Our Kind of Place

River Remedy: Harpers Ferry

Chasing smallmouth and solace where the Shenandoah and Potomac meet in Harpers Ferry

A vintage linen penny postcard from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

I’m not a big believer in New Age ideas like reincarnation or past life regression, mostly because the odds of anybody having been a king, a great artist, or a mistress of Louis XIV are quite low. On the other hand, I’m a total sucker for the supremely unscientific notion of “power places,” geographical spaces where the earth concentrates its energy. Examples of such places are the pyramids of Egypt, the “energy vortexes” around Sedona, Arizona, and the spot directly between the legs of Pedro, the ninety-seven-foot-tall mascot of South of the Border near  Dillon, South Carolina.

My power place is Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet. No less an observer than Thomas Jefferson, visiting in 1783, wrote: “The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature. You stand on a very high point of land. On your right comes up the Shenandoah, having ranged along the foot of the mountain a hundred miles to seek a vent. On your left approaches the Patowmac in quest of a passage also. In the moment of their junction they rush together against the mountain, rend it asunder and pass off to the sea.…This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic.”

That’s a bit over the top, but you get the idea. My response is simpler but no less powerful, at least to me. What I know is this: The moment I top the last hill on Highway 340 West and descend toward the confluence, something in me unclenches. And it is a descent. Before 1747, locals knew the spot as “the Hole.” Then a builder named Robert Harper bought a cabin here, set up a ferry service, and, wisely, changed the name. Cliff-like ridges—Maryland Heights, Loudoun Heights, and Bolivar Heights—hem in tiny Harpers Ferry (population 286) on all sides in a way that is either protective or forbidding, depending on individual interpretation.

I don’t come here for the view, no matter how stunning. Nor to roam the cobblestoned streets or visit the rebuilt firehouse where the abolitionist John Brown and his ragtag army holed up in 1859 after trying to seize the federal armory and ignite a slave revolt all across the South. (They remained there for two days before being routed by a detachment of marines led by a young U.S. Army colonel, Robert E. Lee.) I’m immune to the charms of the town’s antiques shops, flea markets, and artisanal candles and quilts. I come because it’s my favorite place on earth to chase smallmouth bass—the fish that swim through my dreams.

When I roll into Harpers Ferry, I drive past the train station on Potomac Street until it dead-ends, duck under the metal bar closing the road to vehicles, and head up the dirt track to a section of the Potomac above the confluence known as the Needles, a mile and a half of small rapids, riffles, and tiny islands of green grass. I hope that there’s a stretch of water this pretty in heaven. There are several lifetimes’ worth of fishing here, endless targets at which to cast, any of which might hold a four-pound bronzeback. The fish like it here almost as much as I do. They’re more lively because the rapids increase oxygen levels in the water. The fast water also tends to surprise and disorient unsuspecting smaller protein—minnows, crayfish, frogs—as it sweeps them along. Feisty smallmouth, their bodies toned by a life in the current, wait in the slack water behind rocks, beneath ledges, and in the seams where currents meet. From here they dart out to ambush prey. I’m often struck by the differences between worlds here. Looking out over the water, it’s easy to imagine yourself in the nineteenth century. Silver maples, cottonwoods, and giant sycamores extend to the waterline. (When it’s too dark to make out the sycamores, it’s time to get off the river.) The rocks and shallow water prohibit motorboats. Beneath the surface, however, it’s still a primordial struggle—eat or be eaten.

Although I’ve fished from shore, canoed, and kayaked here, I prefer to wade if the water isn’t too high. When you’re standing knee-deep, you’re part of the river, a direct recipient of its energy. You have to be careful, though. While the river is not malicious, neither is it forgiving. You need a life vest and a good wading staff. I learned the hard way to tie my staff to my vest. Otherwise, you forget about it when you stop to cast and the current takes it.

Few things in life are as satisfying as the jolt of a smallmouth hitting a lure and then scribbling its name in the water with the line as it pulls this way and that. I am greedy for the sensation. This is one reason—I have many others as well—that I forgo the fly rod. Give me a five-foot ultralight spinning rod, a reel spooled with six-pound test, and I’m a happy man. On light tackle like this, even a twelve-inch fish is a battle. Tuck into something bigger—like the eighteen-incher you might encounter once or twice a year—and the feeling is one of being hopelessly outgunned, like trying to stop a freight train with a rubber band. When I do succeed in bringing a smallmouth like that in, I invariably unhook it with trembling hands. Legions of fishermen will attest to the fact that smallmouth, for their size, are the strongest, hardest-fighting, most acrobatic freshwater fish in the country. The Algonquin Indians understood this. Their name for them was achigan, meaning “ferocious.”

I’ve been coming to Harpers Ferry, no matter what’s going on in my life, for forty years. There is always another riffle or boulder that looks promising. There’s always a big one somewhere close by if I can just pick the right lure and get it to drift the right way. And soon I’m so caught up fishing that I forget that I’ve got more money going out than coming in or that my daughter can’t decide whether to dye her hair purple or pink next or that my mechanic shrugged noncommittally when asked whether I might squeeze another ten thousand miles out of a 2003 Forester whose rear badge proclaims that it was manufactured by SUBA U. But it’s during the really bad times—wrestling with death, divorce, or despair—that I appreciate it most. When nothing makes sense, when it feels like life has found a bumper sticker from Ecclesiastes—All is vanity and vexation of spirit—and slapped it on my ass, fishing Harpers Ferry is the one thing I still know how to do, the one thing that still makes sense.