Fall has returned to Fletcher's Cove on the Potomac. The canoes are neatly stacked, the rental bikes tucked away in the big tin shed the late Julius Fletcher helped his father build after the great flood of 1936 washed everything away. The new structure was anchored to boulders with steel cables so it wouldn't float off when the next big one came, as come it did 36 years later.

A dozen pale red wooden rowboats bob in the rain at the floating dock in case a late-season angler should turn up, keen for a last try at catfish or bass. Leaves are red, the ground is cold and all is as it long has been, except that for the first time in more than a century no Fletcher is hard at work patching and painting boats for next year.

Brothers Joe and Ray Fletcher, the fourth generation of their family to sell bait and tackle and rent boats and bikes from the little shed halfway between the C&O Canal and the rolling river, are retiring at the end of the year, giving up the contract they have had with the National Park Service. They are worn out, but the decision is not without regrets.

"We've been here 145 years," sighed Joe, 63, who came up with that figure the same way he deduces much of what he knows about the river. "That's what my father told me."

Whether Fletchers were here before the Civil War or made their appearance some short time after is uncertain, but there is no disputing the indelible mark this family leaves. The little eddy over which they preside downstream from Chain Bridge is named Fletcher's Cove; it's right there on the map. And if the National Park Service, which owns the land, follows its word, Fletcher's will stay Fletcher's in name and spirit for years to come.

"We don't really want to change anything," said Steve LeBel, concessions program manager for the National Capital Region of the NPS. The brothers pay the park service a concession fee to run the business and they spend seven days a week on the job during the busy summer months. In the winters they work on equipment when the weather permits.

"We hoped to have Ray and Joe carry on but they're not interested," said LeBel, who will seek a new concessionaire. "It's the best fishing hole in D.C. It's regionally known, if not nationally, and we're committed to being ready for the fishermen when the spring runs come next April."

Those spring runs are the heart of Fletcher's trade. Fishing starts in mid- to late-March, when hordes of white perch move upriver from deep holes downstream where they wintered. The perch, loaded with roe, seek fast, fresh water at the top of the tidal reach where their eggs hatch best.

Next come shad and herring, bright from the sea and heavy with roe. Generations of Marylanders and Virginians have converged on the Potomac around Fletcher's each spring to dip-net herring and shad, extract the roe and salt-cure the flesh, though the practice has declined in the last 25 years.

"The fish are still here, people just aren't as interested any more," Joe Fletcher said.

Finally, the river in late April and into May teems with spawning striped bass, locally known as rockfish, which attract another wave of anglers keen to catch a trophy up to 50 pounds.

"I've fished Cancun, the Florida flats, Louisiana, Texas, Montana," said Mike Bailey of Seneca, who's been a Fletcher's regular for 25 years, "but there's only one place I want to be in April and that's right here. It's one of the best fishing holes in the country."

That it lies within the city limits, minutes by car from the White House and under the loom of Georgetown University's high-rises makes it that much more remarkable.

Because of its location, humble Fletcher's has always drawn a diverse crowd. Joe Fletcher rented rowboats to Sen. John F. Kennedy before he was President and later to brother Ted. Bobby Kennedy rented bikes for his brood. President Bill Clinton jogged by and stopped for lemonade. President Jimmy Carter was a regular. Chief Justice William O. Douglas lived just up the hill and stopped by on his famous walks. John Riggins and Sonny Jurgensen have been by several times, as have congressmen beyond numbering.

Danny Ward, who has worked behind the counter since 1969, when he was a seventh-grader at Gordon Junior High School, remembers helping Jordan's Queen Noor with a bandage after she fell off her bike.

Such celebrities rub elbows with plumbers, house painters, maintenance men, immigrants, even homeless people who come to fish for food. "The river is the great equalizer," Bailey said.

The place has always drawn a crowd, said Joe Fletcher. He pointed to a spot 50 feet from the concession stand where archeologists dug a decade ago and came up with arrowheads and pottery shards from native American gatherings.

It's a natural destination for fish-gatherers because it's a natural gathering place for fish. The cove lies just below Little Falls, a barrier to fish passage during spring floods. Spawning fish hit a virtual dead-end around Chain Bridge, where they mill by the millions, vulnerable to attack.

The concentrations draw predators besides humans. Flocks of black cormorants bedeck tree limbs along the river in spring while ospreys soar and herons crowd the banks, seeking easy meals.

The whole tableau is endlessly varying and gentle on the eyes, not much different today than it was a half-century ago when Joe and Ray Fletcher, who grew up in the District and attended the old Western High School, started working with their father. "I was hooked by the love of fishing," said Joe, who specializes in catching perch and intends to be out next spring as usual. "I've got a canoe," he said with a twinkle in his eye. Ray, 58, hasn't fished much in years. "I just love the outdoors," he said. "That's what got me."

Each has two sons but the next generation of Fletchers, who grew up in Northern Virginia, is uninterested. "They're college-educated, they're into other things," said Ray, whose offspring are 25 and 21. Joe's are in their 30s, both working with computers.

"They don't want to work seven days a week, weekends and holidays all summer long," Joe said.

So the string ends. When the Fletchers go, they will take with them volumes of knowledge. Joe, for example, is compiling a list of scores of named fishing spots -- the Parlor, Walker's Point, the Ledge, the Gutter, Pumphouse Cove, Boiling Rock, Split Rock, Jenkins Hole, Dixie Landing, all in sight of the boat house and each with a story, though many are lost to time.

"My father named Dixie Landing for an old guy that worked for him who used to take a rowboat downriver to Dixie Liquors at lunchtime. When he came back upstream, that's as far as he usually got."

Fletchers were there in the days before air conditioning when Washingtonians repaired to rough shacks along the river in high summer to escape the heat. Joe can take you across to the Virginia side to Little Italy, where Italian stoneworkers blasted rock from the banks and ferried it downriver on barges to help build Washington.

Ray can show you where the old train line ran along the canal, bringing grain to the flour mill in Georgetown, and coal and lumber. "My grandfather lived across the canal," Joe said. "When the coal train came through, the engineer would stop and get dinner from my grandmother, then he'd shovel off enough coal for them to get through the winter."

And so the stories go, reeling backward to simpler times. In many ways, Fletcher's Boat House is a living link to those times. "It's old-fashioned," said Ward, the longtime counterman, who came back to work at Fletcher's with a degree from Grinnell College, and hasn't left. "It's not cutthroat or hard-edged. And the fishing -- well, it's just terrific in the spring."

Ray Fletcher, left, and his brother, Joe, are the fourth -- and last -- generation of their family to sell bait and tackle and rent boats on the Potomac close to Chain Bridge.