"I got one! I got a fish!" Laurent squealed, forgetting all the carefully explained mechanics of reeling, as he backpedaled up the bank dragging a flashing sunfish out of the river. It was his very first fish and the first of many magic moments at my son's best birthday party ever.
The idea of celebrating Toby's sixth year with a fishing expedition came to us for two reasons: A bright red fishing rod was his major present, and we could neither face nor finance the electronic razzle-dazzle at the latest kid-spot. The idea, however, held some apprehension for us -- scenes of boys hooking one another or washing away in the river were recurring nightmares -- but we worked out the logistics to temper the risks. We took five kindergarteners, two adults and my son's 13-year-old hero/friend.
Homemade invitations sporting bright blue glitter fish went out two weeks before the expedition. We set the time for Sunday from 1 to 4, allowing for 15 minutes' travel time, a couple of hours for fishing, and some cake and present time when we returned home. The invitation also noted that fishing gear was not required since we have a sizable, if motley, collection of rods garnered from yard sales and neighbors' attics.
The anticipation surrounding the party was greater than I'd expected. Billy's mother called apologetically one week before the party. "I know the party is next week," she began, "but Billy won't believe me. He insists it's today and that I'm making him miss it." We assured the anxious angler that he still had a week to practice casting before the event.
My own son worried, too: "What'll I do, mom, if I don't catch anything at my own party?" The river gods, I told him, know whose birthday it is and act accordingly. Then I began to worry. I played briefly with the idea of hiring frogmen to lie offshore with buckets of wiggling sunfish or perch. My husband pooh-poohed our fears. "We'll catch a bunch," he calmly assured us.
The preparations for the party were blessedly minimal: six goodie bags tucked away for the closing cake-cutting, a five-dollar handful of weights and hooks and a can of worms.
The day arrived. We packed the excited fisherboys into our station wagon and headed to Fletcher's Boathouse, just off Canal Road and through a spooky stone tunnel. It's a great place to fish, with boats for hire and bait, hooks and sinkers for sale, along with free advice on what's biting what. Picnic tables are scattered along the banks. If you take the path at the bridge, you will soon find yourself on a river that gives no hint that a city is just around the bend.
The kids bolted from the car and galloped up the path. "Caught anything?" they asked each fisherman along the way. Wiggling buckets of fish were applauded, heightening the anticipation of their own catch. We reached a beach-like area that was pronounced a good spot by my husband. About 50 feet long and unobstructed by trees, it offered enough space for six kids to cast into the water without snagging lines, trees or one another.
In about 15 minutes we had the pre- rigged lines baited and in the water. As luck or the river gods would have it, the birthday boy struck first: a fine, fat bluegill, which he proudly declared a "keeper."
The rest of the party was quickly and equally blessed, raising a chorus of crowing and generous congratulations among fellow anglers. All were intent on their task, and waited patiently while we unsnagged, untangled, rerigged and baited lines. This was a full-time job, and my husband and I quickly realized that limiting the party to six had been brilliant.
Gaps in the fishing action were bridged by drinks and Doritos. There were also a land- locked school of minnows and a bullfrog that made brief but diverting appearances. Aaron, the only critter-kid in the group, was the only one willing to put a worm on his hook. Everyone else declined with an emphatic, "Oh, gross." Jaime, the eldest and the only one with an inherent streak of generosity, had already caught two fish. When he struck again, he handed the line over to Aaron to make sure that each boy caught a fish.
A chorus of "Do we have to?" greeted the announcement that it was time to go. The kids pelted back up the path, showing off their string of fish to every passing fisherman.
Over ice cream and cake, the talk was of fish and fishing. Presents were opened without the usual frenzy. Goodie bags were handed out along with nominal prizes for the first, biggest, most and last fish -- and, of course, for the one that got away. When parents arrived, each child made sure his fish went with him, but some forgot their goodie bags. Some of those fish are still in freezers. They've been photographed and bragged about, but they haven't been eaten.
My husband and I relaxed and pronounced the party the easiest we had ever given for little boys. No hassles, no tears, no fights.
But the only verdict that really mattered was rendered by Toby as I tucked him in that night: "Mom, this was the best birthday party I ever had in my whole life." FLETCHER'S BOATHOUSE At 4940 Canal Road NW. Call 244-0461 for information. FOUNTAIN ROCK SPRINGS TROUT FARM If you don't want to trust to fisherman's luck, this popular spot outside Frederick guarantees each fisherman trout to take home. However, you pay a group rate and a price per fish -- in effect, fish insurance. They will also rig rods and help get your fishing underway. Call 301/898-5335 for information.