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Fish are easy, for a fee Fish-in Barrel clients can count on ready pickings


Jim Wiley's shirt has a stain around the breast pocket. That's where he keeps his worms.

He's a fisherman, no doubt about it -- a friendly, funny, 43-year-old fisherman. He's also a farmer who knows he can't farm forever.

So he and a longtime fishing buddy decided to turn their fishing hobby into a business that they hope, someday, to grow old running. They opened the five ponds on Mr. Wiley's northern Harford County farm to the public, charging fishermen a flat fee to fish and another fee for each fish they take home.

Mr. Wiley and his fishing buddy, Leonard Billingslea, began raising fish in ponds at Mr. Billingslea's farm down the road. They bought fish and stocked Mr. Wiley's ponds with bass, bluegill, trout, crappie, white perch and catfish.

They opened for business in April. They named the operation Fish-in Barrel.

That's a play on words, Mr. Wiley says, because you don't really fish in a barrel. Well, most people don't, and those few desperate trout fishermen who did this spring shall mercifully remain unnamed.

"We have promised not to tell who fishes in the barrels," Mr. Wiley says, laughing as usual.

There are two big barrels next to the ponds made from old silo rings. The barrels are 12 feet wide and 5 feet deep.

They're kind of halfway houses for fish being released into the ponds. But they're really unnecessary, and they serve no great purpose other than getting the old silo rings off Mr. Billingslea's farm and onto Mr. Wiley's.

Mr. Billingslea had been trying to get rid of those rings for years. That's the kind of friend he is, Mr. Wiley says. And that's the kind of friends they are. They're the kind who, when coming upon a barbed wire fence, one holds down the wire for the other and then lets go when he's halfway over.

They're good friends, in other words. They don't verbalize that much, but they're mates. Mr. Billingslea is the sly, quiet one; Mr. Wiley the outgoing one.

"Right now it's an amusing hobby," Mr. Wiley says of their enterprise. "It may get a lot better than this, or it may not. We may have to stop altogether."

On this day, a Friday, no one comes to fish. The ponds are open from 8 a.m. to dusk Friday through Monday, and other days by appointment. Sundays are the busiest. One Sunday, about 30 people fished.

The farm is in the northwest corner of Harford County, a mile from Pennsylvania and a mile from Baltimore County. It's on Route 136, less than a mile east of Route 23.

You pay $6 for the day if you're 13 to 59 years old. Otherwise you pay $3. You can rent poles and buy worms, or use your own pole and bait.

Each pond has different fish, but each pond has a lot of fish.

"We've arranged it so we think you can catch something," Mr. Wiley says.

And if you can't, he'll show you how. He's an incredibly helpful host, especially with children.

"I enjoy ornery kids. I enjoy nice kids," he says. "I just enjoy kids."

The kids he seems to enjoy most are the ones who have never fished. He says that since April probably 25 children with their parents or grandparents have caught their first fish in his ponds.

"That's just what this is all about," Mr. Wiley says. "That's what we're selling -- fun. We'll sell fish, but we're really selling fun."

They'd rather you fish for sport and throw the fish back, until the last hour or so when you catch all you want to take home out of the catfish pond.

Catfish cost $2.50 apiece. But if you want other fish, you pay $3 for each trout, crappie and white perch, $6 for each bass, and 50 cents for each bluegill.

This is called "fee-fishing." Dan Terlizzi, who works mainly in aquaculture for the cooperative extension service in Harford County, says fee-fishing is popular in the Deep South. Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama have hundreds of pay-to-fish ponds, he says.

He knows of only four in Maryland: Fish-in Barrel, and ones in Allegany, Washington and Kent counties. He says he expects more to open.

"In this day and age," he says, "more and more when someone takes children fishing they're looking for a sure thing."

Fish-in Barrel is a sure thing, although you catch a dozen small fish for every one you consider taking home. It's also tremendously peaceful. You hear no sounds of civilization, just the shriek of peacocks on a neighboring farm, and the soothing )) moos of the beef cattle on Mr. Wiley's farm.

Maybe their fee-fishing business will carry them into retirement, or maybe it won't last as long as a granddaddy catfish.

But that's a concern for another day. It's past 1, and anybody who lives around here knows that the lunch special over at Marvin's ends at 1. Marvin's is actually the Taylor Haus Restaurant in Stewartstown, Pa., five miles from the Wiley farm. Marvin Joines owns it. Not many days pass that Jim Wiley and Leonard Billingslea don't make it for the special.

On Fridays it's fish. And even though they're late, a cheerful waitress named Evelyn knew they'd be coming and saved them each a fried flounder.

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