Down at Lock 8 of the C&O Canal yesterday, Craig Ludwig of Cabin John came about as close to finding heaven as a 14-year-old can get.
Wearing a hat that said "Hunting and Fishing Is All I Crave," Ludwig slopped through the mud with two friends, netting hundreds of pounds of carp, bass and catfish, a once-in-a-lifetime bounty caused by a leak in the canal wall a few miles upstream near Carderock.
The leak, which washed out a hole in the canal wall large enough to swallow a small truck, drained most of the water from a four-mile stretch of the canal into the Potomac River, and left hundreds of fish, turtles, fresh water clams and other marine life high and dry.
"It's a mess," said Michael Brown, district ranger for the C&O Canal National Historical Park, which manages a restored portion of the 184-mile canal that when completed in 1850 linked Georgetown to Cumberland, Md.
Brown said as much as six miles of the canal could ultimately be drained by the breach, but that the section nearest to Washington would not be affected because it is filled by fresh Potomac water at a lock farther downstream.
The National Park Service was forced to close a section of the towpath until repairs can be made.
Although Brown said the washout is not as serious as damage done to the canal wall during flooding last year and by Hurricane Agnes in 1972, he said the location of the breach, in an area where the canal is perched high on a bluff overlooking the Potomac, will "complicate the repair work considerably."
Brown said the Park Service would start assessing the damage today. He said a temporary dike would be erected to keep more water from draining into the Potomac before permanent repairs are made.
Despite protests from occasional passers-by, Brown said there was little officials could do to save the fish. "It would be a real stretch on our resources," said Brown. "We have to prioritize our time and effort toward fixing the hole."
Weekend joggers, hikers and bicyclists found their routines disrupted yesterday, as a park ranger stopped their progress at a barricade near the washout.
The air quality along one of Washington's most scenic stretches also began to suffer as clams and fish rotted on the muddy bottom of a canal usually covered with three feet of water.
Also exposed to view was the flotsam of yesteryear: old tires, fishing tackle, a football helmet and even that ultimate symbol of the nation's capital, a briefcase.
None of which distracted Ludwig and his two friends, Tommy and Brian Kemp, from hauling in their catch just upstream from Lock 8, where hundreds of fish were flapping madly in water a few inches deep.
The three boys, covered from head to toe with muck, eagerly scooped fish into buckets, the larger and more edible ones destined for home, the smaller specimens mercifully tossed into deeper water on the downstream side of Lock 8.
Tommy Kemp proudly displayed a 16-inch bass -- "the biggest I've ever seen" -- but had little use for the carp, about 150 pounds of which was donated to a Methodist minister in Cabin John with a taste for that variety. Ludwig said that refrigerators all over Cabin John were being stocked with the minister's carp.
Watching from the towpath were two women from Montgomery County out for a stroll.
"We came out here for a health walk, but I don't know," said Mary Boehm of Bethesda, her nose quivering at the smell.
Observing the filthy young anglers from a mother's perspective, her companion, Ann Ittner of Potomac, said, "That's not my idea of fishing. It looks like something out of a horror movie."