Momma said don't go near that river,

Don't be hangin' around old Catfish John.

"Catfish John"

B. McDill, A. Reynolds

Washington's version of Catfish John is a slender, serious type named Mike McBride who has raised techniques of chasing bewhiskered bottom-feeders in the Potomac to something of an art form.

McBride's romance with the river dates back to the 1950s, when as a high-school student he used to sneak away to Fletcher's Landing and fish for largemouth bass, crap-pie, shad and any other eating fish that wandered in. He caught plenty of catfish in those days, too, but he followed the lead of most folks and tossed them back as trash. There's a gut feeling among many Potomac anglers that catfish, though a delicacy in the deep South and a major source of protein to poor people, is unfit for consumption when it comes from Washington's river.

Slowly McBride disabused himself of that notion, mostly because healthy-looking people around him kept telling him to hold on to his catfish, that they were good eating.

Then one day he figured out a way to by-pass the most disconcerting aspect of catfish eating -the grisly chore of skinning. He devised a way to filet his catch, no mean feat considering that a cat's ribcage extends more than halfway to its tail and there's no meat worth saving around the ribs.

He took the filets home to his wife and they feasted that night, some three years ago. Since then McBride's been stuck on catfishing and he's worked out a system that brings in the big ones. It's not cheap, but it works.

He turns up his nose at plain old supermarket chicken livers, standard bait here abouts. Instead he uses tough beefliver, but before he the royal treatment. It has to marinate, at least overnight, in a pungent concoction of anise and vanilla extract. He mixes two of four ounces of vanilla with two ounced of anise and lets the liver sit in the brew in the refrigerator. The result is a greasy, malodorous gruel that catfish apparently can't resist.

McBride's technique is to float the biggest chuncks of liver his hook will hold in the fast-flowing currents above Little Falls, but he said his tactics work just as well in the deep water off Fletcher's, where rental boats are available.

During the hot summer months he's brought in as many as 10 lunker cats over 18 inches long in a day, and one day he landed four that tipped the scales at better than five pounds. Those are good fish, and big cats are as game as any fighting fish on light line.

McBride has a couple of tricks to take the "river taste" out before frying. If the fish are still alive when he gets home he lets them swim in fresh water in the sink or tub, to work clean water through their systems. And sometimes he soaks the meat in salt water before freezing.

But even with no preliminaries, he said that once the filets are fried he can't tell the difference between catfish and bass.

All of which is nice for the table and pleasant for the palate, but McBride, like most fishing fanatics, has other incentives."Maybe it's because I'm out there I have no concept of time, no thoughts about bills or responsibilities or work.

"I consider it therapy."

Which is what fishing's all about.