The sycamore tree behind Doug Watts' house glitters all year like a deranged Christmas tree. Silver spinners, plastic worms and other bright lures of plastic and wood dangle from the limbs that overhang Seneca Creek. Snagged by the tree during errant backcasts, they were left as offerings to the fickle gods of fishing.
"It's important to come out every spring and make an offering to the river gods," said Watts, whose self-styled fishing faith allows him take credit for his successes while blaming all failures on fate. "If you come out early enough in the season, they don't demand a lot. Later on, they start wanting human sacrifice."
St. Patrick's Day may have been premature to expect river deities to be up and about. Local rivers were running high, muddy and cold from the final thaw of mountain snow and recent rains. The sky was aggressively gray and a headwind was blowing hard enough up the Potomac to push whitecapped waves against the current.
"You would think these would be terrible conditions for catching fish," said Watts, a 31-year-old communications attorney who sounds more like the Mississippi River pilot one of his ancestors was. "But wait until I get my deep-diving, bass-kicking, catfish-killing, perch-intimidating, bluegill-annihilating, indefensible bassarino (lure) into the water."
We put our olive-green canoe into the dark green Potomac at White's Ferry for a 13-mile paddle and pole trip to the mouth of Seneca Creek. There were once 100 ferry concessions on the Potomac. Now there is only White's, which has been taking people, carts and cars across the river east of Poolesville for more than 150 years.
For the first few hundred yards, the current carried us down the river as fast as an amusement park ride. Then we turned a corner and hit a wall of wind. The paddling got tougher and the casting comical.
Keeping close to the Maryland side of the river, we began working the submerged brush and tree roots that seemed likely places for hungry fish to congregate. But placing accurately a quarter-ounce lure in a 20-mph cross-wind was even harder than it sounds.
We were fishing for giant largemouth bass. What we caught were trees.
"For the tree-fishing enthusiast, this is paradise," said Watts, after losing his aforementioned, sure-fire bassarino to a submerged log. "And this is definitely the time for it. Once the trees fill out with leaves, you can't pick your branch as well."
While the fish ignored us and the wind blew our flat-bottomed canoe off course like a toy sailboat, Watts remembered other great fishing days. Most memorable was an outing with his parents in Michigan 20 years ago. He was stung by a wasp in the morning and a swarm of hornets in the afternoon. His face was still swelling when his mother accidentally sunk a hook deep in his cheek, as inch below an eye.
"Ever since then, I've always carried a pair of wire cutters with me fishing," said Watts, chewing on the end of a cigar that looked like it had been hand-rolled by Daniel Boone.
Last week, the banks of the Potomac were still more brown than green. But there was plenty to look at between paddle strokes. Crows, seagulls and one stunning hawk played in the wind. Squirrels, groundhogs and moles rustled through dead leaves beneath maple, willow, sycamore, elm and walnut trees. Occasionally, you could see evidence of long-gone inhabitants in the crumbled foundation of a former grain mill or the bright-red Seneca sandstone in an abandoned rock quarry.
There are more than 130 islands in the Potomac where it passes through Montgomery County. Most of them are only a few acres of mud, grass and trees. The biggest is Harrison Island, which is two miles long and opposite the Virginia shore at Balls Bluff, where one of the earliest and bloodiest battles of the Civil War occurred.
Tenfoot Island, which is only two miles above Seneca Creek, was notorious during Prohibition because of a moonshiner by the name of Earl Blatt, who lived and brewed there. Blatt even built concrete ramps on the island to facilitate his delivery system. It is said the aroma of his brew was so powerful you could get drunk by breathing it from either shore. But he was never raided.
By the time Watts and I reached Tenfoot, we were ready for something with a bite to it. We had sacrificed half a dozen lures to the river, paddled for six hard hours and caught not one fish.
But then, we had promised at the start of the trip, that in honor of St. Patrick we were interested in catching only green fish.
"We took it easy on the fish this trip," said Watts. "From here on in, the waltz is over."