Consumed with boredom sometime in the thick of the coronavirus pandemic, Caitlin Gibson picked up her fishing rod.
Growing up in Frederick, she’d spent a not-insignificant amount of time out on the Potomac River with her dad. But it had been a while since she’d given fishing any serious thought.
A few months later, her love for the sport fully rekindled and her instincts fully resharpened, Gibson is set to compete in one of the nation’s largest fishing tournaments. Her father, Christopher Von Garrel, will be beside her on the boat, angling for largemouth bass in their shared quest for the million-dollar prize.
The regional qualifying tournament of the Bass Pro Shops U.S. Open will take place Saturday near the National Harbor. It will mark Gibson’s first tournament, but Von Garrel is far from a rookie: He’s been fishing since he was a boy and has been involved in Deaf anglers’ clubs and tournaments across the region for years.
Still, with 250 boats — each carrying two competitors — Saturday’s competition will be one of the biggest fields Von Garrel has faced. The top 40 finishers will qualify for the championships, a massive, televised event in Missouri in November where $1 million will be up for grabs. The boats with the biggest hauls — based on weight — will move on to the finals.
Von Garrel, a student life supervisor at the Frederick campus of the Maryland School for the Deaf, is no stranger to competition. Twice, he qualified for the Deaf Olympics as a wrestler, traveling to Bulgaria and New Zealand to compete.
Naturally, the father-daughter duo are prone to one-upmanship. Over the past year, as Gibson refined her technique and began hauling in bigger and bigger catches, she would send photos to her dad. He usually reacted with incredulity, she said with a laugh.
“Most of the time, when I come fishing with him, I catch fish and he won’t,” Gibson said, smiling. “It’s funny.”
Von Garrel and Gibson traded friendly jabs in the shade of a waterfront tree at Pohick Bay Regional Park on Thursday, gazing out at Gunston Cove.
“You’re a quick learner,” Von Garrel conceded to his daughter in American Sign Language.
Behind Gibson’s ear is a small, black-ink tattoo of the ASL symbol for “I love you.” Several of her family members have the same one. She and her sister learned sign language from birth, Gibson said, and were raised around Frederick’s vibrant Deaf community.
Gibson’s re-introduction to fishing has brought her even closer to her dad, she said. They both enjoy the peace of being on the river before dawn: the gentle rocking of the boat, the intricate puzzle of angling. When Gibson makes a catch, she’ll stomp her feet to get her dad’s attention.
The sport doesn’t always treat them kindly. They’ve both been rushed to doctors after being impaled by rogue hooks. And Wednesday, while camping near the National Harbor to prepare for the tournament, an aggressive thunderstorm soaked their tent and destroyed the canopy that had been protecting their picnic table.
Still, they were pulling away from the dock by 5:30 a.m. the next day.
As an oppressive 90-degree heat hung in the air, Von Garrel and Gibson rattled off the laundry list of factors that might force them to change their approach come game time Saturday. They discussed what color lures to use depending on the color of the water that day. The temperature will determine whether the fish are sheltering at the river bottom or frolicking near the surface.
“You always have to change up your plan,” Von Garrel said. “It doesn’t really get boring.”
Gibson’s goal is to go pro one day and gain sponsorships, she said. She’s garnered more than 2,500 followers on an Instagram page dedicated to fishing, and she spent the past year making friends with other women in the sport.
The pair are keeping their expectations relatively low for Saturday, they said, mentally preparing for the heat to hinder their performance. They acknowledge that they’re both still learning, too.
But they grinned with excitement as they firmed up their plans. Then they stood, boarded their boat, and sped away across the cove.