Standing by the big picture window in the living room of Ed and Becky Darwin’s waterfront home you can look down the green bank and, out on the end of the pier, see the charter boat Ed skippers seven days a week.
Had you been among the elect who for the last 45 years have fished with Ed, you might have decided, as some authorities on the subject have, that he is the best fisherman on this part of Chesapeake Bay and that certainly fishing is what he does best. But now, standing in the living room on this bluff above postcard-perfect Martins Cove on Mill Creek near Annapolis, Md., you would see Darwin’s other work framing the window and along the walls, his art: scores of incredibly lifelike sculptures of saltwater fish foraging the sea bed, stalking through the water column, and occasionally breaking the surface in splashes of iridescence to leap, twisting, toward the sky.
These, your judgment likely would inform you, are no mere fish carvings but are among the best sculptures you have ever seen — the stuff of museum exhibits — and you would have to ask: Is this what Ed Darwin does best?
As you look around the room there are too many sculptures for you to focus. You need a guide. Start on the left, over at the western end of the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. (Don’t stop to ponder Ed’s exact model of his charter boat, Becky-D. We’re concentrating on fish here.) Over at the start of the bookshelves, on the top shelf, a flying fish is winging its way toward two yellow perch, their scales decorated with green and yellow streaks, their orange pectoral fins offsetting their pearly bellies. The perch are very interested in a pair of tiny silversides that swim in front of them. On the next shelf down, two torpedo-like bluefish have closed in on a couple of alewives, one already bitten in two, its head having fallen to the sea bed. On the third shelf, two toadfish — brown and shiny as chestnuts — are doing what their species does, lying on the bottom, waiting for an opportune meal to arrive. And on the fourth shelf, between a sculpture of a painted turtle and one of a small snapping turtle (For what is an aquatic motif without amphibians?) there are two puffer fish, one inflated by fear of a blue crab that threatens with raised claws from below.
On the next bookshelf down there are actually books, although most of the reading material is piled on the carpet, so thoroughly have Darwin’s sculptures overtaken his home. On the bottom shelf are some duck decoys, and they are part of this story, as well.
Glance to the right and the species continue to multiply, if not evolve. Darwin can tell you about each. There are plain white perch, which take eight years to reach 8 inches. There are mahi mahi, or the fish also called dolphin, with their breathtaking golden bellies and azure backs that grow 40 inches in a year. A tarpon leaps above one bookshelf, twisting in the air, just as Darwin has seen its brethren do when he has caught them. Nearby are pairs of permit and snook, fish Darwin has caught on vacations in Florida. Permit are Darwin’s favorite game fish because they are difficult to hook and land. He catches snook in mangrove swamps, using pilchards — small herring — as bait. There is a pair of lane snappers, brilliant red and orange fish that he has taken in the Bahamas, where he fishes with a physician who would rather be a fisherman. In southern oceans he has caught marlin and sailfish.
“You can see them out of the water and standing on their tails,” he says, explaining the posture of his billfish sculptures.
There are dead fish, too. A catch of several flounder hangs from strings on one wall. There are no clown fish, for Darwin sculpts only the game fish he catches. But above the kitchen sink — the living room is open to the dining area and kitchen — a barracuda arches menacingly, its mouth a jagged, dark cavern of dagger-sharp teeth, its cruel eyes calculating whether you will become its next meal.
Creating these fish, Darwin says, is an extension of what he does. “I really marvel at these things.”
That Darwin ever became a fisherman or, in turn, a fish sculptor is a fact that in the past caused some family members to question whether they had the right kid. He was born in 1931 in Baltimore and was raised in the city. His father died when he was young. On his own, he began fishing in streams around the city. In his teens, he was invited to go fishing by a fellow who lived down the city street and supplied bait to bait shops. They drove to one of the tributaries of the Chesapeake, where first they pushed a net on wheels through the shallow water, harvesting grass shrimp. Then they got in a rowboat and baited their hooks with the shrimp. When he reeled in his first saltwater fish, Darwin’s calling was revealed. Later, he discovered Mill Creek when a cousin brought him there to go out on a charter boat.
Before his own first professional charter, however, he completed high school, despite opting for truancy when the fish were biting. He got summer jobs cutting meat, and when he graduated he took the advice of a former teacher, worked at a research laboratory, and took a correspondence course to learn about radio and television repair. He spent three years in the Army. When he returned to Baltimore (he calls it BALLmer) in 1957, he quickly ditched his work at the laboratory and followed his teacher’s further suggestion that Darwin become a teacher. “I could fish all summer,” he figured.
Landing a job at a local high school teaching radio and television repair, he met Becky, who taught physical education, and he began taking night classes that in a dozen years would earn him a degree. Young Darwin’s idea of romance was to bring Becky to Mill Creek at night and, in the dark, fish for striped bass with eels. She proved to be a good angler, and together they harvested the Bay and sold their catch ashore. Their success became obvious to the local charter captains, and Darwin made known to them his desire to join their ranks. So one day in 1960, when one of the captains was booked solid, he sent one of his excess customers to see Darwin.
That first customer, George Buchness, had a pretty good day. Darwin recalls he ran the original Becky-D from Mill Creek to fish the WesternShore, where he thought the other charter captains would be. He found none of them, but he found all the fish he and Buchness could catch. Darwin called the other captains on the radio but no one answered.
Later, when they saw what he had caught, some of the captains were angry and asked why he didn’t share his good fortune. When he said he had tried to call on the radio, the captain who had sent Buchness to Darwin laughed and said: “Nobody wants to talk to a teacher.”
Buchness is still one of Darwin’s customers aboard a newer, custom Becky-D 45 years later, a period during which the skipper’s reputation has grown. In that span Darwin never lost the willingness to learn his trade. When he got the chance, he listened to the old masters. One was Capt. Bill Pike, who kept his boat on the other side of a Mill Creek peninsula.
“He would like to take people fishing and teach them,” Darwin says. “I was willing to go.” At age 37 what Darwin learned from Pike was how to “read marks” or ranges, a method of locating a spot on the open water by sighting along two sets of landmarks on the water or ashore. Now he can return to a good fishing hole even without his GPS.
“He’s probably the best fisherman on the Bay,” says Bill Burton, an outdoor writer who was around before Darwin met Buchness. “No one knows his waters better than he does. He has more aces in the hole than a riverboat gambler. I fish with him probably as much as anybody on the Bay. I’ve been with him once when we got skunked. Gosh, that was several years ago. Never, never do you get skunked on his boat.”
“He’s one of the best,” says fellow charter captain Chris Rosendale of KentIsland. “In my business, the guys who are respected among the other fishermen are the guys who can find fish. They work hard at it. I know if I’m not catching fish and he’s catching fish, I’ll call him at home and he will tell me. He knows he can call me, and I’ll do the same. He’s a straight-up guy. He’s basically a legend on the Bay.”
“Around in this area, I’d say he’s the best,” says Capt. Bernie Michael of Arnold, Md. “That’s all you need to say. When you go out there every day, day in and day out, and catch your limit you’ve got to be good.”
Michael ranks Darwin and Rosendale together as fishermen, but he puts Darwin at the top among fish sculptors. “He brings them to life,” he says. “When you see one of them, it jumps right at you.”
“I expect them to swim,” Burton says.
Darwin had retired from teaching in 1987 when Becky bought their son, Peter (now a physician), a duck-carving kit. (The Darwins also have a daughter, Melissa, a computer analyst.) Ed Darwin thought duck carving was something he could do during the off season. So just as he had spent time with Capt. Pike to improve his fishing, he visited some expert decoy carvers and asked questions. His decoys were good, but he saw that everyone seemed to be carving ducks. He decided to try fish. He got a book and carved a catfish, whiskers and all.
His latest effort is the pair of puffers. He had created one sculpture for a friend and liked it so much he made one for himself. He has traded fish sculptures with other captains, and he would be pleased to sell his work. The prices, he says, would range from $550 for a smaller piece to $3,000.
“There’s really nothing to it,” Darwin says of his art. “You just take a [dead] fish and lay it before you and take a pattern off it.”
Side view, top view, dimensions, proportions.
“Then you have to decide what you are going to do with it; put it in a habitat or let it ‘spin around.’ ” In the air, that is, as if floating in the open water. He uses basswood or, if the fish has pronounced scales, tupelo, a wood from trees that grow in southern swamps. His paints are acrylic.
Darwin has entered sculptures in fish-carving contests. His sunfish won “best of show” in a contest at the Havre de Grace, Md., decoy museum in 2000, he says. “I stopped entering because the judges didn’t know what the fish were,” he says. “I put this toad fish in. One said it was a sea robin. They didn’t know what it was, but they knew it was wrong.”
From his more than 60 years of fishing Darwin knew that each fish has a “lateral line,” a sensory organ along its side by which it can detect the movement of prey or predators in the surrounding water. He knew about the saltwater river that runs constantly up the belly of the Bay and affects the movement of fish. He had watched the pigeons that roosted under the Chesapeake BayBridge get evicted by the black gulls, and the gulls’ home get gentrified by the double breasted cormorants. He had dealt with the razor-like teeth of marauding bluefish that travel in wolf packs and massive schools, and he had seen the clouds of passive May worms that are the meal of choice for croakers and spots. He had used his knowledge at times to lobby in the Maryland state capitol for laws that would benefit his business and the Bay, and he had acquired governors and wealthy businessmen as his loyal clientele, men willing to pay $650 to spend a few hours with him on the water. Until he became a sculptor, however, he was still missing something in the very beasts he was pulling aboard the Becky-D.
“One of the things you get from doing something like this [sculpting], you get the colorations, the variety” of each type of fish, he says. “Once you start looking at colors and configurations, you get an appreciation for how beautiful they are. It makes you appreciate just how wonderful nature is.”