Photos by Jay Fleming
Becky-D’s old-school Chrysler 318 V-8 rumbles inside her 39-foot juniper-on-oak hull. Her owner, Capt. Ed Darwin, walks down to his dock on Mill Creek in Annapolis, Maryland. Capt. Jim Stickney, the mate, busies himself in the cockpit, setting out jigging rods. Photographer Jay Fleming readies his cameras. Charlie Bryan Jr. and Fred Brooks sit by the kerosene heater, munching doughnuts and talking with Capt. Tom Wagner, who lives next door.
It’s late November, and this is a trip for friends, though we might “market-fish” a couple of schoolie stripers to pay for the fuel.
Becky-D should make anyone’s short list of the finest charter boats on Chesapeake Bay. A wooden deadrise, she was built by Deltaville Boatyard in Virginia and is fishing her 52nd season. She cruises at 10 to 12 knots, depending on how clean her bottom is, and she is “trained,” according to Darwin, who at 88 is fishing his 60th season as a charter skipper. He has hosted all kinds of people, from high-ranking politicians to everyday citizens, some who have fished with him for all his years as a guide, since he fell in love with the Bay’s big water in the 1940s.
In a memoir he’s working on, Darwin writes: “To be able to wake every day for 60 fishing seasons and anticipate a new adventure is a blessing. … Without a doubt, the best part of running fishing trips are the fishermen and women who have fished with me.”
He settles into the helm chair as we idle out of Mill Creek, headed toward Annapolis. The small, colorful feather jigs that Stickney is setting out are ones that Darwin ties to imitate anchovies. These little “rain minnows” are the Chesapeake’s most abundant forage fish, and they are particularly important in late fall, when most of the menhaden have left to winter in the Atlantic but serious anglers remain.
Learning the Ropes
Darwin grew up in Baltimore during the Depression and World War II. Thrift was a major virtue, if not a necessity. Early on, he connected with Benny Tampico, a Russian immigrant who lived on his block and supplied bait to tackle shops in the area. Tampico taught Darwin to catch grass shrimp, the Chesapeake’s 1- to 2-inch indigenous shrimp that virtually every predator fish in the Bay loves. The men used a fine-mesh net that they pushed through lush underwater grass beds in the Rhode River, 10 miles south of Annapolis. It was difficult work, but Darwin learned plenty about the ways of grass shrimp and the other critters his net picked up, including soft-shell crabs. And he napped on the cooler in the bed of Tampico’s truck as they made the rounds to customers’ shops.
Darwin began fishing the Bay in 1949, riding a ferry to spend a half-day on an oyster boat whose captain took anglers to catch rockfish (stripers) and croakers during the warmer months. Darwin learned to troll with linen line, a short wire leader and a Japanese feather, a silver feathered jighead with red bead eyes. He drifted for croaker using a bottom rig with stout bamboo rods and “reels large enough to catch a blue marlin,” he recalls. “I was 18 years old, and I was hooked.”
After a stint in the Army, where he learned to fish for walleye in the western basin of Lake Erie, Darwin in 1957 married the love of his life, Becky Keckness, and began a career teaching electronics at Southern High School in Baltimore. It was, he says, “an ideal job for me. What other job would allow me to fish all summer?”
He’d fish the Bay Bridge area with Capt. Bill Gunther out of Gunther’s boatyard on Mill Creek, and by 1960, Darwin had gained enough knowledge and sea time to sit for a Coast Guard license. He purchased a used charter boat, which he tied up at Gunther’s, and began carrying charter parties. On days when he didn’t have charters, he and Becky market-fished.
Fifty-two years later, the property became Darwin’s Boatyard.
For the past 62 years, Darwin has focused on the foundations of the Bay Bridge, twin structures that he calls a “magnificent obstruction.” The spans connect the Chesapeake’s busy Western Shore, about 38 miles east of Washington, D.C., with the more rural Eastern Shore at a narrow spot in what is essentially the Susquehanna River. Depths range from 10 to 60 feet in the ship channel, and to 85 feet in the Susquehanna’s ancestral channel on the eastern side. Currents routinely run up to 2 knots.
Darwin says an earlier bridge’s pilings in the same spot attracted a variety of fish even before that bridge was completed in 1952. The newer three-lane bridge, finished in 1972, simply added more structure. By the mid-1960s, Darwin had gotten hold of a set of engineering drawings of that first bridge. Studying the drawings closely, the captain says he learned to think like a fish, focusing on the currents around each structure. As he began to understand how rockfish and other predators used the pilings to rest and ambush prey, he also began sharpening his ability to position Becky-D — “training her” — so baits and lures would fall precisely where the fish were lying, whether holding the boat in place under power, trolling, drifting or anchoring.
“The number of fish you catch is directly proportional to your ability to anchor your boat,” Darwin says. “Fish will feed and lie in wait next to obstructions. Most of the time, in order to catch these fish, the boat must be placed where the fish can see and eat the offering. One foot either side is not acceptable.”
He has chummed bridge pilings for years, first with grass shrimp and later with ground elwys (as menhaden are often called in Maryland). To position Becky-D, he figured out a way to set a pair of anchors as a bridle upcurrent of a piling, with a third line around the piling and enough line left over to adjust position as the current changed. The setup involved serious teamwork between the captain and mate, who for a number of years was Darwin’s son, Peter, until college, medical school and a career in gastroenterology intervened.
Over the years, Darwin developed an encyclopedic sense of the underwater terrain within an hour’s run of Becky-D’s slip, with fishing history stored in sharp memories and logbooks to set strategy for each day. His proximity to the Bay Bridge and various lumps in the vicinity minimize running and fuel expenses and maximize fishing time.
From his base on Mill Creek, Darwin also developed a network of local watermen, anglers and charter skippers who shared other areas around the bridge that held fish, especially the oyster reefs that were still relatively healthy through the 1960s and ’70s. With his background in electronics, Darwin learned to read the nuances of fish behavior and bottom composition from the flashing dial of the Raytheon sounder that came on the original Becky-D. The late Bill Pike, an Annapolis patent attorney, taught him to “take marks” — lining up intersecting range lines to locate his boat using fixed reference points like bridge pilings, the radio towers at the U.S. Naval Academy and the “old Nike missile site,” just above Sandy Point State Park. A skilled and methodical troller, Capt. Pike loved to “bounce bottom” with wire line and three-way rigs. He passed the fine points of the technique on to Darwin, including using the feel of a heavy sinker to analyze bottom composition, thereby complementing the tales the Raytheon told.
By the winter of 1967-68, Darwin had saved enough money from charters and market fishing to contract for a 39-foot boat, built to his specifications by Herman Weston in Deltaville, a boatbuilding center in the lower Bay. Powered by a 225-hp gas Chrysler V-8, Becky-D was launched in time for the 1968 season. Today, thanks to advances in surface preparation and resin chemistry, Becky-D is sheathed in fiberglass, but she is still the boat that emerged from Herman Weston’s side yard five decades ago.
While the boat was being built, Darwin worked evenings in the high school’s shop on a stainless steel fishbox/cooler/tackle station that’s the centerpiece of Becky-D’s cockpit. It is perhaps the most visible symbol of his make-it-yourself approach that has extended to his own home shop, where he builds rods, repairs hard-used reels, makes thousands of lures, ties his own landing nets and invents tools to make fishing easier, such as a de-hooker. He figured much of it out by reading library books; thrift, for men of his generation, is a hardwired reflex that blends well with a strong work ethic and ingenuity.
During the school year, Darwin taught electronics and mechanical drawing five days a week and fished on weekends; he fished six days a week in summer. For many of those years, he began and ended each day with an hourlong commute between his home in Baltimore and Becky-D on Mill Creek. When he retired and bought the boatyard, he built a house with a shop there. He and his son also took winter fishing vacations to the Bahamas, Florida, Mexico and Belize.
Over the years, Darwin has tinkered with an array of fishfinders, including long-forgotten brands such as Bendix and Ray Jefferson. As an electronics teacher, he’d tune and customize them and accumulate used models that he could break down for parts, sometimes keeping his own unit running long after the manufacturer had gone out of business.
Today, Becky-D has a 10-year-old Si-Tex LCD fishfinder, and Darwin enjoys tinkering with it, too, but the point of today’s exercise is fishing with friends for fun.
In search of more fish, he turns south toward the cargo ships anchored in the channel several miles off Annapolis, where they wait for slips in the Port of Baltimore. We pull up next to Woolloomooloo, a 738-foot bulk carrier. Finally, the fishfinder lights up, though the marks are small. Darwin moves to Becky-D’s cockpit tiller to ease us close.
Charlie Bryan hooks up first, and then we all do, but these are schoolies, 10 to 12 inches long, though hungry and feisty. The barbs on the feathered jigs are crimped, the water is cold (around 50 F), the fights are brief, and the mate uses a Darwin-designed de-hooker for quick releases.
The experience we’re having is one that Darwin has shared with numerous clients who became friends. Morris Morrell, a Baltimore businessman, fished with Darwin every Wednesday in season from 1964 until he died at age 92 in 2011. Darwin taught him and others active techniques, such as bumping bottom with three-way rigs and light-tackle jigging. He cultivated their taste for a variety of species. He attracted excellent mates who stayed with him for years. Most charter parties, especially those with Morris, set a modest pool each day, making friendly wagers on first fish, largest fish, most unusual and smallest. Food always included baked goods, and often crab cakes. There was laughter and joking.
Long an advocate of catch-and-release, Darwin has been at the forefront of developing good release tools and techniques for the Chesapeake. One of the highlights of his career is a 56½-inch cow striper full of roe (estimated at 80 pounds) that one of his regulars caught and released in early May 1992. Maryland Department of Naural Resources biologists had hired Darwin the day before to catch large, migratory stripers on their way up the Bay to spawn. They measured the fish caught, including a couple weighing more than 50 pounds, took scale samples and released them.
On this day, the party said they’d like to release any big fish they caught, too. Becky-D was trolling the Chesapeake’s channel south of the Bay Bridge, streaming six wire lines with inline sinkers and leaders tipped with Darwin’s favorite 8/0, 6-ounce Schoolteacher bucktails with split-tail, 5-inch pork rinds. The party had released a pair of 30-pounders when another rod went down hard. The man on the rod handled her skillfully. Darwin and his mate got her into a big, soft net (that Darwin had tied), measured her quickly on a wet deck, took a picture and gently returned her to the water unharmed.
While Darwin is proud of his status as a highliner, he is generous with his skill and knowledge, including with friends who are clients, former students who love to fish and other skippers who are part of his network. In particular, there’s Leo James, whose boatyard and waterman’s dock are across the creek from Darwin’s. James supplies Darwin with soft crabs for summer chumming at the bridge, as well as information from the watermen about what they are catching and where. Darwin’s willingness and ability to adapt has been a key to his enduring success.
He’s a student of the Chesapeake environment, sensing water quality in clues such as color and fish behavior. He’s thrifty with his gear, but he’s not afraid to invest in what’s important, like sensitive rods, good line and durable reels. His network keeps him tuned to advances in equipment and electronics. And due to his ingenuity and fish sense, he is often at the forefront of developing new techniques that fit changing conditions. His parties catch with consistency, even when conditions are tough, by trolling, chuming, jigging around pilings and in open water with light tackle, and bottom-fishing with cut bait.
Back among the ships, we find a small flock of brown pelicans circling, and Becky-D’s fishfinder lights up, with fish stacked 20 feet in 42 feet of water. The feather jigs work their magic on 12- to 19-inchers, and three keepers come aboard.
Bryan has the hot hand. Tom Wagner catches a 16-inch hickory shad, but then the action dies. “C’mon, pelicans, find ’em again,” Darwin calls. We spy another flock, and he throttles up. “I’m not going too fast for you, am I?” he says, eliciting hoots and laughs. A couple more keepers are caught, along with fish as small as 8 inches. Darwin and Stickney move back and forth at the cockpit helm, filling in for each other instinctively.
When Darwin retired from teaching, he began carving wood, something he always wanted to try. At a friend’s suggestion, he called Bryan, a retired machinist from Middle River who was one of the Upper Bay’s premier waterfowl decoy carvers. Bryan was also an angler, and he became a regular aboard Becky-D. Darwin learned to carve and paint decorative decoys, including waterfowl and local birds, along with gamefish chasing prey. Today, his house is a veritable museum, and though he carves for fun, paying collectors are always calling.
Bryan spots fish breaking the surface, and the sonar shows them stacked bottom-to-top. We take a couple more keepers before noon, when the wind rises out of the northwest. We’re about five miles southeast of Mill Creek, and it’s time for sandwiches and more doughnuts. Darwin turns for home.
His kind of fishing is local, approachable, affordable and yet still artful. It has its thrilling moments, with satisfying experiences. Darwin’s blend of old-school and modern techniques allows clients to see the Chesapeake through his eyes and the perspective of 60 years of fishing.
“There’s a nonstop smile on my face as I recall the past,” he says. “I hope that I’ve been able to illustrate the passion, enjoyment and pleasure that endures, and that you’ve enjoyed being along for the ride.”