It wasn't the kind of sunrise you hope for when you break camp at 5 a.m. No rosy pink hues: no bulbous. fair weather clouds.
As it grew later and later the sky simply got grayer and grayer, until by a little before 7 it was a full, flat gray A bitter east wind blew in across the river.
It was Saturday, the first day of autumn. Jim and Nancy Donald and I were turning the corner off Rte. 193, heading down to the Potomac's banks at Riverbend Park for a day of bass fishing.
We heard a sharp hissing by the roadside. Nancy turned in time to see a coiled snake menacing our station wagon. She wasn't sure what kind of snake "I've heard they can bite through the tires, Jim," she said.
This snake couldn't, or didn't try.
Just then I looked up through the windshield and caught a glimpse of big birds against the leaden morning sky.
"Ducks, Jim," I said, pointing "or are they geese? By golly. I think they're geese." Nancy counted the big vee as it swung south, following the curve of the river. We watched the slow, majestic beat of the wings and decided they were big Canadas on their way to the wintering grounds on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
"Twenty-three of them," Nancy said. It was a fine way to start the day and a fine way to start the season. We won't see many snakes along the road in the cold days to come, but the skies will be loaded with migrating water-fowl arriving from nesting areas on the lake, and marshland of central Canada and points beyond.
That east wind told us something about what was to come too. Like most easters it carried a bitter chill, so that when we stuck our hands in the water to launch the boat the Potomac felt far warmer than the air around it.
"Bad sign," said Nancy. "You don't catch many fish on a day like this."
Not many. Just enough to keep the time from standing stock still; few enough that each fish caught still stands out in my memory; big enough that they were worth the efforts.
Like the smallmouth Jim Donald almost caught upstream. He had said as we started out, "Smallmouth are to the left, largemouth to the right." We headed for smallmouth country.
About a quarter-mile up from the park the river shallows and there are riffles and pools - perfect smallmouth water. We floated from one riffle to the next, working the shorelines and deep pools with plastic worms, live worms, minnows, plugs, spinnerbaits and whatever else fell out of the tackle box.
The plastic worms worked best, but it was hard to keep them from breaking off on the rocky bottom. Donald was hung up on a rock at one point. He dropped his rod in the boat, grabbed the line at the rod tip and yanked it free.
The fish mush have been waiting for the plastic worm to come out from behind the rock, because the second it came unglued the big smallmouth pounced on it. Donald was still holding the line in his hand with the rod on the boat floor.
He tried valiantly to land the fish on the hand line and the fish showed the courtesy of jumping once, so we could all see what we were missing. When it came down the line went limp and the fish swam off.
"Doggone," said Donald, "that fish had to go three pounds." He was about right.
Both the Donalds had already landed nice pound-plus smallmouths by then, and I'd brought in a couple channel catfish that took spinnerbaits, some hand-size sunfish and I'd had some bass tapping at my plastic worm.
We had turned back everything we caught.
By afternoon we'd caught a few more and missed a lot more. We floated downstream to the slower, wider water where the largemouth hang out.
The scenery was great. We watched more phalanxes of high-flying geese and pairs and foursomes of wild ducks careening along the banks and flashing in to hectic landings; a huge blue heron flushed along the shoreline, an osprey came downriver hunting, screeching all the way.
We stopped at an island directly across from the park headquarters. There was a pile of fallen trees in an eddy off the island. We eased into the eddy.
"Look," said Donald, pointing to the brush, "something's feeding in there." We watched the muddy water. Minnows flashed on the surface and we could see the roll of a big fish, hear a splat as it struck at the bait.
We pitched baits into the brush - worms and crank baits. I draped a deep-diving plug over a fallen limb, bounced it back over the obstacle and as it headed deep again there came a sharp tug at the line. I hauled back and tied into a nice largemouth bass of about 1 1/2 pounds.
It capped a perfect first-of-fall day. We'd captured smallmouth, largemouth, catfish and sunfish and returned them safely to the stream. We'd seen the blush of fall on the river and felt the first brisk breezes of the new season.
Riverbend, a 25-minute drive from downtown Washington, is one of Donald's favourite close-in fishing and nature-watching spots. It's just above Great Falls off Rte. 193 and is open all year, except Christmas Day.
There are rental johnboats available for $3 a day and a launch ramp for private boats. The park, operated by Fairfax County Park Authority, sets a limit of 7 1/2 horsepower on outboards.
Boating is somewhat hazardous because of the rocks, which can wreak havoc on a propeller.
But the fishing is decent, the water is clean and the scenery is worth the ride, whether you catch a fish or not.