DAMERON, Maryland — Think of it as a combination of “The Big Chill” meets “The Deadliest Catch.”
Although separated by miles spread across four Pennsylvania counties, getting together at least once a year to get caught up on what is new in their lives, do some grilling, share some cigars and relax in the evening with an amber elixir of choice has become a rite of passage for these friends. And while some members of the core group have come and gone over the years, new additions have always been welcome.
Indeed, no matter where these gathers occurred, life was good. Several years ago, however, they realized it could be even better.
All of them enjoyed fishing, be it for trout on Fishing Creek, bass in the Susquehanna River, steelhead on Lake Ontario or rockfish on the Chesapeake Bay. Of those choices, the one that allowed them to combine their weekend reunion with a fishing adventure was a rockfish trip with Capt. Phil Langley of Fish The Bay Charters in St. Mary’s County, Maryland.
Langley grew up fishing the bay, eventually developing a family operated charter service for fishing, waterfowl hunting and bowhunting for stingray. An annual exhibitor at the Great American Outdoor Show in Harrisburg, last February the friends decided to book a fall weekend with the express purpose of targeting larger rockfish — as striped bass are called in Maryland — that would be migrating south from New England to the Carolina shores.
From mid-April through December rockfish are the most-targeted fish species in the Chesapeake, with creel and size limits varying for the various seasons. In the fall anglers are permitted two rockfish with a minimum length of 19 inches, but one of them can be longer than 25 inches.
When hooking a larger rockfish in the fall on light tackle they put up as challenging of a battle as a 35 or 40-inch rockfish does on heavy tackle in the spring. And with several members of the group having previously fished with Langley, they knew he knew where to find the fish.
Fishing charter prices are based on six anglers, but are adjusted for additional members, as was done for the eight anglers last November that fished aboard the Chesapeake Charm, a 40-foot fiberglass boat approved by the U.S. Coast Guard for a maximum of 22 passengers. In addition, Langley books larger charter groups and sightseeing trips aboard the 48-foot Lisa S, which is approved by the Coast Guard to carry a maximum of 48 passengers.
While recognized for having one of the premier fishing charters on Maryland’s Western Shore, what sets Langley’s operation apart from others is he gives clients the option of staying onsite within two minutes of the dock. In addition to a fishing charter, he can package a 2-4 day stay at his shore-side three bedroom, fully furnished — yes, there are flat-screen TVs for watching football and grills for home cooking — ranch-style rambler.
There is a private dock for those who want to do some paddling or fishing from their kayak or canoe, and a large porch off the kitchen to relax. Mike Ulicny from Hegins and some friends took advantage of a sun-drenched afternoon to relax with cigars on the dock, and Frank Mahoney of Orwigsburg mixed his secret recipe for hamburgers and grilled them along with some oysters Langley donated after a day of fishing.
Located south of Dameron, with one of its many seafood restaurants being a must-stop, Langley’s docks are located near the middle of the Chesapeake, six miles from the Potomac River and 15 miles from Virginia waters. Shortly after getting underway the historic North Point Lookout, located at the southern-most tip of Maryland, comes into view.
“We’ll start live-lining by hooking the bait fish in the dorsal fin to keep them active, and the rockfish will scale the baitfish and then swallow them,” Langley said as his mate Joe Martin began setting rods over the fishing grounds 20 minutes from the dock. “There are times these fish will act “spooky,” but with these circle hooks the rockfish will catch themselves if they have time to run with the bait.”
Rockfish can usually be found over structure created by rock piles created when sailing ships coming into the bay dropped their ballast stones. Anglers keep the bale of their spinning reels open so they can feel the bait when taken by a rockfish, so there is no need to set the hook, but simply close the bait after the fish has run 6-8 feet.
Both live-lining and jigging are effective techniques for catching late-season rockfish, but on this day the action was too slow for Langley’s taste. He takes pride in his clients catching fish, so he was determined they would all catch their two-fish limit of rockfish.
“I’m sure that sooner or later we will get a limit, but I think it will be more productive trolling umbrella rigs,” Langley said after just five keepers out of 16 fish were caught in the first hour. “I do like to catch my fish, and I think that’s what we’ll do by making this switch.”
Indeed, less than two hours later a limit of 16 “keeper” rockfish and one “boat fish,” which was grilled that evening with the burgers and oysters, had been caught. In all, 48 rockfish had been caught — of which 32 had been released — and five more were caught — including three that were legal — were caught while clearing the lines.
As for this year’s unofficial reunion by the group of Pennsylvania anglers, the only thing uncertain is what time of year they will “Fish The Bay” with Capt. Phil Langley.
Information about fishing charters on the Chesapeake Bay with Capt. Phil Langley is available by visiting the Fish The Bay Charters booth in the fishing hall of the Great American Outdoor Show, Saturday-Sunday, Feb. 2-10, at the Pennsylvania State Farm Show Complex, Harrisburg; accessing the website at www.fishthebay.net; emailing Langley@aol.com or calling (301) 904-0935 or (301) 872-4041.
(Dietz is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association)