Honga river, where the wild things are

Maybe fishing is what the Eastern Shore's Honga River is all about . . . or maybe it's just a great excuse to see the magnificent wildlife.

by John Page Williams
illustration by Richard C. Goertemiller

On a sunny October day, four friends and I "circumnavigated Dorchester," running a sturdy pair of 17- to 19-foot outboard skiffs from Denton on the Choptank to Federalsburg on Marshyhope Creek, the northwest branch of the Nanticoke. We lingered the longest on the Honga River, in the middle leg of this marathon day down one river to the Bay and back up another. With its shallow coves, broad open waters and deep channel, the Honga offers great fishing, abundant wildlife and incredible beauty. 

The Honga doesn't work the way most other Chesapeake waterways do. Instead of being fed by rainwater pulled by gravity from headwaters of higher elevation, it draws its fresh waters from the low-country swamps and marshes of Dorchester County, south and west of Cambridge and the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Consider that its main sources have names like Dunnock Slough, Lower Keene Broad and Worlds End Creek, and you'll get the idea.

Taken together, these headwaters develop enough flow to cut a 35- to 40-foot channel in the narrow parts of the Honga's lower reaches, but much of the most interesting water is less than three feet deep. Yes, you can get in here with a large Chesapeake deadrise powerboat--Captain Henry Gootee runs his 46-foot charterboat,Striker,out of his family's marina at the head of the river all the time--but the Honga is made for 17- to 25-foot outboards and sea kayaks.

An earlier trip to the Honga had proven the point. A pair of Natural Resources Police officers took me through the winding channels from Taylors Island down Slaughter Creek, Upper Keene Broad, Dunnock Slough and Lower Keene Broad to the head of the Honga in a 17-foot Whaler. Yes, we had to stop once for 20 minutes to allow the tide to flood; and no, I wouldn't be able to find that channel again without a lot of help and a good GPS.

On this October trip, a 7 a.m. departure from Denton gave us an easy run down the Choptank River, past Cambridge. From the mouth of the Choptank, we ran down a calm main Bay to the channel just above Barren Island, then followed the marked channel into the Barren Island Gap and under the bridge at Upper Hoopers Island, which brought us into the Upper Honga. Even in our skiffs, we had to pay strict attention to the markers in that very tight side channel to keep from running aground. Once in the Honga's well marked main channel, however, we found depths up to 40 feet.

I don't know what I love more about the Honga--the great fishing or the incredible wildlife. Of course we had brought fishing gear, and when we stopped to eat lunch we cast jigs into the swirling tide of the "Canal" between the mainland and Wroten Island, against a colorful background of flaming red-orange maples and deep maroon sweet gum trees on shore. Meanwhile, two great blue herons stalked the marsh edge, hunting bull minnows, while a bald eagle soared overhead and a late-season osprey, migrating south from New England, dove on a school of bait fish. We prowled the oyster reefs on the sharp channel edges around Bentley Point and the lump at Peanut Hill, just outside Wingate harbor. Ostensibly we were fishing here, too, but mostly we marveled at dramatic features of the Honga's bottom, as seen through the electronic "eyes" of the depthsounders. 

Heading down to Hooper Strait, we stopped to visit friends and stretch our legs at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Karen Noonan Environmental Education Center, which sits on the tip of Bishops Head. Looking out over the broad marshlands for birds, we saw several more bald eagles and a flock of Canada geese. Unfortunately, we also saw three dozen orange-billed mute swans--which are beautiful but not native. Like many invasive species, these big birds cause considerable damage, especially to underwater grass beds like the eelgrass in Hopkins Cove next to the Noonan Center, where we found this group. These birds are also aggressive, so we gave them a wide berth.

Back aboard the skiffs, we turned across Fishing Bay into the broad mouth of the Nanticoke. The run up the calm Nanticoke and then Marshyhope Creek to Federalsburg meant more fall colors, great blue herons and eagles. The river's tidal fresh marshes were mostly brown stubble, but in summer they fairly burst with seed-producing plants, especially wild rice, rice cutgrass, tear thumb and smartweed, set just inside a border of yellow pond lily. No wonder the Marshyhope is a fall and winter magnet for waterfowl, from resident wood ducks to blacks, and mallards. Tired but happy, we pulled the skiffs at the public marina there at 7 p.m. Twelve hours on the water had meant running for seven, covering about 120 nautical miles at 17 knots, which had left us five hours for poking around and fishing, mostly in the Honga. It had been a day to remember.

I'm prejudiced about boats for this area, because our skiffs allowed us the mobility to explore both the shallow coves and the broad open waters of the Honga. But no matter your choice of vessel, the Honga River will give you solitude and the "big sky" perspective of the Dorchester marsh country. If you're new to this part of the Chesapeake, you're in for a treat.

Getting on the Water

If you fancy trailering a skiff or carrying a kayak directly to the Honga, make sure you take a pair of binoculars and good field guides. My favorite for general purposes isLife in the Chesapeake Bayby A.J. and Robert L. Lippson (Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1994). For birds, take along the heavy but outstandingSibley Guide to Birds(Knopf, 2000) or --my favorite lightweight alternative-- the stalwart oldBirds of North America(a paperback Golden Guide published in 1966). For launching, you have a choice of ramps at Golden Hill (behind Gootee's Marina, at the head of the Honga); Tylers Cove and Hoopersville on Hoopers Island; Kirwins Wharf near Wingate; or Crocheron Wharf in Crocheron. For specific directions, visit the website of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (www.dnr.state.md.us), click on Boating, then on Online Boating Access Guide. If you need marina services, check Gootee's (410-397-3122 or 800-792-0082;www.gootees.com), Orchard Point Marina at Fishing Creek on Hoopers Island (410-397-2173), Rippons Harbor farther down Hoopers Island (410-397 3200), Stine Marine Railway in Wingate (410-397-8574), and Powley's Marina in Wingate (410-397-8188). Whatever boat you're running, make sure it's in good working order, and that you have checked the weather. This is big water that can kick up rough.

[12.03 issue]