It's rush hour on a weekday afternoon and traffic aggravates a summer heat wave even the city's fish can feel. Two pickup trucks with license plates LOV2FSH and REL-M-N are abandoned in Jeff Stonich's driveway. Another larger green pickup packs in three anglers - Stonich, his brother Ed and friend Rob Cushing - who are anxious to get through the muck of cars piling onto Powhite Bridge. The three make the afternoon scurry once a week more when work and wives permit. Nothing gets them out of the office quicker than the slippery, beautiful, big idea of smallmouth bass.
Those who fish in the city have their preferences as varied as the fish themselves. Some cast artificial bait while knee-deep in swift streams; others fish with livers and cut bait from the east side of Mayo's Bridge. Some circle Byrd Park's lakes that often are stocked with fish.
orous smallmouth or bottom-feeding cats, every fisherman's ultimate pursuit is the same: to catch fish.
Just off Riverside Drive the three descend the rocky slope beneath the Atlantic Coastline railroad bridge and hop rocks into the heart of wetness. Even when it's low, there is plenty of river to go around. Damsel flies hover in a frenzied dance and Canadian geese bob the river for bugs. The air tastes sugary like sap and sycamores do their best to stir it around.
Urban fishing is viewed by many as a largely untapped and under-funded form of recreation. And while national trends indicate a spike in leisure sports, fishing within city limits is a pastime enjoyed by a relative few of Virginia's 75,000 fishermen, who each pay $12.50 yearly for a license to fish in state public waters.
On Aug. 29 and 30, the state's Department of Conservation and Recreation along with the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries kicks off Fall River Renaissance on Brown's Island. This year urban fishing is getting more attention.
"We're working to improve the entire fishing experience," says Price Smith, a fisheries biologist who helps oversee the department's urban fishing program. "We're trying to do our job better than in the past," says Smith. "The message is: You don't have to go to the mountains or the Bay to enjoy great fishing."
Angler and author John Bryan hopes to see more use of the James developed through conservation. "Richmond is facing tough decisions on how it wants the James River to evolve," says Bryan, associate dean for development at Virginia Commonwealth University's school of the arts. Bryan also is the author of "The James River in Richmond," a recreational guide to the urban James. "I not only [fish] on my lunch break, I do it whenever I have a five-minute break. I take my shoes and socks off, roll up my sleeves and fish," says Bryan. "I think the James River is our city's best amenity. The question is, do we want to make our gorgeous river more accessible? Do we build more boat ramps and parking lots or cut back and preserve? These are questions our leaders will be grappling with over the next five years," says Bryan. "Our urban river still is underutilized. My thought is we should keep it natural and wild."
Jeff Stonich wants it to stay just the way it is. "I named this the sidewalk," he says of a 2-foot wide concrete sewer line that extends in the river to an inlet. The Stonich brothers and Rob Cushing take stances on the cement walk and cast upstream on its north side. On the opposite side of the river, trees hide all but the top of the Carillon.
"I bet there's a pounder under that logjam," Jeff says, pointing. There's always current working to tire fish. "I set the hook and hope there's a fish there. It'll strike or turn away. Either way, it'll be gone in a second."
Jeff, 26, has had good luck with his Diawa baitcaster and Yamamoto 3-inch, twin-tailed spider grub. A pack of 10 at Greentop costs him $3.99. His favorite is the clear grub that mimics a smallmouth's favorite food: shad. "All I fish for is smallmouth. They just eat it up.
"I would not be surprised if there were a couple of big boys sitting in here," Jeff says. He loves fishing from the river, but only up to his knees. He likes it even more from a boat, especially when it's a bass tournament he's competing in. The Diawa with 10-lb test suddenly bends to kiss the river. Jeff steadies the rod and pulls in a half-pounder. Gently he removes a sparkling hook from the sucking smallmouth and returns it to the water. Fishing, for many anglers, is purely catch-and-release. "Those smallmouths are funny, fiesty little fish. They'll bite it and come back and bite it again," he says and wades into another quadrant of the river.
Jeff's brother Ed, 28, is on a mission. He's learning to fly fish with Cushing's rod and he's determined to catch one smallmouth today. "It's the purest form of angling," he says. "Real subtle presentation." His casting mimics the motion of a cattle driver. The visible line whips into the air and gracefully nips the current. "Sometimes a fish'll be reluctant to hit artificial bait that comes crashing down just over their head. This comes down practically silent. I love to fish and I love to catch fish," says Ed in his quiet river voice. "But this is a tough way to catch them. It's like trying to get a fish to eat chicken feathers and deer hair on a hook."
[image-1](Stephen Salpukas / Style Weekly)Jeff Stonich wants people to flock to the James and enjoy the river the way he does. "The more people know about it, the greater the conservation of this great fishing area can be," he says.
Before they landed "real" jobs, the Stoniches and Cushing bartended in Richmond just so they could have days free to fish. Even with professional careers, the three find time to fish. "Seeing the river flow through these rocks and hearing the sound of it puts me at peace. This is therapy for me," says Ed. For those who practice the sport, not enough can be said about fishing. When daily duties seem inescapable, the river here seems miles away from the city. Says Ed, "I come out here and I don't have to think about anything but what a gorgeous evening it is. That's the beauty of it."
Cushing, 33, has left his perch and waded up to his waist in a swiftly flowing stream. Already he's captured and let go a dozen or more smallmouth. He uses an 8-lb Magnathin line on his Diawa baitcaster and that, he says, is almost too much. "These guys are real finicky," he says.
The three now form a triangle in the current. A web of silvery line spins upon the river. There is an instant when the bait and hook linger in the air like a baseball pitch caught in slow motion. It's the moment of anticipation. Once the line is taut, the cast is set, and it's up to the river to fetch a strike.
"Only a handful of Richmonders know what a smallmouth freshwater gold mine is right here in the city. In their own front yards," says Jeff.
Four trains have crossed the railroad bridge since the three anglers dipped into the river. Just shy of 8 p.m. the sun hovers above the oaks and sycamores.
Cushing and Ed have caught their share of smallmouth: Cushing nearly a dozen and Ed his prized one. In just a few hours, each has covered much of the area known by anglers as Choo Choo Falls. "Once the sun hits the bridge that's my cue to come in," says Cushing.
"It was my goal to catch one on the fly rod. I wasn't going to put it down 'til I did," says Ed. "Now I'm ready for a cold beer."
Ed and Cushing wait for Jeff to cast a few times more. Together, they've spent more than $2,000 on rods and reels, not including Stonich's $14,000 bass boat. It's worth every dime, they say. This December the two are headed for Alamorada in the Florida Keys. "That's Hemingway's big spot," says Ed. "We're going to fish the Gulf-side flats for bonefish," he says. "The gray ghosts of sport fishing."
The sky swirls pink ribbons of clouds above rocks and river. Jeff meets his brother and Cushing at the rocks where they started out. "Those little guys are elusive," he beams. "I just think they're so much fun to catch." Sam Haskins doesn't mind the chatter
between a man and woman casting a few feet away nearly as much as the bad luck he's having with his artificial minnow. "I go for whatever looks good to me in the store like it might tempt a fish," he says. But the silver one he's using now isn't doing him any favors. He pulls the decoy off the line and replaces it with a larger purple one saved for desperate times. Fish rarely go for it. But he's got to try something.
Haskins' expression is as smooth as the Byrd Park lake. His eyes dart away from it only briefly to wince at the sun or to suck in the first drag of another smoke. Nothing is on his mind except the lake, its contents and the inner satisfaction that comes with leaving chores behind.
The 58-year old carpenter pays little attention to his nephew Robert, who has moved ahead around the bend. It's hot and hazy and when the fish aren't biting, it's best to keep moving.
Haskins has caught all kinds of fish in city lakes and the urban James: bass, brim, speckled perch and crappies. "Right now, the outstanding freshwater fish is the catfish. Everybody's going for cats."About this time last summer,
Haskins went night fishing at Ancarrow's Landing and hooked a 34-lb blue catfish. It was the biggest fish he's ever caught and the reason he keeps 100-lb test on a spare reel.
Right now the 35-lb test on his spinning reel is enough. It's the bait that's failing him.
After more futile casts Haskins catches up with his nephew. They work their way around Swan Lake to a grove of nine maple trees so close to the edge they seem to drink the water. In the shade, another fisherman's attention is divided between three idle poles and a restless girlfriend.
Haskins turns to his nephew. "You haven't had any hits, Rob?" His nephew, 35, turns and shakes his head. It's 4:30 p.m. They have been rounding the lake for hours and Haskins' black leather knapsack still is empty.
"It's not late enough, that's what I think. They're not feeding. Heck, they're not even jumping up." A minute passes before Haskins blurts out, "I was thinking about leaving and getting some worms and coming back." Jump to Part 1, 2,Part 2