D.C. resident Howard Coleman, 77, who has been dropping hooks into the Potomac since he was 10, fishes just above Fletcher’s Cove. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
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Anglers love fish. Fish love water. That means anglers love water. Fletcher’s Cove doesn’t have enough of it.

“That was 15 feet deep when I started coming here 45 years ago,” Mike Bailey said on a recent morning as we stood facing the cove, which is on the D.C. side of the Potomac River, a half mile below Chain Bridge.

Now it’s not.

A growing parenthesis of silt brackets the lower edge of the cove, and the bank itself is growing toward the river.

If you’ve been meaning to rent a rowboat — as Washingtonians have been able to do at Fletcher’s for nearly a century — you’d better hurry: If nothing is done, Mike and others fear, the cove could eventually vanish.

“If the cove silts up, we won’t have regular access,” said Mike, a recreational fisherman and member of the Friends of Fletchers Cove. “We can’t get the boats out.”


Kayaks and canoes rest on the dock at Fletcher's Cove. Anglers and boaters are concerned that the cove is in danger of silting up. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

Mike and other members of the nonprofit group — Sandy Burk, Mark Binsted and Seth Amgott — invited me to check out the cove. On the fine spring morning I visited, cottonwood seeds filled the air, floating on the breeze like nature’s confetti. Cormorants skimmed the river, looking for a meal. Rainstorms from previous days had sent runoff surging, meaning the Potomac was too high to rent a boat from the boathouse.

The river isn’t going anywhere, and people will always be able to fish from its banks, but if you want to be in a boat, you need a protected place from which to set out. That’s what Fletcher’s Cove is. Its succession of floating docks have always led complicated lives — destroyed by hurricanes; removed and then reinstalled — but the latest iterations have had to be extended farther and farther as the cove shrinks.

“This dock is just looking for water,” Mark said.

Looking for water, but finding mud. The cove lovers wanted to show me why.

We walked upstream, the river on our left, the C&O Canal on our right. We crossed a creek called Maddox Branch that feeds into the Potomac and then walked over a bridge that spans a spillway taking overflow water from the canal.


Friends of Fletchers Cove members Mike Bailey and Sandy Burk examine tiny shad in a petri dish on the dock. Every spring, the waters of the Potomac here are thick with shad coming in to spawn. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

Then we were on it, the cause of all the problems: the berm.

In the 1960s, tons of debris were trucked here from one of two locations, or maybe from both. Dirt, rocks and boulders came from the construction of the Potomac Interceptor — the pipe that brings sewage from Dulles to be treated at Blue Plains — and/or from tunneling for the Foggy Bottom Metro station.

“They had to put the dirt somewhere,” Mark said.

It was hoped the fill would control flooding, but it turned out to have an unintended consequence. Said Mark: “It was a silt generator.”

When the land here was low, periodic flooding would flush out Fletcher’s Cove, like a hose directed at grass clippings in the seams of a driveway.

Now, though, Mike said, “There’s not enough water to blow this out.”

In the mid-1980s, a National Park Service crew led by Charles Avery dug a canal from the river into the cove in a quixotic effort to sluice out Fletcher’s.

“We call it the Chuck Avery Memorial Canal,” Mike said. “It’s unofficial.”

It didn’t work, and now the canal is clogged with driftwood.

The debris field is 20 feet above the river in places. Covered in grass and mature trees, it looks like a natural part of the landscape. Friends of Fletchers Cove estimates that five to nine acres of debris needs to be removed, a job that would run into the millions of dollars.

The first step is to analyze core samples that were taken from the berm. The 10-foot-long tubes of soil are being examined now to see where the fill came from and whether it’s contaminated. That should be done by the fall.

We came down off the berm and walked to a beach just above Fletcher’s. This is a popular spot for anglers. The water rippled, signs that a school of herring was just below the surface. Humans have been fishing here for thousands of years, looking for shad, perch, bass and other species.

Howard Coleman and his son, Anthony, were fishing there. Howard said he’s been dropping hooks into the Potomac since he was 10. He’s 77 now.

“I just enjoy fishing, being outdoors, enjoying yourself,” he said. “Some days you catch fish, some days you don’t. The main thing is, you got to have patience.”

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.