A lot has changed since the 1970s here in the District; take the Nation’s River for example - the Potomac River. During those “dark days” the Potomac was an ecosystem hanging on by a thread.
As a kid, we often heard horror stories of the water being so contaminated that it would, in rare circumstances, catch aflame. Back then, the river was a polluted mess- illegal dumping, farm runoff, raw sewage leaks, and over-fishing being the main culprits for its fall from pristine grace. But since those days of rampant pollution and ecological duress, how much has really changed?
Realizing there was a serious ecological issue happening not only across the country but in his own backyard, President Richard Nixon started the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970 to clean up our nation’s rivers and enforce national standards for pollution prevention on a larger scale.
To this day - even with the EPA’s support, the issue of river pollution is one tackled by numerous non-profit organizations and small coalitions who all work towards the same goal – clean water and healthy ecosystems nation-wide. However, if you’ve followed the Bristol Bay/Pebble saga this year – it’s an uphill battle. There will always be folks who try to circumvent the system. That said; let’s keep it on the topic of our mighty Potomac.
Although the Potomac has progressed a lot from those days of flammable water, with good returns on shad each spring and a tremendous year-round bass fishery, pollution is still a major issue. Biologists can get into the nitty gritty better than we can but most of the river’s issues stem from a combination of the public improperly disposing of their waste (trash), farmers upriver using the Potomac to dump hazardous farm runoff and fertilizers, and raw sewage that enters the river after heavy rainfall (every wonder why that water is brown after a good rain?). These factors ultimately disrupt the entire ecosystem by changing the composition of the water from water to something a tad more sinister. This often leads to algae blooms that choke the water of its oxygen and contribute to the large fish kills we’ve seen in recent years on the Shenandoah River or even more locally at Constitution Gardens on the Mall. In addition to this, it can cause gender confusion in fish such as largemouth and smallmouth bass, which in recent years have raised concern for what is actually being dumped into the river.
The amount of pollution entering the river has gotten so bad recently in Montgomery County, MD that the EPA, Maryland Department of the Environment, and four other environmental groups sued Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission – Prince George and Montgomery Counties’ water provider—.for their poor sewage system which contributes to raw sewage directly entering the river on an almost annual basis (gross). That said, there’s no easy solution to the raw sewage issue. It’s unfortunately how major metropolitan areas were designed back in the gilded age.
But how can we change the things we can control, while waiting for the larger scale change that we cannot?
Limited man power by the Parks Department and Park Police have essentially turned spots like Roaches Run, Chain Bridge, and Gravelly Point into free-for-alls with very little, if any enforcement. On any given day in the spring - you can see fires, alcohol, buckets full of shad, and people entering the river up by Great Falls/Chain Bridge – all of are deemed illegal as hell by the Parks Service. Which begs the question, when there are no Park Rangers to enforce these laws, who will?
Definitely not Batman. But he’s not needed. Maybe all we need are a trash can or two?
One main issue with the pollution in the Potomac is a lack of public awareness for the River. Unfortunately the media won’t cover the topic because “most citizens just don’t care,” says Richard Farino, manager of Urban Angler fly shop in Alexandria, VA.
Pollution has always been a problem on the Potomac but because of the lack of interest by the general public and the slow-moving progress that is considered competent bureaucracy, the progress that HAS been made has gone relatively unnoticed. Says Farino, “it’s just a waterway to some people”. But through public awareness and responsible waste management practices, this can change. Clean water opens up the river for everyone.
Folks like Rob Snowhite, a local fly fishing consultant, guide, and ardent conservationist, cope with the River’s nefarious reputation on a daily basis and has even caught Largemouth Bass with six pack rings going through their gills. Says Snowhite, “If we had can deposits for people to throw their bottles in then I would not be catching Bass with six pack rings running through them.” But as is the case with Roaches Run and Fletchers Cove, some parks are “trash free”(meaning no trash cans/receptacles provided by the Park Service) and rely on good faith as their primary form of waste prevention and management…which doesn’t really work all too well if you’ve spent any time in some of these parks. But to some people the water looks just fine, even if there’s garbage floating around them. It’s just water right?
Not so fast.
The lawsuit against Montgomery County for an inefficient sewage system should be a wake up call to neighboring cities and counties who inadvertently pollute the river with each rainfall and flush of the porcelain throne. Don’t believe us? All throughout Washington D.C there are signs alongside the river saying “Do not make contact with water after rain.” Those signs are posted because of this thing called “peak flow”, AKA when sewers overflow, toilets flush and raw sewage directly flows into the river.
Peak flow is an issue that has no clear solution. Sure you can try to purify sewage before it enters the river at treatment centers like Blue Plains in DC and Four Mile Run in Alexandria, but the filtration process can’t get negate everything sinister. Outside of raw sewage - hormones from prescription drugs, hazardous chemicals (think bleach/draino), and heavy metals (lead) enter the river during peak flow. The main culprit to some species containing both male and female sex organs.
But all is not lost.
The Potomac River has gotten better since the 1970’s due to efforts of Federal Government and large environmental companies. Many people have noticed it as well, says Stephen Buezinski a frequent boater and fishermen on the Potomac - “It’s way better since the 1970s. Because of the amazing accomplishments of the EPA, the Potomac is making a comeback.” With the quality and quantity of the fishing growing with each year and efforts constantly being made clean our Nation’s River - we’ll hopefully never go back to those dark days of the 70s…when you could light the water on fire.
Article contributed by fly-dude Jake Hamilton, edited by Remick Smothers
To say the Potomac River is a big river, is an understatement worthy of a colonial tar and feathering. The Potomac - 405 miles in length, 4th largest river on the Atlantic Coast, and 21st overall largest river system in United States - differs incredibly depending on when and where you are fishing it.
In some places it is as pure and breathtaking a waterway you will ever find, in others - it'd be wise to wear a hazmat suit when netting your catch. But that's the beauty of urban fishing. You've got to fish where you are.
The North Branch and South Branches of the river are a renown trophy trout water - boasting great numbers and size within their rainbow, brown, cutthroat, brook, and golden trout populations - until it reaches the salt line near the Piedmont Plataea on it's drift down the Atlantic Coastal Plain. In laymen's terms, the river shifts from a trout water to a smallmouth fishery before ultimately becoming a truly tidal fishery with elements of both salt and freshwater fly fishing once it reaches our beloved District.
Because of the incoming salinity from the Chesapeake Bay, the Potomac plays host to prominent runs of anadromous fishes (fish that live in salt and spawn in freshwater) in the spring - i.e. White Perch, American Shad, Hickory Shad, and Striped Bass - while also harboring mostly freshwater tolerant species such as Large & Smallmouth bass, Gar, Blue Gill, Sunfish, Crappie, Catfish, Carp, and invasive species such as Northern Snakehead and common Gold Fish. Needless to say, you never know what is on the end of your line.
The Potomac's combination of size and mixed bag potential reinforces the importance of treating the river like a saltwater fishery. Similar to the legion of tournament bass fishermen who fish this tidal section of river who cover water by making long casts with spinner and crank baits, covering lots of water with streamers and clouser minnows to find actively feeding fish is the name of the game. Sure you can focus on smaller areas and specific fish (such as mudding carp or spawning largemouth bed), but to truly take advantage of this river's awesome fishery (large, urban game fish) - you got to strip for it.
Outside of flies and stripping speed, depth becomes an important factor as well. Using sinking or intermediate lines to get your flies down in the water column is especially key when fishing places such as Chain Bridge and the Upper Potomac, where turbulent flows keep flies up in the water column and subsequently - away from fish. Even at more urban fisheries such as Gravelly Point or the water discharge at Four Mile Run - getting your fly down in the current and to the fish is as important as fly selection itself. If you're in a rut, experiment with depth more than fly selection to find feeding fish. You've got to find them before you can catch them.
Last cast: The Potomac can be a frustrating fishery. Its muddy waters and urban fish often giving the fin to those in pursuits of its natural treasures. But by thinking outside of the box and combining fresh and saltwater tactics to find feeding fish, one can improve their hookups exponentially. By following these guidelines to A) throw bait fish imitations , B) cover more water, and C) experiment with depth over fly selection - you will find yourself making the necessary adjustments on the water that you need to BY YOURSELF and ultimately - catching more fish. There is something beautiful in that.
Dig our strange.