Fishing the Chesapeake

Jacquelyn Bengfort

for Patty

The fishing trip begins this morning, but some of us left home last night to avoid too early a day, to cross the Bay Bridge. A misnomer–it’s two bridges, actually, in close parallel, and as much gate as bridge when it’s end-to-end with idling cars. But when we hit it just right it feels like flying.

We began imagining the trip weeks ago, though, when we chartered the boat. When all the fish are caught, a table and knives will appear on the fantail of the fifty-two-foot Chesapeake Custom chartered for around a grand, and hack hack hack, the captain and the mate (Works For Tips Only) and a boy-man from the next boat over will turn the fish into fillets, stripping the gleaming armor of scales from the pink flesh beneath. A deal, though, when you work out the math—let’s say ten pounds per fish, twenty fish to take home, that’s five dollars a pound, not counting the tip. Even though the baby in her red lifejacket will be left inadvertently off the roster and thereby uncounted and unfished-for.


The fishing trip begins now. “Come, hurry, the captain is anxious, the fish are biting,” one of us says to the rest, before even saying hello. Most of us are a little late for our agreed-upon start time: the charter started at six this morning, but we chose to leave at eight instead. It’s already pushing half past.

The captain takes us to Bloody Point, about twenty minutes out from the marina. We point to an osprey in her nest upon the pilings on our way toward open water. “More,” the baby demands–one of her few words, but she understands things she can’t yet say and anyway, she knows the sign for fish, a rhythmic wriggling of a hand. She may not know what happens next but she will understand soon.

The poles, so many, at least as many as souls onboard, each one set by the mate after the captain throttles back. We descend from the upper deck to stand in awkward groupings, someone always in the way, waiting to be called forward by evidence of fish on the line.

After the poles are set they bend, pregnant with rockfish, and names are called as we take turns reeling them in, sometimes four poles at once, sometimes two fish to a pole. Everyone takes a turn except for the baby and the cook–that is his excuse. He’s a little bit Buddhist, always praying over the things he plans to eat if they’re alive when he begins.

The mate and the captain do the bulk of the crucial work, though, the netting and landing on deck, the measuring and icing.

When we pull these dumb beasts from the deep, it’s just like the fish are being born. A terrible birth, a shining black and silver baby, lips full of holes, unable to breath, thrashing on the deck–a couple of us can’t help but wonder what the fish could be thinking, could be feeling.

But that’s the thing about births–not one of us recalls our own. The only real evidence we were born at all is our presence on the boat today.

The baby watches each fish come aboard with sober eyes. She pulls at the zipper of the life vest where it presses at her neck but wears it because we worry she might sink, and mommy says so. Beyond the obvious fact of her discomfort, we know not what else she might be feeling. She has a few nouns, no verbs, lacks adjectives beyond red and blue.

At least one of us is shocked, every time, by the lush scarlet bloom of the gills. At least one of us will find blood spattered on our jeans long before the men take knives to the contents of the ice chest. Most of us will ignore all this as we smile and mug for the camera, holding our catch by its gaping places as droplets of crimson swim invisibly through the air.

We fill our quota of two fish each and one for the boat, and that turns us toward home.

Still, the lines can’t be brought in all at once and fish continue to throw themselves upon the lures, forcing us into a bit of catch-and-release. One fish in particular, whether it struggled too hard or simply gave up too soon, is dead by the time it hits the water and floats whitely in our wake.


The fishing trip ends like this: we reconvene that evening to eat fish prepared two ways. Each of us eats, all eleven of us, even the baby; even the woman who eats no chicken, no pork, no beef; even the man that refused to touch rod and reel.

Even so we will fill freezers full with what we cannot eat tonight.

It ends like this: we cross the bridge to go back home, and we hit it just right so it feels like flying. Up here the late sun strobes through the uprights, while some sixty yards of air and three more yards of water below us, unaware, the rockfish swim.

Jacquelyn Bengfort was born in North Dakota, educated at the U.S. Naval Academy and Oxford University, and now resides in Washington, DC. Her work has appeared in Midwestern Gothic, Gargoyle, Storm Cellar, District Lines, and the anthologies Magical, Dear Robot, and Unrequited, among other places. Find her online at or on Twitter @jacib.

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