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Fishing on the Potomac: Line, sinker and hooked

Each spring the perch arrive. Each spring we are lured to the Potomac. Each spring, the ritual. (Lexey Swall/GRAIN/For The Washington Post)

It’s starting.

The fish are moving. Yesterday, Gordon Leisch and Paula Smith pulled their first white perch of the year — an astonishing 75 keepers — from a secret hole downstream near Key Bridge. Paula says they had to work for them. All were males, generally the first to arrive. “They’re males,” shrugs Paula. “They can’t wait, if you know what I’m saying.”

But the perch have yet to make it the two more miles up to Fletcher’s Boathouse in any numbers. Sure, a few were caught from shore on the mud flats just past the parking lot last week. Shallow water heats up faster, so that’s where the first ones are usually caught. But those fish — part of the annual ritual — were flukes, outliers. Perch don’t really like a mud bottom. Nobody ever gets into them good from shore.

The river’s right — 55 degrees, the water stained but not muddy, running high but not too high on this late-March day. And it’s late enough in the spring, which matters because the angle of sunlight matters. The wisteria and serviceberry are in bloom. But spawning fish don’t consult solar tables or thermometers or gauges. They come when they come, usually don’t stay long and are gone just as quick. In flood years there’s no run at all. Painted lines on Fletcher’s cinder-block concession building show the high-water marks of hurricanes in ’96, ’85 and ’72, when Agnes swelled the river up to the roofline.

The days when the run lasted two months and you measured your catch by the bucketful ended 30 years ago. Gordon remembers. He has been keeping detailed records for 60 years. But the perch still come. Maybe it’s the mystery of their arrival that makes them so compelling, pulls certain kinds of people to come down to Fletcher’s to stare at the water as if we might make fish materialize through sheer force of will. All the migratory fish — perch, striped bass, American and hickory shad, river herring — are out there somewhere and coming this way. And the urgency of the ones that do come to spawn in the waters of their birth is as strong as ever.

Anglers like Gordon, Paula and me are primarily interested in white perch. They're the sweetest meat that swims in the river and about the only one you can legally keep these days. Not that there's much enforcement now that all the money goes to homeland security. (You don't want to eat any fish that lives year-round in the D.C. section of the river.)

It’s too windy out there today anyway. If your anchor held, you’d still be swinging around like a tetherball, not a good thing when trying to fish deeper holes. And Fletcher’s won’t be renting its gray-and-dark-red rowboats for another week. If those factors aren’t enough — and they are — there’s the fact of the cormorants. If there were fish here, hordes of the black birds would be circling, diving and skimming. Today, they’re packed shoulder to shoulder on rocks out in the river, like Supreme Court justices sitting irritably for their portraits.

Even knowing what we know, every one of us would be bouncing bucktails or worms off the bottom all day if we could. We can’t help it. And we’re not the first to feel the pull of this river, these fish and this tiny cove. When Park Service archaeologists came in before a wheelchair ramp was poured a few years back, they dug up and carted away thousands of pre-contact artifacts. Their report concluded that the cove had been at least a seasonal fish camp for a very long time. Nobody at the boathouse ever learned exactly what was found, what it meant or even where it all is. If you’re one of the people the place speaks to, you don’t need a report.

Fletcher’s Cove is the only break in the Potomac’s straight shoreline for miles up and down the river. Fish stage in the cove’s protected water before slugging their way farther upstream. Big fish feed on little fish, driving them to the surface. Birds — cormorants, herons, ospreys and bald eagles, to name a few — come to pluck what they can. And anglers like us stage here, too. It’s part of the ritual, as is the strangely comforting knowledge that there are powers and rhythms out there we can’t begin to understand.

When Paula calls three days later to say that the wind should drop enough for another outing the next day, she doesn't have to ask twice. "But be here by 6:30, honey. After that, all you're gonna see is taillights."

We launch Gordon’s 17-foot boat at Gravelly Point, idle five miles upriver to a hole I’m not allowed to name and drop our rigs in 40 feet of water. We’re fishing the small bucktail jigs that Dickie Tehaan, a fishing savant who grew up at Fletcher’s, ties by the dozen. He won’t sell them but gives them to friends. The term “Dickie jigs” is so ubiquitous at the boathouse that once, when I saw Dickie with a big walleye and asked what he’d caught it on, I was confused when he said, “Oh, you know, a white bucktail.” It took me a moment to realize that their maker, the humblest of men, is the only person at Fletcher’s who doesn’t call them Dickie jigs.

It’s five minutes before Gordon catches the first perch, a six-incher, a throwback. You won’t find a perch in anybody’s trophy room. Anything over a foot is a monster, while anything under eight or nine inches isn’t worth keeping. We move, then move again. We catch a few, but we’re not on them. At one hole, we hook more striped bass than perch. They’re hunting the fish just like we are. The stripers are bigger and fight well, but you can’t keep them.

Having exhausted the known holes, we drift, hoping to find a school. And then it happens. All of us hook up at nearly the same instant. Paula reels up frantically, throws a nice fish in the cooler, then brushes past me to drop the anchor and cleat the line. I’ve got a fat 11-incher on. Gordon has a double, a white perch on each jig. “Yeah, baby!” Paula crows. “Slide yours on back!” I bowl my slippery fish aft toward the cooler. I’m hyper-focused and giddy at the same time. It’s happening. If you’ve ever picked something ripe and abundant — berries, maybe, or pawpaws or even apples — you know the heightened focus bordering on mania that possesses you at such times. Your consciousness telescopes down. There is only the next ripe fruit and the next and the next. There is only the urgency of this moment. My own theory is that this response is hard-wired into all of us, that it helped Homo sapiens survive.

It doesn’t last long — it never does — maybe 10 or 15 minutes. We check the cooler. We’ve boated 40 or 50 good perch. We don’t talk about it. We move again, hunting and pecking, pick up a few more. At 1 o’clock, Gordon calls it. The tide is all the way in. Nothing bites well in slack water. We head for the ramp.

We arrange to meet the next morning at a newspaper-covered table at Fletcher's to fillet our catch. You don't want to clean a bunch of fish at home if you can help it. In years past, we had always cleaned the fish, then divvied them up. In fact, Paula's liberal insults of my knife skills during the work are part of the ritual, something I look forward to. In years past, she has likened me to an ax murderer and my fillets to fish run over by a lawn mower. This year, she instructs me to take my share and clean them separately. "No more of your bony, raggedy-ass fillets for me, honey," she says. "No, sir."

I’m disappointed. But she’s right. I’m lousy at filleting. Then again, I don’t get the practice that she and Gordon do. It takes me an hour to do 25 perch, 50 fillets. It’s not a lot of fish. Ten fillets makes dinner for two, so I’ve got five meals. But the meat is only a small part of the ritual.

I put my fish on ice and head home. I’m happy. It’s spring in a way it wasn’t before. I’ve lived to see another circle around the sun. Like the perch, I’ve answered some strange pull in my blood.

Bill Heavey is an author and editor-at-large for Field & Stream. To comment on this story, email

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