Catching up with Maryland’s chief medical examiner
If the opportunity exists to catch a fish, Dr. Pamela Southall will find it. “I travel with my rods and tackle boxes and will stop and fish anywhere I see a body of water—anywhere!”
In addition to being an avid angler, Southall is also the interim Chief Medical Examiner for the State of Maryland, charged with investigating suspicious and unexplained deaths in the state.
“I originally planned to become an orthopedic surgeon,” she says, “but was unable to follow a traditional path to medical school.” Instead, she turned to a field that had always interested her, inspired by the TV show Quincy, M.E. (In the seven-year series, actor Jack Klugman starred in the role of a Los Angeles medical examiner.) This new path led Dr. Southall to enter medical school at Howard University College of Medicine at age 34, and eventually become a proud graduate.
Southall had a television turn of her own. When The Wire, HBO’s Baltimore-based series came to town, some of the series’ scenes were shot at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. With it came an opportunity to appear in a TV show described by its fans as the best ever made. “I had the privilege to meet and work with some of the awesome cast members. The experience was phenomenal and helped me appreciate what actors go through to make that screen magic.” From childhood swimming lessons in Kansas City and teenage years spent in Virginia Beach to boat and jet ski ownership as an adult, Southall has always loved the water. A coworker taught her to fish but her total embrace of the sport was cut short when her knee blew out, the indirect result of a long-ago championship basketball game and the patella tendon injury she suffered at age 13.
The injury didn’t heal well and became a decades-long chronic issue. One day, in the words of her surgeon,“it just exploded.” In 2007 Southall underwent surgery. During a difficult rehabilitation, she spent time at Piney Narrows Marina on Kent Island where she had privileges as part of a boat-sharing arrangement. “As I struggled through rehab I decided to go to the pier one night just to get my mind off of things. It brought me such peace that I went out the next night and the next. Fishing took my mind off the discomfort because it forced me to balance, stand, and bend while doing something I enjoyed. And I was determined to regain my mobility. To this day I credit fishing with helping me get back on my feet, and I thank God for it!”
More than an occasional hobby, fishing plays a major role in Southall’s life. Her past, present, and future trips could be considered the angler’s version of “I’ve Been Everywhere” by Johnny Cash. Locally she’s fished the Chesapeake Bay, the Potomac River, Point Lookout State Park in St. Mary’s County, and Wilson Point Park in Middle River. On the Eastern Shore, her list of favorites includes Dorchester County’s Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (the Everglades of the North) and Kent Narrows near Piney Point Marina. She loves Bimini in the Bahamas because it’s small, beautiful, and dedicated to fishing. Her absolute favorite is North Carolina’s Outer Banks, in part because it offers great fishing, it’s relaxing, and it’s not overrun by condos. After a look at Southall’s wish list, it’s a given that the number of favored locations will only increase.
As far as Southall is concerned, if the fish are running, weather (including cold and rain) is no object. “I have gear for those conditions,” she says. “And sometimes it’s nice just to hear the patter of the rain.” Ironically, Southall battles seasickness. “But I do not let that stop me,” she insists. “Dramamine and Scopolamine are my friends. I’ve been on rough, treacherous seas where no one could keep their footing, but even that experience has its own beauty. As the saying goes, a bad day fishing beats a good day working.”
Like any serious angler with an abundance of locations and resources to explore, Southall relies on research, observation, and conversation for leads. She discovered Baltimore’s popular Tochterman’s Fishing Tackle by Googling “bait shops near me.”
“They’re a small, one-stop shop,” she says, “but they’re loaded with equipment and the staff is amazing. I go there instead of some of the larger shops.” Dedicated events like the Fishing Expo & Boat Show held at the Maryland State Fairgrounds are a good source of information for anglers. When she travels, local bait shops are vital sources. “They know what fish are biting, are helpful and correct 99 percent of the time.”
Shared information among fellow anglers is invaluable. “I always end up talking to someone at the pier because we’re all out here for the same reason. And that’s to catch fish.” She also watches a lot of fishing shows. “They’re a great source of charter information”, especially those that feature locations in Virginia and North Carolina. BigWater Adventures with Captain Mark Davis is a favorite, as is The Obsession of Carter Andrews, which she describes as beautiful in style and presentation.
Locally, Southall practices catch and release, dulling the barbs on her hook to minimize damage to the fish, though she does keep her catch on charter trips. “I’m not fond of killing things. But I’m a firm believer that if you catch it, you’d better eat it or give it to someone who will.” One Lake Meade outing, however, made that impossible. “It was just me and the captain and we were on fish all day. I caught so many I stopped and released everything after 30.”
For Southall, the nibble of the fish on her line never gets old. Still, she enjoys the fight. “I’ve gone offshore, done tuna and sailfish in the Outer Banks, and sat in that fighting chair.” Deatra (Dee) Lopez, a retired Lockheed Martin systems engineer and longtime fishing friend, describes watching Southall in action on a once-in-a-lifetime experience. “Pam took me on a fishing trip that I now refer to as my epic 55th-birthday celebration. On that trip, we caught more than 50 mahi mahi and I watched her bring a sailfish to the boat. It was the most awesome fishing day of my life.”
Dr. Southall is on track to retire in 2023. “Fishing will play an important role in my retirement plans. You don’t see many African Americans collectively, but I know that we do fish.” She’d love to join the Ebony Anglers, the North Carolina fishing team made up of African American women. Or start one on her own.
“I want to fish around the country and around the world,” she says. “Fishing brings the bonus of the beauty and serenity of being on or near the water. Whether it’s a trickling brook, the quietness of a pond, the flow of a river, or the spray and sounds of the surf, the beauty of water and land together never gets old. I can only describe it as greatness.”