When Captain John Smith (of Pocahontas fame) sailed up the Potomac in 1607, he remarked in his diary that the fish were “lying so thicke with the heads above water, as for want of nets we attempted to catch them with frying pans.”
Some 500 years later, the fish are not so thick in the Potomac.
But the crowd of people lining the banks and clogging the river at a spot known as Fletcher’s Cove were plenty thick this weekend. And they weren’t there for the cherry blossoms. They were there for the fish. It feels like you’re out in the wild, except for the sound of the traffic, the Marine helicopters from the White House fleet and the jets landing at Reagan National.
Surprising as it may sound for an urban setting, for about a month each spring, this National Park Service refuge inside the Washington Beltway offers shad fishing that’s as good as fishing gets on an American river.
How good? This writer fished for four hours straight from a rock on the D.C. side of the Potomac on Friday and caught a large shad roughly every five minutes. The same was true for the seven people fishing within immediate eyeshot. Those in boats — to judge from their whooping — appeared to be having similar luck.
How large? Four to six pounds, 12 to 20 inches.
The frying pan has been replaced by fly-fishing and spinning gear. But this is no upscale fishing camp. It’s for everyone.
Most people fish out of heavy wooden rowboats rented from The Boathouse at Fletcher’s Cove, anchored by rocks tied to rope and hurled into the water. Canoers and kayakers dart in and out looking for the choicest spot.
Men, boys and a few women cling precariously to piles of driftwood. Others wade into the notorious currents in hip-boots, trying to steady their footing in the spring mud. (Warning: wading in the Potomac’s treacherous current is hazardous for adults, not to mention children.)
And a few lucky ones able to get to Fletcher’s early enough get preferred seating on a few dozen large rocks.
When people converse, which isn’t very often as they cast, they speak in English, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean and Spanish. And Fletcher’s has a resident muse, Dan Ward, who heralds the arrival of the shad each year with flare. “The grace that is spring in Washington appears finally to have arrived,” he wrote on the Boathouse Web site as the first shad appeared this year. “Not until the final weekend of the month did our customers get a chance to row out to the eddies and swirls, where fish fresh from the ocean pause on a journey of renewal.”
Nick Swingle, who made his pictures available for this article, e-mailed:
To me, the shad run epitomizes D.C. fishing. Everyone can enjoy it together and there’s plenty to go around. Fishing upstream from Fletcher’s this evening, I was marveling at how many people (of all ethnicities) were out, sharing the same wonderful resource, and there was no anxiety, no road rage, no partisanship. The shad run is fishing for the people.
Forget worms, cut bait and smelly fishing concoctions. With spinning rods and reels, the shad respond reflexively to lures called “darts,” which are hurled halfway across the river if the wind is right and retrieved quickly for maximum effect. Any boater who gets in the way during a casting frenzy is risking a dart in the head, or perhaps a bad tangle. When caught, the shad may leap and flip in the air, their silver sides flashing brightly in the sun.
By law, it’s all catch-and-release.
By the mid-1970s, pollution, overharvesting and the blocking of spawning habitat by dams had led to a decline in the fishery, according to a report by Jim Cummins for the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin. That led to a harvest moratorium and a fish re-stocking program.
His report provides the vitals on shad:
The shad grows the largest, averaging about 5 pounds but can grow to 15 pounds (but 11 lbs – 4 oz. is the current [International Game Fish Association] and almost a meter (3′) in length (the Maryland record is 8 lbs., 2 oz). They are anadromous fishes, meaning they spend their adult lives (average = 5 yrs, can live to 22 yrs) in the ocean and return to freshwater rivers to spawn. As adults, they capture plankton for food using modified gill rakers. They are distributed worldwide in temperate regions and the North American Atlantic Coast representatives range along the east coast from Florida to Nova Scotia.
One caveat: The shad can disappear as fast as they appear during the course of a few hours or a few minutes. It all depends on factors such as water flow and water temperature.
So it’s possible to cast for hours and get nothing but a sore arm and a sweat.