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A 'fishable' Baltimore Harbor, but is it safe?

Now that I've tried it a few times, with a little success, I can say this about fly-fishing for rockfish from the Inner Harbor promenade: You have to watch out for joggers on your back-cast. If you're not careful, you'll hook one, and that could mean litigation, and that could take all the fun out of fishing.

If you've ever seen a fly angler build a long cast over water, you know that, in classic "River Runs Through It" style, the line unfurls as far to the rear as it does to the front, and the back-cast can be tricky if there are trees behind the caster. At Baltimore's Inner Harbor, you have to watch out for lampposts, street signs and tall dogs, in addition to those joggers.

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But if you're keenly aware of your surroundings, or go to the waterfront before sunrise and the daily outbreak of joggers, you'll be fine.

And I'll tell you something else: You're likely to catch a striped bass in the 18-to-23-inch range. The Baltimore Office of Sustainability and Blue Water Baltimore have declared a "fishable, swimmable harbor by 2020" as a great community goal. I don't know about the swimmable part, but the fishable looks pretty good. I caught a 20-inch rockfish the other day on my second cast, and he looked as healthy as any striper I've seen taken from the middle of the Chesapeake Bay.

"The fishing has been fantastic," says Tim Wolf, the longtime executive chef at Chiapparelli's restaurant in Little Italy. Wolf parks his pickup truck, grabs his rod and net, and fishes along the waterfront just a few hundred yards from the busiest city streets, and he does this almost every day before heading to his kitchen.

I've been hearing about the fishing along the promenade for years. I've fished the outer harbor from a boat. I've thrown flies around the Key Bridge and Fort Carroll. But I'd never tried fishing from the concrete and brick of the promenade.

Then a friend told me about Wolf, and I went to the harbor in the dark to meet him.

(I swore I would not give away Wolf's favorite fishing spot, but I'll say this: If you've ever strolled through the Inner Harbor, you've probably walked right past it, and you probably never gave a thought to there being rockfish in the water just below you.)

Wolf does not have to worry about a back-cast (or litigation), because he fishes with spinning tackle, not a fly rod. His favorite lure is a blue, 4-inch Tsunami Popper, a topwater lure that glug-splashes across the surface and is evidently attractive to Maryland's state fish. I saw Wolf catch four rockfish in a row with the Tsunami on Sunday morning. Each fish was in the 20-inch range.

Wolf also uses a blue Bomber Long A lure, which wiggles through the water. It works under the surface when the fish do not appear to be feeding on top.

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Of course, I know what you're wondering, and it has to do with consumption. As in, "Are you going to eat that?" It's a reasonable question. Anyone who has seen the harbor after a rainstorm would find the prospect of eating a fish from the Patapsco River — that's what the harbor is, after all — unappetizing.

Declaration: I'm not a subsistence angler. I'm one of those catch-and-release guys that a lot of people find odd. We catch, then release. Sometimes we catch, take a picture, then release. When I go out, I often take more pictures than catch fish.

So I won't eat a rockfish from the harbor because I generally don't eat the fish I catch. However, I don't think it would kill me or anyone else to try. The Maryland Department of the Environment puts out advisories on the consumption of all kinds of fish caught from the bay and its tributaries, and the migratory rockfish scores relatively high on the safety meter.

Testing by the MDE in 2011 showed falling levels of contaminants in rockfish. The department raised its recommended monthly meal limits; rockfish of the size Wolf catches in the Inner Harbor (less than 28 inches long) can be consumed safely up to three times a month, the agency said. It's safer still if you take the time to remove the dark, fatty areas of the fish and eat the fillets.

Wolf does not eat the rockfish he catches, nor does he prepare it at Chiapparelli's. "But," he says, "for 10 years I've been taking them to one of the women at work. She eats them all the time, and she is not glowing and can't wait until I bring her more."

I don't mind having to pause in my casting to avoid hooking a jogger. But it's the other stuff that needs to go away — the trash, chemicals and bacteria. It would be stunning if, one fine day, we could fish and swim in the Inner Harbor and not have to be so conscious of those issues.

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The rockfish deserve cleaner waters, and so do we.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is also the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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