I’m pretty sure all the fly fishermen I know are in a cult. Nothing else could explain the absolutely rabid reverence they have for tying a fly anywhere and everywhere they can—to the point that the mere suggestion of spin fishing is the ultimate apostasy. The only other group I can think of with the same level of religiosity for their sport is maybe turkey hunters but even they take a break for a hot sec every now and again. Fly fishers are all, "I bet we can stop by that little creek for a minute before we go to the emergency room."
So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to find a bunch of country boys wetting a line in the canal in the middle of the yummy mummies and brunching babes in Georgetown. Obviously. Because, fish.
I got curious about this phenomenon as an almost perfect merger of urban and rural life. Conveniently, I knew a guy who knew a guy. (By that I mean, I know a guy who recently pulled a 16-pound carp out of the canal in Georgetown.)
The founder of FlyTimesDC, a group of fly-fishing specialists in the District, is an urban country boy named Remick Smothers who in his real life also happens to kick ass in brand marketing for Under Armour's fishing gear. FlyTimes is an associate guide service of the National Bass Guide Service in Alexandria that provides actual fishermen with area insight and idiots like me with the opportunity to brown-bag beer and watch the experts work.
Remick and my fishing spirit guide—he of the 16-pound carp, an awesome down-home Virginia boy named Connor—took me for an afternoon of carp fishing on the C&O Canal last week and answered all of the nosy questions they get asked about urban fishing.
Are there fish in there.
No, they're just really romantic bastards. Yes, of course there are fish. For God's sake, D.C., stop asking urban fishermen this question.
There's actually a lot of fish in the canal—carp, catfish, bass and the rare snakehead that can get up to 10 pounds, Remick says. Snakehead, ICYMI, is an invasive and predatory species native to China that the District Department of the Environment asks fishermen to kill on the spot if they catch one. Out on the main body of the Potomac there are bow fishermen who spotlight the water and shoot them with a bow and arrow attached to a reel. This sounds insane, but according to Remick that's the easiest way to catch them—and the practice has put a dent in the really big ones.
"We used to have fish up to 40 inches and over 20 pounds," Remick said. "[D.C.] broke the world record [for snakehead] three consecutive times."
(BTW, if you have ever seen a snakehead, that is a terrifying proposition. Not that I needed an incentive not to go swimming in the Potomac, but put this on the list of reasons why I try really hard not to flip my rowing shell.)
Like any fishing, what kind of fish you're dealing with depends on the waterway and the time of year. The District at large is probably best known for a run of American Shad, Hickory Shad and Striped Bass in the spring and fall. May and June are prime carp fishing in the canal because the mulberry trees are dropping their berries into the water and mulberries are basically carp crack. Rock Creek between the Connecticut Avenue bridge to the Massachusetts Avenue bridge is "a really good stretch" for bass fishing, Remick says—"It feels like a trout stream. It’s small, a good amount of gradient change, little pools and runs, a lot of cover for things to hang out in."
For these boys, by far and away the best chance to catch a big fish in the District is a little tidal inlet near Regan called Gravelly Point. Whenever the tide changes, Connor explained to me, fish stack up on either side waiting for food (and bait) to come to them. When the tide is falling, it's shallow enough for a fisherman to stand and both guys say it's the closest thing to a "real" fly fishing spot they've found in D.C.
"It's a hard-graveled bottom," Remick said. "There's current but you feel safe where you're standing, and with the current, you know there's gonna be fish."
"You have the shot at really big fish there," he says. "That's where you can catch a 30-inch striper."
Do you eat the fish.
This is a complicated question, and a socioeconomic one. A five-year study done by a local advocacy organization called Anacostia Riverkeeper found that there are about 1,000 to 3,000 men who regularly fish the Anacostia, with about 17,000 people consuming the fish.
"We thought it would be mainly homeless guys fishing because they need the protein," Anacostia Riverkeeper's Mike Bolinder told the Georgetown Voice, but in reality, it's primarily recreational.
"The study indicated that while many people do fish as a way to inject cheap protein into their diets—Wards 7 and 8 are rife with food deserts, and fish are an expensive commodity—this is by no means a primary motivation for all fishers," writes Rachel Calvert. "The Riverkeeper's Society indicated that very few fishers are facing a fish-or-starve ultimatum. The vast majority fish as part of a community tradition that spans generations or as a way to get exercise and enjoy the fresh air."
The DDOE does provide some guidance as to which fish are safe to eat and which are likely to be impacted by the presence of PCBs and lead and other gross shit in D.C.'s waterways—basically, don't eat the bottom feeders (catfish, carp, eel) and limit your consumption of largemouth bass (one half-pound per month) and sunfish (one half-pound per week). Eat young fish with discretion.
Remick says he'll eat a snakehead because they grow so fast that a two-pound fish has only been in the river for a year, making it relatively clean and good to eat.
"They say pull your catfish under 25 inches and they're good to eat, but I wouldn't do it," he says. "[Folks that do eat catfish] soak it in lemon juice and buttermilk and that apparently takes all the toxins and PCBs and lead out of it, but that's just old folklore. There's no science behind that."
Who are those guys.
Snobs, mostly. JK. Remick and Connor were very welcoming, given that I was asking about the caliber of question you would expect from someone whose fishing experience is limited to a hot dog on a string.
Anyway: Primarily young dudes. Remick and Connor met through the Internet and there's a very active local fly forum that a lot of fishermen use to hotspot fishing spots. Aside from the community fishermen lining the Anacostia, I'm gonna go with: "Bros" as my conclusion. I mean, look at these two babes in their polarized sunglasses with their arsenal of specialized gear (Connor had something called a "lip wrench" that if I weren't a horse person and didn't regularly use a chain shank, I would have found massively intimidating):
Why do it.
If you don't understand the appeal of getting outside, of watching and listening and touching pieces of the earth with your own hands—then I can't explain it to you. The endless and primal intellectual challenge of pitting oneself against the outdoors, the joy of being alone in the quiet and the the din of nature—those are things finer writers than I have tackled, so I'll let Remick talk about Gravelly Point instead:
It's a really pretty spot at night in the early morning, no one else is out there. That night I was the only person in all of D.C. fishing Gravelly Point. That's one of 630,000 people who is fly fishing.
D.C. and the surrounding area is also just an awesome fishery. "You have everything within two hours, if not right here," Remick says. Plus, a District fishing license is cheap as shit. Compared to a Virginia license, which could set you back $100 depending on what you're fishing, the city's fishing license is $13. Only $7 if you're a resident.
Now, if I could just figure out how to smuggle a pack of hounds into Rock Creek, I could go urban fox hunting… Although unlikely I'm going to catch anything as badass as this: