Fate and the National Park Service this year conspired to deprive Washington fly fishermen of the best part of spring. But not before David Malakoff struck home.
Senior prom night, Wilson High School. Malakoff deposits his date safely home at 4 a.m., ponders the exigencies of the hour and decides on an appropriate course. He grabs his fly rod and heads for the C&O Canal.
Sometime shortly after dawn, Malakoff finds what he came for. Mulberries.
Dropping plop, plop, plop into the muddy water.
And underneath, greedy carp sucking up the fallen fruit with a kissing sound. If this were a movie they'd call it "Lips."
Malakoff ties on one of his specially prepared mulberry flies, crafted of deer hair dyed purple. He sneaks up on the banks, scales the mulberry trunk and shakes the tree, prompting a storm of fallen berries.
"We call it manufacturing the hatch," he explains later. "Chumming. You know."
That done, he lofts his berry imitation onto the surface and is almost immediately fast to a 14-pound monster, which leads him up and down the canal for 35 minutes until he finally captures it, extracts the fly and sets it free. f
Malakoff finally went home to sleep that morning, but he was back on the canal and on Rock Creek several times last week seeking to repeat the conquest.
He dragged an observer along one day with the assurance, "I can absolutely guarantee you a carp on a fly."
When people start guaranteeing fish, other people who write about fishing for a living start thinking of other things they can write about when the guarantee falls through.
No exception here.
"Jeez," said Malakoff, "they drained the canal."
Indeed, his honey hole last week was a muddy trickle. The Park Service had emptied the canal above Key Bridge to build a new dock at Fletcher's Landing. By the time it's full again the mulberry hatch will be long over.
A pity, because the tiny breed of local-water fly fishermen in Washington have little else to cheer about. As the day wore on Malakoff led his colleauge up river to the stretch called Widewater, a beautiful lake in the canal just above Old Anglers Inn on MacArthur Boulevard.
They watched a flight of six Canada geese barrel down the waterway, 30 yards high and squawking; they saw a green heron fishing on the far banks, listened to multitudes of songbirds, caught bluegills and crapies and catfish. But they never got a rise from a carp.
"On a scale of one to 10 I'd give this carp season a two," said Forrest Cromwell, who has been fly fishing around Washington since the 1920s.
He is also something of the father of fly fishing for carp.
In 1972, Cromwell said, he was fishing for bluegills in the canal using a 6 1/2-foot Leonard bamboo fly rod, 4x tippet (line with a breaking strength of about three pounds) and a No. 14 Scraggly Wulff fly.
Something picked up the fly when Cromwell wasn't paying attention and took off.
"The canal was kind of roily that day and I never did see that fish, though I had him on for half an hour. Finally he got under a tree limb and broke off.
"After it was all over I noticed that I was under a mulberry tree and carp were feeding in there.
"I went home and tied up some deer hair mulberry flies, and we had some terrifically exciting fishing after that."
Eventually this unique technique found its way into the pages of the austere Fly Fisherman magazine, and Cromwell still feels cheated that he never got credit for being first.
Until two years ago, one of the principal delights of this kind of fishing was that the absolute best place to do it was in the back yard of the Port of Georgtown in the heart of the crustiest neighborhood in Washington.
That's where the biggest mulberries trees were, and it was a special treat to be horsing giant fish out under the bewildered gazes of the Georgetown beautiful people.
Then the Park Service drained the stretch of the canal below Key Bridge to rebuild the banks.
Now they've drained, presumably temporarily, a long stretch above the bridge.
The only known remaining hotspot for carp is Rock Creek around P Street, behind Dunbarton Oaks and at the very mouth of the creek underneath the K Street underpass. But nobody gets to watch and it isn't the same. It probably never will be.
Nobody seems to care a fig for mulberry fishermen, the waters they fish or the trees that provide their sport.
"Why, they ripped up a whole tree right here on Thomas Jefferson street," said Cromwell. "Construction people. Ripped it up and threw it away like a bag of trash.
"Lunatics. That's what they are."
Mulberry season is fast fading but there may be a few days left. The latest information is generally available from Peter Yarrington at The Angler, the fly fishing store in Georgetown.
If pressed, Yarrington might even be persuaded to tie up a few mulberry flies.