By Martin Gary
Many have been fortunate to know Bill Burton and call him a friend. Now I am privileged to share with you the story of my friendship with Bill.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, fishing in Maryland was truly amazing. Fueled by several great year classes, rock fishing on the Chesapeake was in its glory. On the Atlantic Coast, off Ocean City, the “White Marlin Capital of the World” was living up to its reputation, providing world class bill fishing along with great opportunities for tuna, wahoo, and sharks, along with inshore action for flounder, sea bass, sea trout and even codfish. Great freshwater fishing opportunities could be found all across the state, from Deep Creek Lake in Garrett County to the mill ponds of the eastern shore, and countless streams and reservoirs in between. But as a 10-year old growing up in West Baltimore, with the only water nearby being a stream called Dead Run, which more than lived up to its name, there should have been no way to know any of this. But I found there was a way, thanks to one of the greatest storytellers in Maryland history. His name was Bill Burton.
Before I ever read any of Bill’s columns and was able to appreciate his writing skills, I watched him every Friday night on Baltimore’s Channel 2. Each Friday, he would appear with his trademark pipe and tell stories that would mesmerize and inspire. They involved not celebrities, but everyday people making extraordinary catches of fish. For me, they seemed every bit as exciting as the stories in Outdoor Life and Field and Stream. Those stories inspired me to bike several miles to the Patapsco River where I caught my first fish. Reading Bill Burton’s columns in turn motivated me to badger my dad to take me and my friends fishing all over the state of Maryland. And I was fortunate to have a father that did.
Bill Burton’s writings weren’t about fishing in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida or any other state. Bill’s focus was on Maryland. Further inspired, our fishing trips were elaborately planned events to destinations such as Liberty and Loch Raven Reservoirs, Allen’s Fresh, Conowingo Dam, Millington, Johnson Pond, and the Chesapeake Bay. To us, they seemed every bit as exotic and exciting as a trip to Alaska or Canada.
Through my teens, fishing led to scuba diving, which in turn led to an interest in fisheries sciences at Texas A&M University. And in a twist of fate, as I was ready to depart for a position as an observer on commercial fishing boats in the Bering Sea, a chance discussion with former DNR Fisheries Service Chief Howard King led to a career as a Fisheries Biologist at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Some 25 years after I
first saw Bill Burton on television, I found myself talking to him over the phone about the very subject we both came to love: fishing. In the years that followed, I was lucky enough to fish several times with Bill. But it was the conversations we shared that were most rewarding. On a weekly basis we traded thoughts that ranged from the anticipation of the annual spring runs of yellow perch and striped bass to the complexities of the fisheries management process, the latter on which he always sided with the welfare
of the fish.
As I sat with Bill on the deck of Captain Greg Jetton’s charter boat Blind Faith on a sultry July day in 2009 off Love Point, I saw a look on his face that I would never forget. He had a tranquil smile on his face as he watched children from the Living Classrooms Foundation catching one rockfish after another. Two days later he would publish his farewell article – one of the best I would ever see him write. And it was inspired by kids and fishing. As I reflected back on my own childhood, I wondered how many others he affected beside me. I suspect quite a few.
Martin Gary is a Fisheries Ecologist and Assistant Director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service. He received his Bachelor of Sciences degree in Fisheries Ecology from Texas A&M University, and currently resides in Catonsville, Maryland.