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From the Field

The Ghost Fleet at Mallows Bay

The road gets longer and longer as the anticipation grips me. Is that the turn? No. Is that the turn? No! Invariably I see the sign too late and have to reverse. The darkness starts to fade and daylight creeps up over the Potomac as I hurry down the gravel drive at Wilson’s Landing Road, the closest launch point to Mallows Bay. The day may be early, but the sounds of boat motors speeding along the main stem of the river, the chirping of osprey—a sound that will remind me of the Chesapeake as long as I live—and the splash of leaping fish and the bait schools they scuttle all welcome me as I load up my kayak with camera gear in waterproof cases and a fishing rod and tackle box. 

Located just 30 miles from Washington, D.C., Mallows Bay feels worlds away from the crowds of the city. Access from the bank means you do not need a boat to try to fish for largemouth and smallmouth bass, snakehead, panfish, and catfish. However, the best parts of Mallows Bay are out in the water—the largest collection of historic shipwrecks in the Western Hemisphere. Motorboats can travel in the Burning Basin and the deeper waters surrounding the Accomac—which ferried cars across the Chesapeake Bay before the Bay Bridge was built—as well as the outer area around the ghost fleet. However, kayaks and canoes are the best way to get close and explore the inner loop of the wrecks.

The desire to get out and explore the ghost fleet quickly and take advantage of the soft morning light for photos puts my mind at odds with the desire to maintain the glass-calm tranquility. In the end a slow attempt at stealthy paddling wins out as I try to get my 400mm lens in range of the birds roosting on the shipwrecks. The osprey perched on the spat of twisted metal spikes and wood tolerates me long enough to get a clear shot of its yellow eyes in the morning light. But these birds have seen enough paparazzi to know I want some action shots too and fly away obligingly, annoyed by the constant clicking of the shutter. The bald eagle sitting ubiquitously on a wreck spots me while it is still a tiny blur in the viewfinder and ruins the shot before I can get within 300 yards. They don’t call them “eagle eyes” for nothing. Once all the birds and turtles have taken cover, it’s time to grab out the wide-angle lens and turn attention to more stationary subjects. The sun hasn’t risen high enough to burn off the fog, which mingles with the wrecks and presents a scene most apropos of the moniker “ghost fleet.”

These shipwrecks have inspired explorers, writers, and now conservationists to experience this unique place and share the history. Author Donald Shomette has written books detailing the history of each individual vessel, some dating back as far as the Revolutionary War. At any given time of day one can see the larger wrecks jutting triumphantly out of the water. The Accomac is visible from the parking lot. The Benzonia sits atop the Caribou, lifted by hurricane flooding years ago. Full-grown trees have sprung up in the “Flower Pot” wrecks, proof that nature has reclaimed what mankind discarded. However, the low tide reveals the distinct shapes of shipwrecks like the Ida S. Dow, the Casmalia, and the Caribou, which at a different point in the tide can look like a few scraps of metal and possibly a tree limb barely breaking the water’s surface. 

I glide as gently through the water as I can next to the tangles of wood and iron to avoid scraping and even putting a gash in the hull of my kayak. Often a circuitous route is the best route. The early morning means little boat traffic to disturb the water. Combined with the luck of a day without much wind, the water is glass calm and perfect for photography. As the morning fades into the afternoon, the tide comes back in and the magic lighting for photography has gone. I stow the camera gear and reach for the other reason I came to Mallows. I cast a small spinnerbait into the open water not far from a wreck and I feel a weight almost instantly. A first I think it’s a clump of weeds, but then the weeds started head shaking. I fight the small largemouth bass as it leaps to try and throw the hook, unsuccessfully, I note as I pull it in the boat and promptly let it go. Good start for the first cast! A Johnboat slowly works along another set of wrecks, a driver working the trolling motor and an archer looking for snakehead taking gulps of air at the surface. They hold up the morning’s catch for me, which is easily two feet long and will likely be tonight’s dinner. The fish are plentiful. Little sunfish and bass dart among the hydrilla weeds in between the ships. Out in the deeper water boats try for blue catfish, with the possibility of hooking one over 20 pounds.

The shipwrecks at Mallows Bay have become artificial reefs, providing habitat to many types of fish and wildlife. Beavers splash around in the muddy cuts between ships. Turtles sit in groups on the wrecks and sunken tree limbs sunning themselves and splash like a rockslide if you get too close. A mother duck leads her ducklings to an opening to jump up onto land. Herons stalk little fish in the shallow water. Patience can be rewarded with a more rare siting, like an osprey diving to catch a fish. If you’re lucky enough, it’s even possible to see an adventurous deer swim out to the wrecks. 

I finish off the day drifting along the beach toward Sandy Point, the northernmost area for shipwrecks in the bay, catching the occasional yellow perch followed by an attempt to get some exercise paddling in the harder current back to the launch. The day has reached its hottest point when I have the kayak loaded back onto the car—time to grab a cold drink and some roadside barbeque as I head home to plan a return trip.

Mallows Bay-Potomac River is a proposed National Marine Sanctuary currently under consideration by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. If established, it will be the first to be designated in 20 years and the first ever in the Chesapeake Region. Take a tour of the ghost fleet with the Chesapeake Conservancy’s Riverview Virtual Tour and 3D Virtual Tours

Peter Turcik

Peter is the managing editor for the American Fisheries Society's magazine, Fisheries, and a contributor to FishTalk Magazine. He has a writing, editing, and photography background that includes work for the Chesapeake Conservancy, Trib Total Media, the National Geographic Society, and the National Park Service. Peter is an avid and passionate kayak and light tackle angler.

September 15, 2016

Main image: Peter Turcik
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