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Charmed Life

Fish Story

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 9/23/1998

Just above a dam in Dickeyville, Gwynns Falls forms a deep, silty pool that is full of hidden life. Bubbles rise from the blurry bottom. "Probably a turtle," Joseph Barnhart says. Soon enough, a young snapping turtle drifts to the surface and lazes awhile before sliding back into the murk. Then there's a slapping sound, and ripples spread from a spot in the middle of the water. "You missed that," Mike Womack says. "A smallmouth came up and smacked that grasshopper."

Having spent good chunks of their lives fishing Gwynns Falls, Barnhart and Womack share a deep affection for this urban waterway. Womack, who first fished the stream as a child in the early '70s, remembers a time when Dickeyville neighbors would spend entire summer days virtually camped out on its banks with baited hooks.

Barnhart started fishing Gwynns Falls in 1984. "You can't really enjoy this stream till you walk it," he declares. "You get a wholly different perspective." He revels in the stream's wildlife, and worries about its polluted water.

Both men live in Woodlawn--Barnhart's a mechanic and Womack's a plumber--but they seem surprised to be asked about their homes and jobs. They'd rather talk about fishing.

Womack fly-fishes exclusively and winds his own lures; Barnhart prefers a short rod and a light line. They and a few like-minded friends have explored Gwynns Falls from Scotts Level Branch in Randallstown to Wilkens Avenue in the city, pulling out smallmouth bass, pumpkinseeds, bluegills, warmouth ("the most aggressive of the sunfish," Barnhart says), blue and bullhead catfish, rainbow and brook trout, and--near Wilkens Avenue--"monster" suckers, some three feet long. Along the way they've encountered creatures you don't think of as typical urban wildlife: beavers right on the city line, for example, or the snapping turtle Barnhart once saw overturned on a roadside by the stream that was so huge "it took three men to turn it over."

Neither man has read The Compleat Angler, Izaak Walton's 17th-century classic on the "contemplative man's entertainment," but they've lived it. "When I get stressed out at work," Barnhart says, "I grab my fishing rod and come down to the stream. I don't even need to catch anything. I'm just doing what I love doing." Womack says he fishes for "the quietness . . . and the smallmouth."

All the fish they catch are returned to the water; neither man risks eating them. Barnhart blames sewer-line leaks for foul smells and parasite-infested fish. "Every smallmouth you pull out will have eight to 10 parasites in the meat," he says, describing yellow worms that squish like water balloons. The other big pollution source is runoff--trash and toxins swept from the vast pavements of the Gwynns Falls watershed into the stream. "In the '80s there weren't so many of these plastic bags that they give out at grocery stores," Barnhart says. "I see a lot more of 'em stuck in trees and caught under rocks. You get one of those bags with an air bubble in it, and a turtle will go for that. There's no way a turtle can digest a plastic bag."

Pollution, they say, is only part of the problem. Runoff from hot streets makes the water too warm for some native fish. Barriers, like the dam that creates the pond in Gwynn Oaks Park, thwart the upstream spawning instincts of a number of important species.

One of the state's strategies for boosting fish populations is to stock streams with farm-raised fish--especially popular sport fish such as rainbow trout. But the practice puzzles Womack and Barnhart, who feel it sends a misleading message: "You put rainbow trout in there, a lot of people think it's OK to eat," Womack says.

The two anglers are more positive about plans to revive Gwynns Falls and Leakin Park with a trail system, campgrounds, and other attractions. Fishing, Barnhart says, could offer city kids an alternative to street life, "if somebody takes the time and shows them how." Still, they worry about safety in some of the park's lonelier reaches: They've seen drugs, guns, and prostitutes downstream. Womack once found a dead body. That's the kind of wilderness experience nobody needs.

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