The Ugly Duckling

You don’t need a fancy rig to have a great time on the water
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Our ugly, green boat was just the ticket for on-the-water fun. 

Our ugly, green boat was just the ticket for on-the-water fun. 

I will never forget the first time my dad and I went fishing together in a boat. It was March 1977, I was 7 years old and he had just read a local newspaper article about the spring yellow perch run in the nearby Severn River. The clipping was pinned up on the corkboard by our telephone in the kitchen for weeks.

Dad was amped because a few months earlier, in the dead of winter, he’d driven to
Annapolis, Maryland, whipped out his Sears, Roebuck & Co. store card and, to my mother’s chagrin, brought home a 12-foot Gamefisher skiff with a 9.9-hp, 2-stroke Ted Williams outboard. It was our family’s first boat.

And it was ugly. Really ugly. So ugly, in fact, that we eventually called her Old Greenie.

“I know it’s not the nicest boat in the world,” my dad said, “but it’s what we can afford, and it will be great for fishing and crabbing the Chesapeake Bay.”

We made our maiden voyage at the head of the Severn River on a cold, raw March morning. Dad sat in the stern with the outboard handle in one hand and a steaming cup of joe in the other as we motored about 2 miles downriver. His smile looked indelible, and though I couldn’t yet truly appreciate the bliss he was feeling, I vividly recall that happiness on his face even 42 years later.

After a few hours, we had a nice bucketful of yellow perch for the supper table. By the following summer, my dad had discovered William Warner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Beautiful Swimmers,” about the blue crab fishery and watermen who harvested them on Chesapeake Bay. Dad bought a mess of collapsible crab traps, rigged them up with milk jug floats, and then spray-painted them orange. He told me we were going over to Eastern Bay the next weekend to catch some crabs. “That’s where the biggest crabs on the bay live,” he said. “There and the Wye River.”

I remember riding over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge through the morning darkness, huddled against the window as my father sipped a cup of coffee and smoked a cigarette. There was a thick fog when we arrived at the launch ramp, and as we motored along the marsh’s edge, I was convinced that Dad was going to run Old Greenie into something and sink her.

The fog eventually burned off, and I was able to relax. We laid down a line of 20 traps baited with chicken necks, and then we let them soak. We performed like rank amateurs, getting bitten by several of the cantankerous crustaceans and enduring jellyfish stings from reaching into the water again and again to grab the traps.

It may sound miserable, but what I remember is the laughter my dad and I shared as Mother Nature exacted her toll for the sweet, delicious crabs we’d enjoy later on the patio. My old man was always at his happiest picking crabs with a cold can of suds next to him.

In 1980, Old Greenie carried us across Deep Creek Lake in Western Maryland and we found ourselves fishing across a vast expanse of grass beds. I told Dad that I was tired of fishing with worms and baits—pretty saucy for a 10-year-old—and I dug around his chronically disorganized tackle box, untangled a Mepps spinner bait and started casting. By the time I was done, we had some nice pickerel on the stringer.

“Switching things up when what you’re doing isn’t working is the sign of a good fisherman,” he said, beaming with pride. Another unforgettable memory.

Old Greenie continued to serve as our fishing and crabbing platform for another couple of years. It was May 1982 when Dad and I loaded her up with a cooler full of sandwiches, beer and sodas to go watch the Blue Angels perform in the skies over the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. It was a choppy day on the river, and at one point we hit a particularly steep wave with a deafening crack. I looked down, and Old Greenie’s bow had split in two. Dad veered us toward shore, we beached her, and we walked up to a house to call my mother to come get us.

Though it wasn’t the end of my memories with my father on the water, it was the end of the line for Old Greenie. When I look back, the fondest recollections I have with my father happened in that crappy boat.

I have my eyes on a Craigslist ad for a leaky, early ’70s Grumman Sport Boat canoe and what is likely an argumentative 4.5-hp Johnson outboard. Other people may see her as tired and not worth the effort, but I’m thinking that she could be a perfect memory-maker. 

This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue.