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.
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.