Situated in the center of the Mid-Atlantic Coastal Plane is the longest and certainly the largest riverine estuary in America. Prehistorically, the mighty Susquehanna River carved its way southward all the way from the PA-NY border to the Atlantic Ocean. In its journey, the river eroded mountains and hills, while gaining the flow of about twenty other rivers and forming an inland sea. Today we call this watery creation the Chesapeake Bay. Fishermen call it “heaven.” Striped bass (aka, rockfish) call it home.
The ad in the Pittsburgh Press was irresistible: “Southern Hospitality, Shore Dinners, Shoals of Rockfish; The Elms, Tilghman Island, Maryland.” Irresistible that is, to my dad Pete, and his two fishing friends Jim and Ralph. So that August Friday, Dad packed his gear, including his 16-year-old son Ronny, picked up his two buddies and turned his Oldsmobile eastbound on the PA Pike for the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
Leona Harrison, owner and operator of the Elms Fishing Resort, greeted us with a smile as big as the Chesapeake Bay. She showed us to our rooms and told us that Friday’s dinner would be served at 7 p.m. And what a dinner it was! Crab bisque soup, cherry-stone clams on a half shell, baked rockfish, strawberry pie ala mode. I still remember Miss Leona’s words that evening: “Eat up, boys, for you’ll need all your strength to fight all those rockfish tomorrow.” Right there and then, the Chesapeake Bay stole my boyish heart for good.
Saturday dawned clear and calm, as Capt. Buddy Harrison glided his 36’ bay boat through Knapps Narrows and into the Bay. The trolling rods were dressed smartly with shimmering silver spoons. In a matter of minutes one rod danced and then another before bowing to the hilt with hefty rockfish. We hauled fish for an hour or two before they scattered to safety. Capt. Buddy then pointed out a dark cloud in the distance, quickly gunning the Detroit diesel to full throttle. He explained that the “cloud” was an immense flock of gulls diving on a school of bait, small alewives, which were driven to the surface by rockfish.
After several hours of chasing and catching the hungry fish all over the Bay, we informed the captain that all four of us had come down with “Rockish Elbow” and had enough. Buddy just smiled knowingly and turned the bow east and headed home. It was a day on the water that we will never forget! After a quick shower and another glorious dinner with all the fixings, we headed for the bunkroom as tired and happy as the proverbial clam.
Sunday morning we forced ourselves awake, packed up our belongings for the long drive home, and made our way downstairs to say “goodbye” to Miss Lona. She asked us if we might stay for breakfast in the dining hall. Dad thought it a good idea and said “yes” for himself and son Ronny. But Jim and Ralph demurred, being of the parsimonious spirit, and asked simply for a free cup of joe.
They sat beside me and Dad sat across the table, as the wait staff began to serve us. Bacon and eggs, Virginia ham, home fries, pancakes and syrup, coffee, tea, and homemade muffins – all came across the table. I noticed Jim starring lovingly at my bacon/eggs platter, while Ralph was fixated on the ham and home fries. I soldiered on pretending not to notice. Finally, we all rose from the table, thanked the Good Lord for this feast of a breakfast and headed for the door to pay the breakfast tab. Miss Leona thanked us for coming and called out in her unforgettable alto voice: “Boys, breakfast is on the house.”
Well now, Ralph got dizzy and swooned into the closest chair, while Jim turned pale and kept babbling to himself words that sounded like: “free, all free food…” Leona quickly called the waiters for help who slowly got the two gents back into some semblance of sanity, and packed them into the back seat of Dad’s Oldsmobile. With a wave and all-knowing wink, Miss Leona bid us a safe trip home to Pittsburgh.
The final stop on the Island was the Harrison Icehouse to pick up our iced and boxed fish. When we told the head iceman Johnny that we aimed to collect our catch, he looked puzzled. He said that four fellows from Pittsburgh came an hour ago and he must have given them our fish as well as their own. With more shock than awe, Dad quickly dialed up Leona and reported our fishless story. She asked to speak to iceman Johnny and gave him some instructions that the whole Island could hear! The now-red-faced Iceman apologized profusely and ordered his helpers to fill out trunk with a bushel of freshly caught blue claw crabs and another of clams. We all shook hands, turned onto the hard road and headed west.
Jim and Ralph sat in the back, scouring the landscape for a diner to satiate their growling bellies. But Dad smiled behind the wheel, and lit up his first El Producto of the day, happily contemplating the Sunday night crab and clam feast awaiting us some 400 hundred miles away.