 1,000 people in the U.S. die from hypothermia every year.
    We are warm-blooded mammals, and our bodies operate under an optimal temperature of approximately 98.6 degrees. Our internal organs — particularly the heart, liver and blood vessels — generate and regulate heat. But if our core body temperature drops more than three degrees, we experience physical and mental dysfunction. From lethargy and confusion, eventual unconsciousness and even death can follow.
    The very old and the very young are at particular risk of hypothermia, the elderly because their bodies have lost some ability to regenerate and regulate heat, the very young because their small body mass can lose temperature rapidly. Extra care must be taken when they are on the water during cold weather.
    During summer months the spray blowing onto us from a moving boat is a refreshing way to cool off, but in the winter that experience invites trouble. The body loses heat much faster when it becomes wet, 25 times faster when immersed.
    A sudden rainsquall in October is no longer just inconvenient and uncomfortable. It now becomes dangerous. Worse is falling overboard. Immersion in 45-degree water can result in loss of dexterity and onset of confusion within five minutes, unconsciousness within 30 minutes and death within an hour — if the victim has not drowned first.
    Waterproof, windproof and heat-retentive clothing are our primary defenses against hypothermia. Foul-weather coats and pants are not only proof against rain and sleet; they are also protection from the wind and help retain body warmth. Fleece, synthetic insulators and wool are ideal heat retainers. Down should be avoided because once it becomes wet, it loses its insulating qualities.
    Don’t ignore gloves and footwear. Although our extremities are not critical to our inner core temperature, getting cold hands or feet is extremely uncomfortable. Both neoprene and wool are excellent materials in harsh marine environments. Always wear a warm hat. It is a myth that the body loses 90 percent of its heat through the head — but not if that’s your only unclothed part.
    Warm beverages give our inner core an extra shot of warmth. Hot cocoa, coffee, tea or plain hot water are effective antidotes to the onset of chill. Avoid or minimize alcohol intake. Alcohol actually promotes body cooling by dilating blood vessels, while giving the illusion of warmth.
    Bring extra clothing on board. When a person gets wet, get them immediately into warm, dry clothes. A Mylar or space blanket is an inexpensive, compact and effective item in your cold weather emergency kit. The blanket is waterproof and significantly reduces heat loss.
    Once ashore, the quickest way to restore the body’s core temperature is a warm (not hot) bath or shower. Avoid exposure to any form of extreme heat. The skin becomes very insensitive during episodes of hypothermia, and burn injuries are much more easily incurred than they would be otherwise.
    Cold-weather fishing on the Chesapeake is often fantastic, even better than in more temperate periods. Go prepared for good experiences and great stories. Ignore the accompanying danger at your own peril.

Buying local? Try vinegar lulled for five months in a skipjack’s hull

     The taste of place is about the best translation English can give to the French word terroir. The idea comes from the vineyards of France, so it doesn’t have to jump far into the vinegar barrel.
    Still, it’s a bit of a leap into the hold of the skipjack Rosie Parks, a ­vintage Eastern Shore oyster boat.
    Rosie Parks was built in 1955 by legendary boat builder Bronza Parks of Dorchester County for his brother, Captain Orville Parks, and named for their mother. Her hold was framed to contain oysters, not vinegar. But in 1975 she changed careers to sailing ambassador for Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum and the Bay’s dwindling skipjack fleet. In 39 years, she’s taught many a lesson of maritime terroir. But imparting the terroir of boat and Bay to a barrel of Italian vinegar is a brand new assignment.
    “The Rosie Parks has such rich history on the Chesapeake,” says Bill Acosta, owner of Olivins Aged and Infused Fine Olive Oils and Vinegars Tasting Shop in St. Michael’s, home of the museum and its historic skipjack. “We wanted to create a special balsamic vinegar that gives people a real sense of place, with an exceptional taste and to support the museum in a meaningful way.”
    To create a special vinegar with a real sense of place, on July 10 a five-gallon barrel of Balsamic Modena was loaded into the skipjack’s hull. There it will remain for the next five months, its aging accelerated by the gentle motion of the boat at its dock along the Miles River. And, this year, the not-so-gentle motion as Rosie Parks joins her kind for races in Deal Island on Memorial Day and Cambridge in September.

    “Aging barrels aboard boats started out in history as a necessity, as most trade occurred over waterways,” explains museum chief curator Pete Lesher. “A boat’s movement can speed up the process of aging, whether it’s spirits, vinegar, or another liquid. We’re very excited to taste the results of these efforts.”
    The wooden barrel is made of toasted oak, which will flavor the vinegar. “Even the temperature changes aboard Rosie Parks will influence the taste of this special blend,” said Acosta. “The barrel expands and contracts as the temperatures rise and fall, infusing the vinegar with undertones of toasted oak.”
    Rosie Parks Balsamic Vinegar should be ready for sale the day after Thanksgiving. The 60 six-ounce bottles will, Acosta says, “be antique and nautical looking, labeled with local artist Amy Ostrow’s painting of the Rosie Parks sails up at sunset.” Acosta expects each to be priced at $20 to $25 and sold at his St. Michael’s shop. A portion of each sale goes to the museum.

Learn what you need to know, take what you need to have

If you don’t have some type of watercraft — be it canoe, kayak, skiff, sailboat, sailboard or motor yacht — you’ll miss out on enjoying our largest public playground: the vast, 4,500 square miles of the Chesapeake Bay.
    A boat is your magic carpet for roaming the Bay and its tributaries while fishing, sailing, crabbing, clamming, oystering, photographing or cruising and paddling about in the natural beauty of the Chesapeake.


  The rockfish trophy season is following its traditional schedule. Opening week was great. But springtime weather and the stripers’ natural inclination to elude anglers have taken a toll. Larger rockfish continue to move on their own spawning-driven, immutable and impossible-to-anticipate timelines. In better weather, good trophy fish have been taken all around the Chesapeake. But no one location or pattern has emerged to help anglers concentrate efforts. The spawn is especially late this year, evidenced by the high percentage of roe-laden females boated. So the migratory giants will, in all likelihood, remain available well into May.
  The white perch run is mostly over, as is the hickory shad run. The hickories will be running back to the ocean, while the white perch will wander slowly downstream, then school up and head back to their accustomed hangouts. Some will return to reside in shallow water structures of the Bay and its tributaries, others to the medium depths of the Chesapeake where they will all feed up to regain the body mass lost during spawning. Until the weather warms up and the perch settle down, they will be difficult to locate.
  A few more sunny, 70-plus-degree days will be needed to get the bass and bluegill on their spawning beds. That is sure to happen soon. If you haven’t caught a bluegill (or a bass) on a fly rod and a popper in shallow water, you haven’t lived your angling life to its fullest. This is a good time to correct that oversight.

    But being on the water is not without risk. Every year people are injured and lives lost. Safe boating depends on proper preparation. Step one is following the rules, requirements and guidelines set out by the Department of Natural Resources for boating safety.
    Find Maryland’s recreational boating safety equipment requirements at Or call DNR and request a copy of the Boat Maryland textbook.
    The most imperative requires that every watercraft of every type, size and location — Bay, pond, creek, river or lake — must have a wearable life jacket or personal floatation device (PFD) of appropriate size for each person on board. All children under the age of 13 must wear their PFD while aboard any craft less than 21 feet in length.
    Boats of 16 feet and over must likewise have, readily available, a type IV floating, throwable device (for man-overboard situations) such as a certified floating cushion or life ring.
    Finally, to operate sailing or motorized craft, all boaters born after July 1, 1972, must take an eight-hour Maryland Basic Boating Course and possess and have on their person a Maryland Boating Safety Education Certificate.
    Classes are listed in Bay weekly’s 8 Days a Week calendar of events. Natural Resources Police Safety Education also lists classes: 410-643-8502;
    You can also find online courses at:
    Find a handy checklist of all boat-safety items required under Maryland law at the DNR website or on page 21 in the Boat Maryland textbook. Failure to possess these required items while operating your boat can cost you a significant fine plus, in some cases, being ordered off of the water until the shortcomings are rectified.
    There is also a list of suggested items that make a lot of sense. These include a VHF radio, cell phone, extra fuel, a boat hook, charts and a compass, a flashlight and batteries, food and water, mooring lines, tool kit, spare anchor, binoculars, extra clothing, foul weather gear, a searchlight, sunscreen, insect repellant, hand towels, a First Aid Kit and a spare paddle.
    If you venture into distant, sparsely populated areas, consider an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) and a satellite phone.
    Squalls, thunderstorms and other violent weather conditions — as well as mechanical breakdowns and unavoidable accidents — are always unpleasant possibilities on the water. Keep the DNR emergency response hotline on your speed dial or, at least, in your list of phone contacts: 410-260-8888 or 877-224-7229.
    If you spend enough time on the water, eventually things will get dicey. If you’re prepared, the incident will only result in a good yarn. If you’re unprepared … well, don’t let that happen.

Get help, for free, from techies smarter than you

As soon as I purchased my new skiff some three years ago, I had to have the latest and greatest fish-finder/GPS machine. I got it installed, but once I turned it on, problems followed. The software on my machine had some initial problems that were later corrected. Still, I needed to load a new version of the operating software.
    That simple operation involved downloading the updated system from the manufacturer’s Internet site onto a computer, transfering it to a storage device and plugging that into my finder/GPS unit for automatic update. I somehow botched the operation and had to send the unit back. The manufacturer reloaded everything and promptly returned it.
    Doing some Internet research on my new unit, I quickly set a few basic parameters and barely touched the settings again. It worked well, much better than the 15-year-old unit I’d had before, but I couldn’t help thinking I wasn’t using the machine’s full potential. This winter I decided to fix that.

Beneath the Iceberg
    The electronic fish-finder is the most revolutionary tool available to anglers. It’s a tool with a story that dates back to the sinking of the Titanic.
    The part of the iceberg hit by the cruise ship was underwater and unobservable to the navigating crew. After that disaster, work immediately began on how to detect below-surface objects. First developed was an echo-ranging apparatus based on the navigational methods of dolphins.
    Reginald Fessenden, a Canadian working for a U.S. company in Boston, patented the first workable sonar —Sound Navigation and Ranging — device in 1912. Submarine warfare in the Battle of the Atlantic during World War II greatly accelerated its development, first by Britain, then the U.S.
    The fish-finders we use today are spinoffs of that defense technology. Over the years, they have become so accurate and complex that they are prohibited from export by U.S. law. They’re so sophisticated that many anglers — I being a poster boy — fail to get the most from their units. There are just too many options for a simple fisherman like me to comprehend, let alone remember how they interact.

Learning the Machine
    There is, however, a solution for us technologically inept. Almost all retailers of such units have at least one employee expert in their setup and use. In talking to a number of them over the last week, I have found them all eager to help, especially during the slow times of winter. Just disconnect your unit from the boat and take it to the store.
    The expert there can hook it up in-house and go over the settings, explain the options and suggest changes for your type of fishing.
    There also may be software upgrades available from the manufacturer. These are generally free and can be downloaded pretty easily.
    It is wise to call ahead to make sure that the right technician will be on hand and that they service your brand.
    If you have a GPS (the satellite-based Global Positioning System) unit combined with your fish-finder, you can review it as well. You can also discuss aftermarket products, such as navigational map overlays.
    Wintertime is slow for both marine stores and anglers. Availing yourself now of the expertise that the stores offer will pay off in fish in the box and fun on the water in 2014.

Maritime historian Richard Dodds tells us how the era of recreational boating rose and flourished

From lighthouses to skipjacks, amphibious landings to speedboats, all that and more is in Richard Dodds’ portfolio as Calvert Marine Museum’s Curator of Maritime History. Inside the Solomons museum, runabouts, cruisers and speedboats that look both modern and classic illustrate how that chapter of maritime history rose and flourished in Southern Maryland. Visit the U.S. Powerboat Show in Annapolis this weekend, and you’ll see the vast diversification of their descendants....

30,000-horsepower Healy makes the nation’s first solo visit

Satellites snatch glimpses of the North Pole effortlessly, but human visits remain a rare achievement — and a dream. The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy reached the pole on September 5. Healy’s was the fourth ever visit by a U.S. surface vessel and the first to reach the pole unaccompanied.

Sometimes you have to sail across the ocean and to faraway lands to get back to where you started

Until you don’t have a home, you don’t think about exactly what it is. At least I didn’t. Is it a house you know well in a familiar neighborhood? Someplace close to your friends and family? Maybe it’s no specific place. Maybe it can be anywhere as long as you’re with the one dearest to you.