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Part 2

Urban Fish Tales


"If I leave, I'm not coming back," Robert replies.

Haskins decides to wait. He's had an all-day taste for catfish fried in cornmeal.

Startled, Robert jerks back. "I thought I was hung, but I've got something," he yells. Robert's pole arches and a silvery-green fish skims the surface and winds up in his hand.

"Ooh, it's a good size, pan-size," says Haskins. "Now I got to catch me one." Haskins takes the smallmouth from his nephew and places it in the empty leather knapsack. On one knee, he bends over the lake and draws in water that seeps through the zipper teeth of the bag.

Haskins has been fishing at least since he was 5. And like most fishermen who constantly relive the sport, the memories of early trips and the hundreds since have come to mean more than any fish ever caught.

He prefers fishing on the James, but the lake at Byrd Park is easier to cover. Haskins used to fish in Dinwiddie where he has a small farm. There's a lake there much like this one, he says, with ducks and trees and people, too, sometimes. "I lost my wife and son, and I don't go up there too much anymore," he says fidgeting with his reel. "It brings back too many memories."

Haskins doesn't seem to notice the siren of kids yelling and running down the hill behind him. What's more, he doesn't see the fisherman with three poles lose one to a snapping turtle. "Sam, Sam, look!" his nephew calls.

The fisherman and his girlfriend stand stunned and peer into the lake.

"Ain't that a trip," Haskins says and laughs out loud.

The exasperation that he's blamed on everything from weak bait to the time of day to a shoddy reel suddenly turns to relief.

The turtle must have been as annoyed as Haskins.

He exchanges the reel for the one with thick, green, 100-lb test - strong enough to catch a turtle. Haskins shakes his head at dumb luck, "It's just one of those days."

The river giveth and sometimes it taketh away. William "Buck" Barrett knows this as well as anybody. In two weeks the James has claimed two of Barrett's baseball caps, and still he can't get over losing the valuable one. It bore three hard-earned Coca-Cola Company pins. "I was so outdone," he says. "I tried to catch it by hooking it. I cast about three times before I saw it go under."

Barrett, 53, stands as he always does on the east side of Mayo's Bridge at the fourth lamplight. "Everytime I fish, I fish in the same spot. I've caught over 150 fish here in the last month." It's raining and the sun is shining, a coincidence in ature he says is a sign: There'll be cats biting aplenty in minutes. He never calls it quits for rain, thunder, or even lightning. It keeps away the competition and company.

The rain stops and only the sun pours. He loses the black raincoat and rain hat, wipes his brow and adjusts the bill of a pinless snug-fitting Coca-Cola cap.

A stringer of six mustached catfish dangles from the bridge.

"Oh, I got a nice one," he calls. The Shakespeare reel whizzes, and the long white pole bends into a parabola over the muddy river. Barrett fetches a pound-and-a-half blue cat. "He couldn't have gotten away if he wanted to," he says triumphantly.

[image-1](Stephen Salpukas / Style Weekly)Barrett adds the doomed fish to the chain and returns to the ledge where he keeps the bloody mess of cut bait and livers. Already he's gone through much of the two packs of chicken livers he bought for $2.50 at the grocery store. He's got to conserve and that means using mostly eel.

"That's the poorest string I've had all day," he says. Parked on the south end of the bridge Barrett's Toyota pickup holds reinforcements: four more poles, a cooler with Cokes, apple juice and potato chips. But no more bait.

"The best luck I've had since I've been fishing is right here," better than Ancarrow's Landing or Lake Anna. When he's not working, "Most times you can find me right here at this light."

A caravan of rafters pops into Barrett's turf. "Stay to the right just a little," he calls to them, nodding at his line.

"I'm going to have to find me …" Barrett's sentences are cut short when the rod signals. He jerks back and braces himself. Another catfish is plucked up, grazing the surface like a water skier until the 30-lb test line forces it from the river forever.

Barrett is an anomaly to most fishermen. Each fish he sizes up believably, if not on the light side. "I'd say that's about a two-pounder." It's every bit two and a half.

The only thing Barrett fishes for are cats. Unlike anglers whose mantra is catch and release, Williams keeps and uses everything, for food or cut bait — except rockfish between 18 and 26 inches that could stick him with a $500 fine.

"All those cats on that string I could clean in 20 minutes," he says, referring to the 14 fish hanging from the chain.

Barrett wipes his hands on wadded-up paper towels and looks toward Interstate 95. The Lucky Strike smokestack is dead ahead and Southern State's smokestacks can be seen to the right through river-nesting sycamores. Just three feet behind Haskins, traffic zooms incessantly at speeds much swifter than the 25 mph limit. But all Barrett sees is the river. Still, the city envelops him as the river does the fish. "I've witnessed two accidents on this bridge," he says. Haskins wouldn't fish regularly anywhere else. The 20-minute drive from his home in North Side is worth it. "The water looks so gorgeous. It's the prettiest I've seen in two or three months. And you see a lot of pretty ducks come by."

Every fisherman says there's a big one waiting. The next tug on Barrett's line is it.

"Oh, I got him this time," he says. His usual smile is replaced by strain and wincing. In a second, the line goes limp. "He stoned me! I wasn't paying no attention and he hit me."

Barrett's been at it for more than eight hours in the same place on the bridge. He's stretched his bait like manna and says he'll save the last bit of livers for the big one that got away. He's still got his hat. What's more, he's got three stringers of cats. Today, the muddy river giveth. Fishermen like Cushing, the Stonich brothers and Haskins know why Barrett's not the least bit tired.

"If I didn't have to work tomorrow, I would go out, get some more bait and stay out here 'til 11 o'clock."

For more information about fishing in the urban James and all Virginia public waters, visit the Web site of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries at

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