Rough Waters: In the Midst of COVID-19, Food Acquisition Still Stable on the Eastern Shore

STEVENSVILLE, Md. – As fog hung to the water’s surface in the Chesapeake Bay, Capt. Brandon Moore and first mate Stephanie Shields of Chasin Tail Hunting and Fishing Charters were finishing the required prerequisites before launching into open water. 

The sun hadn’t yet crested the horizon as our group pulled out of the dock at 6:30 a.m., but the fog had an eerie glow to it. As the boat passed the trolling markers, Moore turned to us, six guys ranging in age and profession, with a simple warning: “Be on the lookout, this fog’s thick. If you see something, say something.” 

The warning coupled with the cool, crisp air was enough to wake us up after the 2 hour trip to Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Moore’s request came due to barge boats dredging the harbor floor, vessels that would likely crush our medium-sized rig. Luckily, no barge came within a stone’s throw of us as Moore pressed on through the unrelenting haze. Though Moore charters groups out for crabbing expeditions, lighthouse tours and hunting trips, our mission involved his other premier service: Chasing striped bass.

Stephanie Shields, first mate to Capt. Brandon Moore of Chasin Tail Charters, lets out line on one of the trolling poles during a striped bass excursion on the Chesapeake Bay. (Andrew Spellman/The Dominion Post)

We were lucky to be there. With COVID-19 continuously spreading, food gathering chartering services were never deemed non-essential by the state of Maryland due to the nature of the business. That doesn’t mean Moore didn’t take hits, though, as a lot of his business comes from corporate outings. Yet when one group would cancel, a family or group of friends would fill in the opening, saving him from completely missing out on that day’s profits.

“I was scared, companies that were taking their clients out were shutting down. That was the big thing that was happening,” Moore said. “I pretty much had the month of May booked up with companies and they were steady canceling.” 

Colloquially known in New England as “stripa,” striped bass – or rockfish if you’re a Marylander – are beautiful specimens primarily found along the Atlantic coast of North America. Their silver skin with black stripes is a sight to behold if you’re lucky enough to reel one in. They’re also good eating, but with most fish pulled out of bays and rivers, there’s a risk of being exposed to methyl-mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls. Bigger fish typically have more contaminants due to longer exposure, so as long as anglers eat smaller bass there’s less chance of exposure. Maine’s consumption advisory notes that “pregnant women, women who may get pregnant, nursing mothers and children under age 8 should not eat any striped bass. Everyone else should eat no more than four meals per year,” while Delaware’s guideline limits yearly striper meals to three. On the other hand, New York’s advisory follows the EPA guidelines of one meal per month for men and that women under 40 and children should not eat them. According to Maryland guidelines, striped bass caught in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries are only exposed to PCBs. For fish under 28 inches with the dark meat and belly fat removed, there’s no limit for the general population and women of child-bearing age, and for children 6 and younger there’s a monthly limit of seven. For fish larger than 28 inches under the same circumstances, the only change is that children under 6 should only eat five meals per month. Those guidelines are what make Chesapeake Bay rockfish a commodity for those looking not just for a good time, but also to fill up some freezer space with fresh filets. 

“This fog should lift soon,” Moore said as he and Shields began setting out the trolling lines around 7 a.m. 

Trolling lines inundate the water around Capt. Brandon Moore’s boat during a striped bass excursion on the Chesapeake Bay. (Andrew Spellman/The Dominion Post)

As soon as Moore took his seat back in the captain’s chair, Shields yelled from the back of the boat that a fish was on. Springing into action, I reeled in our fish striper, a 23-inch beauty well over the 19-inch limit. Not long after, Ed Beachley, a retired dentist from Smithsburg, Md., caught what would be the largest fish of the day, a 30-inch monster. Within an hour and a half, the cooler began to fill up and by the first dead period all but one of us had our first of a two-fish limit. By 10 a.m. we were all maxed out. 

This isn’t an uncommon theme for Moore during the non-trophy season – typically his clients come away with a full limit. Moore’s success rate can be attributed to a lifetime on the Chesapeake Bay, growing up on Kent Island in the shadow of Langenfelder Marine – then known as C.J. Langenfelder – a dredging contractor and aggregate producer specializing in oyster recovery operations, and the development of oyster and fishing reefs in the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays and surrounding tributaries. Growing up with a father who worked for the company, Moore followed suit and was a crane operator and captain until the company was bought out by Corman Marine Construction. It was then, almost 6 years ago, that Moore knew he was at a crossroads. But after building a client base over 4 years of weekend trips, he decided to take a chance and began chartering full time.

“We’re doing pretty good,” he said. 

Chartering, like guided hunts, doesn’t have a large safety net for full-time workers to fall back on. So when Moore knew he could keep his business running, albeit with extra precautions, he was relieved – not just for himself but for his clients, too.  

“People were out there looking for food and they were serious [about it],” he said. “It was a good time to see the relief on peoples’ faces to get out of their house. You have to believe this boat was clean as heck – we’ve got it all.”

Helping others get their food is an experience all on its own for Moore. Growing up as a sportsman, he’s used to gathering his family’s meat, but seeing it on a different level over the last 6 years – especially now during the pandemic – has been cathartic. 

“It means a lot for sure,” he said. “Every day you’re thinking about giving these people the best experience of their life. So when it all comes together like [today] – right off the bat, in the fog, couldn’t see anything – it’s rewarding.” 

Pandemic or not, chartering isn’t always a joy ride. There’s constant maintenance going into the boat and gear, bad days, rude clients and unexpected lumps. It takes a captain worth their salt to weather those storms to be successful. Moore is at the top of his game, though, and his 9-year-old son is watching all of his moves with open eyes and a mind for life on the water. Out of many lessons, there are two pillars of the business Moore teaches his son the most: Truth and kindness. 

Stephanie Shields filets a striped bass. (Andrew Spellman/The Dominion Post)

“The biggest thing I teach him about the charter business is, always tell the truth. If it’s been slow and the fish just aren’t there, always tell the truth to your people,” Moore said. “Yeah, there’s always a chance. We didn’t get them today, but the guy down the river did well so we can go try there. And always be courteous to everybody that comes on the boat. You can never tell a book by its cover. I get people to come down, and I’m like, ‘Who’s this?’ Next thing you know they’re a CIA agent. You never know who you’re going to get on the boat. 

“It’s not only about the fishing, it’s about getting out and enjoying the Chesapeake Bay. Fish are a bonus. That’s what I try to preach to my son.” 

Moore’s sentiments and the day’s success didn’t register until I was driving back to Morgantown that evening. I became hyper-focused on the sounds of the fish and the bag of ice sliding around in my cooler in the backseat of my car, the thumps sounding like the waves breaking on the hull of Moore’s ship. As I crossed into West Virginia, I began imagining how I was going to cook the meat. Will it be tacos? Pan-seared with a side salad? Maybe I’d take them on a camping trip and cook them over an open fire. However I may use them, one thing was certain: I was just happy I had the chance to harvest my food in the midst of wonderful company. 

This story was originally published in The Dominion Post, the largest daily newspaper in north central West Virginia.

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