Celebrating Spring With a Fish Dinner

The weather is warming, and the perch run is on

Gordon Leisch, perch dinner, Washington D.C.
Gordon Leisch with the oven-fried perch feast.By the author

After weeks of not being able to fish for white perch—water too high or muddy, current too strong, winds too high to hold anchor—Paula, Gordon, and I finally made it out on the river last Monday. We rowed over to a hole on the Virginia side, anchored, and dropped bucktail “Dickie jigs” on 2-ounce sinkers and began working them. Five hours later, we had about 20 perch in the wire basket tied to the stern of the boat. It wasn’t anything like the old days, of course. Fifty years ago, the season lasted two solid months, March 15 to May 15. “You could count on filling a 5-gallon bucket every day,” Gordon says. Now you’re lucky to get half that in a season. But we’d caught our first fish of the year and that meant something.

From the dock, Paula spotted a Canada goose farther inside the cove, standing on a bar and struggling. It was tangled up in fishing line. With a sigh of resignation, she got back in the boat and poled her way up to it.

“Get over there,” Gordon told me. “She didn’t even think to take a knife.” I trotted over to the creek, worked my way down the steep bank, and gave her my Leatherman. Paula grabbed the bird, its throat swollen nearly shut from the constricting line, and after about five minutes of cutting line, finally freed it. It swam slowly farther up the cove.

“I dunno,” she said, shaking her head. “I’d give it about a fifty-fifty chance.”

The next night, I went over for dinner: “oven-fried” perch (battered in crushed corn flakes and baked at 350 degrees). “Tastes as good as fried but without the grease,” Paula said. I couldn’t argue. We also had little salads that she had carefully put together, mostly from the early lettuce and kale in their garden, along with hominy, cooked carrots, bread, and, for dessert, vanilla ice cream with the remainder of last year’s wineberries. It beat the hell out of the frozen taco that was about the only thing left in my freezer.

Gordon said they’d been down to the boathouse that day, half expecting to find feathers from where a fox or raccoon had finished off the exhausted goose, but they hadn’t seen a single one. “I think he made it,” Gordon said. I’d brought a bottle of wine and we clinked glasses.

It was wonderful to be eating fish we’d caught the day before with two of my oldest friends. We’re an unlikely trio. Gordon is something of a father figure to me, 83, with an encyclopedic knowledge of the river and its fish, and still able to read without glasses. The first time I met Paula Smith, I thought she was a crazy homeless lady. She still makes a good part of her living dumpster diving. I no longer remember exactly how they became such good friends, just that they’re the only people in all of D.C. whose house I can stop by whenever I want for a cup of coffee and know I’ll be welcome.

Paula must have read my latest column, because she told Gordon she was walking me out to my car to talk "man to man." She shared—that's the kind way to put it—her knowledge of depression. "You gotta take it one day at a time. I never had it chronic, but there were about two years there where I was suicidal, just clawing through. Some days you just gotta hang on by your fingernails. Don't take any kind of opiate, you know? Depression is a downer, and they are, too. Same with booze. You gotta be careful. And if suicide ever seems like a good idea some night, just wait. 'Cause if it is, it'll seem like an even better idea the next day. If it doesn't, well, it probably wasn't such a good idea. Capiche? Okay, drive safe."

And with that, she stubbed out her cigarette, put the butt in the pack for later, and went inside. I stood there a moment, fighting back tears. If you have people who care about you like this, you are a lucky man.