ST. MICHAEL'S, Md. President Bush spent a crisp fall Saturday gingerly balancing a tiny screech owl on a gloved hand at a wildlife refuge and casting for rockfish on the Chesapeake Bay.
And for lunch? Famous Maryland-style crabcakes, served up at Vice President Dick Cheney's waterside home outside this charming Eastern Shore village.
It was all part of an effort to burnish his conservation credentials while announcing new initiatives that he said would protect migrating birds and two fish species, red drum and striped bass, prized by anglers.
First came some bird-watching at the Patuxent Research Refuge outside Washington, where he peered through a scope at waterfowl and had a closer encounter with a brown-and-white screech owl.
"Cute little fellow," the president said, looking slightly askance at the jittery bird perched on his hand.
Bush, noting that migrating bird populations are threatened by increasing development along their flyover routes, said his administration would award private landowners "credits" they could sell, mainly to federal agencies, to encourage them to set aside "stopover habitats" for more than 800 species of migratory birds.
He said his administration also would give extra tax breaks, if Congress consents, to landowners who donate conservation easements to help migratory birds.
Traveling to Maryland's Eastern Shore, Bush took a private charter for an hour of fishing with Chris and Melissa Fischer, hosts of ESPN's "Offshore Adventures" show. As Bush mimed catching a big fish for the cameras, Melissa Fischer reeled one in from the bay's choppy waters.
Bush said an order he signed would direct the Commerce and Interior departments to further build up stocks of striped bass and red drum, by working with state and local officials to prohibit sales of the fish caught up to 200 nautical miles out in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.
"We've got to make sure we've got enough to catch as well as enough to eat, and we can do both in a smart way," Bush said outside the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.
Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said the initiative wasn't needed for striped bass because they are one of the healthiest stocks of any fish on the East Coast.
"Striped bass are not in any way, shape or form, in trouble," said Simns.
Bush's order could put recreational anglers ahead of commercial fishing interests. Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Md., described the initiative as an important measure in protecting ocean ecology.
"I think we can bridge the gap between commercial and recreational fishing, restoring the nation's fisheries and ending overfishing," Gilchrest said.
Bush encouraged both sides to look at the big picture, and at the $40 billion spent each year in the United States on sports fishing.
"The commercial fishermen and the sport fishermen don't have to be antagonistic. It's not a zero-sum game," he said. "Good policy will help our commercial fishermen and good policy will help our sport fishermen."
Bush ended his remarks with a jab at his lunch host."I love to fish. And the good news there's a lot of good fishing here is because the Secret Service won't let me go hunting with him," the president said in a lighthearted reference to Cheney's accidental shooting of a companion while quail hunting last year.
Contributing: Brian Witte in Annapolis, Md.