The National Park Service was as surprised as anyone to learn that the Fletcher brothers, Joe and Ray, will abandon Fletcher's Boat House near Chain Bridge on Jan. 1, after nearly a century and a half of family stewardship of the little riverside bike and boat, bait and tackle business.
The fourth generation of Fletchers has reached retirement age and the fifth generation isn't interested in carrying on, leaving NPS to decide what's next. To its credit, the giant government agency is seeking a new concessionaire to keep Fletcher's as it's always been -- Washington's pretty, peaceful, inexpensive window on the Potomac.
But big government is never simple. By rule, NPS had to send in a team from PricewaterhouseCoopers, the accounting and consulting firm, to sort out the books and write a prospectus for the next keeper of the flame. How I'd like to have been a bird on those shoulders as suited, bespectacled accountants tried to deconstruct a century and a half of river-rat lore, doubtless scratched in hieroglyphics. "Hey Fred, you think this is a four or a nine?"
NPS regional concessions chief Steve LeBel reckons it will take six or eight months to write the prospectus. Meantime, he expects to name an interim manager so the place can be up and running in March, when spawning perch, herring, shad and rockfish swarm upriver and for six to eight weeks Fletcher's becomes, by many measures including mine, the best place in the world to fish.
Question one: What about the boats? The heart of Fletcher's fleet is the 50-odd pale red rental rowboats tucked away for the winter in the parking lot, waiting for patches and paint. "I'm not sure the Park Service realizes what goes into maintaining a fleet of handmade wooden rowboats," said Mike Bailey, a 25-year regular at the boat house.
LeBel says NPS hasn't decided what to do with the boats, some of which date from the 1930s. Most were built by Fletchers of one generation or another and, as Ray Fletcher proudly attests, "no two are alike."
The Park Service may decide to keep the fleet or replace it with modern fiberglass boats. If they wait too long, the decision will be made for them. They can take it from someone who owns one: Wooden boats do not thrive on neglect.
Then there's the question of the annual Fletcher's perch fry, of which I'm proud to say I was a co-founder some 25 years ago. Perch are so abundant in April, we decided to have a feast. On a gray, cold, rainy day back in the 1970s, Dick Tehaan and Billy Collins fired up a camp stove under a tree in the Fletcher's turnaround and we all gathered 'round to munch crisp, fried white perch and herring roe, fresh from the pan.
Over the years the perch fry grew. It's hastily arranged now to take advantage of good weather. The Fletchers pile up perch fillets in the freezer in advance, and wives and loved ones haul in salads and pies. Hundreds of people somehow get the word and plenty of newcomers happen by. One of life's great pleasures is to see some uninitiated bystander watching enviously and welcome him or her in: "Come on over and get some perch!"
Whether the National Park Service can put its imprimatur on a free food fest of uninspected wild fish is a good question. Will they let wine connoisseur Danny Ward uncork his bottles of Virginia grape? Will Joe Fletcher come back to man the frying pan?
Joe, 63, and Ray, 58, say they've had enough of painting and patching boats all winter, and working seven days a week in summer, often starting before dawn and finishing at dusk. Joe is happy with his Social Security and Ray says he's "ready for the next thing," whatever it turns out to be. Both acknowledge with some regret they will close the book on a proud family tradition begun in Civil War times.
It's amazing how many of the old ways they've kept afloat. At Fletcher's, almost all anglers row out to the fishing holes; very few bring outboard motors. They anchor with stout river rocks and manila line, just as their forebears would have done a century ago. They fish deep with worms and can fill a bucket with perch or herring in a hurry when the run is on.
The riverbanks on both sides are deeply forested, cool and damp. Ospreys, herons, ducks and geese soar overhead and the water boils and funnels around the rocky bottom in the same intriguing patterns it has followed since time began.
You never get tired of it. Gordon Leisch, a retired biologist with the Interior Department, has fished the river since he was 3 years old. "My mom and dad rented a house on Donaldson Run," he said. "They'd go down to the river with a frying pan and catch herring and perch and cook them right there on the rocks." In 1943, Leisch said, he skipped school to go fishing and got caught. He's ducking out to fish the same spots today.
Can the National Park Service do justice to a legacy like that? Well, it had the good sense to give Joe and Ray Fletcher carte blanche to carry on as long as they wanted, and LeBel says if the Fletchers called tomorrow to change their minds, "we'd welcome them back."
That's not going to happen. "After 40 years," said Ray Fletcher, who has worked the counter since he was a teenager, "it's time for a change."
He pondered for a moment, then added: "If you have room in your story, could you put in a thank you to all our customers over the last 145 years? And thank the Park Service, too, particularly the maintenance guys. They've been really good to us."
To which I'd only add: Thank you, Fletchers. You've been really good for us.