To the left of the half-buried sculpture at the tip of Hains Point stood a massively built man, protected from a brief summer rain by a green trash bag.
"Two mil thick," he said, chuckling. "Jonathan Winters ought to add this to his TV commercial. All you do is cut slits for the head and arms."
But Jack Reed hadn't come to the Potomac River in the dark of night to test the worth of plastic bags.
"Welcome to the first annual Potomac River Catfish Derby," said Reed, who is 30ish, from nearby Riverdale and, normally, an avid bass fisherman. He had carefully planned this outing.
Reed took note a few weeks back when a Manassas fisherman caught a 29-pound channel catfish, during a bass tournament that was being held within earshot of the Capitol. Reed knew, as do many local anglers, that the Potomac is back, teeming with fish. Bass guides now ply their trade in downtown Washington. But Reed also knew the river was home to more catfish than to any other species.
"We'll forget the bass for now," he said. "This night is for the whiskered fellows."
Reed opened a paper bag full of finger-long slices of beef liver. A match was put to a camp lantern. Iced soft drinks waited in a cooler. Several friends surrounded him, fishing rods and double-hooked, weighted bottom rigs at the ready.
The liver was set to the hooks. Seconds later the baits sailed through the night air. "Kerplunk," answered the black waters of Washington Channel. Lawn chairs were unfolded and the waiting began.
As the rods leaned against the guardrail a van pulled up, loudspeakers blaring. "Hey, man, catchin' anything?" one of the half-dozen riders shouted.
Before answer could be given, one of the rods doubled over, almost slipping into the channel. One of the "derby" participants snatched it up and set the hook. "He's on," he shouted. A fat and sassy four-pound catfish quickly come up the seawall.
One of the van's occupants ran across the wet grass for a closer look. "Oh, no! I got my shoes wet!" she screamed. The fishermen only smiled and reclined in their chairs. "It doesn't get any better than this," Reed said.
Later, an eel was pulled in, an eel so big it would have brought tears to to the eyes of any European who saw it returned to the river. Three or four catfish were lost because the men were too busy telling jokes and laughing. In every instance, the fish cleaned the bait from the hook.
Somehow, the fishermen didn't worry about it. By 2 a.m. the derby was judged a success. "I'll be back again and again," Reed said, "and everybody is invited."
A boat is not needed for impromptu Hains Point catfish outings. Bring a fairly stout freshwater spinning or casting rod, loaded with at least 12-pound testline for the occasional whopping cats caught in Washington. Tackle shops sell pretied single- or double-hook bottom rigs quite cheaply. Buy five or six since a few rigs usually are lost to snags. The hooks should be of 2/0 or 3/0 size. To complete the outfit, add a one-ounce sinker when tides are still, heavier sinkers when tides are moving.
For bait, nothing beats "odor" baits when fishing for channel cats. Chicken liver is judged highly but is soft and will fall from a hook with the slightest jerking. Beef liver will serve better. Buy two or three dinner-size slices, cut them about the size of an index finger and securely thread them to the hook. Nightcrawlers also will do, as will small chunks of unscented soap. That's right, soap.
Best of all, fishing in Washington waters does not require a license. Have a fine time and don't be afraid to eat your catfish as long as you cook it thoroughly. It's safe and tasty.
One final word: If Hains Point is too crowded, the seawall along the Kennedy Center will do. So will the waters around Fletcher's Boat House or along the Maine Avenue waterfront in Washington Channel. A cool summer night will drive the catfish into the Tidal Basin. Don't overlook any of our town's newest hot spots.