By Todd Ceisner
Finding a few strands of milfoil that are holding fish and that haven’t been found by other competitors has proven to be darn near impossible at the Potomac River, which this week will serve as the backdrop as the FLW Tour season draws to a conclusion just south of the nation’s capital.
Heck, finding five bites over a 12-hour day proved to be a mighty chore for some in the field at a fishery that was once considered among the best along the East Coast. Practice was so challenging and confounding for some that it’s prompted a few pros to wonder if something’s up with the Potomac, whether a virus has stricken the bass fishery or an invasive species (snakehead?) has started to have a negative influence on the population.
“I fished a lot of water that looks to be productive,” said reigning Forrest Wood Cup winner Anthony Gagliardi. “It’s just barren. There’s nothing there. There is still a lot of bait in the river. I saw plenty of shad and shad fry so that shows there was a good shad spawn not that long ago, but it just seems like the bass aren’t in there.”
Data gathered from a shocking survey conducted by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources last fall showed the adult bass population was level with previous years while the juvenile population was on the upswing. Similar results were found in surveys done this spring by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
Still, a good many will launch their boats Thursday morning scratching their heads and crossing their fingers that they’ll be able to scratch out a limit by the afternoon, especially those in the thick of the Angler of the Year race and those on or near the bubble for berths in the Forrest Wood Cup.
The first day of practice was pretty much a wash for anyone wanting to check the productivity of any of the creeks, especially along the west side of the river. A violent storm system on Saturday dumped a ton of rain around Washington, D.C., and blew out the tributaries and brought the water way up by Sunday when the tides were higher than usual.
Just as the tide cycles began to flush the stained water out, another powerful storm blew through Tuesday afternoon and evening, knocking out power and forcing some anglers to relocate from their camp sites. There’s no telling what the water conditions will be come Thursday or through the tournament as the effects of Tuesday’s deluge wash their way down into the river.
In 2012, during the last FLW Tour event at the Potomac, the Top 10 was separated by just over 5 pounds. It’s expected that this week’s event will be just as tight, but those with intimate knowledge of the system could hold a distinct advantage with as puzzling as the river has been.
The milfoil that was once plentiful throughout the flats on the Potomac River is now only located in a handful of locales and will act as veritable boat magnets this week. Most of the hydrilla that’s established itself in the river is matted mostly under water and is too thick to fish it effectively or efficiently. Basically, building a strategy exclusively around grass this week could be a risky proposition.
With not as much grass to go around, it will force some to target hard cover (wood, pilings, docks, etc.) and some may even explore the stretch of river toward Washington that was off limits in 2012 because the BFL All-American was being held concurrently on that stretch of the river.
Before getting into more about the bite, here's the lowdown on the fishery itself.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake Name: Potomac River
> Type of Water: Tidal river
> Surface Acres: Unavailable
> Primary structure/cover: Grass beds (milfoil, some hydrilla and other grasses), wood (docks, barges, laydowns), shell beds, ledges, rock piles, bridge pilings, docks
> Primary forage: Name it and it's in here - various crawfish species, carp, yellow perch, minnows, shiners, herring, shad, bullhead
> Average depth: Less than 5 feet
> Species: Largemouths and some smallmouths in the upper reaches
> Length limit: 15 inches (through mid-June)
> Reputation: A lot more challenging than it used to be due to decline in vegetation
> Weather: Two big storms bookended practice, which was hot, but clouds and rain will bring overcast skies and cooler temps for tournament days
> Water temp: Upper 80s
> Water visibility/color: Various conditions, from stained to clear, depending on area. Creeks likely to be muddy after Tuesday’s deluge
> Water level: Normal
> Fish in: All depths
> Fish phase: Post-spawn/summer
> Primary patterns: Flipping, ChatterBaits, frogs/toads/rats, shallow cranking shell beds and wood, jigging the ledges and rocks
> Winning weight (4 days): 65 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 20 after 2 days): 26 pounds
> Check weight (Top 60 after 2 days): 21 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 2 for the Potomac
> Biggest factors: Crowding – you need a certain mentality to prevail here.
> Biggest decision: Camp and flip in a community locale and fight the crowds, or go cover water with a moving bait?
> Wildcard: Any locale that's lightly fished, and stays that way
For a more detailed look at the Potomac River, check out the embedded map below, courtesy of Navionics:
According to Steve Chaconas, who operates National Bass Guide Service on the Potomac, the locals who fish the river on a regular basis are anxious to see what the pros come up with this week in order to fill their livewells.
Chaconas says conditions have been less than ideal with the reduction in milfoil across the fishery. He said 15 pounds has been considered a strong effort in local tournaments dating back to last year.
Just last Saturday, 16 1/2 pounds won the ABA Weekend Series tournament out of Smallwood State Park and 16.93 won a local team tournament that launched out of Leesylvania State Park. Only four stringers exceeded 15 pounds in the two events combined, totaling 79 boats.
Dave Lefebre posted a runner-up finish at the James River Rayovac Series a few weeks ago and has a sparkling record at the Potomac as well.
“The locals have had a tough time catching fish the last couple years and this year it’s been tougher because there’s less milfoil and more hydrilla and coontail,” he said. “It’s just harder to fish, especially with all the pressure on the milfoil beds.
“Tournament production this year has been the worst I’ve seen it,” he added. “Fifteen pounds now wins where it didn’t used to make a check.”
He says those who commit to fishing in the grass this week will have to find some kind of sweet spot in areas that have already been picked over.
“It points to a lot of guys being in very few places,” he said. “That’s what’s been happening locally. Pros who have history here will be scratching their heads. The ones I ran into before it went off limits said they were not doing well.”
He said the grass has come up quickly in the interim and, “whatever they did 3 weeks ago, forget it,” he added. “The milfoil reached the surface in some of the areas. The hydrilla and coontail are up off the bottom in 12 inches to 15 inches.”
All the Marbles
Regardless of how tough the fishing has been or will be at the Potomac this week, someone will still walk away with a victory and a six-figure payday. The AOY race will also come to a close with another $100,000 going to the victor.
With limits expected to be at a premium, execution will be paramount. Any lost fish will prove costly in an event where it appears five bites could represent a strong day.
Andy Morgan’s two-year reign as AOY is nearing an end – he’s 17th in points entering this week – but the matter of who will unseat him is still a fluid situation. Bryan Thrift can secure a second career AOY with a finish of 9th or better. If Thrift slips, John Cox, who’s on a tear of four straight Top-12s, can cap off a career year with his first AOY crown.
Scott Martin is currently 3rd, 31 points behind Thrift so he’ll need to get off to a strong start like he did when he won in D.C. 3 years ago if he’s going to threaten for his first career AOY crown.
The rest of the drama will play out further down the standings as anglers jostle for the final berths in the Forrest Wood Cup. Due to double qualifiers, it’s likely the Top 39 in points will be head to Lake Ouachita in August to compete for the $500,000 winner’s take. Seventy points separates Clark Wendlandt in 30th from Stacey King in 50th so the Potomac will be a mini-championship for everybody in between as they look to hold their position or move up:
Here’s how 30th through 50th stacks up:
30. Clark Wendlandt: 764 points
31. James Biggs: 762
32. Shane Lehew: 756
33. Brandon Hunter: 754
34. Jason Meninger: 754
35. Jim Moynagh: 751
36. Scott Wiley: 750
37. Scott Suggs: 741
38. Michael Neal: 740
39. Terry Bolton: 733
40. Charles Ingram: 733
41. Mike Surman: 733
42. J.T. Kenney: 730
43. Clark Reehm: 729
44. Jimmy Reese: 722
45. Troy Morrow: 710
46. Andrew Upshaw: 697
47. Clent Davis: 696
48. Tim Malone: 696
49. Pete Ponds: 695
50. Stacey D. King: 694
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
“It seems like the grass is 2 months behind where it was the last time we were here. There’s not as much as there used to be and everybody is hitting the same spots. It’s going to fish really small. If there’s a guy who knows this water really well, he could run away with it.
Stetson Blaylock is a virtual lock to make the Forrest Wood Cup, but he's confused by how the Potomac is fishing this week.
“All of these big rains we’ve had has every creek with clay banks really muddy. Anywhere you’d go to get away from people is muddy. For me, this has been the worst practice I’ve had all year. I’m not even sure I can catch a limit right now.
“The milfoil has fish in it, but it has also has 10 boats trying to share an acre of it. This is still a good fishery. It just seems like we’re hitting it at a tough time.”
“I haven’t talked to anybody who feels good about anything this week. There are a few areas with fish, but when you go in there, it’s like playing bumper boats.
"I wouldn’t be surprised if half the field doesn’t have a limit. For the Potomac, it’s out of place from the times we’ve been here in the past. To get five bites has been really tough. I talked to a lot of people that were getting three or four a day. When you catch one, it’s not a terrible fish. There will be some alright weights and I’m confident 15 pounds a day will win.
“The milfoil grows in a better depth than the hydrilla that I’ve found. The hydrilla just carpets the bottom in 2 feet or less and you can’t even get a trolling motor through it, it’s so thick. There is some good eelgrass, too, but if you can find good milfoil and clear water, that’s where I’ve gotten some fish.”
“In the 8 years I’ve been on tour, this is the first time I’ve been to the Potomac. I fished it in 1998 when my dad was stationed here in in the Army, so everything I’m seeing now is great because back then it was terrible.
“I think the quality of fish is still the same as it’s been, but you might only get eight or 10 bites a day. You’re still catching 2 3/4- to 4-pound fish. The weights will be decent, but I think we’ll see fewer limits.
“I thought the fish bit better Tuesday than the first 2 days, but we had that storm come through so I’m not sure how it’ll affect things. The grass bite isn’t really good right now. More guys have abandoned the grass and are looking at hard cover because it’s not about catching big ones. It’s guys looking for keepers for points. It should make for a great final event because then points will be shaken up a lot.”
“It’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it. While I haven’t fished here a ton, it’s probably the fourth time we’ve been here. There’s no comparison. It’s nowhere near what it was the last couple times we were here. I’ve seen a lot of good, healthy grass and I’ve seen grass in places that didn’t used to have it.
“There are some areas to get some bites where they’ve been in the past, but it’s nowhere near as good. You have to fish a lot longer before you get a bite, but there are bites to be had. The fish I’ve caught are healthy, so it’s not like there’s anything wrong with them looking at them.
“I’m probably going to fish some grass and some hard cover, but probably more grass. If you’re going to fish hard cover, probably more than you normally would, you have to do a lot of running and I don’t want to do that. I’d rather be able to take my time and slow down in an area.”
“It’s going to be brutal. This could be one of the worst tournaments we’ve seen in years. I may be totally surprised, but normally I can figure out how to catch a key fish or have some confidence in something. Not this week. I have zero confidence. I’m usually a positive person and even if I have a tough practice, I usually have an idea about something and confidence in my ability to go catch a few. This one’s real sketchy.
"I have to stay focused and stay confident. There’s plenty of good grass, but to me the fish are not there. If you fish hard for 12 hours, you think you’re going to catch 10 to 20 fish a day Most guys I’ve talked to, it’s been three to six bites a day and that’s brutal.
Darrell Davis thinks someone with a long history at the Potomac could run away with the tournament this week.
“This place was phenomenal. It was nothing to catch 10 or 12 pounds anywhere. Now, 10 pounds is going to be great. The fish I’ve caught are not good ones. They were just keepers and when you’re getting six to eight bites a day at best, that’s tough. It’s going to fish really small. There will be 20 boats in an area with 10 fish so somebody will get the short end of the stick. It’s definitely not the tournament we needed to finish the year on.”
Top 10 To Watch
With the above in mind and more, here, in no particular order, is BassFan's recommendation on the Top 10 to watch at this event:
1. David Dudley – Will be competing with a heavy heart after his father’s death last week, but he’s coming off a 3rd-place finish at Chickamauga that significantly enhanced his Cup hopes. Also has a long history and strong track record on the Potomac.
2. Bryan Thrift – AOY leader has no weaknesses in his game at the moment and his ability to adjust on the fly is among the best in the sport.
3. Bryan Schmitt – This event’s been circled on his calendar since the schedule was released. He owns three Rayovac Series wins at the Potomac and was 4th in the Tour Open in 2011. Down in the 70s in points, he can close the year on a high note with a strong showing this week.
4. Chris Baumgardner – Always a threat when on a grass fishery. He won the 2007 Tour event at the Potomac and has since racked up several Top-10s there in the Rayovac Series. He’s already qualified for the Cup so he can go for broke this week.
5. Dave Lefebre – In the midst of a strong season with four straight Top-30s, including a win, Lefebre is always in contention at the Potomac. He won a Rayovac Series there in 2006 and has a slew of Top-10s as well, including an 8th in the 2012 Tour event.
6. Clark Wendlandt – Needs one more solid showing to lock up a Cup berth. He has two Top-10s in Tour competition at the Potomac on his impressive résumé.
7. Scott Martin – The 2012 Potomac Tour winner understands how to play the tides and is well-versed at picking apart hydrilla, which is more of a factor now. Still in the mix for the AOY title he covets, so he needs to be on his game this week.
8. Mark Daniels – His sense of tides and timing from his experience at the California Delta should serve him well this week as he goes after his fifth Top-40 result of the season.
9. John Cox – Would easily be the story of the year if he’s able to topple Thrift for the AOY title. He’s struggled at the Potomac before, but his confidence is sky high right now so it’s hard to bet against him.
10. Bill Shelton III – Hasn’t finished higher than 103rd this season, but the Potomac is in his backyard and he’s had some strong showings there in the Rayovac Series.
> Anglers will launch at 6:30 a.m. ET all 4 days from Smallwood State Park (2750 Sweden Point Rd., Marbury, Md.). Weigh-ins on days 1 and 2 will get under way at 2:30 p.m. at Smallwood State Park (same address). Weigh-ins on days 3 and 4 will start at 4 p.m. and be held at the Walmart store at 40 Drury Dr., La Plata, Md.).
> Thurs., June 25 – Partly Cloudy - 87°/65°
- Wind: From the SSE at 5 to 10 mph
> Fri., June 26 – Scattered Thunderstorms - 83°/67°
- Wind: From the N at 5 to 10 mph
> Sat., June 27 – Mostly Cloudy - 74°/63°
- Wind: From the ENE at 10 to 20 mph
> Sun., June 28 – Showers - 75°/61°
- Wind: From the NNE at 5 to 10 mph
> Luke Clausen doesn't think the fishing is as bad as some of his competitors are making it out to be. Jay Yelas didn't catch a fish on Monday, the first time that's happened in practice in many years, he says, and he's concerned something is amiss with the ecosystem. To read more about their practice summaries at the Potomac, click here to check out our Pro View Report.