Byron Day and Anthony Atkinson of Southeast Washington went fishing last week off Fletcher's Boat House near Chain Bridge. They were on the water in a rental rowboat at 8 a.m. By noon, they'd caught 200 white perch.
They kept the big ones on a stringer; smaller ones filled a five-gallon pail and they kept the overflow in a plastic bag in the bottom of the boat. "Been like this all day," said Day, hauling up perch two at a time.
"They've gotta clean 'em," said Joe Fletcher, clearly relishing the fact it was someone else's job this time, and just as clearly relishing the start of another season of abundance on the Potomac.
Seriously, what do you do with 200 white perch? "Eat 'em. Give a lot away," said Day, who is in the Army. "I'm going to give some to my boss, so the next time I tell him I'm going fishing . . . "
The delectable little perch are the first spawning fish to rush up Washington's river in the spring. Next will be herring, which should arrive en masse within a week or two. Then come shad and finally striped bass.
The beauty of white perch is that they are in such profusion this time of year anybody can catch them, although Fletcher's employe Danny Ward said there are peaks and valleys in the month-long spawning run and some days are better than others.
Fletcher's opened late this year, after the National Park Service hurriedly repaired extensive damage done by last November's big flood, which put water two feet deep in the main concession stand, left the neighboring C&O Canal dry and dumped mud everywhere. When the first rowboats finally went out in the river last Sunday, the perch already were there and hungry.
Fletcher phoned Monday to say the run was on. When I said I'd be down in a week or so to check it out, he said, "Better come now."
Good thinking. While the run should last through much of April, the weather isn't predictable. A good downpour back in the West Virginia mountains could put the river in a raging flood again. Floods don't stop the fish from coming, but they put a powerful hurt on the fishing.
So I scurried down Wednesday morning, when it was a balmy, blustery 75 degrees. The river was at an ideal level, the sky was blue, without a cloud. "Hmmph," said Fletcher, ever the grump, "I see you brought the wind with you."
Well, it was a bit breezy, but Joe's a good, strong rower and now that he's in his mid-40s, he needs the exercise. He had us a half-mile downstream to a spot near the Virginia shore in short order. We rigged up with size 6 hooks, two-ounce sinkers and bloodworms for bait, dropped the rigs to the bottom and got nary a strike.
"See those rusted machines?" said Fletcher, switching to a history lesson to deflect attention from the fishing. "They're left over from when they quarried rocks along the river."
Fascinating. But when does the fishing start?
Fletcher rowed back upstream, near where Atkinson and Day were anchored off the boathouse on the edge of the main current. He dumped overboard one of the river rocks that serve as expendable anchors in his fleet, and things improved.
What delight to feel the urgent tap-tap-tapping of perch on the feed in Washington waters, a clear, incontestable sign winter is done for good. We were three in the boat, and in 90 minutes had a bucketful of keepers.
Fletcher, spoiled by a lifetime of Potomac abundance (the boathouse has been in his family's care for more than 100 years), considered the fishing slow and guaranteed it would get better as the run progressed.
The question is, what's better than perfect?
You needn't know much to catch spawning white perch on the Potomac. They should be thick for several weeks. You can catch them from the bulkheads along Hains Point, along the waterfront near Kennedy Center, or just about anywhere else a hook fits, but best is Fletcher's, where the river narrows, bunching the fish up, and where you can rent a boat for $8 a day ($9 weekends) to get to the better spots.
Remember, perch dwell on the bottom. You won't catch them unless your bait gets there and stays there. Better too much weight than not enough. Best baits: bloodworms, minnows, grass shrimp (if you can get them), cut pieces of perch.
The hardest thing about white perch is the cleaning (dorsal fins will stick you) and eating them, because until you figure out where the bones are they can give you fits.
But few fish are as tasty as these first cousins of the prized rockfish. The white meat is firm and finely textured. To cook, dip cleaned perch in milk and egg, dredge in half flour, half cornmeal, and pan fry in butter and oil until the meat at the backbone turns from opaque to white, and not a second longer.