Potomac River, Washington, D.C., March 30, 2018
Spring has finally arrived, and with it came more snow and cold weather—but the Hickory and American shad have begun their annual migration up the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., and the rowboat fleet at Fletcher’s Boathouse was in the water and ready for anglers.

I arrived really early at Fletcher’s to beat the tolls on I-66 and the traffic flow change on Canal Road. I settled in for a short snooze, but soon other anglers were pouring into the parking lot and things began to get noisy and busy as people began unpacking their gear and meeting up with their fishing buddies.

I motored out from Fletcher’s Cove and dropped the rock at one of my favorite spots. As the sun began to rise above the leafless trees I assembled and strung up a 7 and 8 weight fly rod. The water was moving fast. It wasn’t very clear and it was littered with tree debris and trash flowing down from somewhere upriver. With all this junk in the water, fly fishing for shad was going to be a challenge.

Because of the water condition I tied on a fly that was very bright and began searching the water column for fish. The beginning of the season is usually pretty slow, and with the water temperature still a bit on the cold side I did not have high expectations. Six or eight fish would be a good day.

Other anglers appeared on the river and soon there was a line of rowboats strung out from The Point to beyond Catfish Beach. The noise of the morning rush hour began to build and the megaphone-enhanced voice of a rowing coach echoed across the water as a fleet of crew boats appeared.
I got the first grab a little past 7am. The fish was strong and it put up a great fight. It turned out to be a female Hickory, heavy with roe. I quickly slipped off the barbless hook and with a small splash my first shad of the season was gone. However now I knew where they were located and was soon hooking up more shad.

The bite was good, but not great and that is normal for the beginning of the season. I moved around a bit then met up with PaulC, the “Bass Master,” who pulled up next to me in his canoe. For the next few hours we fished together and managed to pull in a very reasonably good number of hefty Hickory shad that put a strong bend on our rods. PaulC was hauling them in on his “secret weapon” fly and I was close behind, but I was experimenting with size and color—using “Bass Master” as my control since he stuck with the same fly size and color for the day. We were using the same weight rods, same line, and fishing the same spot so it was a good test. The conclusion of this experiment—size, color, and technique matters a lot. A little bigger or smaller fly, a different color, a different line, made a huge difference in catch rate. When I switched back to a fly that matched in size and color, and fished at the right depth, shad would literally hook themselves without stripping line.

The “Bass Master” easily caught over 30 shad and I think I got a few over 20 before a noon storm brewed up. This one was ugly. The wind suddenly picked up and the water was whipped into a froth. It was blowing so strong that it was difficult to haul up the rock anchor even with my 50 pound thrust electric motor going full speed. I headed over to the “Bass Master” to help him get his canoe upriver so he could free his anchor then we both quickly headed for shore.

Fletcher's Boat House is located on the Potomac River in Washington, DC, two miles north of Key Bridge and one mile south of Chain Bridge, at the intersection of Reservoir Road and Canal Road. You will know you have reached the entrance to Fletcher's when you see the traffic lights and the Abner Cloud House, an old white stone building, which is next to the canal, and will appear on your left if you approach from Key Bridge, or it will be on your right approaching from Chain Bridge. The Fletcher’s boat rental office usually opens at 7am, but when the shad are biting hot and heavy they open earlier to accommodate anglers. You can get a D.C. fishing license and a boat at the rental kiosk. They also sell basic fishing equipment, bait, lures, hot dogs, candy, chips, drinks and ice cream.

WARNING: The entrance to Fletcher’s Cove is a very narrow ramp that can accommodate only ONE car at a time. There is a stop light and a small pull-off area where a car can wait for the light to turn without blocking incoming access. And it is REALLY difficult to negotiate this ramp if you approach Fletcher’s Cove via Chain Bridge because the entry ramp will be facing away from your direction of travel. There is NO RAMP facing Chain Bridge, so you will probably have to drive backwards down the ramp. Park in the upper lot on your left or continue through the low tunnel (if you have a large SUV or van with roof racks, I suggest checking the tunnel height BEFORE entering) to the lower parking lot and dock access. Watch out for cars exiting the tunnel!

WARNING ON WEEKDAYS: Both lanes of Canal Road become ONE WAY into and out of the District during morning and evening rush hour during the weekdays. If you're hitting Fletcher's in the morning and following the route above you have to get on Canal Road BEFORE 6am. If you miss this window you must wait until 10:20am because all traffic on Canal Road is ONE WAY into the city. You must use Canal Road via Chain Bridge. Canal Road goes the other way, towards Chain Bridge, from 2:45 to 7:15pm.