I've fished around the country and around the world, but I've always maintained that one of the finest fishing holes anywhere is right under our noses at Fletcher's Boathouse on the Potomac, near Chain Bridge. When it's right, it's unbelievably productive.
"It's right right now," said Ray Fletcher last week. "Come on down and catch all the rockfish you can handle."
Fletcher was doing a kindness, responding to a column I'd written late last month complaining how hard it was to catch a keeper rock in my own backyard, the Chesapeake Bay near Annapolis. "You won't have any trouble getting one here," he said.
He wasn't kidding. In three hours of wild fishing, from dawn till 9:30, when we had to quit and go to work, Andy Hughes, Mike Bailey and I wore ourselves out catching scrappy rockfish 16 to 26 inches long on topwater lures, casting from one of Fletcher's rental rowboats.
It was the sportin'est thing. We released all but the two chunkiest keepers, which Hughes and I took home for dinner. The other 75 or so that we fought to the boat in the rushing white water below Little Falls went back in the river alive and eager to strike and fight again. Almost all were caught on poppers, stick-like floating lures that gurgle across the surface, eliciting heart-stopping attacks from hungry fish that rage to the surface and smash them.
We caught and caught while around us others did the same. Fly-rodders, bait fishermen and popper-chuggers along shore all hooked up over and over. The fishing lately has been so good, "It gets monotonous," said Dicky Tehaan, who has fished at Fletcher's for more than a quarter-century. "That's why I bring the fly-rod. That's the ultimate way to fish on the surface. After that," he said with a puzzled smile, "I don't know where to go."
It's a pleasant enough problem to face. Tehaan and Bailey, another longtime Fletcher's regular, say rockfishing never has been so good on the Potomac. They reckon the fish are massing at the bottom of Little Falls to feed on perch, herring, shad and rockfish fry hatched in a banner spring spawning season.
"It's a bottleneck up there and it herds the fish up," said Tehaan, accurately describing the topography just above Chain Bridge, where Little Falls squeezes the river through a rocky gap just below Brookmont Dam. Few fish can buck the rapids to get above Little Falls, and none of those that do can get over the dam just above the falls.
The resulting dead end always has made for terrific spring fishing around Fletcher's as spawning fish move upstream and stop at the same place. But this year's tranquil, dry spring made it better than ever. "Conditions have been very stable," said Bailey, who one day in late April caught and released two 40-pound rockfish from a rental rowboat. "The fact is, there's been no significant rain to push the fish back. Conditions have been perfect all spring."
Every silver lining has its cloud, and the dark one dimming the happy scene at Fletcher's this spring is poaching, which drives law-abiding anglers crazy. Early summer season for rockfishing in D.C. waters is June 1 to July 31 with a limit of one fish per person a day, 18 inches to 36 inches long. Poachers have been seen hauling illegally kept fish out in trash-bag loads, and Harbor Police Officer Dennis Hance has been working overtime dishing out tickets at $100 per illegal fish. [See related story, this page].
Still, rockfish are so abundant that even the odious poachers seem unable to wreck the fun.
Hughes and I drove into town before dawn to be on the water by 6. Bailey was waiting, as planned, with a little three-horse outboard hooked up on one of the rental boats. We putt-putted upstream and under Chain Bridge in the early morning light, noting along the way fledgling families of wood ducks and mallards, a pair of black-crested night herons and plenty of great blue herons fishing along the banks.
The water gets treacherous above Chain Bridge, where only experts go by boat. Bailey is an expert and deftly worked up through the eddies and fast water, aiming for an outcropping in mid-stream called Center Rock. Hughes and I hunkered low to stabilize the boat and when Bailey gunned the little motor and punched the bow into a crevasse in the big rock, we were home free.
Only then did I look up and scan the banks to find 15 to 20 other anglers in place, casting flies, baits and lures into the white water around us. I heard wild splashing and quickly came to the realization that most of these people were fighting fish -- big fish.
I grabbed my spinning rod and hurled a popper into the turbulent water. It took a half-dozen casts to figure out how to work the lure just so in the confused currents to get the most enticing splash, so the popper looked like a wounded, terrified baitfish trying to escape. From then on it was magical, with one hungry rock after another roaring up and smashing at the lures.
Right here in River City.
Most rockfishing above Chain Bridge is from shore; rental rowboats are meant to be used only below Chain Bridge unless special arrangements are made for expert boaters. It's dangerous, fast water and anglers are wise to wear life vests even when fishing from shore.
Anglers are required to have a D.C. license; forms are available at Fletcher's. Bait fishing with cut herring has been productive in the slower water below Chain Bridge. For information, call 202-244-0461.
CAPTION: Rockfishing never has been so good on the Potomac and Mike Bailey proves it with one caught near Chain Bridge.