“Wanna go fishing?”
I ask my younger son, a second-grader.
It’s a sunny Sunday in late summer, and his brother, a middle-schooler, is at a friend’s house. Mom is stealing some time at the gym and then making a Target run, leaving us a couple of hours before we need to pick Jack up from his play date and get him to baseball practice.
Will lies belly down on the living-room floor, propped on his elbows over an elaborate drawing of geometric shapes and blobs.
“Four Mile Run or the car dealer?” he asks, rummaging in a plastic bin for a marker.
“Four Mile Run,” I reply, choosing our go-to spot. To access the water at the other location would require lugging out a 17-foot aluminum canoe and strapping it onto the car.
“Can we get Cokes?” he asks.
“If you hurry.”
Our ritual includes swinging by a Spanish market to grab a dozen night crawlers along with the sodas.
“I’ll get the rods,” he says.
• • •
My son and I have fished widely in Washington. That is to say we’ve tried our luck up and down the Potomac River as far south as Dogue Creek, near Mount Vernon, and as far north as the Old Angler’s Inn by Great Falls.
Most of the time we dunk worms—though, ever hopeful, I generally bring my fly rod, too. “That thing never catches fish,” Will once said.
Our excursions are of necessity ultra-local, shoehorned into weekends clogged with practices, play dates, and homework. I like to be on the water within 15 minutes, and that includes the worm run.
Torn from a Patagonia catalog these places are not. While I’d love to stalk bonefish on Caribbean flats or loop rolling casts across big trout streams out west, Will and I typically find ourselves angling in the shadows of a graffiti-strewn bridge abutment under Jeff Davis Highway, minutes from our house in Alexandria’s Del Ray neighborhood. With apologies to Stephen Stills, you gotta fish the place you’re in.
• • •
We’ve made it to the gravel lot behind the ball field near Four Mile Run. Will’s Coke is gone, leaving a semicircle on his lip as if he’s been playing the trumpet. As soon as we pull in, he dashes from the car.
“I’ll check the water level!” he calls, rushing to a footbridge to peer down at a small hidden creek. If the twice-daily Potomac tide is in, we can fish here. Half-submerged rocks and an abandoned shopping cart poke out of the brownish water.
“Too low,” he reports, and we head down the path a few hundred yards to where the slough hits Four Mile Run.
A football field’s length across the water, we can see a wastewater-treatment plant and a neighboring power station. High-voltage lines are strung from rusted poles that trace the route of the stream like a line of giant, tired kachina dolls.
We follow the bike path on our side of Four Mile Run until we’re near Potomac Yard shopping center, just south of Crystal City. Here the river meets the road, or more accurately, Four Mile Run crosses beneath the six-lane artery of Route 1.
The bike path traverses the bridge at this point on a raised cement sidewalk that puts us close enough to oncoming traffic to glimpse drivers’ faces, then switches back to continue on the other side of the stream for less than a mile until it hits Reagan National Airport—also the point where Four Mile Run meets the Potomac.
We slip off the path down a worn trail to a slope of riprap held in place by heavy-gauge wire mesh. This jumble of fist-size granite chunks below our feet disappears into the water’s edge, an engineered bank that never erodes. Will scampers along the incline while I set myself to cast. Above us, cars rumble. “MS-13” is spray-painted beneath the bridge, and I’m glad Will doesn’t know it’s the name of a notorious gang. This unlikely spot, less than a mile from our house, is our honey hole.
• • •
Four Mile Run, channelized in the 1970s to control stormwater runoff, was once a natural tributary of the Potomac that meandered nine miles through present-day Falls Church and Arlington. One story has it that the name comes from its mismeasured distance from Great Hunting Creek, which is actually three miles away.
The stream has a proud history: George Washington purchased and surveyed a parcel near its headwaters in the 1770s. A century later, the Washington and Old Dominion Railroad chugged along its banks, and from 1906 to 1915, a 40-acre amusement called Luna Park occupied the same place Will and I fish today.
During the park’s first summer, elephants on loan from a Coney Island fair stampeded during a thunderstorm, one ending up in a farmer’s field in what’s now Baileys Crossroads. At another exhibit, called a balloon ascension, a daring young man built a flying machine consisting of a platform suspended below a silk bag filled with gas. In 1906, he took the contraption nearly 300 feet in the air, crossed the Potomac, and landed on the East Lawn of the White House, where he was greeted by First Lady Edith Roosevelt. He continued on and set down outside the US Capitol. Daily business ground to a halt as congressmen swarmed out to take a look.
Fast-forward a half century and the once picturesque mill stream succumbs to urban sprawl and finally, starting in 1974, the slide rules of the Army Corps of Engineers. Its natural course is tamed with thousands of yards of poured-cement slab, as flat and wide in the middle as a road. Gentle banks turn into angled planes designed to gather runoff from an ever-escalating percentage of paved surfaces that surround the waterway.
Despite its conversion decades ago into a giant storm drain, or perhaps because of it, today Four Mile Run has become a vital recreational artery. Bikers commute along its length to and from DC, and runners log miles on weekends.
The nature-deprived salve themselves at its edges, where a choked swath of riparian habitat mimics the leafy banks of a biotic stream. Apparently, even gangbangers appreciate the sanctuary afforded by this urban waterway.
• • •
It’s unseasonably warm, and two Korean men sit on camp chairs on a sliver of bank upstream from Will and me. Several rods more willowy than ours and apparently without reels are propped before them on forked sticks, poking across the water like low-slung antennae. While their methods are unfamiliar, their obsession is not. The slack lines disappear into the clear water flowing before them. Yards away and 18 feet overhead, an equally steady stream of commuter traffic passes by on the six-lane road, some siphoned into the shopping center, the rest moving south to Old Town or north toward the District.
Now and then, one of the men dips his hand into what looks like a bag of kibble and sprinkles a fistful on the water. They point at something below the surface and make animated gestures.
Will and I walk up the path to the bridge to get a look from above. With my back fanned by Route 1 traffic, I lift him under his armpits so he can peer over the barrier.
Dozens of various-size torpedo-shaped shadows are perfectly aligned in the current below us. Occasionally, one repositions itself lazily, but for the most part they hold formation, patiently awaiting the sodden pellets the men are throwing into water.
“Holy crap, Dad!” Will whispers.
It’s a flotilla of carp, some nearly two feet long. We scramble down the bank to try our luck.