Nat Spears knew the Potomac was too high, fast and muddy for good fishing and that he was more likely to snag driftwood than white perch with his hook. But after what seemed like a cruel and unusual period of sunless days, the 57-year-old retired postal worker was determined to spend this bright one trying.
"I'll just have to settle for what I can get," said Spears, stationed beside a shallow cove off the Potomac, just below Fletcher's Boathouse. On both sides of Spears, men and women, using poles and nets, were just as busy, and apparently as content, not catching fish.
In normal times, this past week would have been a great one for Potomac anglers. Perch, crappie and herring are usually moving up the river this time of year in thick schools.
At Fletcher's, on the D.C. side of the river just a mile or so above Key Bridge, that flow is annually interrupted by hundreds of anglers who line the shore and rent the small armada of red wooden rowboats. If your timing is right, you can catch enough fish to fill a dump truck.
"Normally, I'd be right out there in a boat, right over my crappie spot," said Curtis Hatten, a 28-year-old D.C. bus driver, pointing to an area that was wild with white-capped, standing waves. "But this water is just too bad. They're not even renting boats."
For catching fish, or trophy-sized fish stories, there is no finer place in Washington than Fletcher's. As local monuments go, this one is a four-star. For 140 years, give or take a few, the Fletcher family has been renting boats and selling bait. The boathouse now serves as a riverside reminder of the small southern town that Washington once was.
"Nobody knows exactly how long we've been here," said Joe Fletcher, who, with his brother Ray, is the fifth-generation of the Fletcher family to own and operate the boathouse. "In the old days, everything was paid in cash, so there are no records."
On spring and summer weekends, Fletcher's is crowded with towpath hikers, canoe renters and anglers, waiting in line for hot dogs and sodas. But during the week, when the working world retrieves its subjects, Fletcher's downshifts to a more civilized pace.
The only problem with fishing at Fletcher's is the tendency to forget to fish once you get there. You park your car in a lot beside a white stone house that was built in the early 1800s, take a footbridge over the C&O Canal and then get lost for hours in folklore and improbable tales.
"So many of the old-timers have died in the last five or six years. I wish you could hear some of the stories they had to tell," said Bill Reese. After frequenting Fletcher's for 35 years, he now finds himself gray at the temples and elevated to the status of venerated elder. Reese can tell a story or two himself.
Charlie Maggio, who was still rowing his boat upriver from a standing, face-forward position at the age of 83, was known as the "old man of the sea" until he died three years ago. Another man, who everyone knew simply as "Big Slim," also died recently. But stories of his strength and fishing acumen are still told with affection.
"He was a man," said Reese, in a way that made men sound like an endangered species.
There have been other changes at Fletcher's. A house built on stilts across a creek from the boathouse, famed for its potent moonshine and hard-shelled crab parties, has disappeared without a trace. So, too, a sandy shore just upriver where families from all over D.C. would come with children and umbrellas for a low-rent Sunday at the beach.
More recently, in 1979, a winter storm destroyed a 50-foot floating dock that had been built after Hurricane Agnes had swept away an earlier dock and all the Fletcher's boats in 1972. Both times, the Fletchers got calls from dozens of people volunteering their labor to help rebuild.
What has remained the same at Fletcher's is the fishing. During the Potomac's worst days, the fast-moving water below the boathouse was clean enough for perch, bass, herring and at least a few rockfish. Now that the river has cleaned up its act, there are days when more rockfish are caught in a single 100-yard stretch of the Potomac than in the entire Chesapeake Bay.
On this particular day, not much of anything was being caught in the swollen river. Vernon Lee Jr., a herring dipper, bucked the current for a spell with a long-handled net. But he put more into the water, in admirably accurate streams of tobacco juice, than he took out in the form of fish.
"You should have been here last Saturday. We were knocking the hell out of the herring," said Lee. "We got five gallons of them in nothing flat."
Not far away, Nat Spears sat beside his unemployed pole. He seemed not at all impatient.
"My father started me fishing down by the 14th Street Bridge. When his line got stuck, I'd swim out and get it loose," said Spears. As he spoke, the sun disappeared behind a bank of gray clouds. More rain was on its way. But after half a century of fishing the Potomac, Spears knew the fish would still be there after the storm