Fishing in the age of pandemics

During all of last year, I caught maybe four fish on the Potomac River. I would launch my boat in the creek at Pennyfield Lock and paddle through a stone-lined tunnel that runs under the C&O Canal. Nearing the creek’s mouth I would pull myself through the branches of a recently fallen tree, and choose: upstream or downstream.

It didn’t really matter. Upstream I’d probe likely bass hangouts at the foot of the rapids. Nothing doing. Then I’d drift down to a series of deep holes, where I would bump my crayfish imitation along the bottom, ready for that tell-tale twitch. The twitch never came.

If I chose downstream I would cast towards shore along the rock wall that buttressed the old canal, but nothing grabbed my lure. Then I would try a series of rock ledges where I had previously caught fish, good ones. Results the same.

I tried different places on the river: Dargan’s Bend, Harpers Ferry, and spots along the Monocacy and the Shenandoah tributaries. I talked with other fishermen. “Doin’ any good?” The answer was always the same.

This was serious. It was not like, “Well, the fish aren’t biting, so I’ll just go play golf.” For me, fishing in the Potomac is not a hobby, a pleasant pastime, but rather a critical link to my world.

Looking for answers. I wanted to know what happened to my river and what I could expect this season. So I went to the person I most trusted for answers to life’s critical questions: Dr. Antonio Fauci.

Fauci: Keep it simple and
keep it straight.

I could have gone to local fish biologists and even my own Patowmack the Trickster, who undoubtedly knows more about the Potomac than America’s epidemiologist-in-chief. And we will get to them later.

But in this moment in history, Fauci is the expert of first resort. He knows the Big Thing; he is the hedgehog of the ancient Greek poet Archilochus. He knows that, whether it’s the Potomac or a pandemic, nature ultimately holds the cards. The certainty with which Fauci knows this gives him the authority we crave in a perilous time.

When Fauci’s boss, Donald Trump, insisted that the country would be “opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” Fauci smiled and replied, “You don’t make the timeline; the virus makes the timeline.”

Unusual among public figures, Fauci is also Archilochus’s fox, who knows many things. He is a careful observer of the complexities of the natural and human reality. He is comfortable with nuance and doesn’t shy from contradictions. He is not only an authority, like the hedgehog, but also knows what he’s talking about.

As a bonus, it even turns out that Fauci knows something about fishing in the Potomac, and we’ll learn about that later as well.

The river rages over Great Falls.

River on a rant. I’ll first sketch a kind of brief clinical history about what’s happened on the river over the past couple of years.

The troubles began in 2018 when back-to-back storms and flooding hammered the river. I was dismayed to see the familiar riverscape of rocky islands and ledges disappear under a swirling, seething torrent of brown water carrying logs, whole trees, plastic water bottles, and every other manner of trash that defines the human presence in the river basin.

The shoreline disappeared, and with it the spots where I launch my kayak or canoe. All gone. And the fishing? I scarcely even tried.

I spent the winter thinking about the next season, when I’d be back in my boat, and the river would be back to normal.

Where were the fish?  The following spring I felt a little apprehensive as I slipped my boat into the water. It was as if I was visiting an old friend who hadn’t been well for a while.

The river sparkled under the cloudless sky. My paddle felt alive in my hand as it sent me gliding past the battered roots of massive sycamores and silver maples.

But even before I picked up my fishing rod, I could see that my friend was not the same. The river was strangely still, like those covid-19 videos of Times Square empty of people.

Swept clean and cracked in the sun,
the silt-covered shore would
need time to revegetate.

The shoreline was bare, as if it had been bulldozed. Gone was the green carpet of newly sprouted plants that would later turn into masses of yellow and blue wildflowers, some taller than me. No gangly blue herons flew from their riverside perches, croaking their annoyance at being disturbed.

Not only could I not catch a fish. I couldn’t even see any. I stood up my canoe and poled through the shallows, scanning the water for shadowy forms fleeing to their hiding spots. But nothing moved.

Creatures great and small—gone. The rich underwater garden of stargrass and wild celery, home to fish, turtles, and so many other creatures, had disappeared. The river bottom, formerly covered with rocks and shells that pulsed with living creatures, was now replaced by silt.

As dusk approached, no deer emerged from the forest to browse along the shore. Gone too were the foxes that would trot out of the shadows into the patches of sunlight, and then vanish again.

At dusk, mayfly nymphs shuck
their aquatic armor, take to the air,
mate, and die.

The mayflies had nearly disappeared as well. In years past, vast hatches would emerge at dusk to shed their tough body armor and emerge as fluttering, fairy-like creatures of pure white. The fish would be ready for them, and from up and down the river I could hear their slurps and splashes. The sky would also come alive with flights of swallows that would swoop down to pick the tiny creatures off the water’s surface, leaving series of splashes that caught the reflection of the setting sun. But now the river was silent and the sky was empty.

All was still except for the except for the distant slap of a beaver’s tail.

It looked down at me, a little curious,
but mostly annoyed.

Message from above. Back in the creek, a barred owl suddenly landed on an overhanging snag just ahead of me. Was it that master of shapeshifting, Potowmack the Trickster?

The bird swiveled its head to look down at me as I admired its elegant tweed plumage and its demeanor of self-assured wisdom, reminding me of Fauci behind the White House briefing microphone. Then the owl squatted down and a white stream hit the water.

That was all the proof I needed. Although the Trickster’s wisdom cannot be ignored, he is no Fauci when it comes to dignity and decorum. This boorish fellow, more clever than wise, makes his points with practical jokes and crude pranks.

Here’s an example. One afternoon I was struggling through a floating island of stargrass. My shoulders strained with each paddle stroke. I looked straight ahead, never glancing towards the shore, where the topmost branches had begun to whip about, nor behind me, where I would have seen a great cloud building. Then everything went dark. Blasts of wind grabbed my paddle and pelted my eyes with icy rain. My body flinched with each crash of thunder and flash of lightening. It was very scary.

The storm passed with a final rumbling of thunder. “You must never focus on just one thing,” I heard. “Be alert to every detail, all around you, all of the time.”

The experts weigh in. Good advice, as usual. But every time I tried to broaden my thinking about the river’s sudden decline, my mind snapped back to that dominant image of brown, surging waters and their sinister, muffled roar. The memories were still so fresh, so readily available to my search for answers.

But as time went on, my fixation on the 2018 flooding began to weaken. Maybe the flooding wasn’t the whole story. I remembered an acronym used by the legendary microbiologist Rene Dubois: OGOD. The initials stood for “one germ, one disease,” shorthand for the perils of ascribing one cause to a disease when there might be many causes, both direct and indirect. Similarly, Dr. Fauci and his colleagues speak of “comorbidities” that exacerbate the severity of covid-19’s effects on a patient.

Of course, Fauci, the Trickster, and Dubois were correct, as confirmed by a group of state and federal biologists who met last August in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, to carry out a Mid-Atlantic Smallmouth Bass Health Assessment.

Flooding a factor. According to the biologists, the problem wasn’t just the flooding of 2018, but an increase in extreme flow events over a period of many years. Brandon Keplinger, West Virginia fisheries biologist, noted that six of the top flow years over the past century have occurred just in the past decade. Even worse, four of these top flows took place in May and June, when the smallmouth and sunfish build their nests and spawn. The fast currents destroy nests and wash the eggs and newly hatched fry downstream.

Keplinger said that fish populations could recover so long as flooding during spawning seasons occurs less than four to six years in a row. But according  to him and other experts, climate change could make such regimes of heavy flows the new norm.

Adult smallmouth bass presently in the river seem to be holding their ground and increasing in size, according to Maryland state biologist Michael Kashiwagi. However, surveys are turning up many fewer minnows than normal, which would reduce food available to the bass, and particularly the juvenile population.

Flathead catfish are the latest
addition to the Potomac menagerie.

Minnows and monsters. Fishing guides at the meeting also noted the drop in bait fish numbers and voiced concern that they might be falling victim to a program of spraying Bacillus thuringiensis insecticide by the State of Maryland to help control black flies.

Biologist Kashiwagi also noted the threat posed by increasing numbers of flathead catfish. Native to the Mississippi basin, where they grow to more than 100 pounds, the flatheads were introduced into the Chesapeake region by the State of Virginia in the late 1960s to give fisherman another target species. It turned out that the flatheads themselves target nearly anything that they can get their mouths around, including bass.

The biologists went on to cite the increased prevalence of algae blooms resulting from nutrients washing into the river from farms and municipal waste treatment plants. When the algae dies, their decomposition depletes oxygen needed not only by the fish themselves, but also by the macrointertebrates on which the fish depend for food.

With a mix of concern and
revulsion, I release the diseased
fish back to the river.

Stealth pollutants. The industrial pollution that once stained the river nightmarish hues and made it stink are largely gone. Nevertheless, I sometimes catch bass marked with red sores and lesions.  The culprit is so-called emerging contaminants, invisible and odorless, yet likely causing far-reaching impacts on the river and its fish.

Familiar household products
create a toxic brew in the river.

Vicki Blazer, United States Geological Service biologist who has pioneered in the study of these emerging contaminants, told the Harpers Ferry group that even minute amounts of herbicide residues, pharmaceuticals, and personal care products, create a toxic cocktail that not only causes visible damage, but also the now-famous intersex fish, where immature eggs develop in the testes of male bass.

A plague of kayakers. Added to the list of woes is me and my kayak, according to West Virginia biologist Keplinger. One great thing about kayaks is that they’re cheap. I used to think that is a good thing: The more people who get to know the river, the greater its constituency when it needs defenders. Kayaks also can go anywhere, no matter how rocky or shallow. I thought that was a good thing too.

I was wrong. While I despise sightseer helicopters that disturb wildlife and leaf blowers that addle my brain, I never considered how flotillas of kayaks send fish fleeing in fright when they should be feeding and tending their nests and young.

Go-anywhere kayaks subject fish
to one more stress.

A final irony. Now we’re at the start of another season. Will I find my old river as it was before? Or will it have changed, maybe forever?

So far, I don’t know. I haven’t put my canoe in the water yet because my home state of Maryland placed a moratorium on most fishing and boating.

It’ was a moratorium that could only have been invented by the Trickster. The governor’s order stated that kayaking and paddle boarding were OK, but not canoeing, which is my choice for the early season. The order also prohibited recreational fishing, but allowed something it called “sustenance” fishing.

It was too much to contemplate—the flooding, the flathead catfish, the emergent pollutants, the plastic kayaks, and now, a group of state officials sitting around a laminate-topped conference table hammering out the closure order. “I’ve always hated canoes,” said one, “ever since summer camp.”  Added another, “Where I come from, we catch it, we eat it.”

The Trickster would think this was pretty funny. For his part, Fauci might be sympathetic, since it turns out that he knows something about fishing and canoes, and even the Trickster.

Back in 2007, at an awards ceremony, the former director of the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center, John I. Gallin, recounted an incident when he and his Fauci were fishing on the Potomac.

Fauci got a bite, recalled Gallin, and “he got so excited. . . that he flipped over our canoe. . . I don’t believe he caught that fish.”

Now the the closures finally have been lifted. My canoe is on top of my car and my gear is stuffed in the back. By Thursday the river will have dropped below flood stage and, to paraphrase Trump, I’m raring to go.

Hopefully, the Trickster will be someplace far away, social distancing.

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