I stop at the crosswalk and survey my surroundings. It’s 6:30pm in Georgetown, an upscale neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Restaurant goers lounge around linen-covered tables in the evening heat, and groups of shoppers clutching designer handbags pass among boutiques. I receive a fair share of curious glances, but I understand. Far more people carry briefcases and shopping bags than fly rods and landing nets.
Two summers ago, I neglected the surmounting pressure to pad my resume with a real job and instead pursued a trout-bum lifestyle in Southwest Montana. While my classmates talked with nervous excitement about new cities, competitive internships, and professional networking, I dreamt of mountains views, wide skies, and hopper-slurping cutties. At the conclusion of the spring semester, I went westward to realize my dreams. I spent my days on the river and nights under the stars, totally consumed by the western landscape. It was bliss.
For better or worse, at the conclusion of the following school year I succumbed to the pressures of the real world and did not set my sights West again. Instead of hiking through high country meadows to meandering spring creeks, I now sit at a desk in Washington and stare at a computer all day. Yet my desire to fish remains strong even if I am detached from wild places, which is why I find myself waiting for the walk sign in Georgetown.
A block off the busy main street runs the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Completed in 1850, the canal runs for 184.5 miles between Washington, D.C, and Cumberland, Maryland, and was operational in some capacity for nearly a hundred years. In 1961, 37 years after the canal was decommissioned, President Dwight D. Eisenhower designated the canal in its entirety a National Monument. It is now managed by the National Park Service, and to my delight, is home to an abundant population of carp.
When the walk sign turns, I cross and make my way down a side street. The canal soon passes beneath a cobblestone bridge, and I climb down a short flight of stairs to the old towpath, now repurposed as a walking trail. The water has a tepid green coloration to it, but is clear enough to allow a few feet of visibility. Mud banks slope moderately to deeper water, ceding only a narrow window in which I’m able to spot feeding fish. I select my biggest hares ear nymph out of my trout box and tie on with uncertain expectations. Moving slowly down the towpath, hat brim pulled low to shield my eyes from the setting sun, a steady stream of joggers and bikers pass by me. I remind myself to watch my back cast.
After several minutes, I notice billows of stirred mud and track the clouds through the water column until my eyes rest upon an upturned tail. The fish is close enough that I extend my arm and drop the nymph into its feeding lane without casting. With the carp hovered inches away, I softly bob the nymph up and down on the bottom. Just when I expect to see the line jump, the fish turns and darts into deeper water. I realize that I may have underestimated my quarry.
This process repeats itself three, four, five more times. I’ve seen heavily pressured tailwater browns more willing to eat than these fish. In the now fading light, I spot another mudding fish, realizing that this might be my last legitimate shot of the night. Like the others, the carp is close enough to the bank that I can drop the nymph in its feeding zone without having to cast. The fly settles on the soft bottom and the fish turns towards it. However, this time instead of jigging the rod tip up and down, I twitch my wrist to the side, scuttling the nymph away from the carp in a fleeing motion. The fish lurches forward, flares its gill plates, and explodes out of the shallows like the others- only this time we’re tethered together. For a beautiful minute, the sounds of the city can’t be heard over the peel of the drag.