Anacostia River: Two fishermen find respite from life’s cares
By David Montgomery,
Aldo García twirls the baited end of his fishing line like a lariat and flings it over the brown water.
The other end is wound around a plastic water bottle, which whirs like any sportsman’s reel as it rapidly unspools on the dusty ground. The sinker and two hooks baited with chicken splash about 40 feet out.
He’s got two more lines deployed, also using bottles.
His friend Miguel Vargas fishes with two rigs: a Monster Energy beverage can, and an actual fishing rod and reel, which he bought at Walmart for $25.
A scrubby mulberry tree shades the spot on the low concrete seawall where García, 38, and Vargas, 39, fish on Sunday afternoons, just downriver from the Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens. It’s their principal recreation and most reliable respite from life’s cares.
Most anglers who fish the Anacostia River from Bladensburg down to the Benning Bridge are Latinos. Downriver from the bridge, more are African Americans.
García and Vargas usually catch a few nine-inch catfish, which they give to friends or eat themselves. Like many of the fishermen, they are unaware of the city health advisory that states: “Do not eat: Catfish, carp or eel.”
Vargas plants his pole in a hole in the ground and tends to his Monster Energy reel. Suddenly, the pole quivers and bends.
He sprints to grab it, too late: The pole erupts from the ground and launches into the river.
“¡Se la llevó, se la llevó!” he shouts in Spanish, which translates as, “He took it away!”
They watch, stunned, as the pole navigates upriver, diving and surfacing like a submarine, impelled by an unseen and awesome force.
About 20 feet offshore, a creature breaches, shimmering blue-gray, indignant at being hooked, thrashing, dragging the pole. Again it dives.
“Look at that fish,” García says.
“It’s enormous,” Vargas says.
García casts with one of his bottle reels and hooks the fishing pole’s line. He patiently maneuvers it around the end of the wall, where it’s possible to wade in.
“Take off your shoes,” he orders Vargas, who goes in barefoot with a bucket.
The flopping fish won’t fit in the bucket. García reels some more, then reaches over Vargas and grabs the fish with both hands.
It’s a 32-inch blue catfish, ugly as sin.
The anglers take turns holding up the trophy. They look like boys — so happy, so excited. The fatigue of the week slips from their features.
García starts speed-dialing friends: “We caught the biggest fish on the planet. I’m going to send you a photo.”
Catfish are bottom feeders, likely to absorb contaminants from the riverbed. Federal studies have found elevated levels of PCBs — industrial chemicals linked to cancer — in some Anacostia catfish.
“You can’t tell by looks,” says Fred Pinkney, a scientist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Catfish . . . that do not seem to get liver or skin tumors can in fact have very high concentrations of PCBs.”
When informed of the experts’ opinion, García and Vargas are unpersuaded.
They’ve never heard of anyone getting sick. The water is dirtier back home, and people eat the fish there.
“Nature cleans the fish and cleans the water,” García says.
More than compensating for any risk is the magic of a Sunday afternoon on the bank of even a dirty river. While a Honduran radio station streams Mexican rancheras over the speaker of a smartphone, they fish and joke, talk about work, talk about home.
“This is what distracts me and gives me peace,” Vargas says. “At least for a while, you forget your problems.”
Vargas — gentle, parental toward his friends — left a southern Mexican town 16 years ago when he could barely feed his three young daughters. He intended to stay in the United States a year, but his youngest has Down syndrome, and he stayed to pay for her care. He sends home $200 a month. Now, he has a 5-year-old son with his partner here, and no plans to leave. “I left my daughters when they were young. I don’t want to leave my son when he is young.”
García — energetic, always making plans — was a taxi driver in Honduras before coming to the United States six years ago. He sends money to support his 16-year-old daughter, who will enroll in a Honduran university next year. After saving $10,000 more, he hopes to return in a year.
Every weekday from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., the men load cardboard onto a conveyor belt at a Baltimore recycling plant for $8 an hour.
García then packs bread in a bakery from 10:30 p.m. to at least 2:30 a.m.
Saturday García sleeps. Sunday he fishes.
“I come to pass a tranquil time,” he says.
They stuff the big fish into the trunk of Vargas’s old, green Buick LeSabre and transport it to the nearby apartment of friends, where one of them, Margoth Arita, will cook the soup.
García cleans the fish in the kitchen sink and slices it crosswise into medallions. Arita chops onions, carrots and celery into a big pot of boiling water, then adds saffron seasoning and the fish. She pours in a liquified mixture of tomatoes, garlic and more onion.
On other occasions, they fry the fish. Once, a friend made Anacostia catfish ceviche.
As the soup simmers, word spreads. More than a dozen friends gather in the living room for dinner and to hear García tell the story of how two plucky heroes landed the leviathan of the Anacostia.
Arita sets out a plate of cilantro, hot peppers and limes, and a stack of warm corn tortillas.
The broth tastes rich and spicy. The fish is a little chewy, and quite filling.
“Very rich,” says García.
“A delicacy,” says Vargas.
A neighbor produces a homemade caramel cake for dessert.
García leans back contentedly, his hands on his belly.
“That’s a lot of people fed with one fish,” he says as night falls.