On the margin of the river,
Washing up its silver spray,
We will talk and worship ever,
All the happy golden day.  –
from Shall we Gather at the River, Robert Lowery, 1864

With Stevensville church bells ringing in the distance, we pulled into the parking lot at the Kent Narrows boat ramp about 11:00 AM.  I always feel a little bad about fishing on Sunday mornings.  My father was a Church of Christ minister who preached for a small Appalachian congregation in the Clinch mountain highlands near Sneedville, Tennessee.  Needless to say, when I was a kid we went to church every time the doors opened.  Dad was also one of the best bass fishermen in the Southeast.  When the bass pros came to fish the big tournaments, he was the first person they contacted.  People said he was a fisher of fish and a fisher of men.  It wasn’t unusual to see him fishing in a suit and tie before or after church services, but we never missed church.

I’ll never forget the weekend my best friend and I schemed to tell our parents we would be spending the night with each other, but secretly stole away to launch an old wooden jon boat into the Nolichucky River.  After a Saturday night spent camping and bottom fishing on a remote island, we pushed off early Sunday morning in pursuit of bronzebacks.  After drifting downstream a few miles we rounded a bend and saw a group of people gathered on the shore.  As we got closer, I heard my dad’s booming voice leading the congregation in a rousing version of   “Shall We Gather At the River.”  Red faced and ashamed, we drifted headlong into one of my dad’s riverside baptisings.  We tried to save face by beaching the boat and walking up to join the choir, but I’ll never forget the whipping I got later. It took a long time before I got to go fishing again, on Sunday or anytime!

Feeling a little under the weather, I haven’t done much fishing lately.  My brother-in-law Mitch flew in from Grand Rapids, Michigan this weekend for a fishing trip we’ve had planned since last fall.  Thanks to some strong antibiotics and good cough medicine, I managed to get out for a Sunday excursion.  I wanted to get Mitch in on the yellow perch gold rush in the upper Bay, so my original plan was to trailer up I-97 to Perryville and launch at Owens Landing Marina.

By highway, it’s about seventy miles across the Bay Bridge, over Baltimore Harbor, and around the western shore of the Upper Bay to the perching grounds at the mouth of the Susquehanna River.  A better option from Kent Island  is to drive up the Eastern Shore and launch near the mouth of the Sassafras River.  I sometimes do that in the Spring, but there’s still some ice in the Upper Bay and water levels are low, so it’s usually impossible to get out up there this time of year.

Sunday morning I looked out to see bright sunshine with barely a wisp of wind moving through the tops of the elm trees along our fence row.  A quick glance at the Chesapeake Bay Operational Forecast System’s wind predictor website showed all dark blue arrows indicating it would stay flat.  With temperatures approaching forty degrees,  I couldn’t resist making the run by water.

We fired the BF 225 Honda outboard on Thunder Road and pointed the bow north.  After clearing the no wake zone at Kent Narrows, we settled in on a nice easy gate down the vestibule of the Chester River toward the sanctuary of the Chesapeake Bay.  Off to starboard I noticed a Natural Resources Police (NRP)  boat dragging grappling hooks for illegal nets in the deep holes of the river channel.  We’ve had a scourge of poaching lately and the NRP are hot on the trail of the sinners.  (I’ll say more on that later.) That was the only boat we would see for the next forty miles.  The first part of our Sunday service would not be well-attended.

Cruising north along Swan Point Bar, some of last summer’s waypoints came back to me like Old Testament memory verses. I smiled when I thought of the good fishing days we had in that area when the timing was right.  Sliding north, we  threw a silver spray across the shipping channel and skirted the humps and ledges around Warton Point.  My electronic chart shows dozens of wrecks here.  It must have been a difficult area for ships to navigate when the no-GPS darkness was on the face of this deep.

Approaching Still Pond Creek, I noticed something white off in the distance.  “Ice,” I thought.  It crossed my mind but since the weather has been warmer, I didn’t expect it.  As we got closer it became apparent that what I thought was a mile wide ice flow was actually a giant congregation of snow geese.  The white goose population is booming in the Chesapeake region. There’s something inspiring about a thousand snow geese taking flight over calm blue water on a crystal clear winter day.

When they startled up in front of the boat I was reminded of something I read from George Bird Grinnell’s 1901 book American Duck Shooting:

“The spectacle of a flock of these white geese flying is a very beautiful one. Sometimes they perform remarkable evolutions on the wing, and if seen at a distance look like so many snowflakes being hurled hither and thither by the wind.”

We skirted the snow geese snowstorm, skated across the mouth of the Sassafras River and turned west toward Aberdeen Proving Ground.  After  rounding Sandy Point, we slipped across the barge channel then slid up through the narrow ditches north of Battery Island toward the margin of the Susquehanna. We pulled up to a little-known fishing spot that was previously revealed to me by the reverend Mike Benjamin and found a few of the better-known deacons of the Upper Bay already gathered. Tim, Gerald, Gary and Joe told us stories of fourteen-inch plus perch while we shared communion from the leather flask I keep beneath my leaning post.

After the four anointed ones motored off in other pursuits, we rigged up our spinning outfits and commenced to drop-shotting for yellow neds.  Coming up empty at the first place, we  decided to take the good advice in the book of St. Luke and cast our lines on the other side. We moved north around Perry Point and started fishing in deeper water.  The bite was better there and we soon filled our basket with fishes.

I can’t say it was wide-open, but we steadily caught brightly colored ring perch up to thirteen and a half inches. Just before the sun set beneath the trees of  Garrett Island another Upper Bay disciple paddled his kayak over to say hello. Tom had been working the deep holes north of the Owens docks and had a good day on the water as well.  It was time to go, but we still took a few minutes to stop and say goodbye to Joe and our brothers who were now gathered beneath the Amtrak bridge.

Sliding south across the glass after sunset with bright Jupiter off our port bow, we aimed toward the lesser light of  the up-turned crescent and slipped back into Kent Narrows while there was still a faint glow in the western sky.  Mitch made his 9:30 PM flight out of BWI back to Michigan toting a freezer bag full of freshly-cleaned yellow perch.  It’s been a while since I’ve had a more spiritual Sunday. Immaculate winter days spent worshiping in the church of the Upper Bay are good for the soul.

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Posted Wednesday, February 9th, 2011 at 2:01 pm
Filed Under Category: Fishing Reports
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Responses to “Church of the Upper Bay”

  1. uncle phill says:

    That was a great read!

  2. Jon Griffiths says:

    Excellent read. You put some heart into that one for sure. I liked the history leading up to my favorite line, “Tim, Gerald, Gary and Joe told us stories of fourteen-inch plus perch while we shared communion from the leather flask I keep beneath my leaning post.”

  3. Tim Campbell says:

    Good seeing you and Mitch again. And thanks for sharing your flask, it was right on time. I needed a drink to calm my nerves after landing that big yellow ned. Gerald protested when I let her go but I felt a real sense of satisfaction knowing someone else could have a chance at it.

  4. Tom Woods says:

    Amen Brother Shawn! My dad often jokes “missed you at church today” and my standard reply is the bay is my church and fishing my religion. It was great to meet you guys and thanks for another awesome article!

  5. Mike says:

    Hey Shawn,

    We saw you guys up there last sunday as well. We were on the kayaks toward the north shore of the island when you guys first got there. I would have came over to say hi but my buddy was whining about his cold feet. We had a good day there as well. We are talking about fishing the bridge on sunday via boat if the wind permits and were wondering what color bkd’s you have been using this time of year?

  6. Shawn says:

    I like very bright colors in winter at the bridge, especially white and pink. You might also consider going with a 4″ twister tail grub. I use 1.5 or 2 ounce jig heads for maximum bottom contact. Also, if you put in on the east side, I’d check the very tip end of the sewer pipe discharge once it drops off deeper than 30′. Look for FF marks on the down-current side as big fish will sometimes lay in there letting the warmer water from the pipe wash over them. Sorry I missed you at church Sunday but good luck next weekend!

  7. Joe Yack says:

    Great read! It was good to see you again my friend. Glad that you could share in this great winter fishery. Thanks for the communion it warmed the soul even Tennesee whiskey is good on a winter day! LOL We were thumping the big fish pretty good for awhile, tossing back 12″ fish… at the end of the day when things slowed down several 10″ fish rounded out our limit. You have inspired me to look farther and this weekend we are going to search out the neds in some new areas that we considered too far a run before.

  8. RiverCat09 says:

    Shawn,

    Great read and great tie ins with scriptures and your childhood. I wouldn’t feel so bad about fishing on Sundays though, as when one does, one is experiencing the Works of the Lord.

    “They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; These see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep.”
    Psalms, 107:23-30

    Shawn, I think that the Lord probably appreciates what a great steward you are of his creation. Keep up the good work!

    Don

  9. Shawn says:

    Great verse, Don. Had I thought of it, I would have used it!

  10. Wen says:

    Great reading as usual Shawn.
    I had hoped to be enjoying the tugg of some early pan fish this spring as I might have mentioned to you Don,but alas….
    I’m three days post op on some nasty surgery and won’t be considering anything till at least white perch time this spring.
    Keep the great stories coming they have great re-cuperative powers !!
    Wen

  11. RogerT says:

    The yellows were still running strong yesterday ,never seen it so good.

    Awesome read

  12. Dave G says:

    Great read, Shawn. My Grandad was a very, very well respected Baptist minister from Maryland to North Carolina and was a great outdoorsman. It’s been years since he passed but this post brought back memories and made me think of him.

    I bet your Dad handed out a whoopin’ you’ll NEVER forget.

  13. Paul says:

    Another terrific story Shawn.
    I married the daughter of a Baptist minister 🙂

  14. Hillbilly Boater says:

    Shawn, Great read. I loved the river fishing and drifting into your Dad story. I think we all have something like that, but yours is truely classic. Thanks for the story.

  15. Jeff 240 LTS says:

    I know this is older but I just came across it.
    This saying has been used in a lot of different ways but I still like it.

    “I’d rather be on my boat thing about God,
    than in church thing about my boat”

    Great story.
    You were able to create a video in my minds eye as I watched you run up the bay through the places I call my home waters.

    Thanks,
    Jeff
    240 LTS

    .

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