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Fish Tales: A Father and Son Fish the Waterways That Flow Through Washington

I’ve been fishing since I was a teen. Now I share with my son the lessons of patience and the secrets of the waterways that flow through our home ground. You never know what unlikely spot will turn out to be a honey hole.

“I like to be on the water within 15 minutes,” says the author, shown with son Will at Dyke Marsh, near their Alexandria home. Photograph by James Kegley.

“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.

Will holds a night crawler, good for catching catfish and bass. Photograph by James Kegley.

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.

“Fishing earns you a bone-deep sense of place” the author writes, “a visceral understanding of the watershed as an interconnected series of creeks extending from the Potomac like fingers.” Photograph by James Kegley.

The fishery is fertile, despite the Potomac’s rap as a polluted tributary of the perennially at-risk Chesapeake Bay. In this stretch of stream, it’s not unusual to see bass boats prowling below the overpasses or Hispanic men on the bank jigging with handlines wrapped around plastic bottles. Often I’m the only angler with a pricey fly rod and an Orvis vest, but that’s not for lack of fish.

Both the river proper and Four Mile Run support year-round populations of small- and large-mouth bass, catfish, crappie, and perch, among other introduced species. Add to the list various pan fish, pollution-tolerant carp, and even koi that flash orange in the water like giant mutant goldfish.

On the Potomac near DC, spring is marked by the annual return of herring, shad, and striped bass. The shad run is woven into political lore—having returned to their home waters to spawn, shad are the dish of honor at a longtime annual event known as a planking, where politicians woo Virginia voters over plates of the oily fish made the way the Indians did it: nailed to planks and smoked by an open fire.

Throw in a relatively new but growing population of northern snakehead. Originally imported from China and cultivated in tanks as a delicacy, the species somehow made its way into a single pond in Crofton, Maryland, in 2002 and is now gaining ground as an apex predator that threatens native stalwarts in the local food chain, including bass. There’s even an increase in interest in prehistoric garfish, smaller cousins of the toothy man-eaters Jeremy Wade hunts on the cable show River Monsters.

You never quite know what you’ll get when you wet a line in the Potomac.

Or when you’ll get skunked.

• • •

As Will and I make our way down toward the school of rooting carp, we come upon another fisherman sorting through his tackle box under the shelter of the bridge. I tie a popper on my line, a lure that looks like a fluorescent gumdrop with rubber whiskers.

Meanwhile, Will quizzes our fellow angler despite the man’s limited English.

“Do you like fishing? Have you caught anything? What are you fishing with?”

The man shakes his head, smiles, and hands Will a rubber worm.

“Dad, try this one!” Will calls.

I’m already whipping my line back and forth above the carp shadows. Seconds after it alights on the water, there’s a small splash and my artificial bug disappears below the surface.

• • •

Fishing earns you a bone-deep sense of place, a visceral understanding of the watershed as an interconnected series of creeks extending from the Potomac like fingers. Every knuckle is a place keenly experienced on a given day, or maybe on a series of days extending over years. The memories accumulate like silt, the contours familiar but always shifting.

It’s the heart of summer, and I’m out by myself for a few hours at the south end of Old Town. I am river-blasted: sun beating down, hydration levels in flux, staring at the same patch of moving water for so long I can diagram every swirl and pocket. There’s a maniacal edge to this pursuit of fish. A dab of Ahab.

Great angling spots in and around the Potomac River. Click on the image to view a larger version.

To get here, I walked along the edge of the George Washington Parkway, cutting down to the water to fish below a bridge. Across the creek is Belle Haven Country Club’s back nine. Downstream, the Masonic temple’s wedding-cake stacks loom in the distance beyond the ribbons of the Wilson Bridge’s ramps.

I’m on the rocky edge beneath a canopy of branches festooned with fishing line and lost lures. Around me is the detritus of fishing spots: Styrofoam bait containers, tangles of line, plastic bottles. Before me, a puzzle in hydrology.

The current flows through three arches, with eddies between the channels and fishy-looking spots in the lee of each column. There’s a mushy night crawler on my hook and a lead BB on the line, a basic worm-chucker’s rig.

A cast to the nearest channel wash-es downstream. Reeling in slowly, I feel for a bump to indicate bottom. My bait, caught in an underwater swirl, circles back to an area near my feet. I picture where a fish might hold to expend the least energy while still picking at the buffet that drifts by beneath the surface.

As I’m bringing in the next cast, the line stops dead. Must be on the bottom after all. I yank hard a couple of times, trying to bounce the hook free. The line suddenly moves into faster-flowing water—it’s no snag; it’s a hefty fish. I tug-of-war the thing to shore, my rod bending into a U.

The catfish’s whiskers hang limp as it twists on the slimed line. Gray with a white underbelly, its skin is smooth and sharklike. Dumb jelly eyes accuse me as I struggle to release it.

The hook is too deep in its gullet to retrieve with my needle-nose pliers, so I cut the line. The lethargic catfish snaps awake as it hits the water and disappears with a swirl.

I rinse my hands in the water, wipe them on my shorts, then pry the cap off a sweating beer and take a long pull.

There’s a ten-inch smallmouth bass a dozen casts later. If I go only a little deeper, an even bigger bass might be lurking. I add another split shot to my line to make the bait sink more quickly. Instead of a monster bass, I hook the bottom, for real this time.

I break off the line and set up again, but the action dies. I cast to different spots and vary my retrieve: slow, fast, herky-jerky. Half an hour goes by and I’m down to my last half worm when I target a spot downstream beyond a submerged log. The pool turns out to be swarming with sunfish.

I hold the first one in my palm as I unhook it, marveling at the capillaries of turquoise within its delicate lemon coloring. I catch a half dozen more until the last ragged bit of worm is gone, and then it’s only my bare hook flashing through the shallow water past the log. Out of bait and beer, it’s time to go.

There are three missed calls on my cell phone and a text from my wife. “You’re picking up the kids from camp tomorrow,” she says when I call her back.

• • •

I learned to fish the summer I turned 13. The “Vermont house,” a family vacation home, was filled with cousins and energetic activity: berry-picking expeditions, doubles games at the local tennis courts, trips to nearby Manchester for the sidewalk sales. No one else in my family fished or ever had the urge to, but somehow I was drawn to the solitary sport.

My teacher was a retired machinist from New Jersey who had a vegetable stand just down old Route 7. Arthur left corn and tomatoes and fresh-baked pies out under an awning, with price signs scrawled in block print and a coffee can for the money. He also built and sold rods and flies he tied himself. That summer, I picked tomatoes in his field in return for fishing lessons on the lazy Baten Kill River.

I remember how the mist came off the water our first morning out, and the gentle splish when trout broke from the riffles to inhale a brown-winged Adams fly. Then coming home to a family of skeptics with a stringer of two dozen native brookies already cleaned and ready to fry. It made no difference that I’d caught only a few and Arthur all the rest.

I can still picture the Pyrex pan with the trout laid out in rows, wallets of flaky white flesh inside crisped silver skins. Butter-browned and sprinkled with bread crumbs, no doubt served alongside some of Arthur’s field-fresh tomatoes, salted.

That was the meal that made me a fisherman.

Northern Virginia’s Four Mile Run—a stream surrounded by cement, traffic, and urban sprawl—is a convenient fishing spot for the author and Will. Photograph by James Kegley.

Will’s urge to fish, like mine, is innate.

“Got one!” I call as my popper disappears, and he’s at my side in an instant to assess the catch.

It’s not one of the big carp we saw from above, just a scrappy bluegill, hardly bending my rod tip. Each time my lure hits the surface, another of the greedy pan fish darts up from below. Most are too small to swallow the lure. The popper dances as they drag it under and spit it out.

Will now has his own rod in hand, and I set mine down to help him. He fishes hard with his worm for 15 minutes, but neither he nor the Koreans are having much luck. The carp, if they’re still there, are happy filtering the kibble as it drifts toward them. Will’s night crawler doesn’t tempt them.

“You do it,” he says at a certain point, handing his rod to me. On the other side of the bridge below, the guy who gave Will the worm seems to be pulling a wriggling bass out of the water every five minutes.

“I’m gonna see what he’s fishing with now,” Will tells me.

“Wait for me!” I call, reeling in.

• • •

These days, I practice catch-and-release—for conservation but also because I assume any fish from around Washington is loaded with mercury. The only ones I keep to eat are big striped bass on Chesapeake Bay charter trips.

Nothing like cracking a beer with a buddy at 7 am on what should have been a work day, forearms pumped after reeling in a 38-inch rockfish. Entirely different, of course, is the more intimate experience of fishing on a cool November morning for smaller, schooling stripers, called “schoolies,” at Gravelly Point on the GW Parkway.

Red runway lights cut through the early-morning mist. Their reflections shimmer like a string of beads on the black water that swirls around me, pressing my waders tight against my legs.

Will holds a largemouth bass caught by another fisherman at Four Mile Run. Photograph by James Kegley.

My fly rod is an extension of my arm as I rhythmically propel it forward and back—pausing for the loop of line to uncurl behind me—then drive it forward again, stopping the motion to let the cast roll out onto the water in a straight line 30 yards ahead of me.

I pause as the line settles, waiting while the bit of chartreuse-and-white fluff at the end moves through the layers of current—exactly, I hope, like a swimming minnow would.

Suddenly there’s a rustling on the bank nearby, amplified in the predawn stillness. At this hour, there’s no rumble of traffic from the parkway, no bone-rattling transit of planes at the airport.

My breath catches in my throat as I wonder who else might be out before sunrise. A pair of glowing eyes appears on the bank and I exhale: A foraging raccoon sniffs about before disappearing back into the trees. A pinprick leak in my waders near my right knee has let in enough river to drench my fleece pants, and the steam coming off the water is starting to dissipate. This otherworldly scene will soon dissolve into the morning commute. Still, nothing.

After what I’ve sworn for the sixth time is the very last cast, I begin to wind up my line, resigned. I’ll go home fishless.

Then … electric! Fish on.

I start yanking line in as fast as I can, holding the rod high above my head to keep tension. I’m babbling now, alone in the morning, unashamed prayers of thanks to the god of fish who has smiled once again instead of sending me home ready to quit the sport entirely.

I bring my catch to hand, and it’s a bass as long as my forearm. Not the species I was targeting, but redemptive nonetheless. I unhook it with a quick shake and 15 minutes later catch its brother. By now I’m drenched and shivering. I clamber to my car, where I crank up the heat and peel off my wet gear. Coffee, a hot shower, and a feeling all morning at work like I’ve gotten away with something.

• • •

“Call it a day, Willy?” I ask. We’ve determined that the man downstream is using plastic worms, which seem to be working better than our natural ones.

“Maybe a couple more casts,” he says.

Truth is, I’m about done myself. Fishing’s been slow, and we still have to pick up Jack for baseball.

“Just one,” I say, turning to gather our stuff. “We gotta go.”

I turn back in time to see his rod suddenly dive toward the surface like a divining rod that’s found a spring.

“Whoa!” he screams.

There’s the whir of line being stripped against the drag as whatever is on the other end flees. And Will’s hysteria: He’s both terrified and ecstatic—practically speaking in tongues. I reach around behind him and grab the rod, my own heart pounding. In the infinity of the next two minutes, together we land the lunker.

This article appears in the August 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.

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