The price of admission to this club is loving a river.
In Washington, D.C., a town known for exclusive parties, the annual perch fry at Fletcher’s Boathouse may be the most exclusive of them all. Unlike nearly everything else in the nation’s capital, however, you can’t buy your way in. There is no announcement, not even a notice tacked up at the little cinder-block shop on land where generations of Fletchers have been renting rowboats to Washington anglers since 1860. The fish fry is held when enough white perch, the first of the anadromous fish to arrive in the spring, have been caught to justify the occasion and when the staff-brothers Joe and Ray Fletcher, along with Danny Ward-feel like hosting 70 of their best friends. The party is free, but it’s strictly a word-of-mouth affair. You have to earn your invitation. You have to love the river.
I remember my own acceptance into the brotherhood about 20 years ago. I was a maniac crappie angler in those days and had been fishing the papermouths hard all week in the brushpile that Joe Fletcher had sunk just a few yards off the dock. That hole was like an amusement park for crappies. No sooner would you clean it out than another group of fish would arrive, hungry and ready for action. It was heaven. The boathouse generally closed at seven so Danny Ward could get home in time to see his kids before bedtime, even though it stayed light out until nearly eight. After seeing my face and enthusiasm enough times, Danny took me aside. “Stay out till dark if you want. Just throw your oars and life vest over the fence behind the shop when you’re done.” And, just like that, I was in.
This year’s feast is typical: an endless supply of tiny perch fillets still scalding hot from the fryer, three kinds of cornbread, cole slaw, baked beans with ham hocks, fresh asparagus salad, scalloped potatoes, and a bushel of Chesapeake oysters with plenty of hot sauce and lemons at the ready. The perch is sweet, and you find yourself heading back for more before you’ve finished what’s on your sagging plate. The food is so good that nobody even talks for the first half hour.
Fletcher’s Cove straddles what must be the richest single niche on the whole 287-mile-long Potomac River. It’s the upper tidal limit for ocean-going fish like perch, white and hickory shad, herring, and striped bass (known throughout the Chesapeake as rockfish), all of which stack up here in the spring to spawn. And it’s the lower limit for coldwater species like smallmouths, walleyes, tiger muskies, and even the odd stocked trout washed down from one of the Potomac’s feeder streams. There are also plenty of largemouth bass, crappies, bluegills, catfish, and carp in these waters. When the Park Service put in a handicapped ramp last year, they discovered a trove of Indian artifacts, leading archaeologists to believe the area had been a fish camp for centuries before anybody with iron hooks showed up.
“I do 99 percent of my fishing here,” says Ira Sabin, a regular customer for 55 years and the founder of Jazz Times, the biggest jazz magazine in the world. “I’ve got friends who drive five hours to the Outer Banks and don’t do as well as I do in my own backyard. When I tell them that guys are catching 40-pound rock here, they don’t believe me.”
The numbers of fish doesn’t mean it’s necessarily easy fishing. The river here is complicated: a fast main current flanked by boulder-strewn flats and innumerable break lines. Guys spend years figuring out the pockets where fish will hold at different water levels. The regulars triangulate their positions using landmarks invisible to the casual anglers: a certain forked tree, a faded white sign that once warned of dangerous currents, a particular stone on the Virginia side known as the Lowell Rock. Danny Ward says it takes so long to understand this water that the standing joke among the staff is that a good fisherman who finally brings a motor to put onto one of the white-oak-and-cypress rrowboats-some of which are more than half a century old-usually becomes a worse fisherman simply because he suddenly has too many options.
This year, right next to the marks painted on the shop showing where the river crested during past hurricanes, Danny has put up photos of good friends departed. One is “Uncle” Jim Dixon, who always fished in a coat and tie and a Baltimore Orioles baseball cap and carried hard candy in his pockets. When you shook his hand, he’d slip you a couple of pieces. His son, Rob Dixon, looks at the picture of the man and smiles. “That was Daddy’s last fish fry,” he says. “He started fishing here in ’29, the year he came up from Georgia. The coat and tie, that was the Englishman in him.” Rob smiles again, then goes back to the three picnic tables arranged end-to-end.
Sadly, the boathouse’s days are numbered. Ray and Joe lease the land from the Park Service under a special agreement. When they go, the government will take it over. “There’s no money in it,” says Ray. “My kids don’t have an interest. For the hours I put in, you gotta enjoy it or it’s just not worth it.” Once bureaucrats are running it, the concession will go on; it just won’t be Fletcher’s anymore. The regulars will no longer take it upon themselves to pick up the phone to relay water conditions and driving directions when whoever’s on duty is busy on the dock. Nobody will tell you to go ahead and stay out late as long as you throw your oars and vest over the fence behind the shop. And there won’t be anybody like David Davis, a part-time employee who caught and filleted 400 fish on his own time just to celebrate the arrival of spring. In fact, there probably won’t be a fish fry at all. Potluck picnics almost certainly violate some section of the health code.
Lloyd Draper, 84, wearing a big yellow bucktail in his Fletcher’s cap and a string tie with a striped-bass pin for the knot, sits in a plastic chair in the milky spring sun and picks at the plate of food brought to him. He’s another of the old-timers who started fishing here in the 1920s, when his father first took him out in the distinctive gray-and-dark-red boats. He’s famous among the locals for a particular kind of shad dart he still makes with a flared hook that he bought 4,000 of in the 1950s. He has spent some of the happiest moments of his life right here. “See those cormorants tearing up those shad out in the current?” Lloyd asks. He’s staring out at the main river some 300 yards away, at a single spot where the birds wheel and dive endlessly. “They’ll flip a fish up in the air and catch it headfirst. Easier to swallow that way.” He says the shad are coming up because the rock are feeding on them underneath. “Trouble above, trouble below. Not a good place to be a shad.”
The black birds are, indeed, snatching the herring and lobbing them skyward exactly as he says. I ask how he can see so well at his age. “Can’t,” he admits with a smile. “Just barely see the shapes. But I know that spot. And I remember. I remember like it was yesterday.”