On the last day of 1984, in the little harbor of Oxford, Md., the rainsqualls whipped at your face. Canada geese, beating south, were only a shade blacker than the sky. The channel markers were hardly visible. Two of us were alone on the dock, possibly the only people on any dock along the entire Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake. "Crazy, crazy, crazy," said Jim Price. An understatement.
Somehow Jim had managed to wrap himself in two parkas, but no parka ever stitched together could cut the kind of wind chill that we would hit once we had cleared the harbor and started running fast up the Choptank River. But we had to go on.
Under most circumstances, a phone call would have aborted the trip, but not this one. Dec. 31, 1984 was a day destined to go down in angling history, the last on which you could legally take out a fishing rod and try to catch one of America's best-loved sport fish, the striped bass, in its undisputed home, which is Chesapeake Bay.
The frighteningly acute threat to the striper as a species is well documented (SI, April 23, 1984), as is the deterioration of its spawning streams in the Chesapeake. Some of the gloomier commercial fishermen expected a quota system for 1985 so tough as to restrict the catch to 55% of 1984's level. What they got from Dr. Torrey C. Brown, secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, however, was worse: a total and crushing moratorium, for an undefined period, on all fishing for striped bass from Jan. 1, 1985 on.
Of course, that ban included sport fishing. And though the whole subject was a serious one for a great many people, into this angler's mind had sprung, unbidden, the thought of a unique record in reverse, a kind of sporting last. Might there not be some sad satisfaction in catching the last-ever striper before the ban came in—as late as possible, that is to say, on New Year's Eve?
However, this was not likely to prove easy. To start with, there aren't that many stripers (called rockfish in the Chesapeake area) around, except for mostly small fish up to a couple of pounds, the progeny of 1978 and 1982 spawnings, which were practically the only even moderately successful ones of the last decade. Also, in the depths of winter, stripers are not very accessible to rod fishing. Their metabolism slows down in the cold water, which curtails their need for food. Instead, winter becomes a picnic for commercial fishermen because the bass, shoaled up tight together, not moving much, are easy prey for the nets. Thus, most recreational anglers along the Eastern Shore have put their rods away by October's end.
But not Jim Price, who (and that was about all I knew of him at this point) fished stripers year-round, mostly in the Choptank River. Jim was for the last-fish idea, he said when I got in touch with him, but he felt we should head out once or twice earlier in December to locate the best fishing spots.
When we made our first trip, though, what we hit was that remarkable shirtsleeves weather, up in the 70s, which marks early winter on the Eastern Seaboard. The stripers didn't know how to react, and neither did we. During that first trip in Jim's 20-foot center-console boat, we worked the arches and pilings of the bridge at Cambridge and every oyster bar along the shores of the Choptank River.
On our first day together I found Price a somewhat dour man who talked little, concentrating hard instead on the fish finder. When a few blips showed up on it, we worked over the fish with jigs and covered them, but, winter somnolent or sunstruck, they wouldn't move, though we kept trying until dark. "It would be something just to see one," I said.
"You want to see some," Jim said, "just head up to Choptank village on Monday. My brother Bill should have some in the stake nets then. We're starting to tag the fish now. Should have maybe 2,000 tagged by the New Year."
An Eastern Shore waterman tagging? I had yet to learn that this heavyset, bespectacled man of 42 was perhaps the most formidable ally the striped bass has in the U.S. Later I would discover that it was he who effectively brought in the 14-inch-minimum-size law in Maryland in 1983, and in 1984 formulated the petition and created the pressure that led to the present moratorium. This has made him something of a villain along parts of the Eastern Shore.
His latest fight for the striper, I would also learn, had centered on the formation of his Chesapeake Bay Acid Rain Foundation, devoted to the study of the effect of acid precipitation on the stripers' spawning streams, and that of dissolved metals—aluminum, lead, cadmium, zinc and copper—as well. At this stage Price was raising funds to buy live stripers for about a dollar apiece from watermen at boatside so that they could be tagged and returned to the water. Among those watermen was Bill, who had stake nets out in the Choptank.
Fish, though, have not always dominated Jim Price's life. For 16 years he worked for Maryland in the highway department, concerned with the measurement of materials that go into making roads. A humdrum existence, you might think, and Price tends to agree.
"I never liked it," he says. "For years I'd collected coins as a hobby, and I began to get interested in precious metals. I was familiar with weights and measures from my job, so I began advertising locally in the paper to buy gold and silver. I didn't have money myself, but I borrowed from my family and a friend. I started traveling to Baltimore and other cities, and it got to the point that I could sometimes make $1,000 a day in profit. It was hard to work for $300 a week after that. I quit, and I don't regret losing my pension. Then I started on diamonds, went up to New York City to trade stones."
It's hard to picture Jim Price of Choptank, Md. (pop. circa 100) going from stall to stall on 47th Street, New York City's diamond center, looking for a bargain. Nevertheless, Price, who also operates a charter boat business, not only survived but flourished—now he has two jewelry stores on the Eastern Shore, and is thinking about opening a third. He has even talked some of those no-nonsense 47th Street diamond traders into heading down to the Choptank for a day's fishing. That is what he really likes doing.
It was my good fortune that Price's sharp mind had been intrigued by the thought of taking the last legally rod-caught striper from the bay, and indeed, that he began to regard it as a personal insult when a second day's dress rehearsal produced another shutout. "I promise you," he said, "that we'll get our rock on New Year's Eve, and that evening we'll sit down and eat him panfried at the Robert Morris Inn, which is the best restaurant in Oxford."
There are times, it must be confessed, when insurance is necessary—before we started out on New Year's Eve we had made plans with the restaurant to drop off some stripers from Bill's nets—but we still hoped to dine on our own rod-caught fish.
The pure vileness of the morning of Dec. 31 made it seem as if our backup stripers would be necessary, even though Jim, late the previous night, had scraped from the piles around the harbor in Oxford, on his knees with a child's net, enough grass shrimp to fill a plastic candy bag.
With cold in our very marrow, we chugged along with the fish finder going. Good-looking ground started showing—an oyster bank. Down went the anchor, out went the lines and straightaway came hits.
No stripers, though, just white perch—fat white perch. There were many of them, as many of them, they seemed to be saying, as we had grass shrimp. Noontime came and went, and then, just as we were telling each other that there was bound to be at least one striper among those perch, all the action ceased.
For three hours there was nothing. Then, as the tide began moving once more, the perch started biting again. The light was fading fast and we were actually stowing some tackle away when my rod arched over and the drag of my reel began yielding line. Minutes later, flashing at the boatside and looking as magnificently medieval as the checkered gold, black and red of Maryland's flag was my New Year's Eve striper. It was of legal size and was boated at precisely 5:08 p.m. I'll swear no other boat was out on the bay. Thus, I hereby lay claim to the capture of the last legal Chesapeake rock. Whether or not I ate him, though, is a matter of conjecture, because somehow the kitchen staff at the Robert Morris Inn made no distinction between him and our iced-down fillets.
In any case, I may have to repeat the feat. Last month, William Gordon, an administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, received a petition signed by a concerned citizen, Mr. James E. Price, asking him to declare the striped bass a threatened species from Maine to North Carolina. Mr. Gordon has 90 days to accept or reject the petition, and Maryland's ban sets a precedent that may be hard to ignore.
We'd better make sure of a good supply of grass shrimp for Dec. 31, 1985.