The seventh annual Fletcher's Boathouse Spring Perch Fry Wednesday was absolutely nothing like the first.
The first one, in early April 1979, was an ordeal. There was a cold, driving rain. It took five guys two hours to get the fire started, mostly because the only available newspaper was a copy of The Racing Form and the owner wouldn't relinquish it. And the only thing to eat was perch, with your hands, standing up in the cold.
This year, the sun shone all day and the white perch bit like starvelings while a staff back at the boathouse prepared a feast over gas-fired fryers and grills.
What a meal! Along with an abundance of fresh, deep-fried perch, there was smoked, barbecued shad, smoked herring, a cold salad of perch and herring roe dressed with capers, chopped cucumbers, celery seed and fresh lemon juice, plus cornbread, white wine and a choice of iced beers.
"We have local beer and imported," said Ray Fletcher. "The local is Budweiser, which is what all the guys drink here. The imported is Rolling Rock."
There were sun-splashed tables with dignitaries at them. Dave Loveland and Jack Buckley represented D.C. government (they are trying to establish a fisheries management program for the city). Billy Collins, the self-proclaimed "king of the river," pulled up in a big van and loaded his plate.
A National Park Service ranger in uniform stopped by to test the grub. Joe Bush, the bait man who at age 84 has been supplying bloodworms and night crawlers to Washington area fishermen since before most of those present were born, dug into a plateful of food with the fervor of a much younger man.
"My wife will get mad at me tonight," said Bush, "if I tell her how good my lunch was."
For those who either just arrived in Washington or have been asleep under a rock, Fletcher's is Washington's window on the wild Potomac. The boathouse is tucked away between Key Bridge and Chain Bridge, barely visible from Canal Road.
From Fletcher's Landing, there is undeveloped land for as far as you can see, upstream or down. There are deer tracks in the mud and peeper frogs in the woods.
The Potomac, despite flowing through what is far and away the busiest metropolitan area in the region, remains scenic above Georgetown and rich in fish and game, largely because of the fact a considerable portion of the adjoining land is park and there is no major industry to leave the water fouled.
Joe Fletcher, Ray's brother and partner in the boathouse business that has been in the family since the 1800s, said perch fishing has changed very little in his lifetime. Frankly, it would be hard to see how it could be much better than it is.
Wednesday morning, in preparation for the perch fry at noon, Joe rowed one of Fletcher's rental boats down river with two guests and dropped a rock anchor about a half-mile below the boathouse, at a place called Walker's Landing.
He didn't like the look of things. "You see that grainy, sandy-looking stuff in the water?" he said. "That's from Dalecarlia Reservoir. They take the sediment out of the drinking water and wash out the tanks with fire hoses. It really screws up the fishing when they do."
Officials at Dalecarlia said later they hadn't cleaned the tanks since March 4, but for whatever reason Joe Bush's bloodworms attracted very little attention for the first half-hour, and eventually Fletcher upped anchor and moved 20 feet closer to shore.
It was all the move needed. The perch immediately began an insistent tapping at the lines and the cooler began to fill. There were very few small fish, mostly large females loaded with roe. In two hours, the three fishermen caught 65 keepers. Fishing gets no better.
The spring white perch run signals the start of the fishing season in Washington, Fletcher said as they rowed back upstream to the pleasures awaiting. Next, river herring will make their spawning run upstream, he said, followed by catfish ("they eat the herring roe"), striped bass and maybe a few shad, although shad have been extremely scarce in the Potomac and other Maryland rivers for a decade.
White perch being the harbingers of the new season, they won the distinction of having a feast dedicated to them at Fletcher's seven years ago. Few who were there at the time would have expected it to develop into such a gustatory delight.