You can learn a lot by fishing the Ohio River. Even when you don’t catch anything.
GALLIPOLIS, Ohio – The first sign that we probably weren’t going to catch any fish that day was the two older men leaving the Robert C. Byrd Locks and Dam. For the fishermen, the retirees who leave have the same objective as the canaries once did for the coal miners. Only one gate was open at the dam, sending the water swirling rapidly and grayish brown, and the men warned us that nothing was biting.
It was just after sunrise, and the air was dense with a fog so thick it made my skin wet. Ricky Jackson had agreed to take me fishing at his favorite spot on the west bank of the Ohio River, just south of the dam, on a secluded rocky hill that at other times of the day is popular with teenagers. He and his wife, who met in high school, came here on their second date.
Some come for catfish, but we were fishing for stripes, Jackson explained, as we weaved our way over the rocks to the ledge where he likes to hang out. A fisherman before us had left three good pieces of raw bonito, which some people use as bait for catfish.
As I struggled to relearn casting with an open-faced reel, Jackson, 34, told me about growing up in Gallipolis, pronounced “gala police.” The town of 3,600 sits just across the street from West Virginia and feels a bit like a cultural part of it, aside from the football allegiance of the Ohio State Buckeyes. Power plants and chemical companies line the river on both sides, and coal barges drift by several times a day.
When Jackson was a child, the river was so polluted that state officials said never to eat any catfish or carp caught in it. “Growing up next to a river when you can’t eat the fish from it pisses you off,” he said.
Over the decades, tighter EPA restrictions have limited industrial pollution and created new environmental compliance jobs here. This year, for the first time, there are no “do not eat” advisories for fish in the Ohio River.
The culture has also changed. Jackson said older generations of his family wouldn’t have thought to throw trash in the water. There was trash at the base of the dam that day — bottles of Mountain Dew, a nearly empty container of chicken gizzards that the flies were very interested in — but less than before.
“There’s a pride now, when I think people saw it as a highway for goods,” he said. “It’s ours. It’s our thing, it’s our benchmark.
Behind these changes, he believes, lies increased economic stability. His grandmother, one of 10 siblings, left school in sixth grade to work in a mine and died with tiny shards of coal still embedded in her palm. There was no time to worry about the risks of dumping garbage in the river back then, because there was no time to worry about anything other than finding their next meal.
This neighborhood is still poor. But his generation is less uptight, Jackson said. “When you reach a certain level of comfort, you look around and say to yourself, ‘How can I improve things around me?’ ”
Jackson studied environmental science in college and flirted with a career in ornithology. Now he works as the vice president of a local insurance agency and uses his bird expertise on duck hunting trips to catch the birds his kids will actually eat.
Recent stories from the Boston crew
Jackson was an encouraging fishing coach, swapping rods with me whenever I got my line tangled, like it was just his preference. (“You’re doing well,” he lied periodically.) After about an hour, I was still picking up rocks.
Then there was a tug that definitely felt more alive. The spool spun and the line flew off.
“Another rock? I asked Jackson, handing him the pole.
“No, man, you have a fish! »
He pushed the rod back into my hands. “Reel, reel, reel!
I cast with enthusiasm until I felt the line suddenly release. The fish had snapped it, escaping. It was my biggest fishing success of the day.
By the time we left, a few hours later, the fog had mostly lifted and to the south we could see a mechanical crane reaching up its long red arm into the river to dredge up the silt. It was the dam that prevented us from catching anything, we reassured ourselves, nothing to do with his talent as a fisherman or my lack of talent.
“In my mind, you caught a fish,” Jackson said. I allowed myself to believe it.
Join the discussion: comment on this story.
- reporters: Julian Benbow, Diti Kohli, Hanna Krueger, Emma Platoff, Annalisa Quinn, Jenna Russell, Mark Shanahan, Lissandra Villa Huerta
- Photographers: Erin Clark, Pat Greenhouse, Jessica Rinaldi and Craig F. Walker
- Editor: Francis Storrs
- Chief Editor: Stacey Myers
- Photo editors: William Greene and Leanne Burden Seidel
- video editor: Anouch Elbakyan
- digital editor: Christine Prignano
- Design: Ryan Huddle
- Development: John Hancock
- Copy Editors: Carrie Simonelli, Michael Bailey, Marie Piard and Ashlee Korlach
- Home page strategy: Lea Becerra
- Audience participation: Lauren Booker, Heather Ciras, Sadie Layher, Maddie Mortell and Devin Smith
- Newsletter: LaDonna LaGuerre
- Quality assurance: Nalini Dokula
- Additional research: Chelsea Henderson and Jeremiah Manion
© 2022 Boston Globe Media Partners, LLC