I’d heard about this stretch of the Potomac from two people and an old
magazine article. It was the kind of place that you hear about, but
only in reverent, hushed tones. Twohundredfifty yards of water that
are considered the best stretch of river smallmouth fishing on the
whole Potomac watershed. Layers of slate, interspersed with softer
stone, have been turned on their sides over the millennia. The softer
stone has been washed away, leaving ledges of slate near the surface of
the river, bordered by deep, narrow channels cut perpendicular to the
current. In these channels, the smallies hide, waiting for food to
drop into their laps, safe and secure, but accessible by an angler
wading out on the slate shelves. These shelves are normally no more
than two feet below the surface.
I researched the area and the other clues, it started at a boat
ramp and was probably “near” the home of one of the people that let the
secret slip, Sharpsburg, MD. This boat ramp was called the starting
point of the magic water. This was as close as the clues would get. I
looked at topo maps and, finally, geologic surveys that delineated the
composition of the underlaying rock strata. This research encompassed
geographic information systems and international databases. I found an
area that had to be the place that was mentioned. All that Air Force
training had paid off.
This morning I hopped in the truck at 0500 and headed to the
spot. I figured a 97-mile drive, but the roads aren’t well marked in
this area. The road names change at each little hamlet. I estimated I
could be on the water by 7:15 a.m. At 8:30 I pulled into the boat
ramp. Had some really interesting side trips. I may be able to make a
map, but I can’t always follow one.
There is a line painted down the center of the boat ramp. It
is, as far as I know, yellow and then red. There may be more colors
further down, but I couldn’t see them. The yellow indicates that one
should use “caution” if the high water is within the yellow area. If
the high water makes it to the red area further up the ramp, then the
conditions are “dangerous.” Well this morning, the water was about
three feet into the red zone. The water was pounding through and off-
color, foam catching in the flooded weeds. Cocoa with whipped cream.
The bright spot was that two gentlemen launching their boat confirmed
that I’d hit the right spot. The “not so good thing” was that if I
tried to wade, I’d end up in the Chesapeake as crab bait.
I quickly determined that discretion is the better part of
valor. There was too much brush to cast from shore. I couldn’t wade.
I repacked my gear and headed back to Sharpsburg.
In Sharpsburg, I wandered through town. I found a store that
had been the Sharpsburg Arsenal, selling antique weapons. The
gentleman working there, Tom, was doing so as a favor to the owner. We
got to talking and found that we shared some similar passions for
fishing and the outdoors and we’d both done time in Uncle Sugar’s Air
Tom said that I shouldn’t try to wade the Potomac under any
circumstances. The current on the ledges is difficult when the water
is thigh deep. When the water is chest deep, the whorls that form over
the holes will slide downstream and knock you off the ledges and suck
He directed me to a bridge in the nearby national park. He
said that if I waded that creek, I would be alone and undisturbed.
There are holdover stockies in there and some bronzebacks.
I followed his directions out of town. Along the road, stone, steel,
bronze, and aluminum tablets and monuments were scattered every fifty
feet. On each highpoint, cannon stood as mute testimonials to a long
ago battle. I turned down a side road and parked in a lot overlooking
the bridge and the creek. The creek’s name is Antietam. The bridge is
Burnside Bridge, formerly known as Lower Bridge or Rohrback Bridge,
scene of the bloodiest fighting in the bloodiest battle in U.S. history.
I kitted up and headed down to the creek. Sycamore and poplar vied
with the monuments as silent guardians to the secrets of this stream.
At the far end of the bridge is a giant sycamore, three feet across,
that was drawn as a sapling in a U.S. Civil War corespondent’s
depiction of the battle at the bridge.
I waded wet and slipped into the water. As I moved upstream in the
blood-warm current, the sound of the Park Service Ranger describing the
battle quickly turned into an anonymous drone, drowned out by the
trees. The water here, like the Potomac, was high. The trees dipped
their fingertips into the cool wetness, forming tunnels along the
banks. The light filtering down through the canopy was that of green
leaded glass. The whole effect was that of a serene natural cathedral.
I waded up the stream and a fog clung to the water like a mother’s
tear on a cheek. Sounds from roads, other park areas and hiking trails
were transformed in this cloak of mist. The mind plays tricks. Voices
are heard, sounds, feelings, wrap your mind as the fog wraps the
Halfheartedly, I cast to the errant fish, a rainbow here, a
bonzeback there. Withing 100 yards of the bridgethe water reached mid
chest and I decided to give the fish a rest. I caught no fish today,
not even a nibble. The sun was high and even the fish felt and
respected, the quiet, monastic nature of the place. I turned
downstream and headed back to the bridge.
Hundreds of men died on that day, September 18, 1862. 500 men from
North Carolina and Georgia stopped the whole of the North's 9th Corps
for just long enough that the attack on Lee's flank that afternoon did
not have the same effects that it would have had in the morning.
I look up from the water, and there, framed in the trees, mirrored
in the water is Lower Bridge. Its abuttment has become the apse in the
cathedral. At my feet, along the way, I find two bullets and a piece
of grape shot. They are mixed in the cobble of the creek bed, they are
a part of the whole. I leave them there.
I’ve had the pleasure of fishing in some pretty spectacular places
around the globe; a pond run by South Korean Special Forces Senior NCOs
filled with trophy sized brown trout, the river Tay in Scotland for
Atlantic salmon, the Kern river drainage in the southern Sierra Nevadas
for golden trout. Today, I fished and came away changed.