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Where Is This Man Fishing?

By Mike Tidwell
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 30, 1998; Page E01


I'm standing in a beautiful forest, next to a glimmering stream. I cast my line toward golden-brown pools of cool water full of catfish and bass, perch and carp. My Bosnian guide, Zeljko Koretec, the preeminent expert on this rarely fished stream, is standing 100 feet upriver, reeling in a two-pound bass. A largemouth.

Zzziiinnngggg!! goes his drag as the bass dives again.

All around, I see deer and raccoon tracks. Up and down the creek bank, as far as I can see, there are no other human footprints. No one comes here to fish. It's the ultimate traveler's fantasy. I've given the world the slip, journeyed to a place that is special beyond my imagining.

I took a Metro bus--the S4--to get here.

A beaver swims past me, five feet away, on his way to a hidden den. My pole bends suddenly. I've hooked another nice catfish. Fifteen inches long. I've stopped counting how many that makes. Zzziiinnngggg!! goes the drag. I bring him to shore, and when the adrenaline subsides, I hear a distant voice. It floats down a hill, across the creek, through the trees. It pulls me back to Earth:

"Dick! Dick! Did you see the giraffes? They're feeding!"

It's not Africa or Bosnia. It's Rock Creek, hard by the National Zoo, just downstream and around the bend from the Beach Drive entrance.

"Why does no one fish here?" Zeljko asks. "Your Rock Creek is so wonderful." He's fished here almost every day since emigrating from Bosnia six months earlier. But few Americans bother. Zeljko motions toward the water. There are so many fish we can see them everywhere, quite plainly through the clear water.

"So many fish and no fishermen," Zeljko says. "Why?"

I know the answer and so do you. It's a cliche but true: People don't take full advantage of the treasures in their own home towns. When was the last time you lingered over those great paintings in the Capitol rotunda? Or took a lunchtime stroll through the Museum of American Art? Fact is, the majority of people who reside in the Washington area neither live nor work downtown and have to make special efforts to avail themselves of the cultural treasures in our midst. And even those who do venture into the city to take in a museum or performance don't consider exploring Washington's natural treasures. Escaping to nature for most people means putting as many miles between themselves and the Beltway as quickly as possible. All of which makes D.C.'s ecological wonders our most ignored asset, banished to the outer realm of stepchild oblivion.

Which is why, to acquaint myself with Washington in a fresh way, I decided to do what a lot of people do to acquaint themselves with more exotic locales: fish it. Why bother to jet off to Idaho or Montana or Alaska, or even drive out to the Shenandoah Valley, to make contact with nature? Just come to the District.

Don't chuckle. Henry David Thoreau, quintessential nature maven, was right: The world's true wildernesses lie underwater. Rock Creek proved to be quite thick with underwater cruisers amid all those majestic trees. Zeljko will come back here tomorrow and catch 25 bass, four of them more than two pounds.

The Potomac, meanwhile, from the Chain Bridge on down, is one of the 10 best places in America to catch largemouth bass, according to the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society. Fishing shows from across the country tape Potomac segments within sight of the Kennedy Center--yet we locals remain oblivious. The Anacostia, meanwhile, despite some problems, is a very decent river for sport fishing, harboring most of the 32 species one can hook within the District lines. And the Tidal Basin? How about 35-inch striped bass in June after they've come up from the Atlantic to spawn? You want fly-fishing? Try the Constitution Gardens pond, next to the Vietnam Memorial. A microscopic group of fly rod eccentrics says it's "utterly outstanding" for bass and bluegill in the spring.

"In terms of fishing, many of our water resources are definitely underutilized," says Jon Siemien, senior fisheries biologist within the District government's Fisheries and Wildlife Division. (Yes, the city has one of those, too.)

So here's the message for area denizens: Travel inward. If you live in Gaithersburg or Herndon or Upper Marlboro or on the fringes of D.C.'s quadrants--travel inward to the city core, put yourself at the water's edge and get to know the town in a way you've never expected. The fishing's great--probably better than anything near where you live, with a physical setting that's more tranquilizing than you've ever understood. And with each cast into that watery reflection of the Washington Monument, travel inward to your own core.

That's what fishing, finally, is all about: getting inside yourself, below the surface of things, relaxing, recharging. It's about catching your breath--deep down--while connecting again with living things in a living world.

"When I fish, everything is all right," says Zeljko. "I forget about the war in my country. I forget about my prison time there. I go home from Rock Creek and everything is all right."

Imagine what it can do for a crummy day at the office.

There's only one shop in all of Washington dedicated exclusively to bait and tackle. From my home in Takoma Park, I take the Red Line to Union Station, then walk 15 minutes to G&S Bait & Tackle at 421 Morse St. NE. It's in a warehouse district, across from the Hartman Meat Co., spitting distance from the D.C. Farmers Market.

Forklifts whiz past me as I enter the tiny, 750-square-foot tackle shop. Inside I'm greeted by a chorus of crickets, a forest of fishing rods and the smell of bait fish. Crab pots dangle overhead.

On Fridays and Saturdays, Shirley Gupton, the smiling, voluble owner, unlocks her door at 3 a.m. for the early birds heading down to Hains Point or Buzzard Point or far-off spots in southern Maryland. Other days she opens at a leisurely 5 a.m. "Miss Shirley," as her customers call her, tells me there's just enough business in the District to keep her on this side of solvency. She closes down the store in November and reopens in April, working in between as a substitute schoolteacher. A strange combination of professions, I remark.

"Not at all," she says. "I like being around children, and most fishermen are just that: grown-up children. So we get along."

I survey the bait offerings: crickets, minnows, sand worms, mill worms, night crawlers, red wigglers, nuclear worms, dough balls (for carp), clam "snouts," and all manner of floats, crankbait lures, topwater lures, spinners and plastic worms.

I load up, buying a rod and reel, assorted bait and tackle, and a D.C. fishing license--$5 for residents, $7.50 for nonresidents like myself.

So equipped, I say goodbye to Miss Shirley and hail a cab on Florida Avenue for the National Arboretum. My rod is jutting out the cab's back window as we reach the Arboretum entrance. It's a sunny, breezy June Monday and a pleasant walk through the trees takes me--happy fisherman child--to an upper stretch of the Anacostia River. It's my first visit here and, reaching the river, I promptly lapse into a fit of disbelief. This is Washington?

Buffered by the arboretum on one side and more forested park land on the other, the tableau before me might as well be an isolated, rural finger of the Chesapeake. I sit on the bank and watch two great blue herons stalk fish in a lush stretch of marsh grass. A mallard takes flight, wing tips beating the water, raising staccato splashes. Here and there the river boils with surfacing fish.

I walk the bank, casting spinnerbait. I catch two small white perch over the next two hours, but the tide's going out and the fish really aren't biting, so I just enjoy the scenery. On a subsequent visit, I'm astonished and delighted to see a bald eagle here. D.C. wildlife officials say it's not so uncommon.

And what of the Anacostia's pollution? It's there. The river's much more shallow than the Potomac, and because it's technically not a river but an estuary, the urban pollutants that cross its banks don't flush so well. Also, the majority of the District's surface streets drain into the Anacostia. (Rock Creek, meanwhile, suffers from water temperature problems in the summer when rainwater from steaming hot asphalt streets barrels in. Trout, as a result, cannot live in the creek.)

But the Anacostia is still able to support a rich array of life forms. D.C. biologist Siemien compares the Anacostia to the Chesapeake. It has problems, yes, but it's still a fine fishery and not as polluted as it once was. Still, throughout the District, the city advises against eating captured carp, catfish and eel, whose flesh is more likely than other species to store toxins. At the moment, I'm thinking striped bass and feeling lazy. I switch to clam as bait, tie a float on my line, cast, prop up my rod, stretch out and . . . fall asleep.

This is not normal behavior for me. It's my first nap in forever, in fact. Even when I relax, generally, I prefer to worry. I can fuss over all kinds of problems while on a leisurely jog or working in my garden. But here in the District, fishing amid the great blue herons, seeing not a soul all afternoon, hearing the breeze through the trees and only an occasional, very faint police siren, I'm just too relaxed to worry. So I sleep.

I wake an hour later, pleasantly groggy, my bait gone. I reel in and decide to break camp. The afternoon's waning. It's time for some sunset fishing. This will take place downtown.

I'm back on the Red Line at rush hour, standing with one hand on a rail, the other holding my tackle box and rod. The train's jammed with the usual mix of wrinkled suits, office dresses, worn-out custodians, discarded newspapers. Every set of eyes has a post-traumatic vacancy--everyone sucked dry by the fangs of another workday.

Except me. I've had a nap. I've been fishing. And people stare at me now. If you have any doubts about the merits of fishing in this city, ride a Metro train with all of your gear. People fix me with expressions of fascination and amusement--looks I've seen only when Metro-ing with my infant son or traveling in full costume to a Halloween party. People smile. For them, I think, I'm a reminder that there's another way. Life doesn't have to be like this. Just knowing this, seeing it in the form of my tackle box, seems to make people feel better.

It boils down to goodness, I think. People equate fishing with goodness. If we paid guys to stand in trains at rush hour just holding fishing rods, perhaps crime would go down, divorce would decrease. Perhaps. During my mission to fish the District, my fishing rod will travel all the Metro lines--Red, Green, Blue, Orange and Yellow. It will walk through the great hall at Union Station and hail several more cabs and wander down K Street. It will take the S4 bus, the 70, the 54 and the E2.

It will get lots of smiles.

At Metro Center I switch to the Blue Line and get out at Smithsonian. Soon I'm on the Tidal Basin, hunting for largemouth and striped bass. It's a glorious summer evening. The wind has died down, the tide's coming in and conditions are good for fishing. Across the entire basin, I see only one other fisherman, an older man casting near the FDR Memorial. He's just caught a 15-inch largemouth. I sidle over.

"A white wiggler," he says, flashing the plastic worm he used before heading off to his car on Independence Avenue. I dig out something similar from my tackle box and, sure enough, I catch a 14-inch largemouth, a real pole bender. I happily throw him back.

Next I wander to the Constitution Gardens pond on the other side of the Reflecting Pool. I'm amazed to find a fly-fisherman launching curlicues of line through the golden evening light and onto the pond surface.

His name is Brian Cassidy, and he keeps casting as I pepper him with questions. Yes, he's a serious fisherman, he says. He grew up fly-fishing the trout streams of southern Pennsylvania, and he comes to this concrete-edged pond with all the camera-toting tourists and noisy ducks and the Washington Monument within view because the fishing is "absolutely great." He regularly hooks two-pound bass, and on a good night he'll catch four or five really nice ones in 90 minutes.

"My friends outside of D.C. wouldn't believe it," he says. He is wearing sunglasses and a rugby shirt. "They think all that happens in D.C. is shootings. They wouldn't believe the fly-fishing's this good right here."

In five years of fishing regularly at the Constitution Gardens pond, he's seen maybe two or three other fly-fishermen. "It's almost like my personal, private pond," he says. He gets best results between April and June from 6 p.m. to sunset. The largemouth bass respond well to small flies and larger hair flies, he says, and the catfish sometimes hit streamers.

Cassidy, who lives in the District, says he fishes mostly to blow off steam from his high-stress pharmaceutical job in Vienna. The goal is to completely stop thinking, he says. "I try not to make decisions or solve problems here. I just want something stupid. Just catch fish."

Cassidy keeps casting, and for a while neither of us says anything in the beautiful sunset light. In the middle of a town famous for loudmouths touting new ideas, we remain absolutely silent, putting the brakes on all thoughts. We don't enter our breathing. We enter the rhythm of his casting.

Same results.

It's 6:20 a.m. and I'm directly in the landing path of a Boeing 757 at Reagan National Airport. Bill Kramer, my professional bass guide for the day, has launched his 20-foot bass boat at Gravelly Point Park, just off the George Washington Parkway, next to the main hangars for US Airways. But to get from the boat ramp to the main body of the Potomac, you have to float directly under the running lights--mounted on pilings--just off the northern tip of Reagan National's main runway. It's a memorable experience seeing landing gear and wing rivets in such detail so early in the morning. And who needs coffee with all the skull-rattling noise? But if you're fishing the D.C. Potomac, you launch where you can--and within minutes we're out in the river, away from the noise, happily casting into a bed of coonskin milfoil grass on a sand bed upriver from the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

Kramer, 39, a former concert sound engineer for Judas Priest and Ted Nugent, is arguably the crown prince of Potomac fishing. He's won more than 80 tournaments on the river, earning big cash prizes, boats, even a Chevy pickup. His biggest catch was a 9.2-pound largemouth in Smoot Cove just below the Wilson Bridge on the Maryland side.

And sure enough, this morning, Kramer's the first to catch a fish, a 15-inch largemouth using a tandem willow white spinner pulled through a thick bed of grass. We move later to the Washington Channel, where, along the bulkheading of Fort McNair, across from the columned mansions of the Army brass, I hook a bass of similar size using a quarter-ounce rattletrap in chrome and blue.

It's a cloudy, gray, almost foggy morning that's beautiful in a lonely way, despite the urban landscape all around. Today we'll cast within sight of the Lincoln Memorial, the USA Today building, the Pepco plant in Alexandria and the Georgetown University bell tower. All the while, osprey and geese will wing past us, and red-eared slider turtles will bob to the surface, eyeing us blankly.

Kramer, who calls fishing his "religion," began guiding 10 years ago so he could spend more time on the water. He gestures through the misty, eerie air, past an osprey nest perched atop a channel marker, toward the forested Theodore Roosevelt Island in the distance. "This world," he says, "is not like the rest of the world we live in."

Indeed it isn't. Touring bass pros regularly rank the tidal Potomac, from the District on down, as one of the best fisheries for largemouths in America. Fisheries biologists, meanwhile, rave about the river's extraordinary variety of species, from bass to bluefish to sawtooth walleyes to American shad. Population densities are also very high.

D.C. officials sometimes see schools of a thousand perch during electro-fishing surveys. The Potomac's relatively pollution-free flow down from Appalachia--combined with the nutrient-rich character of tidal environments and the wide range of fish species coming up from the Chesapeake and Atlantic--account largely for this abundant environment.

So why do so few people in the D.C. area come here for fishing trips, or even know enough to consider it? I asked Kramer. "Because in the 1950s and '60s the Potomac was a flowing cesspool," he says. "It was a disgrace, it was so polluted. If you fell in the river, it was recommended you go to the hospital for examination. Now the river's much better. Pollution controls are higher and the fish populations are mostly solid.

"But people still think of it as the old river. So people don't understand how good the fishing is here."

Improvements to the District's Blue Plains water treatment plant, just below Bolling Air Force Base, have contributed most to the river's recovery, Kramer says. It is along the wooden dock of this very same plant that Kramer catches the biggest fish of our outing: a 4 1/2-pound largemouth hooked on a jig and pig. It's a real bruiser.

Together we catch and release a respectable share of bass for the day, stopping at a dozen different spots. We fish more grass beds up and down the river. We go back to Reagan National to fish the runway-light pilings. We fish for smallmouth bass under the Yellow Line Metro bridge, casting and reeling as passengers zip past overhead.

Too soon, it's time to quit. We pass the Kennedy Center, Kramer dodging driftwood with one hand on the wheel and checking his voice mail by cell phone with the other hand. The world is taking us back.

Surprisingly, of all my D.C. fishing trips, it is on the Potomac, with the city in full view all around, that I feel farthest away from the town I know. It's my first time actually out on the river, in a boat, and the city's landmarks present themselves from unfamiliar new angles. Framed only by the Potomac, the Lincoln Memorial looks like a whole new work of art, as do many of Washington's treasures. It's the visual equivalent of what's already been happening inside my head. Coming into town and getting on the water has transported me far away--again.

Two other moments stick out in my mind from my angling tour of Washington.

One evening, I'm fishing for striped bass near Fletcher's Boathouse, just down from the Chain Bridge on a forested bank of the Potomac. Near sunset, two Cambodian men appear from the trees carrying large cast nets. Fifty feet upstream from me, they launch their nets with utter delicacy, and I watch as the circular nets float dreamlike through the air, falling evenly toward the river, then softly shattering the surface. Then comes the quick, hand-over-hand reeling in of the lines, and another cast. It's a sight I've not seen since traveling through Vietnam's Ha Long Bay years before.

The other episode involves fishing the Anacostia River with Sonny Mickens, a silver-bearded, 62-year-old retiree I meet at G&S Bait & Tackle one morning. He takes me to his favorite fishing spot just up from the 11th Street Bridge, next to the Washington Yacht Club. It's simultaneously one of the ugliest and most beautiful places I've fished in the District. Weeds climb unchecked all around a broken-down picnic table, and trash is scattered liberally about the river bank.

But there's an odd serenity to this shady little spot, a feeling amplified by the group of extremely friendly and funny homeless guys who appear to live here. They offer me a rusting, secondhand lawn chair and return to their own fishing. They use discarded line and hooks combined with plastic soda bottles for floats and worms for bait dug up by the nearby train track. Quite drunk, they throw the whole mess into the water by hand, using no poles. And they catch fish. Indeed, Mickens says this is one of the best places he knows for catfish. He once caught a catfish here "as long as the dashboard of a car." The tradition is to give everything you catch to the indigent hosts, who earn their keep by keeping you laughing with their nutty stories. D.C. cops regularly drop by, not to hassle the winos or anyone else, but to relax on their breaks at this out-of-the-way spot not far from the Navy Yard. One motorcycle cop named Jesse smokes a pipe on the bank next to me as Mickens and I keep fishing and talking.

Mickens says he's been fishing in the District all of his life, from trips to Buzzard Point as a child (his family salted the fish down in a barrel behind their home) to his current afternoons fishing in retirement.

"It improves your outlook," he says. "Down here on the river you don't have to worry about someone disrespecting you or threatening your life. There's nothing to get upset about. Your outlook stays low-key and positive."

He casts again, then motions in the direction of the U.S. Capitol, 20 blocks directly behind us on the other side of the train track. "Maybe if these congressmen and other leaders would just get out and fish more, maybe every day even, they'd have that peace of mind I got, and maybe we'd have better laws. I mean, the water's right here, all around them. What are they waitin' for? Just go fish."

Mike Tidwell last wrote for Travel about Washington's antipode, the spot on the exact opposite side of the world.

Details: D.C. Fishing

GUIDES: Bill Kramer, owner of Potomac Guide Service (301-840-9521), is one of the storied giants of Potomac River fishing. He's won more than 80 tournaments up and down the river, and knows the D.C. stretch as well as anybody. He'll also take you up the Anacostia River. Bass boat and all gear provided. Full day, $250; half-day, $150.

Another excellent guide service is Ken Penrod's Life Outdoors Unlimited (301-937-0010). Penrod wrote the book--literally--on fishing the D.C. Potomac. Full day: $250. Half day: $175.

There are no professional guides specializing in outings to Rock Creek, the Tidal Basin or anywhere else in the District, so you're on your own. But for tips on what to catch when, where and how in these waters, call the tackle shops listed below and you'll probably get the help you need.

TACKLE SHOPS: G&S Bait and Tackle (421 Morse St. NE, 202-546-8163) is the only shop in the District devoted exclusively to fishing needs. You won't find a wide selection of anything inside this very small shop 15 minutes by foot from Union Station, but you'll find all the basics--and the service is friendly and knowledgeable. Open April to November.

Historic Fletcher's Boathouse (202-244-0461), right on the Potomac River below Chain Bridge at 4940 Canal Rd. NW, also carries a basic selection of bait and tackle while offering a nearby picnic area, bicycle rentals and canoe and rowboat rentals.

FISHING LICENSE: A District of Columbia fishing license is required for angling anywhere in the District. A one-year license is $7.50 for non-residents, $5 for residents. A 14-day temporary non-resident license is $3. You can purchase a license by mail or at 27 locations throughout the District, Maryland and Virginia. Call the D.C. Fisheries and Wildlife Division for more information at 202-645-6068, Ext. 3005. Catch and release is strongly encouraged throughout the District. Virginia and Maryland licenses are not valid in the District.

POLLUTION: Sewer and rain overflow runoff are a problem particularly on the Anacostia, but also--to a lesser degree--on Rock Creek and the Potomac. Improvements to the District's Blue Plains waste-water treatment facility have dramatically reduced effluents released into the Potomac, accounting for the river's dramatic recovery from its disgracefully polluted days of the 1960s. Still, throughout the District, the city advises against eating captured carp, catfish or eel, whose flesh are more likely to store toxins. The city also advises you eat no more than a half-pound per month of largemouth bass or a half-pound per week of any other edible species.

One of the greatest current threats to the regional bass population is suburban sprawl development, which dramatically reduces "green space" buffers in the watershed and clogs spawning streams with silt build-up. The proposed massive development of Chapman Forest in Charles County would damage one of the region's important bass spawning beds.

SEASONS: The striped bass season opens for two months in late spring and reopens in late summer. The season this year will reopen Tuesday and run to Nov. 15. The District's two other favorite sport fish--largemouth bass and white perch--can be caught year-round. The best months to catch white perch are usually the same months of the striped bass season. And the best times for largemouth bass are normally late April to early May, mid-June to mid-July, and most of autumn.

READING: "Ken Penrod's Tidal Potomac River Fishing Bible" (PPC Publications, 1994) is a thorough guide to angling Washington's Potomac.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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