The Gravy

I am not a morning person. And I’d spent most of the night listening to the wind smack the old house like a cat swatting a mouse. The day before, Thanksgiving, had been warm enough to walk along the beach off Smith Point in T-shirts and jeans. Then the pendulum swung, and a great atmospheric balance was achieved with a 40-degree temperature drop and a wind howling in from Canada. The Bay would be pitching a fit. And we—my brothers, husband and some friends—were going rockfishing with Captain Danny Crabbe.

“It’s an adventure,” I said, trying to pull my foulie pants on over three layers and finally giving up. “So is a car wreck,” said my brother Josh.

Captain Crabbe came just after sunup, sidling his Kit II alongside the dock in front of the house. There was ice on the deck and it was still blowing half a gale. But a brilliant sun was pouring down the river and a bald eagle glided past on the streaming rays.

Kit II cleared the jetties at the mouth of the Little Wicomico and began a downwind, down-wave sleigh ride to what’s known as the Northern Neck Bar, an artificial reef in the middle of the Bay. We hung on under the cabin top, hunkered into our Polartec, while Crabbe’s young mate, Bill, began rigging rods in the cockpit. He wore a quilted flannel shirt and a grey sweatshirt tucked into orange rubber bib pants. A baseball cap and the sweatshirt’s hood were his only concessions to the frigid wind; his collar was wide open and he quietly gutted baitfish and speared the dripping goo onto the hooks with ungloved hands. We were all talking about the cold and the wind, which was probably blowing 30. Bill looked up after a particularly vigorous gust. “Yea-uh,” he drawled, wonderfully unimpressed. “They-ah’s a bit of a-yuh out he-yuh.”

By many accounts it had been an odd autumn of rockfishing. Crabbe told us the Bay seemed full of 20-inchers—“and that’s good news for the future of the Bay”—but few people were catching big, trophy-sized fish. Bill hooked our first 20-incher and handed me the rod to reel it in. I felt shy about it, being such a newbie and wearing so much fleece. At least I didn’t lose the fish. Bill baited me up again with those deft, indestructible hands, and we fished on.

“You catchin’ anything, Jimmy?” someone called over the VHF. “Catchin’ a cold,” answered Jimmy, wherever he was. My husband Johnny asked Captain Crabbe if he ever admits on the radio to catching anything. “Nope, I never do,” he said. He allowed a sly smile. “Caught some yesterday.”

As the day progressed the wind started to let up, and the warm palm of the sun cupped our faces. The torn, late-autumn water glinted like mica, and the sky was that deep oceanic blue you never see in summer. I watched the gannets, whose long narrow wings made me restless for their privilege of distance and effortless flight.

We didn’t catch much. The captain felt badly. I told him not to worry about it. A trophy rock would’ve been great. But fish? That’s just the gravy.