Farewell column: How I learned a fish from a duck

Angus Phillips, above, started out as a neophyte to the outdoors but lasted 35 years on the rugged beat.
Angus Phillips, above, started out as a neophyte to the outdoors but lasted 35 years on the rugged beat. (The Washington Post)
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By Angus Phillips
Sunday, December 13, 2009

This is my last outdoors column for The Post. When I wrote the first one 30-odd years ago I didn't know a fish from a duck. What a journey.

Newspaper people wade into things they know nothing about and before long become authorities, in their own minds if not in fact. You keep your eyes and ears open and figure out whom to trust. You cultivate sources. The better they are, the better you are.

With that in mind, this Christmas column is a thank-you to the people who took a babe in the woods and made him a woodsman. There's no greater gift than sharing the things you love.

A man named Jim Donald called me the week I took the job and invited me to go muskie fishing on Burke Lake. I didn't know it at the time, but fishing for muskies is like snipe-hunting with a sack -- nobody gets one. I've never even seen a muskie in the years since, though I did see the dried-out head of one somebody claimed to have caught at Fletcher's Boathouse years ago.

Anyway, thanks, Jim, and to Nancy for packing the lunch. I never will forget that day, even if we didn't get a nibble. It was the first of many fruitless, fruitful outings, each made richer by the company kept.

My column about that trip sparked sympathy from a fellow named Gerry Almy in Arlington, who offered to take me someplace where we'd actually catch something. Almy was a find -- a fledgling writer-photographer who later became a regular contributor to major national outdoor magazines.

He and I roamed the region for years, fishing for bluegills, trout and rockfish; ice fishing; hunting for grouse, quail and deer. Eventually he married and moved to a cabin in the Blue Ridge, but not before opening many doors. My debt is incalculable.

I don't remember who first sent me to Fletcher's Boathouse, but it was love at first sight. This humble spot downriver from Chain Bridge in April and May is the finest fishing hole I've ever seen as herring, perch, shad and rockfish swarm upriver to spawn and hit a dead end at Little Falls.

If the fish make Fletcher's productive, the people make it unforgettable. They call themselves river rats: Joe and Ray Fletcher, whose forebears started the business a century and a half ago; Dicky Tehaan, who ties his own lures and flies; Danny Ward; Billy "the Hat" Collins; Mike "Animal" Bailey; Mark Binsted; and dozens more. Each April, they organize a perch fry at which anyone who wanders by is welcome to eat till they burst. That's the spirit of the place.

Up the hill from Fletcher's lived a Spaniard named Manuel Muñoz Carrasco, who learned English by listening to the BBC while stationed in the Sahara with the Spanish army. He never went to college, arriving here with nothing but the courage to hang out a shingle marked "translator." He wound up doing translations for the president of the United States.

Muñoz loved waterfowl hunting and invited me to join him at Taylors Island on the Eastern Shore one opening day. He roared up in a Boston Whaler at the appointed hour, snatched me off the bank and took me on a dizzying ride down winding, shallow marsh guts. That night we slept rough on the floor of the Whaler under a blanket of stars; before dawn we mucked in chest waders to a makeshift portable blind. Wild ducks thundered in at first light. That's real hunting, the finest kind.

In summer we did a bit of kayaking. He led me down Mather Gorge, the Lost River, the Cheat, Passage Creek, Bull Falls on the Shenandoah (where I wrecked a canoe) and other scary waters. Later I hooked up with John Seabury Thomson, who wrote the book on paddling the Potomac, and Steve Ettinger, who organizes the Thursday Paddlers and showed me many small creeks and streams. It's hard to have a bad time paddling in good company even when things go wrong, as they often do.

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