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If you want to catch a fish in the Anacostia River, or really anywhere, there's one thing you need to have: patience.
But that's not something many kids have much of. That's why the Anacostia youth fishing program run by Earth Conservation Corps, a local nonprofit, is so remarkable. If the kids want to hook a fish, they have to be patient. There's no way around that, says Jessie Moore, a professional bass angler from Columbia, Md., who helps out with the program.
"Fishing is all about patience. They come out here and expect to catch fish immediately," he says. "But you have to have patience. And then that patience that gets instilled in you out here, take it over into your everyday life."
Moore looks more like a college running back than a fisherman, which may be why the kids connect so well with him. Plus, he knows what he's talking about. He's been fishing since he was their age and has been a pro for the past five years. His passion for fishing is infectious.
"This is opening a door to new activities and hopefully they'll take it and pass it on to their friends in the neighborhood or take it into their adulthood and pass it on to their children," Moore says. "That's the whole objective of being here. It definitely beats being inside and playing the video games or hanging out in the neighborhood."
Teaching kids to fish
This is the first year for the pilot program. Just about every Friday night this summer, kids from the D.C. region have gathered along the banks of the Anacostia River at Diamond Teague Park, just a stone's throw from Nationals Park.
Mike Bolinder, the Anacostia Riverkeeper, says there are few opportunities for city kids to access fishing. And that makes a program like this critical.
"Us being able to facilitate that gives kids a chance to build awareness and that awareness is going to lead to behavior change," he says. "These kids are going to grow up and care about the river."
Most of the 20-odd kids who are out on this Friday night trying to hook a catfish don't have much experience with the river, even though many of them live in neighborhoods that border it. This program is trying to change that, says Trey Sharard, a biologist who works with Bolinder.
"You don't protect something until you love it," Sharard says. "And you don't love something until you know stuff about it. And you don't know something until you see it and experience it."
Sharard sees the fishing program as a way to transform the river from an abstract concept to a real living thing. So every line bated, every fish caught, every piece of trash spotted floating on the river's surface becomes a teachable moment.
Tonight, a couple of giddy middle school girls from Suitland, Md., are getting help setting up their fishing poles. Sharard takes a piece of bait and spears it with a hook. The bait looks like a marble-sized piece of putty and smells like the most unappetizing sausage ever.
"Now reel it until it barely becomes tight," he instructs the girls. "Once the line is straight, you can watch the tip or keep your finger here. And you'll feel a bounce, so you don't need to watch the line. The tip will bob up and down."
The girls follow Sharard's advice, but the fish just aren't biting today. It's windy and the tide is strong. Still, Destiny Boldin and her crew seem to be having a good time.
"What I like about fishing is we get out of the house and we get to do something for the environment," Boldin says.
The value of patience
This program is catch and release, so anything that lands on a hook goes back into the river. Biologist Sharard says people shouldn't eat fish caught in the Anacostia, though lots of people do. The river has several toxic hotspots filled with chemicals that can have serious developmental effects on children and pregnant women.
On this particular evening, 11 year-old Katherine Hilyard, of Southeast D.C., is having no luck at all nabbing a fish. But all this waiting around for a bite isn't the worst thing ever.
She's goofing with Kate Harder, a freckle-faced 6 year-old who lives near the U Street corridor in Northwest. They're giggling and getting occasional pep talks from Jessie Moore, the pro. And whether they realize it or not, they're learning.
If it weren't for patience, Hilyard says, she'd have given up fishing earlier in the evening since the fish weren't biting. But, she learned, you definitely can't catch a fish if you quit.
[Music: "Gone Fishing" by Jake Shimabukuro from Grand Ukulele]
Photos: Anacostia Fishing