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The e-mail that set my wheels spinning last weekend contained just three words. It came from Mike Bailey, chairman of the Chain Bridge angling society, and said: "Everything is biting."
In April on the Potomac, that means spawning shad, perch, herring and big rockfish are swarming upriver in schools. When they get just above Chain Bridge, the transients hit a roadblock at Brookmont Dam, which leaves the entire mass swimming around a confined area for a few weeks, feeding on each other and anything else that gets in the way.
It makes for the best, most varied fishing I've experienced anywhere. Best of all, you can do it from a rowboat or even from shore in the middle of the city at little expense in time and money.
The downside is, it's April and you can't count on the weather. We made a date for Monday but it blew so hard from the northeast with sheets of cold rain, Bailey called it off. Tuesday was not expected to be much better but with hard rains forecast for the next few days, it was now or never.
Bailey arrived at Fletcher's Boathouse, base of operations for most Potomac adventures in the District, at 4:30 a.m. to gather fresh herring for bait. He wanted to be fishing at 5:30, before the first hints of dawn streaked the sky. The quarry was big rockfish, and I mean big. Two days earlier, he'd released one he estimated at 45 pounds, and he had a witness.
Jim Range, a D.C. conservation lawyer and good ol' boy from Tennessee, and I arrived about 5:15. He testified to Bailey's earlier catch, and he's an officer of the court. Range actually had released one even bigger, he said -- an estimated 50-pounder -- about this time last year, with Bailey as his witness. You can't keep any rockfish in the District until later in the spring when the season opens, so we must take their word for it.
We could hear Bailey fussing in the dark by the water's edge so we gathered gear and headed down to Fletcher's dock, where he was sorting out silver herring. A few minutes later we headed off in two rowboats under a bleak night sky of low cloud. It was cold, damp and breezy and we were all bundled up.
The river was high, which took away our shot at the prime fishing spot upstream near an underwater boulder called Atlas Rock. You just couldn't get there under oar power. But Bailey had a backup plan to fish slightly downstream at a place called The Trough, where the river rolls over a wide stone shelf, creating a boil where rockfish feed.
He dropped the river rock that serves as an anchor on all Fletcher rental rowboats while I steadied us in the current with the oars. Range anchored nearby. By the dim glow of distant city lights, Bailey cut " belly points," the choicest morsels, from the herring and hung them on large hooks. We cast into the current and let the baits settle to the rocky bottom, weighted by two-ounce sinkers, and gently bounced them downstream into the gaping maws of . . .
Bailey had the first strike, and for that matter the most strikes the rest of the morning. He has uncanny skill at setting the hook, all but hand-feeding the nibbling fish until he feels through the rod that the bait is well and truly planted before jerking back.
His first fish was a whopper. Bailey's gear was light but strung with strong, 30-pound-test Fireline, a space-age fishing line made of Spectra. The rod bent double under the weight of the rock and the fight stretched for several minutes before the fish's broad tail showed behind the boat.
It was a 25-pounder, we guessed, and judging by its great, groaning belly full of spawn, just days from releasing its eggs. Bailey handled it carefully, lifting it only long enough to remove the hook and set it loose.
So began a spectacular morning, the best of the season so far, according to both Bailey and Range, who fish every chance they get. By 9:30, when we had to quit and go to work, we'd caught and released 15 rockfish between us that averaged over 20 pounds. The biggest was so heavy I found myself unable to lift it over the transom without risking capsize, so we let it go in the water, estimating its weight at 30 pounds.
There was a bigger one we never saw. Bailey had it on and was fighting it when Range hooked a good one right alongside. The two men were doing the big-fish polka, trying to keep lines from crossing, when Bailey's fish simply took off downstream, pulling line off at a rapid pace, and never stopped.
"I had to either clamp down on him or let him spool me," said Bailey. So he clamped a thumb on the reel to slow the fish's run and the big fish pulled off. "Boy," said a wide-eyed Bailey afterwards, "I sure would have liked to see that one."
Back at the dock, Ray Fletcher, who has worked at the boathouse half a century, said the early run of rockfish probably has been going on forever but no one knew about it until Range and Bailey started pursuing them three seasons ago.
They were shad fishing one day and watched in amazement as a hickory shad Bailey was playing to the boat got attacked by a huge rockfish. "We looked at each other and said, 'Let's get the rockfish gear,' " Bailey recalled.
Ray Fletcher said his late father, Julius, who ran the boathouse before Ray and brother Joe took over, told him of a 57-pounder hooked back in the 1940s, but everyone thought it was a freak of nature. "They've probably been out there all along," said Ray. "Just nobody was fishing for them."
Shad, herring, rockfish and white perch should remain abundant in the river around Fletcher's for the next few weeks. Rental rowboats, licenses, bait and tackle are available. For the latest information, call the boathouse at 202-244-0461 or check the Web site at www.fletchersboathouse.com.