Steve Goll was a big kid in my neighborhood. He was tall and strong and claimed Cherokee blood or some other tribe. He was the kind of guy that shorter, weaker kids followed or huddled around in baseball or basketball or football, our big three sports back in the day. But I think Steve was happiest when he was fishing. He claimed to have supernatural Indian fishing spirits in his being. He could fish, that I can confirm.
When we were still riding bikes, we’d ride down to Hunting Creek to try and catch huge, whale-like carp that swam in the muddy water southwest of Alexandria. We tossed out carp dough and corn and power bait. I never recall catching one of those monsters. Wouldn’t have known what to do with one if we had. Sort of like catching a log.
Steve puffed on Swisher Sweet cigars to be cool and to keep the bugs off him. Naturally we wanted to imitate him, talk like him, arm punch like him, laugh like he did. When he started drinking beer in 8th grade, well, that meant it was time to acquire a beer taste. Man, that was a tough sell. The cigars you could sort of stand, but warm sour cheap beer sipped in a humid tent in the woods was a gag reflex check up.
I remember riding bikes all the way to the Potomac River south of Alexandria to fish for eels and perch and catfish. You never knew what you’d pull up from the polluted waters in 1969-71. Nasty stuff clogged the banks. Whatever you caught you threw back immediately. There was no question about eating any of it. Rats roamed the banks and still do. These were summer day excursions, however. The keeper story comes from winter.
We were driving, I know that. Had to be 16 by then. Steve told us about the shad run, about streams chock full of flapping, slapping fish that you could net or catch with an empty hook by ripping it across the stream. He called it “snagging”. It sounded pretty cool to me, the world’s worst fisherman. We piled into his dad’s car and took off for a stream near Lorton, Virginia in late February.
We knew something was going on because all these cars were parked awkwardly beside the road near the stream. Most had D.C. plates and were pretty beat up. As we got closer to the stream, rushing high due to the late winter/early spring melt, I could see many Black men in fishing get ups milling about both sides of the stream that was maybe 10 to 15 feet across and perhaps three feet deep. What was unforgettable was the turbulent pulse of thousands of shad swimming furiously against the current to get to the spot where they had been spawned years before. It looked like one long bundle of muscles contracting and twisting and releasing, meaty and full of blood. These fish were breeding and dying in the same gasping effort.
As all this activity exploded on both banks, at the overhangs and points where the stream turned, laughter and loud talk bounced over the water. Men were shouting to one another and Steve was snagging two and three shad per swipe. It was wild and grotesque as the fish were caught with hooks in their head, fins, and eyes. Not an elegant exercise at all. As the frenzy in the water and on the banks escalated, a loud splash echoed up the stream. One of the Black men had fallen off his perch and was yelling and thrashing in the frigid water. He pulled himself out of the water by a root and then peeled down to his bare buttocks, wringing out each article of clothes, from his socks to his briefs, tee shirt, shirt, sweater, etc. His friends laughed at him. We did too but not so that he could see or hear us.
Eventually the harvest was done. Steve had snagged about 300 shad. He gave them to the Black guys who had buckets overflowing with flapping fish. They were going to be dried and smoked for eating months later. Our experience was over but not forgotten. Shadly.