Carp fishing in the Capital: Washington DC Tidal Basin Carpin’

There are lots of places to fish in the USA, but perhaps none so iconic as the tidal basin in Washington DC. For those of you that might not know what the tidal basin is, it is a ~107 acre reservoir that connects the Potomac River with the original purpose of providing water to flush the Washington Channel. It has a number of fish species in it, and is known to have a good population of carp most of the year. Some very large fish (50+) have been caught there, but not in some time.

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The view across the basin, showing the Jefferson Memorial.

While no big fish have come out of this area (that I know of) recently, there are still plenty of fish to be caught, and the unique opportunity of fishing in the nation’s capital was well worth the trip. I started out at around 2am and arrived in DC just before sunup. My fishing buddy Joe had gotten there a few minutes before, and since neither of us had fished here before we decided to do some scouting and see if there were any fish showing. Our first stop was at the upper end of the basin and we spent some time watching the water. Nothing. We got booted out of the spot by some construction workers so decided to look at some other areas.

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Our final choice of swims basically on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial

After a short-lived attempt to fish in an another area, we ended up right in front of the Jefferson Memorial. That makes it seem easy which it wasn’t. We were not sure how long we were going to fish so we wanted to find a place to park that was okay over night. This was not easy with most parking being for only 3hrs and/or not past 1am. So, we found a spot that did not have any signs that indicated that our vehicles would be sent to prison, but this required a major amount of walking. Even with a drastically reduced amount of gear we were still way overloaded and the walk seemed to be miles…I am sure it was not but when your head feels like it is going to pop off due to a countless number of straps being slung around it and blood flow to the brain is being cut off, walks seem longer.

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No sooner than we collapsed from our walk then our licenses were checked – always buy a license!

We finally made it and first thing we got our licenses checked. We always buy licenses and it is actually nice to have them checked as it makes buying them seem more worthwhile. The officer was very nice and took Joe not having a printed version in stride. After that formality she wished us luck and we were free to continue our quest for a DC carp. We had seen a few fish roll out towards the middle of the basin and one closer in, so we baited two spots: one at around 85yds and one right next to the wall.

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We stuck with smaller baits as the water was very cold.


Our free offerings were mostly sweet corn with added sugar, and a few other particles and small boilies. We tried a variety of baits ranging from small boilies, to pop-ups, to plastic and real corn. One thing that became evident right away was that the catfish really enjoyed the corn soaked in Betalin and as soon as the first rod with this on the hair hit the water a catfish was on the hook. Catfish are okay for some things, but they were not the target here so their activity was only good in is as much as there was some feeding going on.

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A small PVA bog of boilies did not end up producing anything.
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Small PVA sticks of liquidized bread did the trick and all baits that got runs had them.

The location where we first set up seemed high and dry when we got there but it became evident that this was not the case. The tide (it is called the tidal basin after all) kept pushing us up until we were a good 20+ feet farther back than when we started. I had counted wraps so I could feel confident that I was hitting more or less the same spot in the dark, and I had to remember to keep adding line as we moved farther and farther away from the bait.

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The tide kept coming in, and had I left my pod in this location it would have been fully underwater in short order!

It started to get dark and other than a few catfish things were rather dead. One thing about the tidal basin is there are a lot of people and they like to take picture of you fishing and often like to ask you questions, but after it starts getting dark even this diversion came to an end, and it seemed like this might yet again be a short story summed up with “we fished the tidal basin and blanked”. I said getting dark but this is only accurate to a point: Washington DC has some very bad light pollution and it never got very dark. True, you did still need a head lamp to put baits on a hair, but short of that most things could be done with the background lighting alone.

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The place is really bright even in the middle of the night.

Eventually the tide stopped coming in and as soon as this happened I got some activity that looked for all the world like a catfish. I picked up the rod and sure enough it felt not unlike a catfish, but a better sort of catfish, something in the 10lb range perhaps. At this point the water was really high and I had to walk around to the far side to get close to the drop off of the wall. The fish had still not moved all that much and was still letting me reel it in with out much fuss. When it got near the wall it came to the surface and to my surprise it was not a catfish but the target of the quest in the form of a carp much larger than I had thought. With a bit of very talented netting on Joe’s part the fish was on the mat, and tipped the scales at 23lbs. Some catfish!

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First fish of the night, 23lbs of very sluggish carp.

Well that one fish improved the mood no end and I got the rod back out as quickly as I could. The first fish had fallen to a cut down pineapple pop-up which was nice as that had produced a never-ending stream of catfish on other venues for me but seemed to be relatively catfish-free here. I had been fishing one of my rods closer to the wall, but since nothing seemed to be going on there I moved this rod out to the other spot as well. After not long at all another take disturbed the evening and again felt like a catfish and turned out to not be. This fish fought about the same, and proved to be a long, lean, 22lbs.

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Round 2, 22lbs of slightly less sluggish carp.

After this things went back to real catfish and around 1am we decided that it was getting cold and we both had a significant drive home. With that in mind instead of repeating the death march of earlier, Joe moved his truck to a closer parking spot and we only had to carry our gear about half the distance. We now know that this is the way to do it (if you have to carry your gear anyway), and future trips will employ the gear drop off method.

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One of a whole flock of helicopters that were around all day keeping things nice and noisy.

So, will I fish the tidal basin again? Yep. It was a really cool place to fish and other than the issues with parking, it was great access and I think had the water not been really cold the fishing would have been much faster and more productive. As it was my first DC carp were not bad and it was nice to catch on the first try. If you are looking for an urban fishing experiences at its finest then this has got to be a top choice in the USA. There was never a shortage of people, helicopters, and planes to watch when things got slow, and lots of people asking questions – all of which adds to the experience of fishing in America’s Capital.

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