Camp A.P. Hill is a huge government wilderness of loblolly pine on rolling hills east of Fredericksburg, Va. Sprinkled about it are small, clear ponds that practically no one ever uses.
The rules leave the ponds open for civilians to fish, provided they get clearance and a stamp from the wild-life department on the base before wetting a line.
Fine by me, but where's the wildlife bureau?
Fishing partner Jerry Almy and I followed directions on a sign at the first pond we came to. We wandered about the barren post until we found the appropriately numbered hut , which was boarded up and looked like it hadn't been used since the big war.
But there was a sign directing us to another hut near post headquarters. We found that all right by asking a flock of ducks for directions.
Another dead end, with a sign directing us to still a third hut. On the drive there we passed the only human we would see all Saturday - a military policeman running a radar trap along the empty post road. He pointed his radar gun menacingly. We waved and scurried by.
When the third hut proved empty we gave up and went fishing.
"Looks like the A-bomb hit this place," said Almy.
If it did it sure hadn't hurt the fish.
We flipped the johnboat into a little 10-acre pond Almy knew, loaded up rods and reels and five dozen min-nows and started paddling. After five strokes Almy said, "Let's try it here."
That seemed a little cavalier, but Almy insisted it was as good a spot as any. Five minutes later he proved it.
He was dangling a medium-sized shiner minnow three feet below a bobber in the deepest part of the pond. Bang, down went the bobber with a splash. Almy reeled in his slack and whipped the little ultralight rod over his head to set the hook.
"Get the net," he shouted. Twenty feet out the gaping maw of a large-mouth bass broke the surface and Almy, who was on his first fish of the year, wasted no time horsing him in. The fish measured 14 inches - well over the 12-inch keeper minimum - and must have weighed two pounds.
"They're all like that," Almy said. "I've never seen an unhealthy bass in here."
It was a great start but not exactly what we were looking for. We were out for pickerel and the day seemed perfect for it - cold, rainy, blustery . . . in a word, miserable.
A.P. Hill's ponds provide a kind of variety small-water anglers rarely get. There are bass, pickerel, bluegill, crappie and a third type of strange panfish called a flier fish. Not bad for a very modest pond.
As luck would have it, our hopes were dashed. Bass and crpappie took our minnows happily, but we couldn't hook any big members of the prehistoric-looking pickerel family.
After a couple of hours we switched to lures just to keep our hands from freezing. I threw a floating Rapala while Almy worked a weedless Johnson Silver Minnow.
We were back in a deep cove and Almy was skimming the silver lure back to the boat when a boil of water erupted on the surface five feet from the boat.
Up came citation-sized pickerel. It slammed at the sliver lure, missed and went back to the deep.
"Six pounds," said Almy. "It had to go six pounds."
So much for the one that got away. In the course of six hours fishing we did manage to boat six bass, two of them decent size, plus three nice eating-size crappie and three small pickerel, one 12 and two 14 inches.
If the sun had come out we would have unfurled fly rods, gone up in the flats and pulled out some bluegill for the frying pan.
A.P. Hill is a 1 1/2-hour drive from Washington. It is deserted and would make a terrific place to take a youngster. Besides the helpful flock of mallards, we saw hawks and a whitetail deer while we were driving around.
With warmer weather the fishing should pick up - but not for long. Come summer, the shallow little ponds fill up with weeds and fishing is impossible. It's aspringtime place.