Ryland Stewart was bottom-fishing near Fletcher's Boathouse on the Potomac eight days ago when there came a great tug on his line.
Stewart tightened up and engaged a mighty fish. It took 20 minutes for him to vanquish the monster on a flimsy rod strung with 10-pound-test monofilament.
"I'd say he knew what he was doing," said Ray Fletcher, who has watched many an angler who didn't. "He had no landing net so when he got the fish tired he had his partner pull up the anchor and rowed for the shore. That way when he finally did land it he could bring it up on the bank rather than lose it trying to get it into the boat."
It was a striped bass (a.k.a. rockfish), undisputed, king of game fish on the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, including the Potomac. And what a striper -- 13 1/2 pounds on the scales at Fletcher's, the biggest rock either Ray or his brother Joe Fletcher could remember in 20 years since they were kids.
The fun began. Stewart, beaming over his success, wondered what to do with his wonderful catch.
He put it on ice in the trunk of his car and took it first to Herman's sporting goods store at 8th and E streets NW. Gordon Cissel weighed it there and gave Stewart the discouraging news that while his was undisputably a stunning achievement, the District offered no awards for trophy fish.
Maryland, which claims authority over the Potomac, awards citations only for stripers of 20 pounds or more. Rockfish of 13 1/2 pounds spark no wonder when they're hauled from most Maryland waters. They grow to 50 or 60 pounds and more in the Chesapeake Bay. But for the Potomac, this fish was worth notice.
"Why don't you take it over to The Post?" someone suggested, so Stewart put his prize back on ice and drove across town. The outdoors editor was outdoors, of course, and other folks at the paper didn't know quite what to make of this event, but Stewart ran into a helpful soul in security guard Ivor Williams.
"When he told me he caught it on 10-pound line, I thought 'Isn't that something?'" Williams said. He called the photo lab and Stewart's catch was recorded for posterity.
A good thing, too, because he left without leaving his phone number, which turns out to be unlisted, and no one has seen him at Fletcher's since. Presumably, Ryland Stewart has had him a good trophy meal.
And the outdoors editor has learned a good lesson, having been off somewhere in pursuit of high sport while it was occurring in his own backyard.
"They've been biting for three weeks," Joe Fletcher grumped yesterday morning. "We tried to call you. Dickie's out there today. Maybe he got some."
As if on cue, Dickie Tehaan appeared in the morning sunlight, rowing downstream from his favorite striper haunt near Chain Bridge. He pulled up next to the dock, offloaded some hear and proceeded to hoist the second-biggest striper anyone has seen around Fletcher's in a good many years -- a 11-pounder.
"I caught him this morning right at slack low tide, said Tehaan, yawning. He's been out all night, having netted some herring for bait the evening before and then set out to for the fishing hole around midnight.
Indeed, it has been quite a striper season in Washington's river. Joe Fletcher estimates he has boated more than 200 since the run began; Tehaan has more than 130, including the 11-pounder, a 10 1/2-pounder, and eight and a seven.
None of the Fletcher's regulars can remember a season when so many big fish were captured. "You can't even find a one- or two-pounder," said Joe. In normal years small fish are the huge majority.
There is no scientific theory on why the big fish are in this year, but Joe Fletcher thinks it's because of heavy spring concentrations of mud shad, an unmarketable trash fish. "The commerical fisherman down the river had to pull up their nets to avoid the shad," which allowed the big stripers to pass through unmolested, he said.
For whatever reason, the stripers have invaded and are slashing through diminishing schools of herring in the river. How long will it last?
"As long as the herring stay here," said Joe Fletcher, "and they're leaving fast. In the next few weeks, the guy who has some herring heads stuck away in his freezer is going to be a very popular guy."
Fletcher wouldn't know anyone like that, of course.
Cut herring being hard stuff to get, the next-best bait is bloodworns, which are available. The stripers have been biting best on the change of tide
The specific spot in which Stewart caught his giant was described by Joe Fletcher this way:
"He was fishing in Ward's Gutter, which is just across from Murto's Trough, east of Dixie Landing, north of Walker's Point and in line with Boiling Rock."