A Livelihood Ebbs

Louis Harley, 76, is retiring this summer after more than 65 years as a Potomac waterman. He and his son Mike run the only remaining commercial fishing operation on the river.
Louis Harley, 76, is retiring this summer after more than 65 years as a Potomac waterman. He and his son Mike run the only remaining commercial fishing operation on the river. (Photos By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)
By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 10, 2007

Marvin Louis Harley has cheated death twice in his long life on the Potomac River. He has seen the eagles return, the grasses grow back along the river bottom and the shad flickering again in his nets. The river is a wild, unpredictable place, he says. Never as clean and clear as it is today. Maybe never as lonely, either.

Harley, 76, is a waterman, and through seven decades on the Potomac, he has watched the river's wildlife rebound and his own livelihood gradually go extinct. His business, M.L. Harley & Sons Live Fish Co., is the only commercial fishing operation left on his bend of the river. And when Harley retires this summer, part of a long, rich tradition will leave the water with him.

"I know I'm the last of them around here," he said. "We're the last that's ever going to be."

It's only a few hundred yards from Harley's doorstep to the riverbanks where his skiffs are moored, but he can see big changes in that short trip. The Hallowing Point area in Lorton where Harley has lived all his life was once a neighborhood of fishing families, back when Mount Vernon was still the biggest house on the river.

Now, some of the old clapboard shacks and brick ramblers remain, but they're dwarfed by the waterfront estates and 10,000-square-foot mansions that line the banks. Harley's two muddy, fish-smelling skiffs look a little misplaced among the gleaming yachts and speedboats that share the river.

One morning last week, as Harley's neighbors headed for jobs up Interstate 95 and the Capital Beltway, he and his son Mike set out on the water with an order to fill: 300 pounds of catfish. Their simple, single-motor vessel had a big wooden crate and a few plastic bins to hold their catch, but none of the high-tech gizmos used by the bass masters on ESPN. Harley learned to read the river a different way: Dogwood blossoms meant the shad would run, and the catfish would trap when the mountain laurels bloomed or black gum trees turned pink in the fall.

"This is catfish-spawning season," Harley said, explaining why he wasn't using bait. "If one female goes into those traps, they'll fill up in a day."

An osprey looped overhead as they pushed off. Soon father and son were zipping around a river bend into Gunston Cove, with the thickly forested shoreline of Fort Belvoir to the north. Harley, a small man with tanned, furrowed skin and large hands, stood at the bow as the skiff bounced along.

Harley has developed a rather unusual business model in order to earn his living on the river long after others have given it up. Each year, he and Mike snare thousands of pounds of catfish in net traps woven at home. What they don't sell to the Maine Avenue fishmongers in the District they load into live aquarium tanks on their truck, which Mike drives on a delivery circuit to pay-to-fish lakes and ponds as far south as Georgia.

In this brand of interstate commerce, a blue channel catfish Harley pulls from the Potomac can end up on the hook of an angler competing in a tournament in suburban Atlanta. "They have jackpots for the biggest fish of the night," said Mike, 43. "It's like a way to gamble."

The work is year-round, but Harley rarely sees ice on the river anymore. He'll catch rockfish and carp in the spring and crabs in the summer, and he has worked for 13 years with local biologists on a successful shad restoration program. His is the only commercial operation on the water north of Prince William and Charles counties, according to the Potomac River Fisheries Commission.

Harley pointed to a spit of land farther upriver as Mike steered toward their traps. "White Stone Point," he said. "That's where my grandfather drowned in 1921."

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