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Living Off the Water: Meet the Harley's of Mason Neck

Harley brothers Mike and Brad are the last commercial fishermen in Fairfax County.

It was a slow May morning on the Potomac for the last of a dying breed. Brothers Mike and Brad Harley of Mason Neck returned to the family homestead for a quick afternoon break to see their mother, JoAnne, after catching and selling 500 pounds of catfish. 

That might sound like a good haul, but at 50 cents a pound it's only worth about $250 (the fish are later sold to the Maine Avenue Market in the District and Giant Food stores along the West Coast), and it meant the brothers would have to go back and recast their nets and see what more they could take from the Potomac. 

"It's hard now, harder than it ever was," said Mike, 49, in the house built by his late father, Louis. "Everything costs. It's $29 for a crab pot, then the bait costs $45, the bait basket, the gas for the truck to go buy the bait… And the VMRC (Virginia Marine Resources Commission) takes 14 percent of my quota."

The Harley Legacy

It's been said that the Potomac River courses through Harley veins. The brothers, who fish for catfish, American shad, Blue Claw crabs, Arkansas Blue crabs, carp and rockfish, share two distinctions: They're the last of five generations of Harley's fishing along the Neck, and they're also the only commercial fishermen left in Fairfax County. 

"I've seen the Potomac go from green slime to clean," said Brad. "When we were kids we weren't allowed in the water. It would stick to your legs."

The Harley's came to Virginia from Ireland in the early 19th century. In 1896, in a a dark chapter in the family history, fisherman Noah Harley fell off his boat while fishing and drowned in the Potomac at the age of 57. 

"I've got his pocket watch," said Mike of his great-great grandfather. 

A mile or so down Gunston Road you'll find Harley Road - named after Noah's son, John Harrison Harley, a farmer and commercial fisherman who lived on Mason Neck at the turn of the 20th century. His son, Joseph Harley was a commercial fisherman and so was his son Louis Harley, the father of Brad, Mike, Timmy, Patti and Paul Harley. 

"All of the Harley's are old school," said Lorton historian Irma Clifton. "They're country folk who have lived around here since the middle of the last century. They're friendly and help out their neighbors… And people who fish have a certain camaraderie because they make their living on the river and they realize that every day can be different."

Many Lortoners will remember Louis Harley, who fished commercially on Mason Neck from his boyhood in the 1930s until his passing at age 78 from pancreatic cancer in 2009. Louis was one of six children and graduated from Mount Vernon High School. He served in the Army for four years and met his wife, JoAnne, a secretary at the former DeWitt Army Community Hospital at Fort Belvoir, in 1954, at a dance at the American Legion in Lorton.

The couple married in 1959 and raised five children. 

"Louis was a good father, a good husband and lover. He always provided for us," said JoAnne. 

Louis Harley spent 23 years working in supply rooms at Fort Belvoir and the Lorton Prison before retiring in 1973 at the age of 43 to pursue a fisherman's life full-time. 

"He didn't tell anyone about the decision," said JoAnne. "I put all the kids in the car and said: 'I'm leaving!'"

Daughter Patti, 48, remembers the argument vividly. "Dad was fun-loving, never mad or had a mean word to say about anyone," she said. "I only remember my parents fighting twice, and I can remember coming home from school and mom saying 'I can't believe you quit your job!'"

JoAnne then went back to work as a secretary at Ft. Belvoir, where she stayed until her retirement this past March after 48 years with the government. 

"All the boys fished with their dad," she said. "That was his life - the water, and they all liked it, I guess. Oh, mercy. But you know what? I don't think there's much of a living in it anymore. There are too many regulations. It's not like it used to be. Back then you could go out, get your license, catch your fish and sell them." 

Louis began his business simply.

"He just took Mikey out and they slept in the car and met the owners of stocking ponds in Georgia and South and North Carolina, started relationships with them and that's how he started," said Patti, who married her boyfriend Keith Nailer in secret in 1985. The couple, who later married at Gunston Baptist Church in front of their families, now live in Fauquier County with their three sons.  

M.L. Harley & Sons Live Fish Co. saw its greatest returns in the late 1970s. The family rented pay-to-fish lakes in Georgia, and operated two delivery trucks with large aquatic tanks that supplied seafood to the Maine Avenue Market and restaurants and grocery stores across the country.

"Louis never had any paperwork for who owed him money. All the business was done with a handshake," said JoAnne. "Sometimes he got burned, but most of the time he came out on top."  

The family was dealt a sharp blow in 1990. Paul Harley, just 23 at the time, was shot and killed while visiting friends in Hagel Circle in Lorton.  

"There was a knock at the door and two men said they were with Fairfax County Police, and that they had a warrant for the arrest of someone who lived at the home," said Patti. "When they opened the door they held them at gunpoint and then tied them up. What we know is that Paul bucked back, and when he did that the gun went off and he was killed."

The shooter, Charles Lewis Shank, II, was arrested in 1994. Shank was charged with 1st degree homicide and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony. He was granted parole this year.  

"It was tough," said JoAnne. "It still is. You never get over it."   

The family pressed on despite the hardship and would face more tests in the decades to come. In 2002, a car crash on the way back from Georgia put Mike in a coma for three weeks and took the one working company truck out of commission. 

Then, in 2005, a boat accident almost made Louis the second Harley to drown in the Potomac. The boat struck something solid and he and Mike were thrown from the vessel and had to swim to shore. 

"Dad couldn't swim. I was behind him and I saw him go down to the bottom and push up with his legs and wade with his arms and then sink down and push from the bottom and do it again," said Mike. "But when he didn't come up, I saw his arms and I got him up pushed him to shore. I gave him CPR and he started breathing again... That was the scariest moment in my life." 

Louis died, surrounded by his family, of pancreatic cancer in 2009. He fished on the Potomac until a few weeks before his death.  

Brad, 43, now lives in the family home with his wife, Hope, their nine-year-old son and JoAnne.

"My fondest memories are of being pent up in that truck with my dad," Brad said. "Just me and him. Nobody else would bug us, nobody else would interrupt us. They talk about him loving the river and him loving his family, but he loved Georgia, too. Southern hospitality and southern food." 

What does the future hold for the Harley's? 

For over a decade, the Harley's have worked with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to restore shad to watersheds across the Commonwealth. Click here to see that story.

"We're a family that's actually making a living on the river," said Mike. "The economy has been tough for us... But retire? I can't afford to retire. Sheesh. I got a house payment. You know what that is. Nothing comes to you free."

Brad Harley doesn't want his son to become a fisherman.

"I don't feel that I should be leaving my son with something he can't make a living doing in the future," he said. "But I was raised doing this, and I know it's a little harder than when dad tried to do it, but I still believe there's money to be made in the river."

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duckie May 30, 2013 at 07:35 PM
James this is a brilliant article. The Harley's are an American story--a current saga, folklore about good people. Thank you and bless them.
James Cullum May 30, 2013 at 08:01 PM
Thanks Duckie! I really enjoyed hanging out with them. They're a great family.
Annette Harley May 31, 2013 at 10:45 AM
Loved this story about the Harley's their father was one in a million and knowing the boys are carrying on his dreams is fantastic.
Rob Hartwell May 31, 2013 at 07:59 PM
My Brother Steve worked with the family for a few years and we are proud to know them. A fine hard working family that have contributed greatly to our Mason Neck Community!

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