Christmas comes twice a year at Fletcher's Boathouse.

It was quiet there in December -- nothing but the Potomac River silently swooshing by. But a few weeks ago when the winter ice broke there was actvity aplenty.

The men who work at Fletcher's, halfway between Key and Chain bridges in the District, were planting leftover Christmas trees. Not in the ground. In the river.

The bedraggled trees harbor gifts twice a year. In the winter they shelter pretty packages. In spring they are a temporary home for newly active crappies, silver game fish that are the first marine harbingers of the new season.

"Come on down," said Joe Fletcher. "Dickie found them yesterday."

Dickie is Dickie Tehaan, who helped plant the trees.

He's also something of an expert on crappie fishing. He takes the water temperature in the cove in front of the boathouse several times a week. Last week it inched up yo 40 degrees. "Any time it's over 38 you can expect to catch them," he said.

So we did.

Tehaan set out in a brick, cold blow on Wednesday morning with a bucket of small shiner minnows and some light rods and reels.

It was only a two-minute row over to the two poles that mark the planted trees, which early-season crappies flock to feed around. It was about a five-minute wait before Tehaan's bobber went under the first time, signifying the presence of a hungry crappie.

Uncharacteristically, Tehaan swore when he saw the bobber go down.

"I wish they'd wait long enough for me to get my hands warm," he said.

The crappies wouldn't wait. They didn't slow down for an hour and a half, so Tehaan dealt with the cold another way. He dragged out plastic bags he'd gotten from a supermarket and wrapped them on his frigid digits.

"Works great," he said. "Want a pair?"

I find digging around in a cold, slippery minnow bucket burdensome enough without lettuce wrappers on my hands so I passed. In 90 minutes we caught two dozen crappies, the biggest 12-1/4 inches, which proved that the fishing season in the Potomac had indeed begun.

After an hour of warming up and some hot soup from Fletcher's kitchen we set off upriver for another look at the burgeoning fishing season.

Sam Hodsden of Alexandria had called the day before to say he had captured a hugh smallmouth bass from the river just above Great Falls.

The fish weighed 6-1/4 pounds, which is immense for a smallmouth. Hodsden said he'd been catching big smallmouth reglarly there for the last week.

We met him at the parking area furthest upstream at the Virginia Great Falls Park. He came tramping down a woods path with yet another big smallmouth dangling from a stringer.

This one weighed a mere 3-1/2 pounds, only a giant among smallmouths. "There's plenty more like it," he said.

Hodsden, a tall red-headed fellow, led us a quarter-mile up river above a path to some pools he knew along the banks.

And the bass are biting above Great Falls. "We've got the proof.

Fletcher's will start renting boats for fishing either this weekend or next, depending on the weather. Without a boat it's pretty hard to get to the crappie holes there.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of places along the bank in Washington to fish for crappies, particularly wherever there are stumps or trees sticking up in the shallows. Reports from the Tidal Basin are good, too.

Yellow perch fishing is off to a slow start in the tidal rivers of the Chesapeake. Last week Ronnie Coppage led us to a few under the Route 4 bridge over the Patuxent near Waysons Corner, Md.

When the run will start in earnest depends largely on the weather.

Yellow perch love minnows and grass shrimp drifted in the current a few feet below a bobber. Local fishermen favor the Patuxent and the South River along Rte. 450 on the way to Annapolis.

Crappies also love small minnows and will take small white jigs fished below a bobber.

The bass are striking Mepps spinners and worms, and are sure to take minnows, too.

See you on the rivers.