An Eastern Shore waterman tagging? I had yet to learn that this heavyset, bespectacled man of 42 was perhaps the most formidable ally the striped bass has in the U.S. Later I would discover that it was he who effectively brought in the 14-inch-minimum-size law in Maryland in 1983, and in 1984 formulated the petition and created the pressure that led to the present moratorium. This has made him something of a villain along parts of the Eastern Shore.
His latest fight for the striper, I would also learn, had centered on the formation of his Chesapeake Bay Acid Rain Foundation, devoted to the study of the effect of acid precipitation on the stripers' spawning streams, and that of dissolved metals—aluminum, lead, cadmium, zinc and copper—as well. At this stage Price was raising funds to buy live stripers for about a dollar apiece from watermen at boatside so that they could be tagged and returned to the water. Among those watermen was Bill, who had stake nets out in the Choptank.
Fish, though, have not always dominated Jim Price's life. For 16 years he worked for Maryland in the highway department, concerned with the measurement of materials that go into making roads. A humdrum existence, you might think, and Price tends to agree.
"I never liked it," he says. "For years I'd collected coins as a hobby, and I began to get interested in precious metals. I was familiar with weights and measures from my job, so I began advertising locally in the paper to buy gold and silver. I didn't have money myself, but I borrowed from my family and a friend. I started traveling to Baltimore and other cities, and it got to the point that I could sometimes make $1,000 a day in profit. It was hard to work for $300 a week after that. I quit, and I don't regret losing my pension. Then I started on diamonds, went up to New York City to trade stones."
It's hard to picture Jim Price of Choptank, Md. (pop. circa 100) going from stall to stall on 47th Street, New York City's diamond center, looking for a bargain. Nevertheless, Price, who also operates a charter boat business, not only survived but flourished—now he has two jewelry stores on the Eastern Shore, and is thinking about opening a third. He has even talked some of those no-nonsense 47th Street diamond traders into heading down to the Choptank for a day's fishing. That is what he really likes doing.
It was my good fortune that Price's sharp mind had been intrigued by the thought of taking the last legally rod-caught striper from the bay, and indeed, that he began to regard it as a personal insult when a second day's dress rehearsal produced another shutout. "I promise you," he said, "that we'll get our rock on New Year's Eve, and that evening we'll sit down and eat him panfried at the Robert Morris Inn, which is the best restaurant in Oxford."
There are times, it must be confessed, when insurance is necessary—before we started out on New Year's Eve we had made plans with the restaurant to drop off some stripers from Bill's nets—but we still hoped to dine on our own rod-caught fish.
The pure vileness of the morning of Dec. 31 made it seem as if our backup stripers would be necessary, even though Jim, late the previous night, had scraped from the piles around the harbor in Oxford, on his knees with a child's net, enough grass shrimp to fill a plastic candy bag.
With cold in our very marrow, we chugged along with the fish finder going. Good-looking ground started showing—an oyster bank. Down went the anchor, out went the lines and straightaway came hits.
No stripers, though, just white perch—fat white perch. There were many of them, as many of them, they seemed to be saying, as we had grass shrimp. Noontime came and went, and then, just as we were telling each other that there was bound to be at least one striper among those perch, all the action ceased.