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Fighting for the Life of a River... and Watching the Fish Return

First in War, First in Peace, First to Wet a Line

Monday is President’s Day, and what better way to celebrate it than to go fishing. That’s certainly what our first president, George Washington, might have done.

Apparently Washington was quite the angler, whether standing on the banks of the Potomac River at his Mount Vernon, Va., home or traveling around the new nation.

“In his diary George Washington shares stories of several great catches that include a dolphin and GW and Bill mutantshark in Barbados, a legendary catfish in the Ohio Country, and trout and perch during the recess of the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787,” says George Washington Wired, a website maintained by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

According to the website, Washington owned a fairly extensive tackle box of hand-wrought hooks, horsehair and silk fishing lines, and wax that remains in the Mount Vernon collection today. In 1762, he ordered a pocket fishing kit from London. His invoiced described it as “1 fishing reel compleat.”

“On June 12, 1790, the Pennsylvania Packet newspaper reported on the president’s fishing expedition near Sandy Hook, New Jersey,” the website recounts, “where he had been for the benefit of the sea air and to amuse himself in the delightful recreation of fishing. We are told he has had excellent sport, having himself caught a great number of sea-bass and black fish.”

Potomac FLS 057Of course, the Father of Our Country might also be called the Father of Commercial Fishing in America. Washington was well aware of the (then) massive spring runs of shad and herring in the Chesapeake Bay and up the many rivers of the Bay watershed, including the Potomac just behind his house.

“George Washington…was primarily a planter, but he knew the profits to be made in fishing the springtime runs and always maintained haul seine crews for the season at Mount Vernon,” reports John Page Williams in his excellent Chesapeake Almanac. “The Potomac yielded him herring in such numbers that they were sold not by the pound but by the bushel.”

Sadly, today’s Bay and its rivers, degraded as they are by pollution, habitat loss, and historic overfishing, don’t have the massive numbers of fish that President Washington and his countrymen saw 250 years ago. Still, there are plenty of fish out there, even this time of year, if you want to try your angling luck on President’s Day.

In the fresher waters parts of the Bay region, you may well hook into catfish, yellow perch, crappie, Striper or largemouth bass. In saltier waters, the fish to go for is striped bass, or as they’re commonly called in the Bay region, rockfish. This time of year, it’s strictly catch and release, but stripers are still one fun fish to catch.

Striped bass have made an amazing comeback in Chesapeake Bay waters over the past decade, Although their numbers have declined somewhat recently from their all-time peak in 2003. For a brief but interesting primer on this iconic Chesapeake Bay fish, click here to watch a Chesapeake Bay Program video featuring National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries specialist Andrew Turner.

Now, grab a rod and reel and go celebrate President’s Day on a nearby stream, river, or the Bay. George would be proud.

Chuck Epes
Chesapeake Bay Foundation


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