Bright Lights, Big Fishing

The secret is out: Fish are thriving in some of our biggest cities.

"When I can stand the noise, I come up here to fish," said guide Michael Farnham, raising his voice to be heard over the traffic barrelling by on Rock Creek Parkway and the jets roaring along the Potomac after takeoff from Washington's Ronald Reagan National Airport. Farnham gently eased into casting range of the stone retaining wall with practiced taps on the foot pedal of his trolling motor, holding us downstream of the Watergate-yes, that Watergate-and virtually in the shadow of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

The jogger on the riverside running trail stopped, double-taking the sight of a sparkling bass boat hovering within a short cast of downtown D.C. Pulling off his earphones to better appreciate his own wit, he yelled: "Are the rubber tires biting today?"

"We've got some nice ones in the livewell," Farnham answered, shining him on with a wave, a smile, and a sidelong roll of the eyes in my direction. In truth, there was no room for tires in the livewell; four largemouths finned in the aerated water behind the seats of Farnham's boat. We'd caught the bass downriver earlier in the day. Now, however, Farnham had brought me upriver, right downtown, promising to show me a fat big-city smallmouth.

"There's always a fish there," said Farnham, indicating a discharge pipe gushing water into the river. "Think of it as a waterfall pouring into a creek. That's how the fish sees it." You're the guide, I thought, and banked my lure off the wall and onto the far side of the outflow.

The lip dug in, pulling the lure deep into the roiling water. I felt a hard jolt, and a second later a healthy smallmouth cleared the water. Surprised, but not too startled to keep tension on the line, I steered the fish through the clear water to the boat. Farnham guessed it at 14 inches before releasing it.

"My dad used to bring me fishing here when I was a kid growing up in the '60s," said Farnham. "We'd do okay on carp and catfish, but you couldn't catch a bass here. I remember the stench, mostly, and the grease and oil slicks. If you started out with clear monofilament, it was mud-red at the end of the day. The river really started to turn around in the late '70s and early '80s."

Today, B.A.S.S. rates the Potomac-the river President Lyndon Johnson once called a "national disgrace"-as one of the top ten bass waters in the United States. Credit the Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1972 for the recovery of the Potomac and other urban waters across the country. Before the act passed, rivers flowing through urban centers served as convenient sewers for industrial and human wastes. In 1969, Cleveland's Cuyahoga River, by then only nominally made out of water, caught fire. Floating oil slicks burned out of control, making national news, inspiring a song (Randy Newman's "Burn On"), and sparking, as it were, public support for clean water.

The CWA attacked "end of the pipe" or point-source pollution like industrial dumping and wastewater. The law set national water-quality standards to be monitored and enforced by the fledgling Environmental Protection Agency. In time, rivers flushed toxins from their systems; as food webs recovered, vegetation re-grew, returning natural filters to the system.

On the Potomac, the modernization of the Blue Plains sewage treatment plant proved crucial to the river's cleanup. Earlier in my day on the Potomac with Farnham (who can be contacted online at bassfly@probass.com), we caught largemouths in the hydrilla beds around Bluelains, in water so clear we could easily see bass cruising the bottom, 8 feet beneath the boat.

Thanks to the CWA, there's some tremendous fishing available to anyone with a subway token. What follows is a listing of a dozen urban fisheries across the country.

East Coast
As the Potomac River cuts through the District of Columbia, it changes quickly from a fast, rocky smallmouth stream to a wide tidal river. There's very good largemouth fishing from Reagan National Airport down. During the striper runs, you might pick up a big fish anywhere in the District.

If someone offers to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge, don't buy. If they offer to take you striper fishing there, go. In Manhattan, both the East and Hudson Rivers offer excellent striper fishing. Captain Bill Herold (914-967-8246) runs charters throughout New York Harbor, the East River, and western Long Island Sound. "It's never been better than it is now," he says. "The water is cleaner, and that helps, but the end of commercial fishing in the '80s was the key to the striper recovery." Ironically, Herold fears cleaner water in the rivers may prove a two-edged sword: "High PCB levels in the fish led to the commercial fishing closure. Some of us are afraid the water will get so clean the season will be reopened."

Fairmount Dam, in the shadow of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is the focal point of a resurgent urban fishery. New sewage plants and storm water interceptors in the mid-'80s greatly improved water quality on the Schuykill River and the tidal Delaware. Largemouth, smallmouth, and striped bass, shad, and yellow perch congregate below the dam, along with stocked tiger muskies pushing 45 inches and 9- to-10-pound wipers. Seven miles upriver from Fairmount, Flat Rock Dam impounds the Schuykill again, providing a fishery for the naturally reproducing walleyes that gather in its tailrace.

Midwest
The** Twin Cities** may just lay claim to the distinction of being the nation's biggest and possibly best urban fishery. Blessed with a generous helping of Minnesota's famous 10,000 lakes, the Metro area offers a lifetime's supply of fishing. There are muskies in the Metro Park Lakes, and walleyes on the Mississippi (forming the boundary between Minneapolis and St. Paul). The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (888-646-6367) conducts a thriving urban fishing program and publishes a detailed map of the Cities' best urban hotspots.

Thirty years ago the Mississippi was so foul below the Pig's Eye wastewater treatment plant in St. Paul that electrofishing samples conducted in the '60s found only white bass, carp, and gizzard shad alive in the river. Upgrades to Pig's Eye in the 1970s started the turnaround on the river, and today there's a thriving catch-and-release fishery for bass and walleyes right downtown.

Over in Detroit, hard-core wire-liners on the Detroit River still troll for walleyes with complex rigs made from the innards of antique hand-cranked phonographs. They launch at night from scary inner-city ramps, then dodge freighters in the dark on the river. The wireliner's main complaint? Nowadays, too many smallmouths take their walleye bait.

Abutting the east side of Detroit, 26-mile-long Lake St. Clair was closed to fishing in the '70s due to mercury contamination that made its fish unsafe to eat. Today, St. Clair is clean, full of 2- to 4-pound smallmouths, and remains a perch hotspot.

In Grand Rapids, Michigan's second largest city, anglers flock to the Grand River where it flows through downtown. From the 6th St. Dam to the city's outskirts, anglers wade the river, casting to steelhead, cohos, chinooks, and large migratory browns. "In the '50s, you'd see carp floating belly up in the Grand," says Henry Zeman, retired Outdoors Editor of the Grand Rapids Press. Zeman credits improved wastewater management and storm sewer systems with turning the Grand into one of the nation's top urban fisheries.

For a success story of government action and private volunteerism, look at Chicago's Des Plaines River. The Des Plaines is, in fact, man-made, created as a channel to drain a Chicago marsh in the 1800s. Electrofishing surveys of the dirty Des Plaines conducted in the 1980s showed only carp, goldfish, and a few catfish able to survive in its polluted waters. In the 1980s the City of Chicago built a new stormwater abatement system, the Tunnel and Reservoir Program ("Tarp" or "Deep Tunnel") that captures, treats, and releases storm-water runoff and sewage that used to wash into rivers during rainstorms. Deep Tunnel cleared urban waters throughout Chicago. Crappies and northerns took hold in the Des Plaines. Locals noticed, forming a group called the Hoffman Dam River Rats. The River Rats monitor the river and have helped the Illinois Department of Natural Resources plant thousands of aquatic plants in the recovering Des Plaines. Now the river supports healthy populations of smallmouths, northerns, crappies, walleyes, and some saugers.

Cleveland's rivers may have been known for their volatility 30 years ago, but in the '90s they rival Milwaukee's famous Root River as the improbable site of a popular steelhead fishery. While some steelhead run up the Cuyahoga, the Rocky, Grand, and Chagrin Rivers are even better steelhead fisheries. The Ohio Division of Wildlife showed its commitment to their urban steelhead fishery a year ago when they bought a new hatchery that will enable them to double steelhead stockings in the year 2000.

The rebirth of** Lake Erie** has boosted walleye populations, and the annual mob scene attending the walleye run up the Maumee River through downtown Toledo attracts anglers from all over the region. Meanwhile, the** Ohio River** continues to recover. Anglers catch saugers beneath the locks and dams, bass in the backwaters, and catfish in downtown Cincinnati.

South
Even in the middle of a Georgia summer, anglers on the Chattahoochee River in Atlanta wear their neoprenes when they float-tube the river.

The construction of Lake Lanier on the Chattahoochee River in 1956 created conditions for a classic tailwater trout fishery below the dam. Local Izaak Walton League members stocked the river privately until the state and feds took over a few years later. The Chattahoochee still gives up 10-pound browns and 12-pound 'bows. The future of the Chattahoochee's trout, however, may be threatened by Atlanta's building boom. Increased runoff from ever more acres of pavement create sudden influxes of warm, silty water into the cold Hooch, seveditor of the Grand Rapids Press. Zeman credits improved wastewater management and storm sewer systems with turning the Grand into one of the nation's top urban fisheries.

For a success story of government action and private volunteerism, look at Chicago's Des Plaines River. The Des Plaines is, in fact, man-made, created as a channel to drain a Chicago marsh in the 1800s. Electrofishing surveys of the dirty Des Plaines conducted in the 1980s showed only carp, goldfish, and a few catfish able to survive in its polluted waters. In the 1980s the City of Chicago built a new stormwater abatement system, the Tunnel and Reservoir Program ("Tarp" or "Deep Tunnel") that captures, treats, and releases storm-water runoff and sewage that used to wash into rivers during rainstorms. Deep Tunnel cleared urban waters throughout Chicago. Crappies and northerns took hold in the Des Plaines. Locals noticed, forming a group called the Hoffman Dam River Rats. The River Rats monitor the river and have helped the Illinois Department of Natural Resources plant thousands of aquatic plants in the recovering Des Plaines. Now the river supports healthy populations of smallmouths, northerns, crappies, walleyes, and some saugers.

Cleveland's rivers may have been known for their volatility 30 years ago, but in the '90s they rival Milwaukee's famous Root River as the improbable site of a popular steelhead fishery. While some steelhead run up the Cuyahoga, the Rocky, Grand, and Chagrin Rivers are even better steelhead fisheries. The Ohio Division of Wildlife showed its commitment to their urban steelhead fishery a year ago when they bought a new hatchery that will enable them to double steelhead stockings in the year 2000.

The rebirth of** Lake Erie** has boosted walleye populations, and the annual mob scene attending the walleye run up the Maumee River through downtown Toledo attracts anglers from all over the region. Meanwhile, the** Ohio River** continues to recover. Anglers catch saugers beneath the locks and dams, bass in the backwaters, and catfish in downtown Cincinnati.

South
Even in the middle of a Georgia summer, anglers on the Chattahoochee River in Atlanta wear their neoprenes when they float-tube the river.

The construction of Lake Lanier on the Chattahoochee River in 1956 created conditions for a classic tailwater trout fishery below the dam. Local Izaak Walton League members stocked the river privately until the state and feds took over a few years later. The Chattahoochee still gives up 10-pound browns and 12-pound 'bows. The future of the Chattahoochee's trout, however, may be threatened by Atlanta's building boom. Increased runoff from ever more acres of pavement create sudden influxes of warm, silty water into the cold Hooch, seve