People just don't seem to want to fish any more. I don't know why that is . . . -- Virginia Swain. Forty years ago this would have been a busy time around Swains Lock. The fleet of push boats would be getting a final fixup before the start of bass season.
That was in the days before everyone had a car and a television, before the advent of big outboard motors and the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society. A favorite diversion for Washington outdoorsmen was to take the streetcar to Great Falls, then hike two miles upstream to Swains Lock for the best small-mouth fishing around.
"We had a season then," said Fred Swain, who has lived in the stone tender's house at Lock 21 since 1937s, inheriting it from his grandfather who moved there 30 years before that."You weren't supposed to disturb the bass while they were spawning, so the season was closed until the first of June."
That made June 1 a big day. Swain's father, Robert, earned part of his living guiding well-to-do Washingtonians on the river. A man of means would pay Robert Swain to pole one of the rental push boats two or three miles upriver, then pilot it back down while the angler fished from the bow.
Did Fred Swain ever get to go along on those trips?
"Oh no," he said. "It was serious business. No room for kids hanging around."
Today Swains Lock is very much the way it was in simpler times. The Potomac still sweeps by wide and swift, the breadths interrupted by little islands around which the water runs in riffles. The pileated woodpeckers still shriek from the trees and geese and wood ducks paddle around in the still pools.
But it's a rare day when the river is crowded with fishermen.
Years ago the Swains had 25 rental fishing boats for the river and two or three canoes for paddling on the C&O Canal. Today only nine of the old boats are left, and they are almost never all rented. But there are 75 canoes that cram the canal on weekends.
Almost anyone can paddle a canoe on still water. A skill that has almost died is the ability to pole one of the Swain's homemade, narrow, flat-bottom skiffs through the fast water of the river to get to the food fishing holes.
"Have you got any poles left?" I asked Fred Swain.
"Sure," he said. "You're welcome to try it."
What I really wanted was for him to offer one of those old-fashioned guided fishing trips, with him poling and me fishing. But Swain has a regular nine-to-five job and plenty to do around the lockhouse with the crush of weekend hikers and canoeists.
So I asked my neighbor Henry to be the angler and I'd be the guide. I'm handy with boats and figured I could dope out the poling techniques quickly.
Swain was waiting. Early Saturday morning he led us to the skinny skiff. Quick lesson: "Keep the pole close to the boat," he said, "or else you'll zig-zag all over the river. Pole from the stern; use the long pole in the deep water and the short one in the riffles."
Nothing to it. Nothing easy, anyway.
We bounced off every obstacle we could find on the way to the Virginia side, where the water was clearer and the better bass fishing was said to be. Henry was dizzy from 360s by the time we reached a quiet pool.
While he recuperated I tossed a small spinner up along a fallen tree and worked it back to the boat. On the eighth cast the spinner stopped as if struck, then line spilled off the reel as a bass ran with the lure.
The smallmouth was not quite legal 12-inch keeper size.
It was an auspicious start that didn't hold up over the long haul. The lesson of a day's poling and fishing at Swains is that neither is as easy as it looks. You work to get from point to point and you work to catch fish.
An angler who consistently brings back keeper bass and large bluegills, perch and catfish from the fast water above Great Falls is one who knows the river and fishing. It's demanding sport, which probably explains why so few do it.
Hard work being its own reward, Henry and I felt good returning with our talley of a dozen small fish. And we could even keep the boat straight as long as we both poled at the same time.
The women and kids were waiting with a picnic in the beautiful, shady flats by the river, and the afternoon stretched to peaceful evening. It was almost like stepping back in time.