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In the shadow of the Washington Monument, there is a large pond framed by the immaculate grass curving around its circumference. Apart from its location, Constitution Gardens, as the pond is called, is completely unremarkable. On an average August afternoon, tourists walk the perimeter, bouncing between the Wall and the Mall, rarely pausing at the pond. They pass a dozen groundskeepers, a surplus of geese, and an occasional dislocated veteran. If they pause long enough, the visitors might notice that on an island in the center, Michael Frank is quietly fly-fishing for bass, koi, and catfish.
It’s no Montana. No raging current surges over jagged rocks, threatening to sweep the lone hip-wadered fisherman into the glinting water. Just Frank, three times a week, sometimes more, casting out over the shallow water. He prances along the shoreline, dangling his hand-tied flies in the surface water until he makes blessed contact and hauls in hearty, gasping specimens. His catches are most likely toxic, but lovely in their own way. Frank throws them right back, every time.
The fish Frank catches are not “the prestige species,” he says, but if fly-fishing is, as they say, a sport of endless grace and determination, then this is the real thing.
“This place is sort of my old standby,” Frank says, handing me a pair of polarized sunglasses and a rod. “Ever fished before?”
I evade the question, asking him where the fish are, anyway. The water, pocked with ducks, is scaly and dark. “Put on the glasses,” he says. “See that one? Look, by that leaf? See that brown thing?”
Um, no. “The glasses deflect the sun, so you can see the fish better,” he explains as he carefully threads my pole, then his. Frank, 27, has a day job teaching English as a second language. Patience is his specialty.
Off to the side of the pond, he demonstrates the almighty casta skill that comes about as naturally as juggling. Narrating his every move, he flings the rod backward with a snap of the wrist. Then, after the green line has lazily unfurled behind him, he snaps it back. Of course, like everyone before me, I’m enchanted.
A family walks by, barely noticing us, and Frank pauses to avoid snaring them. “The tourists add an extra challenge,” he says, resuming his rhythm.
For 2,000 years, people have been twisting together odds and ends, fashioning bizarre, hairy lures that looksortalike flies (or crustaceans or minnows). Then they tie them to braided horsehair at the end of long, feather-light, wooden rods. Reels were not always part of the deal.
“It was the king’s sport,” Frank says, explaining how European noblemen mastered the craft. “Rods were originally up to 20 feet long and made from many small sections cut from saplings…so that the rod bent smoothly to absorb the shock of a fast run.” The horsehair for the line usually came from male horses, Frank says. “Stronger horses were thought to have stronger hair.”
Eventually, fishermen used silk for the lines, which they dried out after each trip by stretching it between two trees. Today, fishermen use graphite rods and lines made of a braided nylon core coated with plastic. Air bubbles or flecks of lead are injected into the plastic to make it float or sink, depending on your needs.
Like all fly-fishermen, Frank is obsessed with the seduction of the fish. “Fly-fishing involves getting to know your quarry,” Frank says. “To fly-fish successfully, you need to learn everything you can about the fish, where they live and what they eat. The magic of it involves creating an imitation that is an exact replica” of the fish’s normal food. Before each duel, the fly-fisherman opens up his bait kit and stares hard until he finds a facsimile of his prey’s desires.
Frank tells me he was up until 2 a.m. the night before our interview tying bait. His devotion to the craft is impressive and not a little scary. The day after we meet, he leaves an impossibly long message on my machine, late on a Saturday night, telling me everything he forgot to mention by the pond. Two days later, he drops by the office with a 30-page handwritten report on fly-fishing (“Once the fish is hooked, the light rod lets you feel every surge of the fish’s tail as it makes a desperate dash to get away from you…”). He also hands over some pictures and five sample ties, numbered and explicated in the accompanying key.
It’s all part of the racket. “Urban fly-fishing is not for the faint of heart,” Frank says. For years, he has worked his “10 or so” spots in and around D.C. The city’s plentiful sewer runoffs make for some decent fishing, Frank claims. “And there’s more places to be found,” he says, beaming. In addition to the Tidal Basin and a cove by the Pentagon, he frequents a duck pond near National Airportwhich is kept good and warm by a Pentagon heating plant, “or so they say.”
To say Frank lives to fish doesn’t quite get it. He fishes to live, almost every day in the summer, and two to three times a week in the winter. Apart from convenience, he sees value in overlaying a pastoral hobby on an urban template. “These are fish with an attitude,” Frank says. When you pull one in, “you’ve just caught a fish that’s a real survivor.”
Like all hardened city-dwellers, the fish he catches are brimming with chemicals, which is why he gets visibly agitated when he sees people keeping their keepers from the city’s waterways. “It makes me crazy, but I suppose people have to eat. Maybe I’m naive…but if it were me, I’d find any other way to feed my children.” Frank says he often uses his Spanish to try to talk families who fish from the Potomac out of feeding their catch to their children. It usually doesn’t work, he says: “People will eat anything.”
Once, fishing in Rock Creek Park, he tried to discourage a nearby fisherman from eating his catch: “Turned out the guy was a former special envoy to China. He said he’d spent years eating fish out of the Yangtze River. ‘So I’m not worried about Rock Creek Park,’ he said.”
Like most fishermen, Frank will tell you that you should have been here before yesterday, last week, or last yearback when it was really nice. “This place could be phenomenal,” he says. “It was incredible three years ago. But then again, nobody knew about it.” Two summers ago, the National Park Service moved its annual “Fish Day” festivities from the Tidal Basin to Constitution Gardens, where busloads of local schoolkids had a better chance of actually catching something. Before that organized invasion, “it was like fishing in a bathtub.” Now, he says, the fish are scarcer and much wiser. If you’re desperate, Frank admits, you can hover near tourists throwing bread into the water for the ducks and snare one of the fish attracted by the chum. But that would be cheating.
Frank and I approach the water, crouching to avoid scaring the fish away. A presidential motorcade shrieks by, and a family of seven stops to gawk. They watch me snag a catfish within minutes. Frank helps me pull it in and then whips out a camera to take a picture of me and my panicked fish. A little boy with a crew cut watches from a safe distance, his face contorted in disgust. I start to worry about the fish’s well-being, but soon enough Frank cuts it free and my fish disappears into the pond’s murky depths.
Frank tends to his own line long enough to pull in a robust, mottled Japanese koi. I see no other fishermen at the pond all afternoon. “I once caught a 6-pound bass on a fly here,” he says. He has also caught a piranha in this pond, but never mind.
A 12-year-old boy named Nathan, whom Frank met while fishing on the Potomac, led him to this golden pond. For three years after that, Frank and Nathan fished together four times a week. Nathan showed Frank the choice fishing holes, and Frank taught Nathan to fly-cast. But Nathan and his family moved to McLean a while back, and Frank rarely fishes with him anymore. Nathan has gone on to other things.
“He calls me late at night and says he’s with his posse,” Frank says with a worried smile. Then he boasts about how Nathan is far and away the best fly-caster in his age range. I ask him if Nathan’s better than he is. “He’d tell you he is,” says Frank.
D.C.’s urban fly-fishers are a tight crowd. Frank regularly runs into four or five guys at the same handful of spots. “We’re all totally insane about this stuff,” he says. His friend Andre has taken to bringing a video camera to record the others’ big catches. It’s nice to have the evidence. “Some of them exaggerate,” he says. “I don’t.”
Fly-fishing’s sudden sheen in pop culture doesn’t interest Frank much. He politely humors my questions about A River Runs Through It, the epic Robert Redford boyfest that brought mainstream sex appeal to fly-fishing. “The book is 10 times better,” Frank says. All of his fellow fly-fishermen call the flick “the evil movie from hell,” Frank says. Ever since Redford lured yuppie Range Rovers into fly-fishing, golf analogies have seeped into fly-fishing lingo, much to Frank’s deep dismay: “Everybody says that [movie] is the reason we have no trout anymore, but I don’t know.” Brad Pitt, he adds finally, did none of his own fly-casting.
But even as he complains about the poseurs “overrunning” his treasured sport, Frank says he’s surprised there aren’t more people like him. He sees nothing amiss in his decision to fish waters that reflect monuments instead of mountains. And it’s certainly no stranger than fly fishing itself. Frank has harvested material for some of his better flies from his dog. “I never thought I’d grow up and be picking up lint and hairs from my dog. But I do,” he says.
Now his major goal is to get a canoe so he can explore other obscure, polluted waterways in D.C. “For now I’m shorebound,” Frank explains. He has many other spots, but Constitution Gardens is where our lesson begins and ends. It goes without saying that a fisherman has got to have a few secrets. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.