by Nathan Oravec
A Rude Awakening
At 3:40 a.m. Saturday morning, the fire alarm went off at the Super 8 Motel in California, MD.
I was sharing a room with my father and two of his friends from work, Ron and Chuck. Our wake-up call had originally been planned for 4 a.m. to allow us ample time to get breakfast before embarking on our charter fishing trip on the Chesapeake Bay later, but still really, really early, that morning.
My dad and I had departed from my parents’ home in Walkersville the day before at 5 p.m. and driven to meet Chuck at his house. In Chuck’s new Infiniti, we set off for a town known as California, where motel arrangements had previously been made, the idea being to get a good night’s rest so as to be alert when the fish started biting.
On the car’s stereo we listened to George Carlin’s latest album. At 65, the cantankerous old comic spewed a gravely-voiced chain of vulgarity that defied all reason, seemingly trying to get as much in as humanly possible before hitting 70 and being labeled as a “cute old icon” by the media.
We listened to Jim Reeves. Chuck and my father sang along. “In the Misty Moonlight” soon crowded that part of my psyche that operates the record player of my mind. It would be three days before it was off the charts.
Around 8 p.m. we arrived in California, approximately 30 minutes from our Saturday morning departure point in the town of Ridge. We were in bed by 11. My dad was asleep by 12. I was awake until two in the morning. (There was significant snoring. I won’t name names.)
And then it was 3:40 a.m.
Years of grade school fire drills took over, as I was the first to recognize the sound and the first out of bed. Meanwhile, my three compatriots were groggily teetering on the edge of their mattresses, cursing like drunken Scotsmen, grumbling sleep deprived profanities that would make even George Carlin blush.
One of them called the front desk to inquire as to whether “this was the real thing.”
“Feel the door,” another said, “Is it warm?”
My father checked the hall - none of our neighbors were darting, screaming, for the exits.
After a few minutes, the alarm ceased. All of us still remained in the room. If it were “the real thing,” we would have all been incinerated.
We met the remainder of our party at 4:30 a.m. at an IHOP down the road. Eleven all together, the hostess had to push three tables together to accommodate everyone.
Before I was even finished with my waffle, Chuck was doused with maple syrup that - mysteriously - dripped from the ceiling above our table - like An Amityville Horror by way of Aunt Jemima.
If the early morning’s events were a foreshadowing of the day’s excursion, the ship was going to sink and we were all going down with it.
At almost 6 a.m. to the minute, following a half-hour’s drive, we reached Courtney’s Restaurant in Ridge, MD, where we met up with Captain Greg Madjeski. Brief pleasantries were exchanged, before we all followed the good captain across the adjacent peer, at the end of which, the boat - the Temple M - waited.
The smell of the water - that unmistakable sea-like scent of salt and fish and gulls - filled the air.
My father and I hoisted our cooler - containing the day’s sodas and sandwiches - up onto the side of the boat, where it was taken by the first mate, a young man who, aside from the captain, comprised the crew of the Temple M.
As I boarded, Captain Greg was busy hosing off the deck. He asked me to step in the water, which I didn’t catch initially, resulting in a second request, which then sunk in as I complied, stomping my feet in a puddle that had gathered at the vessel’s floor. “Get that parking lot off your feet,” he said. “When you’re done, go to the front of the boat.”
After everyone had come aboard, and had received their shoe-wash, we moved toward the ship’s cabin, assuming positions that we would, more or less, remain in for the first jaunt of our trip.
As the boat was untied from the peer, Captain Greg took to the deck, assuming his post behind the console. With a stuttering roar, the motor was engaged and the Temple M slowly began to pull away from shore. Gaining speed, I watched from my post as the ship cut a swath through the rippling black and blue waves, kicking up a torrent of white spray and leaving foam in its wake.
The first mate - who I belive was named Daniel - was seated at the center of the boat, preparing what looked to be the morning’s fishing gear - rods and reels and lines. Seemingly second nature to him, he quickly assembled eleven rods in total, and then deftly moved on to preparing bait. He hauled wooden buckets filled with ice and small fish from a cooler at the rear of the boat. Taking the fish one at a time, he proceeded to gut and dice them into sushi-sized cubes.
Twenty or so minutes into the bay, with no land in sight, the Temple M settled decidedly to a halt. Everyone was directed to pick a rod, stationed along the rail space of the boat. On his suggestion, I joined my father at the back.
“Ok, everybody pay attention,” exclaimed the captain, “We’re going to show you how to bait your hook.” The process was twofold. On a cutting board was laid out the bait in question. The gizzard, a red, grape-sized fish organ of some variety, was the most crucial aspect of the technique. The trick, explained the captain, was to thread the gizzard so that it entirely covered the eye and shank of the hook. One of the fish cubes was to follow - making sure that the hook pierced the scaly skin. “If you can see the eye of the hook,” Captain Greg said, “the fish can see it.”
Ah. A battle of wits between man and fish, I thought.
Bring it on.
“Fish On!” The battle cry of the bay fisherman, as we were prompted to shout out when we hooked a rock. Rockfish and Croaker were the fish of the day, the latter of which named for their deep, forlorn utterances. I had cried out the signal once, or, at least muttered it under my breath. One quickly loses confidence when he hooks the boat’s propeller and thinks he has a real fighter on his hands.
My first real catch, a rock, was deemed to be too small, under the regulation 18 inches, and was subsequently thrown back. That was in the morning. Four hours later, I still hadn’t gotten another bite. Which isn’t to say that the rest of the group was faring as poorly. Quite the opposite, as it seemed every other minute, the excited bellow of “Fish On!” was heard, and another rock or croaker was netted by the first mate, and thrown into a plastic bin to join the day’s impressive and rapidly amassing catch.
Intermittently, the captain would rev up a port side grinder, feeding small, bait sized fish into its gnashing maws and churning out chum which was then swept into the waves below, in hopes of drumming up fish-business.
The morning had been overcast, cool and pleasant. As we neared noon, the sun began to make it presence known, glistening across the horizon and beating down upon the Temple M.
By now, everyone aside from myself had claimed a fish - or two.
As for me, the Jerry Lewis of fishermen, I had been the subject of sporadic tangles and snags. It’s not that my technique was any different. I’m convinced it was my karma. They may not have been able to see the eye of the hook, but something tells me that they could see into the eye of my mind, reeling with one single thought, “Come on, fish... Come on, fish... Come on, fish...”
Twenty-one rock, and a number of croaker was the tally. The limit for the group of eleven was two a piece, twenty-two in total. “We need one more,” said Captain Greg.
Fading fast from the early rise, some of the party retired to the front of the boat to take a breather, to have a soda, to eat a sandwich. My father and I stayed put, letting out line - reeling it in - and repeating.
And then it happened. I relaxed. Getting that one fish became not as important as just being on the boat and enjoying the experience.
Suddenly, there was a tug on the line from some thirty feet out. I grabbed the rod and sprung to my feet.
The Sailors Return
Nearly six hours after it had left the peer, the Temple M began to head back for shore. Bracing themselves against the railing, the weary fishermen gazed out at the bay, mainly in silence, ready to touch down once again on land.
After disassembling the rods and returning them to their overhead storage under the boat’s canopy, the first mate busily swabbed the deck, cleaning it meticulously. When finished, he moved to the rear of the boat, soaked to the bone, and began to clean and filet the fish. Fifteen years old, as he had told the group in an earlier conversation, I realized that he had already worked harder than I had all week long. I watched Captain Greg as he piloted the vessel through the bay, and wondered if these two could even imagine a life behind a desk.
Back at the peer, the day’s catch was divided equally among the group, and costs were settled with the captain.
On the drive back, we listened to Carlin and Reeves again. On the verge of falling asleep, I hoped that I would not be stirred by the blare of a fire alarm, but instead could dream of that place where the water meets the sky.
For more information on Charter Fishing on the Chesapeake, 48415 Wynne Road, Ridge, MD 20680, call 301-872-4215. Visit www.paxp.com/madjeski/.