What’s a quick way to see what fish are under the water? The answer may shock you.

Just how healthy are D.C.'s fish? Post columnist John Kelly waded in electrically charged currents with the team that tracks the local fish community to see for himself. (Casey Capachi/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist April 23

Unlucky in love? Put yourself in a shad’s shoes.

Or rather, a shad’s fins, for the shad is a fish. It is an anadromous fish, to be exact, which means it is born in freshwater, heads to the ocean to live its life, and then, when it’s time to mate, returns to freshwater and goes in search of partners. As it’s springtime, area rivers are the piscine equivalent of a singles bar next to a no-tell motel.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Love is in the air, and sex is in the water.

Which is why I felt a little conflicted about striding into the Anacostia River’s Northwest Branch last week wearing chest-high waders and holding a net. I mean, if the creek bed’s a rockin’, don’t come a knockin’.

But this was all in the name of science. I was a guest of Phong Trieu, an environmental planner with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Every spring, Phong and his team sample stretches of water to gauge the Anacostia’s health and see what sort of fish are lurking beneath the surface. The way they do that is shocking.


Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments environmental planner Phong Trieu goes over a list of the species seen on a recent fish-sampling trip to the Northwest Branch and Northeast Branch of the Anacostia River. An Electrofisher backpack sites nearby. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

I mean literally shocking.

Last Friday morning, I met Phong, environmental planners Chris Adriance and Matt Gallagher, and intern Jesse Boorman-Padgett at Melrose Park in Hyattsville. The Northwest Branch is just down a grassy embankment, flowing under the Rhode Island Avenue overpass and a railroad bridge. The river bottom is concrete here — to better control flooding — and a concrete fishway allows sex-mad shad to muscle their way upstream.

Chris and Matt looked like they’d stepped right out of “Ghostbusters.” They wore high-tech backpacks, each of which trailed a length of wire. In their hands were yellow poles that ended in a loop of metal: the anode to the wire’s cathode.

We entered the cold, swiftly moving water, our rubberized waders compressing around our legs. Phong, Jesse and I held long dip nets at the ready.

Phong has been wading and boating in the Anacostia rivershed for the council for 18 years. He’s been to certain areas so often that his feet remember the structure hidden beneath the water. He guided us carefully downstream until we reached an area where he felt the shad would be waiting.

At Phong’s signal, Chris and Matt dipped their poles in the water and swept them back and forth like metal detectors at the beach. The sound of rushing water was joined by a chorus of beeps as Chris and Matt closed the circuits on their poles, spreading electricity in a 10-foot diameter around them.

Nothing, nothing, nothing. And then a white shape rose from the murk. I lurched forward with my net, scooped up the foot-long fish and flipped it, wriggling, into an orange bucket Phong was holding.

More fish floated up, temporarily paralyzed by the electricity, and we netted them.

Back in shallow water, Phong went through the buckets, noting the catch. It was mostly hickory shad and gizzard shad. To check the sex, Phong squeezed along the belly, forcing out either pale eggs or white milt.

When the fish census was over, the fish went back into the water, everything but their dignity intact.

We visited four spots in all. At one, we saw an osprey swoop down and catch a fish in its talons. In a quiet spot near the University of Maryland, Phong shouted “Bald eagle on the left!” and we watched that majestic bird soar effortlessly above the trees.

Near the College Park Airport we splashed down the Northeast Branch to the confluence of Paint Branch and Indian Creek. The branches of budding trees arched over us, and the sun made diamonds on the water. Here, there was no concrete overpass, no railroad trestle. Matt said, “I could blindfold you and drop you down in places in Prince George’s County and you’d have no idea where you were.”

We could have been in a New England trout stream or a Yosemite creek.

“I’m always excited to see the hickory shad,” Phong told me later. “I’m a fly fisherman, and that’s a big recreational fish. That fish is definitely a Potomac River and Anacostia River success story.”

By the day’s end, we’d found hickory shad, gizzard shad, alewifes, pumpkinseed sunfish, redbreasts, bluegills, American eels, tessellated darters, a white sucker, a quillback sucker, spottail shiners, some mummichogs and some banded killifish.

Some were natives, and some were just passing through. Sort of like the rest of us Washingtonians.

To watch a video of Phong and his team in action, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

Gone fishin’

I’m taking next week off. I’ll see you back in this space on May 5.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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