by Marty LeGrandphoto by Chris Witzgall
So, a boat full of blondes goes fishing . . .
No, really, we did. This isn’t another clichéd joke at the expense of womanhood’s most oppressed tresses (e.g. Blondes, steelhead fishing with magnets). I’m referring to Legally Blonde, on which three of us joined 139 other boats last spring in Annapolis for Boatyard Bar & Grill’s 16th annual spring rockfish tournament.
Meteorologists tell us spring begins March 1. Astronomers swear by the vernal equinox (March 20 or thereabouts). But rockfish anglers know winter ends precisely at 5 a.m. on the third Saturday in April. That’s when Maryland opens its brief trophy rockfish season and everyone hits the water.
“We always say there’s no honey-do list on opening day,” says Boatyard owner Dick Franyo, who started the charity tournament in 2002 and whose fishing- and sailing-centric establishment in Eastport hosts a legendary awards party. Opening day may be a hubby holiday, but it’s also an escape for women anglers.
I’m not a true blonde, merely a faded redhead. (And “Marty” is short for Martha, just to set the chromosomal record straight.) But Kimberly (Kim) Madigan and Maria Flynn, lifelong anglers (and blondes), kindly accepted my strawberry blondishness as well as my lesser angling prowess. They welcomed me to join them for a day of striper chasing, blonde bonding and after-partying as only Eastport knows how.
For more than 10 hours on a raw, blustery and then unexpectedly balmy day, I got my first taste of the fishing frenzy that is opening day. From Kim and Maria, I learned the finer points of everything from layering thermal wear for fickle weather, to deploying planer boards in a wicked chop. And, when the bite failed us, I took part in Legally Blonde ritual sacrifices involving fried chicken and incendiary cinnamon whisky. The fish were unimpressed.
We didn’t catch a winning striper—or one worthy of measurement—but that’s not necessarily the point of opening day. Our mission was to honor an angling rite of passage, try our darnedest to get lucky at hooking a big fish and afterwards swap beer-embellished tales about why we did or didn’t. Picture spring break in Daytona Beach, only with fishing boats and colder weather. That’s the essence of opening day.
With instructions to meet by 5 a.m. at Legally Blonde’s slip at Eastport Yacht Club, I set my alarm for 3:30 and turn in for an early night. At 10:24, Kim sends me the first of three texts: “Take half of a non-drowsy Dramamine pill if u have.”
I don’t, as I’m not prone to mal de mer, but it’s a sensible precaution given that small craft warnings are forecast. Note to self: Visit 24-hour CVS tomorrow morning.
“One half of a pill tonight . . . none in am,” she clarifies moments later. Forget CVS.
Then at 11:24: “Sorry to text so late, we’re going to meet at 5:30 due to last min changes in conditions . . . GoodNight!”
When I arrive the next morning, the yacht club docks are chilly and deserted. A thin fog halos the streetlights. Kim is already there, however, unloading gear from her SUV in the dark. (She told me later she was so excited she never went to bed.) She removes about a dozen rigged and numbered trolling rods. We continue to unburden the SUV of spare rods and lures, boxes of tools and tackle, personal coolers and tote bags filled with snacks. Somewhere between the emergence of a pair of yellow planer boards and a landing net, Maria pulls up.
A real estate attorney, Maria owns Legally Blonde, a 22-foot Sailfish center console. Kim, a yacht loan specialist, directs their fishing operations. They met in an Annapolis tackle store four or five years ago while Maria was looking for a captain. She found a man who would do the job for $700 a pop, but Kim made a more persuasive offer. “I’m not going to charge anything,” she told Maria. “I’m just happy to be out there.” They’ve fished together ever since, joined periodically by other blondes.
Kim is the taller of the two; the flaxen-haired Maria is the blonder. Both have fishing in their DNA. The granddaughter of a waterman, Kim got her first fishing rod at age six from her dad. And as a kid, Maria was so protective of the lures her father gave her she wrote her name on them with permanent markers.
They take blondeness almost as seriously as fishing. They’ve designed Legally Blonde Fishing Team jackets (black with a gold script) and “Blondes have more fin” T-shirts. Kim presents me with one of each before we start loading the boat. The jacket makes a welcome addition to my multi-layered ensemble, as does the Helly Hansen outerwear that sister anglers have generously loaned us.
A mostly clouded sunrise slowly emerges, glowing brightly enough to burnish the dome of the Naval Academy chapel across the harbor. We’ll begin fishing at Thomas Point, about a 20-minute run, Kim says. Our gear stowed, Maria fires up Legally Blonde’s Yamaha 200 and we bound down the Severn toward the wind-furrowed Bay.
The Chesapeake is the primary Atlantic coast spawning area for striped bass, which require fresh water to spawn. As winter melts into spring, adult fish—fertile females and their frisky consorts—flock to their natal waters to replenish the species before returning to the sea. Maryland lets cabin feverish anglers get a shot at keeping a large trophy rockfish of 35-inch or larger limited to one per angler per day when the spring season begins the third Saturday of April.
That explains the excitement permeating opening day, a spirit Franyo distills in his lifestyle tournament. “Opening day is part of the zeitgeist of the Boatyard,” he says. “It’s a natural thing.”
In keeping with his conservation philosophy and Maryland rules, it’s a catch-and-release competition. Maryland prohibits catch and kill striped bass tournaments prior to May 1. In fact, the Boatyard Tournament was the first to develop an effective method for judging a photo-judged catch-and-release tournament on the Bay, which was readily approved by the Maryland DNR in 2005. Boatyard anglers submit photographs of their catch (see “Judging” previous page). All photo-entered fish must be released alive to swim away on their primordial journey.
The pre-season was off to a slow start, but catch-and-release anglers reported some luck trolling deeper channels to the south. Kim caught a 46-inch fish in 55 feet off Bloody Point the previous weekend, and Internet fishing reports posited improvements by opening day. “With warmer water temps, you’ll start to find bigger fish in the middle to the top of the water column,” forecast Anglers Sports Center, the tournament’s presenting sponsor.
Maria throttles down as we approach Thomas Point Shoal Light. We have an hour to go before high tide and 11 lines to deploy. Kim and Maria consult their “dead sea scroll,” a paper detailing Legally Blonde’s trolling configuration. We get to work.
Maria retrieves our rods, outfitted with an assortment of parachute, umbrella and tandem rigs. Once the planer boards are deployed,
I help Kim as she places the rooftop rods and attaches our lines to the planers using carabiners with release clips. She does the hard part, clambering onto the gunwales and stretching to place each rod in its designated rocket launcher. I slacken the lines while she inserts them into the clips, gently releasing my hold only after the line is secured. Occasionally, a carabiner escapes and skitters out of reach toward the tethered planers. Kim just grabs another and we begin again.
All around us, the horizon is peppered with bobbing boats performing the same routines. As we troll, Maria keeps an eye on the fishfinder while giving a wide berth to other boats’ planers, which aren’t easy to spot in this chop. I huddle under the T-top for warmth. Our radio chatters with skipper talk, but few accounts of success. Occasionally, the banter turns chauvinistic. When a female voice reports a bite at 30 feet, a male’s chides (or teases?), “I’m surprised you know how to work the radio.” She replies to the trash talk in kind.
The tide turns without a nibble, so Maria breaks out the boat’s traditional good-luck meal: Royal Farms fried chicken. We munch on thighs and wings, tossing the bones into the wake. The gods are further appeased with the contents of a tiny bottle of spicy cinnamon whisky and crumbs from a batch of blondies I baked.
A more poignant ritual honors the woman whose name is embroidered on our jacket sleeves. Pieternella “Petra” Simone Bommelje was Kim’s friend, neighbor and longtime fishing companion. Since her death at age 38, Legally Blonde’s crew carries some of her ashes with them whenever they fish. Petra’s twin, Monique, often joins Legally Blonde in August for Ocean City’s offshore Poor Girls Open.
The afternoon wears on. Reports of catches are sparse, although one boat boasts a 41-incher in the cooler. Kim and Maria decide to gamble. We’ll head south to the mouth of West River. The move carries a risk; we may not be able to return to Eastport by the measure-in deadline.
Preparing to get underway, Kim reels in the dredge rig. With it comes Legally Blonde’s incidental/only fish, too small to warrant retrieving the tournament ruler. But another of the rig’s lures is missing a chunk of its nether regions. Tally one that got away. “We’ve forgotten our yardstick before,” Kim confides. “We had to borrow one from a boys’ boat.” (They’ve caught fish as large as 46 inches in the tournament.)
Maria lets me drive for a while, with instructions to keep Legally Blonde pointed toward a giant freighter looming on the horizon. Gusts up to 21 mph have whipped up white caps, but, surprisingly, the sun has emerged. Off come several layers of our clothing plus Kim’s red rain boots, in favor of flip-flops.
We spend another unfruitful hour trolling before reluctantly hauling in the lines and heading back. I sense this capitulation is gnawing at Kim’s and Maria’s fishing souls. By the time Legally Blonde finally eases into her slip, the post-party is well underway.
After varying degrees of freshening up at Maria’s place, we walk to the festivities. A boisterous block party greets us at the corner of Fourth Street and Severn Avenue. Partygoers—anglers and non-anglers—cascade down the restaurant steps and swirl shoulder to shoulder on the fenced parking lot, clutching plastic cups filled with beer or rum drinks, talking and listening to a live rock band. The decibel level hovers between raucous fun and I-can’t-possibly-hear-my-cell-phone. In the backyard, meanwhile, celebrants help themselves to trays heaped with barbecue, chicken, burgers and sides.
The winning anglers are announced. Jimmy Moreland captures first place with a 44-inch fish and Tracy Dirks wins the women’s division with a 43.25-incher. Moreland gets to join the tournament’s celebrated ceiling of champions: hand-painted, striper-shaped wooden plaques suspended from the Boatyard’s rafters. But the ultimate winners are the event’s financial beneficiaries: the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Coastal Conservation Association Maryland and the Annapolis Police Department’s Youth Fishing Camp.
As we laugh, drink and swap stories, darkness shrouds the Maritime Republic of Eastport. Franyo and his neighborhood peacekeepers fold up their tents and tables for another year, and this weary blonde-for-a-day bids farewell to her bona fide angling boatmates.
CBM contributing writer and history buff Marty LeGrand has been covering boating and environmental issues since 1996.