The big news on the Potomac this year is that Billy Collins has a new hat.
Last year Collins had a hat that advertised Peterbilt, a type of truck. People looked for the hat because Collins was always under it, and wherever Collins was the fish were likely to be.
Collins, a house-painter, has a reputation for finding the big shad, perch and rockfish that swim in the swift waters around Fletcher's Landing north of Key Bridge. He likes the reputation but sometimes he wishes he didn't have it.
Joe Fletcher enjoys bedeviling Collins. When people stop by the boat-house to ask, "Where are the fish?" Fletcher often tells them to take their boats to such and such a place and look for the guy with the Peterbilt hat.
"I see them coming around the bend, four guys in a boat, all standing up and looking across the water," Collins said. "I tear that hat off my head and stick it under the seat. Sometimes if I'm not fast enough I have five boats around me before I wet a line."
Occasionally it gets so bad that Collins has to give up and come in. When he does, he may face a whole new crowd of bank fishermen waiting to see if what they were told is true-that the guy in the Peterbilt hat has a mess of extra fish he's just dying to give away.
But this year Collins has a new hat, he'd love to keep it a secret, but he won't. It's bright red with Rapala printed on it. Unfortunately Joe Fletcher already knows, too.
The hat-watchers will be out in force this weekend because last week the regulars at Fletcher's began laying waste to the first arrivals of spring-white perch.
They started catching perch in numbers last Saturday and the run should improve as it continues through most of April.
Tuesday, Collins enjoyed one of his rare undistrubed days on the river. It was pouring rain and blowing cold from the northeast. That meant he couldn't paint and the river would be all but empty.
We found him on the Virginia side a quarter-mile downstream from the landing, his new red hat standing out like a beacon.
Collins was catching a few eight-and 10-inch perch but the bites were infrequent. After an hour or so he picked up and suggested a spot closer to the dock.
We followed him, rowing hard against the sweep of the current, and when he dropped the burdensome rock that serves as an anchor on Fletcher's rental rowboats, we dropped ours right next door.
"Should be good on the incoming tide," he said, and we watched as the water began inching up over a nearby mud flat.
Sure enough, before long the perch began their insistent tapping at our worm baits. In a couple of hours we had the cooler a quarter full with silvery fish. Rainwater had accumulated in the bottom of the boat and was seeping through our shoes. My partner's teeth began chattering.
"Come on, let's head in and have us a fish fry," Collins suggested.
The fish were scaled and gutted on the dock and then a crowd stood shivering for two hours while six hearty outdoorsmen bickered over how to start a fire in the rain.
There was some newspaper but the owner wouldn't let it go because it contained the day's picks at Pimlico.
At last the coals were glowing. Dicky Tehaan produced an oil, iron skillet and some of his special breading mix, which has cinnamon and oatmeal in it.
The fish were splendid, deep-fried fresh from the river, and the aroma that wafted over the new-green rain-washed banks was better still.
But the crowning touch was Collins' preparation of breaded perch roe, which he cooks to golden crispness and serves in bite-sized lumps. He did so well with that he even got some people to try his second-favorite delicacy-fried perch tails.
"They taste like potato chips," said the man in the hat. And they did.