For years, anglers on the Rappahannock River have followed the guideline, "When dogwoods bloom, the shad will boom." And Charlie Wingard says it's as true now as it was 40 years ago when he first heard and tested it.
Maybe truer. "Fishing here is actually better now," said Wingard, whose home on the downtown bluffs overlooks his favorite stretch of fast-flowing water. He credits reduced industrial pollution for making a difference not everyone in town has noticed. "Most people in Fredericksburg don't even know what they've got."
These days, he rarely travels more than a mile to fish, and he fishes almost every morning and evening, spring to fall. Wading or paddling the $45 canoe he bought 20 years ago, he catches (in order of appearance) white perch, shad, rockfish, catfish, smallmouth bass and bluegills, and still never misses a meal.
"One morning, I made coffee and a pan of bacon," he said. "Then I went out and caught six shad, and, when I came back inside, the coffee and bacon were still warm."
Shad season, when hordes of silvery hickories and a smattering of big white shad journey from the ocean to spawn in the Rappahannock freshets below the Fredericksburg dam, is the height of his activity, both at work minding Chesley's Tackle Shop on Pelham Avenue and at play in the fast-water chutes and deep pools near the Rte. 1 bridge, where the river is 100 yards wide.
"We caught the first shad March 9," he said Wednesday as he poked the bargain canoe into a deep pool in sight of rush-hour traffic on Falls Road, "but this week has been the best. Fellows have been taking big stringers out.
"With the water as low and clear as it is -- the lowest I've ever seen this time of year -- the best fishing is dawn and dusk, when the visibility drops off." He checked the darkening afternoon sky. "We should be just right. Now watch, we won't catch a thing."
The river was remarkably uncluttered for the best time of day in the height of a heralded spring run. One fellow in hip waders was 100 yards downstream, working the deep water just above a gentle rapid; another in chest waders was across the river, fly fishing, and three more were launching a johnboat to fish near us.
We set the anchor on a rock ledge and the canoe swung in the current and pulled tight. "I like to catch one on the first cast," Wingard said. "After that, I don't care."
He cast a pair of shad darts -- tiny, lead-headed lures with a dusting of deer hair disguising the hook -- across the current and reeled them back slowly, but nothing happened. On the second cast, the line came taut and he pulled back on a hickory, which leaped clear of the water and danced the tailwalk that has won this species the sobriquet, "poor man's tarpon."
It was the first of at least two dozen hickories and one muscular white shad we caught in the hour before nightfall, all but one of which came from the big pool Wingard can see from his living room window. And all went back unharmed.
"Not bad," he said, "for the middle of town."
Shad fishing of this sort is something Washingtonians 60 miles away can recollect. Until recently, the Potomac was a major white shad spawning river, and dogwood season signaled the start of the best fishing at Fletcher's Boathouse.
Washington, like Fredericksburg, lies close to the "fall line," above which the Chesapeake Bay tide does not reach, and shad, herring, rockfish and perch historically have congregated near the fall line on their annual reproductive runs to fresh water.
But shad fishing has been poor in Washington for six to eight years, as it has been throughout Maryland waters. In fact, there is a moratorium on shad fishing in Maryland, and very few anglers still try for them in Washington.
No one is sure why shad continue to prosper in Virginia while struggling next door. Lately, scientists have suspected acid rain might have more severe effects in some rivers than others, and could be part of the cause.
Whatever the reason, there's not a better, closer place for shad than the Rappahannock here, where the water flows clear and fast and shows no taint of civilization, even in the heart of town.
But there's not much time.
"When dogwoods bloom, the shad will boom," said Wingard, repeating the old maxim, "but when the petals are falling, the shad are leaving."