Washington's Maine man can cast more than votes

April 05, 1992|By Bill Burton | Bill Burton,Contributing Writer

WASHINGTON -- The Potomac River was wild, and whitecaps contrasted with waters turned brown by recent rains. The wind was gusting to 35 knots, with temperatures only a few degrees above freezing. But the tall, slender man at the stern doesn't often get a chance to go fishing, so we came.

The decision was his. No one could have blamed him had he decided to scrub, but he didn't hesitate. He's accustomed to brisk winds and rough seas in Maine, where chasing bluefish is his summertime sport.

"Let's go," George Bush said as he left his house toting three fishing rods and a Plano tackle box loaded with his favorite lures.

Once out on a Potomac so wild that even fish had to be seeking underwater protection, he had but one regret. Still folded on a chair in his bedroom was a pair of long johns. His wife, Barbara, had told him he wouldn't need them after she checked the weather while walking the family dogs at sunrise. Fishermen should never listen to their wives.

Out in the cold, Ken Penrod, head of the guiding outfit Outdoor Life Unlimited, was feeling the stress. Any man willing to brave such miserable weather simply has to catch a fish, especially the president of the United States.

I shared Penrod's anxiety because it had been left to me five days earlier to choose the fishing hole. Normally, the decision would have been a good one, but the weather turned sour and heavy rains had raised the turbulent river several feet.

You can't change fishing holes or dates when fishing with the president. There are too many security precautions, and the Secret Service plays strictly by the rules. The fourth person aboard was a Secret Service agent, making sure we stuck to the approved itinerary.

There was little consolation as I recalled the words of another president known for his love of fishing. In his book on the sport, Herbert Hoover wrote that all men are equal before fish.

We were fishing the shallows at Smoots Cove below the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, and the northwest wind picked up tempo as it crossed from the other side of the river. The president and I were casting Silver Luckys, a thin weighted spoon, allowing it to touch bottom before jigging it lightly on the retrieve.

Two days earlier, in heavy winds and rain, Penrod located fish here, but this morning was much colder and more windy. The past hour hadn't produced a strike, though in a second bass boat skippered by Bob Denyer, Howell Raines, chief of The New York Times' Washington bureau, had a strike from a big fish.

No complaints from the president, but Penrod decided to cross the Potomac to fish the lee side at Belhaven Marina. It was a bumpy, frigid and wet ride.

The president rummaged through his tackle box to find a rattling crankbait, and cast it to an old pier piling I suggested. The wind was whipping, but the large lure landed only a foot from the stickup. Hey, this southpaw cast accurately -- even with a revolving spool Quantum reel. No easy-to-master spinning rig for him.

Not only was he an accurate caster with the same short stiff rod he uses to plug for blues at Kennebunkport, but he was also knowledgeable about fish and fishing -- and that's what we talked about. Though the primaries are in full swing, they were forgotten for the moment.

I foul-hooked a small shad that subjected me to a needling by the president, who spied a row of pier pilings and old boats.

He suggested we try them, and soon he had a bass on his spoon. It wasn't big, but his grin was. The fish went back, and it was my turn for a bass of about the same size. Penrod, the author of two books on Potomac fishing, finally smiled.

There were a few other spots Penrod wanted to try, but they were off limits. They hadn't been checked out earlier. Around us was an armada of Coast Guard, Secret Service, DNR Police and D.C. Metropolitan Police boats. Security held us prisoner.

The president can't enjoy the pleasure of walking into a tackle shop to chat with other anglers about what's biting and on what, or to swap fish stories. He can't walk down the aisles of sports stores and get the hands-on feel of lure selections.

Crammed schedules -- even during vacation -- rule out all-day trips. Our allotment was five hours. What fisherman can catch fish under those circumstances? Just as the sun had begun to warm both the waters and us, we had to head back to the docks where a hundred TV, radio and newspaper reporters were waiting with questions. The fun was over; they prefer hard news -- not fish stories.

Like any angler after a cold day, the president wanted warm food. He phoned his wife to suggest lunch at the White House for five. He wanted waffles and bacon, but in the interest of a sound diet, she countered with hot pea soup and club sandwiches -- and that's what we had.

Bill Burton was Outdoors Editor of The Evening Sun until his retirement in January.

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