- Associated Press - Saturday, April 26, 2014

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - On a warm, sunny day in late April, it seems the whole city of Richmond has gone fishing on the James River.

As the rapids through the city smooth and widen below the falls, the river that transported the first Europeans who settled Jamestown has all the appearance of a big-stakes fishing tournament.

People with poles are hunched over the latticework of bridges spanning the river, a flotilla of fishing boats bob below the rapids and knots of anglers with coolers and beach chairs line the wooded shore, concrete piers and green expanses.

The attraction is silvery shad on their annual March and April spawning run from the sea 100 miles away, but many other species draw the rod-and-reel set.

“You get a good cross-section of the community,” says Alan Weaver, a Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries scientist who spends a day most weeks on the river. “You have people in business suits rolling up their sleeves and hardcore fishermen. It draws pretty much everybody.”

The James attracts swimmers who loll on bleached rocks during the summer months and kayakers and canoers many other months of the year. But as the days grower warmer, fishing becomes a dominant activity.

At Ancarrow’s Landing, at the eastern end of the James River Park system, the shore of the river was lined with people fishing and a thicket of poles earlier this week.

Roberta Bolden, 63, has fished the river regularly since 1999. She had her sights set on white perch, a coveted food fish.

“It’s for fun, it’s for relaxation,” said Bolden, who already had perch lining the bottom of a plastic bucket well before noon. “I don’t eat a lot of the fish. I like to give them to people who like them. I eat a few.”

A few feet away, Junious Pittman was catching perch and shad. “I just like sport fishing,” he said. “Anything that hits the line.”

In the James, that represents a wide array of fresh water and anadromous fish, or those that leave salt water to spawn in fresh water.

Weaver, fish passage coordinator for the state game department, was at the wheel of a 16-foot boat that revealed the aquarium-worthy variety of fish beneath the calm surface. At the bow were two electric probes, each appearing like the ribs of an umbrella stripped bare by a gust of wind.

When the probes are dipped into the river by technicians Robbie Willis and Kirk Dunn, the current stuns dozens of fish ranging from minnow-sized to 3-foot stripers engorged with herring, sending them to the surface. Some of the fish are weighed and measured, some are tossed into an open tank for a hatchery and two plump catfish are set aside for research by Virginia Tech scientists.

Besides those species, bass, a bowfin, hickory and American shad and carp, among others, are temporarily stunned to the surface, much to the amazement and envy of fishermen in boats and others observing from the 14th Street bridge. Some seagulls swoop in for an easy catch, while a heron sits perched on a rock awaiting his turn. Even a bald eagle swoops over the river at one point. Two Canada geese honk loudly when the boat nears their island refuge.

“What we’re doing is monitoring the population for run strength,” Weaver explained. “These shad and herring, the numbers have been depleting for a number of years. We’re monitoring to see if the populations are stable, declining or returning to better numbers.”

The American shad - called the “founding fish” because of its importance in early America - can’t be kept because of its low numbers.

The Virginia Department of Health also advises limits on the consumption of certain species of fish, including large catfish, which can range up to nearly 100 pounds.

Later this year, during the fall, one of the biggest attractions makes its appearance. Sturgeon - 4, 5 or 6 feet in length - draw the curious to bridges above the James as they watch the prehistoric fish rise from the river.

There’s no fishing for sturgeon, though. They’re endangered.

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Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap

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