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Potomac Fishing Is a Capital Idea

August 10, 1986|JOHN N. MACLEAN | Maclean is a Washington newspaperman. and

WASHINGTON — The lure pulls a half-moon of monofilament in an arc toward the limbs of a fallen tree in the river. The lure plops among the limbs.

The monofilament knifes through the water as it pulls the lure back toward the boat. The line halts. It jigs around in a little dance, cutting squiggles in the water.

The pale-green side of a largemouth bass with a black stripe running from gill to tail comes into focus from the brown depths of the water. A black-and-gold eye glistens.

This sounds like the typical fishing trip story: You go out with a guide in a high-powered boat specially fitted for bass fishing. He knows the hot spots. He puts you a casting distance away. You connect.

It is a typical fishing story because all those things happen--but this time they occur almost in the shadow of the Washington Monument.

Airport to Fishing Hole

"We have picked people up at National Airport and gone right from there to the water," said Ken Penrod, a guide who runs Outdoor Life Unlimited, a Beltsville, Md., outfitter that specializes in fishing trips on the Potomac River. "They didn't even have to rent a car."

Two decades ago getting near the Potomac in Washington ran the risk of contracting disease from the polluted water. But after President Lyndon Johnson declared the Potomac should be cleaned as a model to the nation, federal and state governments spent $1 billion cleaning it.

Today fishermen use the largemouth as their coal mine canary: Its return to this part of the Potomac signals that the water is cleaner. Independent testing by local governments shows that the fish are edible and the water safe for recreation.

A day with Penrod or his partner, Ken Wilson, can bring more variety than many anglers see in a summer of fishing. Running upstream you can fish around Theodore Roosevelt Island directly across from the Kennedy Center. Smallmouth bass, which require a current, are there, about the farthest downstream they venture. The rock piles around the island make excellent hiding places for smallmouth and largemouth.

Penrod provides spinning tackle, but a fly-rod devotee can work this area if he brings his own outfit. Sunfish also lie in the shallows around the island and give the fly-rodder a better fight per ounce than most game fish.

A bit farther downstream, Penrod knows which pilings under the Memorial and 14th Street bridges produce and which don't. The outboard on his boat scoots you from one place to another, eating up the river miles with an enjoyable rapidity.

Other Favorite Spots

The river spreads out below Theodore Roosevelt Island into a broad tidal flow, but the bland appearance can be deceptive. The deep boat channel courses back and forth across the river and is poorly marked except for the initiated. The river can turn surprisingly shallow. It is no place to think about renting a powerboat for a day, even if one were available.

Perhaps the most incongruous fishing spot on Penrod's list is the Washington Channel, which runs between concrete banks connecting a marina at 14th Street with the Anacostia River and the Potomac. It looks urban and utilitarian. It often is loaded with rockfish, the famous striped bass that is Maryland's state fish.

Limits have been placed on taking rockfish throughout the Chesapeake Bay area due to declining numbers, but the District of Columbia has no licensing, size or number restrictions.

Penrod, however, imposes his own conservation ethic, restricting customers to Virginia's size and number limits. And like a small but increasing number of guides, he will encourage sportsmen who wish to release their catch.

A businessman who wants a day's sport but has no desire to haul a line of fish back to his Washington hotel can take satisfaction that what he puts back will be there to be caught again tomorrow.

Penrod trolls the Washington Channel, keeping an eye on a depth finder that shows a drop-off out from a long patch of celery grass on the north side of the channel. Bass and smaller fish live in the grass. The rockfish lie along the drop-off in the deeper water, waiting for the little fish to swim out over them.

Using stiff trolling rods, Penrod drags weighted rigs with plastic worms. When the rockfish are there, a hit comes on virtually every lap the boat takes of the channel. These are scrappy four- to 10-pound rockfish that must be taken in directly, for otherwise their soft mouths work the hook loose and they slip back into the river.

Wild-Looking Place

The southernmost spot on Penrod's Washington beat lies just north of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge that carries Interstate 495 over the Potomac. This is North Smoot Bay, still within the District of Columbia but a surprisingly wild-appearing place, given its locale.

Huge slabs of concrete from construction were dumped in the bay to make habitat for game fish. A wooded shoreline gives way in spots to clean mud and sand beaches.

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