Friday, July 31, 2009

So Many Fish in the Sea; Part 2 -- Something about Gambling & Fishing

You cast your fishing line out into the Chesapeake waters. On Captain Randy Dean’s new boat, Bay Hunter, fishing is a gamble if not an act of faith. Catching a fish is not so much fisherman’s luck as it is happenstance. Fishing is about the right conditions coming together in a random, synchronistic manner. When the catch happens, it is a happy occasion.

Happenstance -- and so it happens -- being happy are kindred life experiences.

Is gambling about making money or is it, like fishing, a happy entertainment that benefits the whole world -- and you and me? Throwing money away may benefit your soul, many souls. Although prudence around one’s treasure is recommended.

Chesapeake Beach, Maryland was built during the early twentieth-century upon gambling, fishing, and entertainment. I was at Chesapeake Beach Resort and Spa three days ago and played a rousing game of pinball in its entertainment room. The machine didn’t pay you back in money. Clunk-de-clunk you were paid back in more games and the fun of keeping the game, the play, alive. Other games at the resort pay cash: slot machines and bingo.

The McGill-based (Montreal) economist, Reuven Brenner, a friend of mine, points out that gambling helps the economy and the arts. Opera at Monte Carlo, and other theaters in Europe, was subsidized by gaming. Gaming, which is optional, brought down the price of a ticket to the opera, subsidizing it as well as paying the artists.

Fishing thrives on the confluence of happenstance: feeding opportunities, tides, wind, weather, and the fisherman’s intuition -- just like a random deal of cards. Fishing is an exercise in what modern physicists call the “uncertainty principle.” Below is a continuation of a story about what it is like being on a charter fishing boat with Chesapeake skipper, Randy Dean.

How Many Fish Does it Take to Earn a Living, Part 2

First Published in Bay Weekly

The Big Kahuna

Our captain puts me in mind of the word kahuna.

Kahuna is a name given in the Eastern Pacific to powerful priests, doctors, sorcerers and navigators. They’re known for their ability to make things work, bringing advantage all around.

Here, Dean’s proper title is master, and his mastery is certified by the U.S. Coast Guard.

In waters like those of the Chesapeake, a captain’s license allows the skipper to take out a commercial boat with six passengers aboard, called a six pack. A master’s license allows for carrying an unlimited number of passengers up to the limit of the boat. On larger vessels, the master takes responsibility for overall administration of the vessel, while the captain is entrusted mostly to navigation and other sea-going operations.

Aboard Reel Attitude, Dean is the absolute authority. But he tempers his command, when safety permits, with democratic advice and consent.

“Do you think we should chum for rockfish here some more or troll for bluefish from here to Poplar Island?” he asks his mate, who is also a licensed captain.

But when the expedition nears a “close place” — as Mark Twain styles the dangers lurking in all waters — Dean always remains the master of his vessel. Then he bellows “Fish on!” or “Door latch at bottom!” or “Move back!”

A charter captain is also a businessman.
“Running a charter fishing boat isn’t only about loving to fish and working hard at it,” explains Dean. “That doesn’t guarantee you have a going business. One of the things you have to look at are the business realities, the numbers to get a picture of how you’re doing, what you need to be doing. Another thing is keeping the boat and its engine in shape at a cost you can afford.”

With his mind for making numbers add up, Dean has fashioned a financial model for Chesapeake Bay charter fishing businesses to help skippers to scrutinize how variables affect their bottom line. He’s also treasurer of the Captains’ Association at the Rod ’n’ Reel Marina, which provides services to its 27 charter fishermen and supports good works, including the annual Rod ’n’ Reel Captains Tournament and donations of fish to charitable organizations.

Dean’s an adopted son of the Chesapeake, but he’s a lifelong fisherman.

He grew up in Chamco, West Virginia, he tells us as he reels in a line. Some cagey fish has just eaten the bait around our hook.

Back there in Chamco in the mid-1980s, he traded soda-bottle deposits for fishing tackle and bait at the town’s general store for daily fishing on nearby Meadow River. “I found a way to support my growing fishing addiction,” he says.

Chamco is where Dean learned about that important, and often cantankerous, component of a charter fishing boat: the internal combustion engine. He learned from a top-notch auto mechanic, his father.

“I was the only one in the family willing to hold the flashlight for him when he fixed a car engine at night,” Dean says. “After a while, I realized I was learning a heck of a lot about mechanics just by holding that light and watching how things got fixed.”

We are lucky and do not need to test his mechanical abilities on this trip.

Catch of the Day
At noon, after six hours of morning fishing on the Chesapeake, we return to the Rod ’n’ Reel Harbor with a catch of 16 fish. A small crowd on shore awaits our arrival. Our fish are heaved onto a deck dolly, wheeled to the fish-cleaning table manned by attendants wearing long aprons and wielding sharp scaling knives. In a flash, rockfish, bluefish, croaker and spot are filleted, bagged, packed on ice.

Now there are more tall tales to tell. Captain Randy Dean smiles checking out the crowd “Everybody,” he says, “wants to see the catch of the day.”

Go Fishing

The Chesapeake Country charter fishing season ordinarily runs from mid-April through early December. Be advised that the later the season, the bigger the fish. Among Maryland’s 600-plus licensed captains, about 80 fish out of Anne Arundel County and 90 out of Calvert County. The captains typically organize themselves into associations.

The Maryland Charter Boat Association

Calvert County Charter Fishing Associations

Anne Arundel County Charter Fishing Associations

© 2009 Russ Barnes. All rights reserved -- writing and photos.

Friday, July 24, 2009

So Many Fish in the Sea

It’s summer. And if you live around water, you don’t have to travel the thousands of miles that the travel magazines say you need to go to find glamorous and fun places. And you don’t need to spend a lot of money to have a good time.

The travel industry is driven by travel agent commissions and corporate interests. That’s okay. But these interests want to make sure you see only their travel opportunities on your radar screen.

All sorts of treasures await you locally for your pleasure and adventure if you are willing to look around your local neighborhood.

Case in point. Chesapeake Beach, a funky, sometimes fish-smelling, salt-water, relaxing place, is only fifty miles by auto from where I live in Bethesda, Maryland near Washington, DC.

There are similar gems available locally all over the world. The point here is that anyone can find travel properties near home as good or better than anywhere else on the planet at a reasonable prices in personal time and treasure.

In this exemplary case, Chesapeake Beach is located right on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. It was developed by railroad magnate and travel industry promoter -- General William Jackson Palmer. He was also the developer of the Broadmoor Resort in Colorado Springs, CO at the foot of Pike’s Peak You will see the connection between trains and travel. Add other attractions to the sun, water, and crabcakes recipe. and you get: low-stakes gambling, live music on the dock's gazebo, and horse and car racing, organic farms and historic places nearby. Then you will see why many Washingtonians have traveled to Chesapeake Beach for more than a century.

Palmer made it easy to get there by building a train track from Washington to the Beach.

Recently, Gerald Donovan, former mayor of Chesapeake Beach, built Chesapeake Beach Resort and Spa as a complement to his restaurants and fishing marina. The resort has commanding views of the Chesapeake Bay, rooms with balconies, sand-in your-shoes informality, a full-service class spa, and reasonable prices.

Many couples get married there -- right on the dock

Donovan said to me, “The women tend to go the spa and the men go out with charter boats to fish for Rockfish. Although that’s a stereotype with exceptions.”

Donovan recommended that I “go to sea” with charter boat operator, Randy Dean. My adventure on board his boat is a “to be continued” in further posts. You will see the beginning of the adventure story below.


“How Many Fish does it take to earn a living?”

(First published in Bay Weekly)

It’s before six and we amateur fishermen are groggy, having just rolled out of bed. The air is cool. The warm blush of sunrise light reflects off the Bay.

There’s a drowsy bustle along the dock at Rod ’n’ Reel Marina at the mouth of Fishing Creek on Chesapeake Bay. The fishing boats are lined up in their berths just behind the Rod ’n’ Reel and Smokey Joe’s restaurants and adjacent to the new Chesapeake Beach Resort and Spa. Skippers and their mates load their vessels with ice chests and buckets of chum. They duck in and out of the tackle shop, along the dock and above the fish-cleaning table, for last-minute supplies.

Out beyond the several dozen charter fishing boats moored in this 120-slip marina, the channel markers flash red and green, indicating the route out of the harbor and into the Bay. Beyond the markers, gulls dive, early birds already fish. Small Chesapeake surf laps the shore and dock pilings.

Our early morning crew of seven fishermen, including two women, climbs aboard the 42-foot motor vessel Reel Attitude. In the forward cabin, the captain makes a radio check of the latest weather report while his mate for this fishing expedition is busy organizing the tackle.

The most groggy among us awaken when Captain Randy Dean, 43, delivers his safety briefing, reminding us that riding Chesapeake waters is no trivial adventure.

Dean backs Reel Attitude out of her berth, and we slip smoothly by landmarks as the she idles toward the channel markers. Silently the passengers acknowledge in glances to each other that there is something about going out to sea that puts a thrill in your gut.

Just past the markers, Dean opens the throttle and heads for our first fishing location, off Tilghman Island close to Knapps Narrows, which runs through the island and connects the Choptank River with the Bay. “Fish,” Dean says, “usually like this spot.”

As novice fishermen aboard Dean’s boat, we are coddled. Approaching the fishing field, the mate assigns us poles. He describes how to let our line out until its weight hits the bottom of the Bay, about 35 feet down. To lure fish to us, the mate tosses overboard — with a hint of macho flourish — chum, bits and pieces of ground clams and feeder fish. This apparently delicious repast draws large communities of unsuspecting fish to the banquet beneath our boat. This is a seasonal ruse many fishermen apply.

Free-drifting near Tilghman with chum now overboard, we let out our lines, kindly baited by the mate for the sake of the squeamish. Five minutes later, Dean shouts, “Fish on!” Marie-Louise’s pole dips with a tug from the deep. Suddenly, the butt of the rod digs into her belly. Her rod is bent in a semi-circle by the fighting fish. Minutes later, the mate helps her bring the fish over the railing. As the fish comes aboard, it dances wildly on the line and its tail smacks Marie-Louise along the neck.

Oooh,” she shrieks, ducking sideways from the beast, not wanting to make its acquantance quite yet. The 21-inch rockfish flops onto the deck. The first catch of the day is a nice one.

At the helm, Dean explains how fish think. “The fish like the same places we like,” he says. “If the weather’s good, the fish like it right out in the middle. If the weather’s a bit rough, they like to go alongside an island like Tilghman or Poplar where the water’s smoother.”

Pointing through a cabin window, he asks, “See those birds over there? That means there’s fish around.”

Technology supports the fisherman’s wisdom in his search to satisfy charter parties. Looking at the fathometer above his wheel showing the Bay floor and the fish lying beneath the boat, he says, “These fish are fed. So they’re all stickin’ to the bottom. When they come up to about here, close to the surface, they’re ready to feed.”

To be continued

© 2009 Russ Barnes. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Water, Desert, Thirst, and Betrayal

By (C) Russ Barnes; Photo by Russ Barnes

It’s mid-summer and dry. Below you will find a fragment of a piece I wrote while at Hickory Pass Ranch near Marble Falls, Texas, a 3500 acre ranch at about 1300 feet altitude. Water and dryness. For travels to the desert those are themes always in front of you and to be contemplated. What is your experience of thirst and quenching it with cool, real and metaphorical water? This little piece is part of a larger story. Sign up to follow the blog and you will see other pieces from the ranch and many other places, from me and from others. Any thoughts about water rights?

WATER: from “Alligator Stew”

Water is not taken for granted. It becomes precious. It fills you. Cow Creek often dries up during the summer months.

John Steinbeck observes in his book, Travels with Charley, that civilization and social activity thrive around places with abundant water. Steinbeck noted this while crossing the wide swatch of Texas in his van, Rocinante, with his dog, Charley. Intellectual ideas and spiritual experiences, he perceived, are more likely to flourish in the minimalism of dry places.

Joe, catching a sight of flowers in the brittle sedge, said, "It’s as dry as a popcorn fart out here, and it’s bloomin’. It’s so dry, the trees are lookin’ for dogs."


Meditating a bit on Steinbeck’s observation, my thoughts turned to the early desert fathers of Egypt came to mind as I roamed the range at Hickory Pass. One of those desert fathers pointed out, “The man who flees and lives in solitude is like a bunch of grapes ripened by the sun, but he who remains among men is like an unripe grape.” I’m way not that stringent. But the old father has a point.

The individual thrives in the desert, in dryness. Society breeds around water.

Karen is reported to have asked Joe, "Is Russ becoming a hermit?"


It was another father -- Jacqueline’s father, Jackson C. Mouton -- who decided on the site at the top of the hill for building the Hickory Pass Ranch house. At its altitude, there is no natural running water; so he drilled down to bring water up. Beneath the Hill Country and beyond, is a mighty, but delicate, underground river called the Edwards Aquifer. That underground source of water is fed by surface water filtered by the geological layers through which it seeps, and then that pure water is stored in the cool and running waters below.

The desert fathers applied prayer and contemplation to drill deep through their metaphoric desert to quench their thirst, to allay betrayal. Jacquelyn’s father used an oil drill. The object in both cases, it occurred to me, is not entirely dissimilar: to slake thirst.

When you drink from the tap or take a shower at Hickory Pass Ranch, the water is pure, particularly in comparison to the water supply of, say, Washington, DC At the highest point on the hill, near the guesthouses, sit three squat, round cement towers. These house a pump system, which fills a huge stainless steel cistern. Gravity then serves to provide the water pressure needed to service all three ranch buildings.


The desert? Lack of water. Betrayals surfaced in conversations between me and Joe. Betrayal is what leads one to the desert for resolution. Joe said, “I came here broke. He paused honestly. Well not completely. My bride came with me. More. Then the school found me. I felt like a duck falling on a pond.” “I understand,” I said to Joe.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Faraway Travel Is Your Story to Tell: A Challenge

Travel is used for many human purposes. On one hand, it provides psychic distraction, a romantic relief from our hum-drum, boring routines. Travel as distraction has a magical dimension. Travel can be used to escape, to transport oneself out of the drudgery of everyday life, work, and relationships. And this can be a good thing. But that’s not all there is to travel.

On the other hand, travel may be used for recreation. That is, it allows the traveler to re-create their own personhood. In this, the traveler departs from distraction and discovers something about him/her self.

Travel may be a spiritual trek, still fun, but different from the obligatory and routine escapes from dull routine. In fact, much travel literature reports a spiritual journey. Consider Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the pilgrimage of disparate seekers to the Saint’s grave, and the multitudinous stories they tell along the way. Or Dante’s travels through hell, purgatory and paradise. Or even Jonathan Swift’s fantastical Gulliver’s Travels.

When someone returns from a trip, that person becomes like a shaman or a priest, a bridge to another world which can heal or frighten. When it goes wrong, the report bores.

There are two ways to making an account of the journey. First, there is the report: a factual narrative of what happened, the facts of the trip accompanied by slide show or video showing the the person was actually there. That’s important. That they were actually there.

The other way, upon return, is to tell a story about the journey. A story, a tale, has enormous difference from a report. A story requires attention to the meaning of the journey and its transformative power. A report requires attendance upon facts. A report is the easier of the two. A story, in contrast, requires consciousness and an evolving spiritual life.

This blog is about story and travel. It is about journeying out to the “other” whether to some faraway land geographically or to some nether part of one’s own psyche. Actually, both fit together if one is to make up a story rather than merely to line up facts like dead rocks along the trail.

My intention is to tell stories every week. I hope they will delight, amuse, and instruct. I intend to do a few cliff hangers. That is, I will tell travel stories over time and say, “to be continued!”

And I want to make this blog an invitation to you: to share your comments about what I write. But also I ask you to contribute the blog’s lead story along with your photos or other artwork. Travel stories are a mutually encouraging dialogue, not a monologue. The stories are not, as in many reports, about ego. Stories transcend.

In closing this first attempt to define the content of this blog, I challenge its readers. Travel can be made easy by the commercial travel industry. Then no meaning is gained but only distraction. Real travel is tough, but rewarding. The root of the word, travel is “travail.” That doesn’t mean travel is not fun. But it does mean there is some self-work involved to get what’s the real story of the journey.

Look here for a travel story within a week. Let me know whether you are on board.

Russ Barnes