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Angus Phillips

The Fish Are Back, Fletcher's Is Open and All's Well on the Potomac

By Angus Phillips
Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page E03

Spring came to the Potomac last week. The big river finally dropped to a manageable level and cleared up after nearly a month of roaring, muddy floods. Forsythias and daffodils bloomed bright yellow along the banks, buds popped out on the trees and fish rushed upstream to spawn, with fish-eating birds in hot pursuit.

"Look at that cormorant," said river angler Mark Binsted from his perch on a flat rock just downstream from Chain Bridge. He pointed with his spinning rod out to the swift-moving current, where a flock of the long-necked, jet-black seabirds swam and dove.

Suzanne Malone of Alexandria works a flyrod in search of shad on the Potomac. "I was getting one on every third or fourth cast for a while," she said. (Angus Phillips For The Washington Post)

In their midst sat one happy cormorant whose dive had produced a wriggling silver shad of considerable size. As Binsted and his German shepherd Dimo watched in amazement, the cormorant hoisted the shad in its beak, tail up, opened wide and swallowed it whole, slowly and with evident delight, shaking its shiny feathers as the fish went down its gullet.

The shad was so big it distended the bird's neck till it was bigger than its head, like Mark McGwire at his home-run-hitting best. "You think that's enough food to last him all day?" asked Binsted. Up and down the riverbank fellow anglers shook their heads and muttered oaths. Every fisherman hates cormorants, which can gobble their own weight in fish every day and seem never to get full.

The good news is, in the Potomac this time of year there's plenty for everyone. Tuesday was the first day GSI, the new concessionaire at Fletcher's Boathouse, was able to rent rowboats as the river dropped to safe boating levels. Only a handful of folks turned out to rent them, mostly shad fishermen, but everyone hooked up.

"I was getting one on every third or fourth cast for a while there," said Suzanne Malone of Alexandria, who was anchored along the edge of the main current straight out from Fletcher's, working a flyrod for hickory shad all morning. "It's so much fun."

Bob Poole of McLean, another flyrodder, stuck it out in another red rental boat from 7:30 a.m. till 2:30 p.m. and caught so many hickories he lost count. He also landed one American shad. The bigger, heavier-bodied Americans, also called white shad, generally arrive later than hickories; Poole's was the first of the year reported at Fletcher's.

Elsewhere up and down the riverbanks, folks were bait-fishing with worms for white perch, which had not yet arrived in abundance, and for big catfish. "I got about a dozen nice perch the other day," said Thomas Braxton of Northeast Washington, who has fished the Potomac 71 of his 78 years. Braxton said he'd seen a D.C. fisheries electroshocking boat on the river assessing stocks by shocking fish to the surface, and watched the crew net a rockfish he guessed weighed 45 pounds.

That's no surprise. Rockfish as big as 50 pounds are occasionally caught around Fletcher's this time of year as they swim upriver to gorge on spawning herring, shad and white perch before spawning themselves. Rockfish season doesn't open in D.C. waters until May 1, however, at which time anglers may keep two a day between 18 and 36 inches long. Shad are protected all year long, so fishing for them is always catch-and release; perch, herring and catfish seasons are always open.

The long, cold spring proved a lucky break for GSI, which took control of Fletcher's in March and had to race to get the place ready. The big government concessionaire had its hands full, with 40 wooden rowboats to patch and paint, bait, tackle and fishing licenses to order, rental canoes and bicycles to prepare and staff to hire.

To the surprise of many, it's gone fairly well. Regional manager Kirk Huserik had a big crew working overtime to get things up and running. Eleven rental boats were available Tuesday, with work near completion on more.

While he says he's committed to keeping Fletcher's as it's been for nearly 150 years -- a simple, pretty, inexpensive place for Washingtonians to go to enjoy the river -- Huserik has some plans for upgrading services, as well.

The antiquated bicycle fleet will be modernized with some 21-speed mountain bikes, he said, and he's entering a partnership with Alexandria Seaport Foundation's boatbuilding school to build new rowboats while maintaining the old fleet. The school will build several new boats at the Congressional Casting Call event at Fletcher's on April 25, when congressmen and lobbyists invade the place.

Huserik also intends to add sea kayaks to the rental boat fleet and hopes to work out a deal with Thompson's Boathouse in Georgetown, which GSI also runs, to provide one-way, two-mile kayak and canoe trips, where kayakers can start at Fletcher's, paddle downstream to Thompson's and catch a shuttle ride back.

All these ideas sound like solid improvements. Maybe new blood will prove a boost to the old concession. For now, it's good just to know the fish are back and Fletcher's is open, as it has been since just after Lincoln's time. Now if those greedy cormorants would just lighten up, things would be perfect.

For the latest fishing and boating report, call Fletcher's at 202-237-1872.

Elsewhere on the fishing front, trophy rockfish season opened yesterday on Maryland portions of the Chesapeake Bay's main stem, where anglers may keep one rock a day over 28 inches through May 15. Summer season opens May 16, when the limit goes to two fish a day over 18 inches.

Virginia rockfish season opens in the Bay on May 1, while the season for rock in the Potomac downstream of D.C. opened yesterday in waters below the Route 301 bridge and opens May 16 in waters between Woodrow Wilson Bridge and Route 301.

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