Fletcher's Boat House

by Karen Possner

Sycamore Islander, June 2001

Fletcher's, like Sycamore Island, is special. If you don't know where it is or have never gotten around to paying a visit -- make the time. You won't regret it, though getting there can be a minor navigational challenge.

The approach and surroundings set the tone. Preparing to write this article, my plan was to meet Joe Fletcher around 8:00 a.m. on a Thursday morning. When I phoned for directions the Boat House "irregulars" conferred about my route during the morning rush hour. The consensus was that I should head north on MacArthur to Glen Echo, reverse course onto the Clara Barton Parkway, and come back down Canal Road. About one mile south of Chain Bridge, the right lane would widen a bit -- at the site of the 1810 Abner Cloud House (which, for years, I had mistaken for Fletchers). There, I was to pull off onto the right "shoulder" and, with four-way flashers on, slowly and carefully back down the narrow access road. From there, it would be a snap! Alternatively, you can ignore stories about Reservoir Road becoming a one way street during morning rush and from MacArthur turn onto Reservoir (near the old movie theatre), and wait patiently at the bottom of the hill until there's a good break in Canal Road traffic. Then turn sharply right down the Fletchers access road, actually pointing in the right direction. Whichever way you go, you'll drive through an old, dark, stone tunnel, and come out at the river, with Fletcher's on your left. The approach is part of the experience -- the tunnel transports you to a different time and place, like a looking-glass or a hobbit hole.

It's the scene at the end of the tunnel that grabs your attention. The first time, I gasped. The second time, I sighed. The third time was for "business" but by then I almost felt like family. The setting is sky, river and trees, with the wooden Boat House in the clearing. It's been this way for a long, long time.

The Fletchers have operated the boat livery since the 1850s when great-grandfather Joe acquired the land and started to offer boats for rent. It was just rowboats back then, and because Joe Fletcher supported his family full-time working construction jobs, the business was run on the honor system, with boats let for 50 cents a day. These boats survived years of use by all manner of amateurs, testament to their sound design and reliance on sturdy local cypress and oak.

Next in line to take over the Boat House was Joe's son, Joseph C., and following in his father's footsteps, he also worked in construction full-time, operating Fletcher's on the side. The area's rich natural environment, still largely unspoiled in the early 1900s (when President Teddy Roosevelt routinely swam across the Potomac), enabled Joseph C. to supplement the family's income by fishing and hunting for deer, beaver, otter, ducks and all sorts of birds. And when he needed to repair or replace one of the original boats, Joseph C. was on safe ground relying on the same methods and tools used by his father. They must have known what they were doing, since 12 of Joseph C.'s original boats still are in use today.

The third generation to operate Fletcher's was headed by Julius, born in 1909, who continued the tradition of renting boats but also expanded the public's recreational options by selling bait and tackle, and adding canoes and bicycles to the mix. Julius also continued the tradition of working in the construction industry, making his mark just a short distance away. He also continued the family tradition by passing on a deep love of the river and the land to his sons Joe and Ray.

Those sons run things today, with Joe serving as president and Ray vice president of what now is an incorporated entity. There are other Fletcher brothers and sisters who have never worked at the Boat House, and then there is "non-Fletcher" Dan, who is the livery's third full-time employee. But times do change, and the family's ownership of the Boat House and surrounding land ended in the 1930s, when the National Park Service took over the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and developed the area for recreational use. Fortunately for all of us, the family retained the right to continue operating the Boat House as a concession, and now we can choose from among 45 rowboats, 10 of the newer ones built of white oak and plywood by Joe and Ray, modeled on the design originally used by Joe and Joseph C. If your preference is cutting through the water soundlessly, there are 60 aluminum canoes to choose from too. The sale of bait and tackle, however, remains enormously popular at Fletcher's and, if anything, continues to expand. The recently restored health of the river and its diverse population of fish explain this demand.

Islanders converge on Fletcher’s during shad season:

Kent Holstead and Luther Carter head out.

Maria Stenzel and George Malusky swap fish stories on the dock.

Michel Grant fishes from mid river.

You wouldn't know it from my recent experiences, but those who know about such things consider Fletchers' location Fish Heaven. Joe says the explanation for the area's abundance of fish is that Fletcher's is so close to the end of the tidal waters, the fish can't go any further upstream. In essence, they're trapped. The Boat House and surrounding area are situated in the midst of a tree-lined gorge, bordered on the Virginia shore by cliffs made of granite and on the D.C. side by a National Park, which includes the C&O Canal. When you stand at the water's edge, you really believe you could be in Maine (kind of like looking at the river from Sycamore Island). The near-by parkways are obscured by trees and the area taken as a whole appears to be an unspoiled wilderness. The regulars say the fishing is best in April and May and while the selection varies, it is reputed to include catfish, white perch, striped bass, herring and shad. In the old days before the suburbs expanded to their current boundaries, there used to be lots of places that supplied Fletcher's fishermen with bait, but today, only Mike's Bait, located in Grambling, Maryland, near Baltimore, delivers the raw materials (literally) that fish find so irresistible -- minnows, blood worms (salt water worms from Maine) and cut bait. The selection also includes artificial lures for the growing number of fly fishermen who find respite on the Potomac when Montana is just not a practical alternative.

During my second visit, the one that started with the sigh, I got to meet some of the regulars who enrich the place and expand the Fletcher family. One is Gordon Leisch, who fulfilled all my Hollywood fantasies for what a lifelong fisherman should look like -- lean, leathery, taciturn -- right out of Central Casting. He told me he's been fishing the Potomac all his life, alone, for about 50 years, catching shad, perch, bass, striped bass and catfish, most of which he "throws back," though he admits to eating a white perch "every once in a while." And even though Fletcher's is open only from March through the fall, Gordon says he fishes year round, catching walleye in the winter months. Today, Gordon says "the regulars are treated like family . . . at Fletcher's everybody is friends and family."

I also got to meet Paula, who was more interested in conspiring with Gordon to get a pole in my hands than answering questions about "what Fletcher's means to me." Turns out they knew best. She led the way to the river's edge, through trees and down around a creek, sliding in the mud, and told me we needed to catch "bait." We tried for a while, were unsuccessful, and so moved to a different (read: luckier) spot around another muddy bend. I think we used bread and also worm parts (they started out whole but she broke them into pieces with her fingers), and I listened while she told me bits about herself. Paula is a "hunter-gatherer" who learned the names and uses of all varieties of plants and mushrooms from her grandfather. She hunts as well as fishes, and routinely rescues all sorts of challenged wildlife, sometimes restoring their health and sometimes eating them for dinner. She's also a legend; park officials credit her with personally hauling away tons of debris every year, disposing of every bit of trash she finds. When asked to name the biggest change in the area over the years, without hesitation she said "the trash." I came away with the impression she meant more than just beer bottles. It's clear Paula also is a member of the Fletcher family nucleus.

Paula tends the docks, while Proprietors Joe Fletcher, at the fishing bulletin board, and brother Ray charm the customers.

I asked Joe to tell me what kinds of people come to Fletcher's. That got him started on who "used to come," and even a partial list reads like a "Who's Who" in Washington. Everybody knows about Justice William O. Douglas and his affiliation with the canal and tow path, but other names, past and present, include Daniel Webster, Jimmy Carter, Chuck Robb, Jack, Ted and Bobby Kennedy, Strom Thurmond, Walter Mondale, Jesse Jackson, George H.W. Bush, and many, many other members of congress, their families and the media. And they all came for the same thing -- the peace, the solitude -- the restorative effects of a place of natural beauty that just happens to be right in the middle of the nation's capital.

During my last visit, the normally placid scene was altered drastically by the presence of the Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation and the American Fly Fishing Trade Association, a typically Washington gathering, hosted annually by Fletcher's. Scheduled on a Monday when Congress usually is not in session, thus potentially boosting participation by members and staff, numbers were smaller than expected due to a scheduling conflict -- President George W. Bush had invited all 535 members of Congress to the White House to mark the 100th day of his presidency. Nevertheless, the hard core bypassed the chief executive to take advantage of personal instruction from fly fishing legends, fish the river on a warm, sunny day in boats rowed by experienced guides, and eat a smoked shad lunch on the banks of the Potomac. Which would you have chosen?

You know the old saying -- that volunteers benefit more from the act of giving than recipients from the gift. So it is with this article. I'm now the proud holder of District of Columbia fishing license number 0110-04301, which I purchased from Joe minutes after reeling in my five-inch smelt -- a credit to Paula's excellent instruction. Like Sycamore Island, it's enormously satisfying just knowing Fletcher's is there, waiting to give each of us whatever we may be searching for when we visit this historically rich place by the river. And when you do visit, ask who'll take over next, when Joe and Ray decide to call it a day. The answer brings the whole line of Fletchers, and what they've created, into sharper focus. When asked what the best thing is about running Fletcher's, Joe said "the people and the setting." And that's why you should visit.

Karen Possner, on the waiting list, is a devoted Islander. She inherits her enthusiasm for fishing from her father.