By Capt. Larry Jarboe
A decade prior to the tragic sinking of the El Toro in the cold waters of the Chesapeake Bay in December of 1993, I spent many summer days fishing with previous owner Capt. Norman Bishop on that same vessel. Those were the days when the bluefish were abundant enough to be chummed in for the party boat customers to make good catches for a reasonable per-head price.
Though I paid like any customer, I was happy to provide fishing tips for novices.
At the end of each trip, I collected the left over alewives that I later ground for chum and froze to use on the next trip.
The frozen block of chum thawing out in a mesh bag hung in the water made a consistent slick with the freshly ground chum that the mate was tasked with ladling overboard.
When I got my own boat, I had a good supply of good fishing locations across the Bay thanks to a good relationship with the captain and crew.
At the same time, I was playing bass guitar in a five piece country and rock band in Colonial Beach, Virginia. Ralph Long, the left handed lead guitar player, was also my fishing buddy who was showing me the ropes on the Potomac River. In addition to all this, I worked from daybreak to 5:00 P.M. at our family sawmill. Ralph was a real go-getter. Every morning, he drove his girlfriend to work. Later, he’d go get her.
Though it may be a lot of week-end fun, playing in a five piece band does not involve making much money.
Ralph figured a trio made up of lead guitar, bass, and drums would be a far more profitable venture. We needed to work Tony the Drummer into our act as he was the only one of the three of us who could sing reasonably well.
Unfortunately, Tony had a strange timing quirk. During the vocal portion of a song, Tony thumped at one tempo. When the lead break occurred, he always sped up, way too fast. Poor Ralph just could not make his fingers move that quick.
Since the working, fishing, music making portions of our lives left little time for practice sessions, Ralph and I came up with a plan to work out our sets and teach Tony consistent timing. We recorded our bass and guitar parts with a metronome on cassette tapes (remember them) and wired a sound system inside the cabin of the 25’ KenKraft that was to become our floating concert stage.
Tony was not too keen on fishing, but we convinced him to come on board, bring his sticks and keep time on the engine box as we would play through the cassettes and take turns singing along. Tony was to sing every other song. Ralph and I should alternate fronting the other half of the set list with Ralph growling out the gruff stuff and I would sing the instrumental songs like “Tequila” or “Wipeout”. I still remember every word. Both of them.
We kept the boat on a trailer down at Buzzy’s Marina to have a quick shot across the Bay. Tony and Ralph met me at the mill in Charlotte Hall at five o’clock on a Monday evening in July. We all jumped into my ‘74 one ton Ford pick-up truck and made the hour long run south to Ridge. It took a half hour to hitch up the boat, pick up a bucket of chum and alewives, and launch the boat. By 7:30 P.M., we were anchored at the Middle Grounds in the Chesapeake.
Ralph flipped on the cassette player in the cabin. Tall lanky Tony started drumming on the engine box. I tossed my mesh bag holding a frozen block of chum overboard. Ralph and I baited up and threw our lines out while I flipped fresh chum from the five gallon bucket. Tony sang a song, then Ralph, back to Tony, then my word or two, and back to Tony.
Most sane fishermen would figure that there is no way we could catch a fish with all that cacophony taking place. Though their ears cannot be seen externally, fish have internal ear bones in their skull which hear amplified vibrations from their air bladder. Also, fish have a lateral line along their side that picks up vibrations in the water. During my years running party boat snapper night fishing trips in the Keys, I discovered that the hum of a genset produced more fish than running the night lights from the battery bank. Mixing a steady sound with an abundant flowing food source is actually a recipe for some very good fish catches if applied properly.
So, we played, sang, and fished our way through three hours of cassette tapes. When we pulled anchor at 10:30 that night, we had a 150 quart cooler made by Sailing Specialties Inc. half full of bluefish under the light of a nearly full moon.
By 1:30 P.M. Tuesday morning, we had made it back to our respective homes and beds.
The next afternoon, we were ready to do it again. Same routine: leave the mill at 5:00 P.M.
That evening, the fishing was even better. We discovered that sea trout beneath the bluefish could be caught by adding a one ounce sliding egg sinker and monofilament leader to the flat line rig. By the end of our three hour jam session, we had filled that coffin sized cooler with mostly eight to twelve pound sea trout. I did notice that the fish bites seemed to cycle in intensity as Tony’s crooning tenor voice filled the night air. Ralph and I were not so popular with the sub-surface audience.
We took the next evening off to rest, but agreed to hold another practice session on the Bay on Thursday night. I took time on that Wednesday night to re-dub one of the cassette tapes.
As the sun was setting the next evening, we were busy catching fish in the chum line while we sung our hearts out on the Chesapeake Bay to Tony’s now steady drumbeat. The completely full moon glowed overhead when I popped in the next tape. On this tape, I had arranged all of Tony’s songs in that set in consecutive order.
Tony serenaded from his first to second song. The sea around us literally shimmered in the moonlight with the reflections of thousands of fish swimming around the boat. By the third song, the water was boiling with fish flipping on the surface. While Tony did his very best Freddy Fender version of “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights”, Ralph grabbed the landing net and started scooping bluefish from the surface. I reached into the cabin and pulled out the long wooden handled heavy duty grass shrimp net to harvest the sea trout below.
While kneeling on the deck and swinging the net deep below the surface, I felt a sudden jolt. The net stopped abruptly. Looking down, I saw my arms and half the top of my head engulfed in the gaping jaws of a shark that was rising above the surface. In a fraction of a split second, I dropped the net and fell back into the boat as the huge mouth clamped shut.
Tony laughed but never missed a beat. He did not see the shark, just me fumbling in the bottom of the boat. My own mind flashed to the pictures in Tommy Courtney’s Restaurant of a couple bull sharks he had captured in his nets. I pointed over the gunnels and stuttered, “Bull shark!”
“Bull shhh” was all Tony could get out of his month as the shark jumped clean out of the water directly over Tony’s wide eyes and dropped chin. The moon disappeared in a shark blocked twenty foot long eclipse. A giant lollipop stick (my grass shrimp net) protruded from the shark’s jaws. From my angle flat on the stern deck, I could see the shark’s blue skin.
This ferocious flying fish was a monster mako that must have taken a wrong left turn at Virginia Beach.
Tony dropped his sticks. Ralph flipped off the stereo switch as he retreated into the cabin. Tony and I were not far behind. Quietly, we trembled, huddled, and waited in the depths of the foc’sle for the shark to make another move. Easily, this blue water denizen could crush the boat by landing directly on us or it could bite a hole through the bottom. Either way, we were history.
The anxious minutes turned into long silent hours through the moonlit night. The sun slowly rose over the Eastern horizon as night surrendered to day. None of us made a peep while the El Toro chugged across the Bay, anchored and established a chum line not far from us on that Friday morning. I eased up through the cabin hatch, unhitched the anchor line and threw the works overboard then quickly ducked below. We drifted far down current before firing up the engine hoping the shark had disappeared or moved on to better feeding grounds behind the El Toro.
That strategy must have worked because we are all three still alive to tell the story though Tony was shell shocked into amnesia regarding the entire week’s events. Last time I heard him play, he was drumming in a five piece band and singing “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” in Toot’s Bar.