By Todd Ceisner
It’s been 9 years since the Bassmaster Elite Series paid a visit to the Potomac River.
A lot has changed about the river since Skeet Reese won the first of five Elite Series events there in August 2007, but a good bit remains largely the same. It’s still a tidal system where the bass tend to congregate around vegetation and shallow cover in creek arms and move around as the tide comes in and goes out.
The river system has cycled through good and bad periods as far as the bass fishing goes – the state of Maryland has started to implement programs to rejuvenate the bass population – but the grass seems have come back stronger this year compared to recent years and that immediately caught the eye of the competitors during practice.
This is the third of three tidal river systems on the Elite Series schedule this season – it’s second straight year with three tidal venues – and it should serve as a worthy venue to start the stretch drive of the season.
In late June, it took 51-06 to win the 3-day Northern FLW Series. It’s common for local single-day derbies to yield a 20-pounder stringer or two and while it’s likely to see a few of those this week, don’t expect it to be the norm.
It’s been 7 weeks since the last full-field Elite Series event at Cayuga Lake, where the Angler of the Year standings endured a shakeup at the top. Greg Hackney’s day-1 disqualification knocked him out of the driver’s seat – he ultimately fell to 5th place – and ceded the No. 1 spot to Gerald Swindle, who has four Top-10 finishes and no outcomes worse than 40th through seven events. Swindle holds a 41-point lead over Keith Combs and is 52 points clear of Jacob Powroznik in 3rd. How Swindle handles being out front and how Hackney bounces back from a critical mistake will be worth watching this week near the nation’s capital.
Kevin VanDam, who’s won twice this season in addition to claiming the Niagara River Classic Bracket last month, comes into this week with a chance to become the first to win three full-field Elite Series tournaments in one season.
Before getting into more detail about how the Potomac is fishing, here’s a brief overview of the fishery:
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: 12 inches
> Reputation: Starting to bounce back after a challenging period due to decline in vegetation
> Weather: Partly cloudy conditions will be persistent with a steady southwest wind
> Water temp: Low to mid 80s
> Water visibility/color: Various conditions, from stained to clear, depending on area.
> Water level: Normal
> Fish in: All depths
> Fish phase: Summer
> Primary patterns: Flipping, ChatterBaits, frogs/toads/rats, shallow cranking shell beds and wood, jigging the ledges and rocks
> Winning weight (4 days): 66 pounds
> Check weight (Top 50 after 2 days): 25 pounds
> Final cut weight (Top 12 after 3 days): 42 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 3 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:
Mix It Up
Steve Chaconas, who operates the National Bass Guide Service, has seen the Potomac go through its ups and downs over the years. This year has marked the comeback of some of the vegetation – “There is a lot more than in years past,” he said – including some milfoil.
He says the typical community holes – Mattawoman, Aquia and Piscataway creeks among them – will be popular and the typical Potomac assortment of baits (swimjigs, vibrating jigs, frogs) will get plenty of use.
“One key may be punching mats,” Chaconas added. “There are areas with good mats now and the locals don’t target them much because of the degree of difficulty.”
The weather forecast indicates the wind will be persistent out of the south/southwest and Chaconas says that could hold up the outgoing tide somewhat. Since that will take place in the morning, it could prolong what some have found to be a productive early-morning bite. Some are even predicting the majority of weight this week will be caught during the low-tide portion of the day. Chaconas thinks, by the weekend, junk-fishing will be among the dominant patterns.
“The falling tide is going to be good,” Chaconas said. “That brings the fish to the edges. With the outgoing water, a south wind slows the tide down and you need current to get the fish to bite here.”
It’s Getting Greener
Habitat loss due to a series of tropical storms in the last several years has been partly to blame for the dropoff in bass fishing around the Potomac. The green stuff is coming back, though.
Aaron Martens won at the Chesapeake Bay last year, but he says the Potomac is a different sort of tidal system.
“These guys will encounter a lot of grass, more than they expected, and it’s not all hydrilla,” he said.
Chaconas pointed out that there seems to be more milfoil this year, especially in Piscataway Creek. North of there, coontail and water celery are the dominant grasses.
“The preferred grass is milfoil because it greens up in February and March, and the fish move in there and stay through the summer,” he added. “Other grass comes in later. If it’s in a good area, you can expect to catch them, but if it’s in the wrong area it can be misleading because it comes up late after the spawn.”
While 20-pound bags have been popping up this year, he doesn’t anticipate anyone cracking multiple bags in that range this week.
“I think the winner will have 17 per day,” he noted. “This year, we’re seeing bigger sacks, but we’re not seeing the giant individual fish. We’ve seen a lot of 4s and 5s. A 5-pounder will be a kicker this week.”
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
“The last time I was here, my nephew and I got 300 bites in three days. That was like 8 years ago. The fishing was ridiculous. It was the best frog fishing for 3 days ever in my life.
“It’s quite a bit different from the Chesapeake. The flats are similar and it has similar water color, but it fishes different. I can catch fish, but the problem is the size. I’m hearing of all these big bags being caught in tournaments, but I’m not seeing that. My best day was 13 pounds maybe. The average sized fish isn’t very big. It’s going to be a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants type of tournament. If you get an idea, you should do it and hope it’s right.
“It looks like we’ll get 90 minutes to 2 hours of good tide in the morning. It’s definitely harder to get a big bite on incoming tide. The morning is going to be going critical, especially for the bigger fish. It might be hard to get a limit. The wind is blowing and muddying up some bays and the river. It’s going to make it a lot more crowded.”
“It’s pretty much the same as I remember from back (in 2007). It’s been a little slow. I’ve got some bites, but I’ve heard some guys getting no more than two or three bites a day. I’m getting no more than two or three in an area. It’s generally won in an area here in August and I’m still looking for that area.
“The wind started blowing mid-morning Monday and that messed it up. Tuesday was really dark and that’s not usually good on a grass lake. Hopefully, we’ll get some consistent sun that’ll help us see what’s going on. I think I know a way to get a couple bites on high incoming and low outgoing, but it’s two different kinds of deals. I’ve been out here a long time and I’m just now getting a feeling like I have a plan around the tides. I generally try to stay in moving water whether it’s coming in or moving out and try to figure out if one’s better than the other.”
“It’s been tough for me. All I’ve heard from everybody who came over before it went off limits was how good it was; 18 to 20 pounds wasn’t really that hard. Those same people are crying the blues now. Maybe another month of hot weather has something to do with it, but it’s tough to get a bite.
“I had three bites Monday and 11 on Tuesday. I figured something out and eight were on low tide and in one area so I have some work to do. I think it was good a month ago, but they’re so spread out and they’re moving toward deeper water. When I was here 5 years ago with FLW, all you had to do was find a bay with grass in it because it wasn’t everywhere. Now, it’s all along the river channel. It’s just a totally different river now compared to 5 years ago.
Gerald Swindle enters this week's event with a 41-point lead in the AOY standings.
“I feel pretty good about the low-tide bite based on what I found. On high tide, I have had to change lures and presentations and locations to get a bite and then I’m not getting many. I think the early bite on low tide is going to be 90 percent of the weight caught because once that water gets up, it’s tough to get a bite.”
“The last couple times I was here you could have 30- to 40-fish days and the bad days you were still catching 10 to 12. That’s about where I’d be sitting after 2 days this week. The few bites I am getting are coming from where I’d expect them, but I’ve been fishing where I think there’s a lot of potential. I’ve just not had any bites there.
“The main river temperature is 82. If it were 88 or so, I’d say the heat has them shut down, but it’s a good temperature for them to be feeding. It’s always tough this time of year. It seems to be a normal tide so far. On Thursday, it looks like low tide will be around 9 a.m. so we’ll have a couple hours of outgoing, then it’ll be rising the rest of the day. All in all, it’s a pretty good tide to fish on.”
“I came here last year after the Chesapeake Bay, but did very little fishing. It’s not as good as I thought it’d be. It seems really tough. There was a tournament here last weekend and the results were solid, but I haven’t seen that so far.
“I’ve covered a lot of ground in the last 2 days and I feel like if it were easy and there was something good going on, I would’ve tripped into something, but I haven’t seen that at all. The fish are real spread out. I’ve found one or two places where I have gotten more than one bite, but for the most part it’s pretty spread out on different tides and different baits.
“I can’t make sense of it. It’s not really what you want to see before a tournament. I like to be dialed into one or two baits or a couple different deals, but I haven’t had a lot of stuff to tell me what to take off and run with.”
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. Jacob Powroznik – Expect him to mash the gas pedal to the floor now that the Classic Bracket ordeal is behind him. He learned his way around bass fishing in this region and he’s well within striking distance of the top spot in the AOY standings.
2. Adrian Avena – He led the FLW Tour event here after day 1 last year (he finished 3rd) and he has a wealth of experience on this tidal system. Another Top-50 finish will help him maintain a favorable spot (36th) in the points race.
3. Dave Lefebre – Another vet with plenty of hours logged on the Potomac. He’s held up well in his first Elite Series go-round and this week should favor his strengths.
4. Mike Iaconelli – He’s still stinging from his flop at the Chesapeake Bay last year and this is his chance at redemption. He’s had a strong year (9th in points) so he should come into this event relaxed, yet focused.
5. Gerald Swindle – The current AOY leader is coming off two straight Top-12 finishes (he has four total this season) and judging from his recent social media posts he’s had some time to relax and recharge since ICAST. He’s still seeking his first Elite Series win, but he’s in the AOY driver’s seat for the time being.
6. Aaron Martens – Last year’s AOY has had a relatively quiet season (16th is his best finish), but the final three events appear to favor him. He won the Chesapeake Bay event last year and has two Top-10s at LaCrosse, site of the next derby.
7. Skeet Reese – The Potomac was the scene of his first Elite Series win in 2007. He already has two bombs on his ledger this season and a third would do heavy damage to his Classic hopes as he’s already on the bubble in 37th place.
8. Kevin VanDam – In case you haven’t noticed, the seven-time AOY is on one of his trademark tears at the moment. He’s won two events this season plus the recent Classic Bracket. He possesses a strong track record in tidal events, so it’s hard to bet against him considering all the momentum he’s carrying.
9. Tommy Biffle – With the Mississippi River looming – he won there in 2013 – he’ll need a good showing this week to maintain his standing around the Classic points bubble. He finished 8th at the Potomac back in August 2008.
10. Bill Lowen – He’s cashed five checks this season and is inside the Top 30 in points. Skinny water is his strong suit and he has a Top-10 at the Potomac (2007) on his résumé.
> Brent Chapman enjoys fishing the Potomac River, but this week could be a challenging event due to the tide cycle. He had a tough time generating much momentum outside of the early mornings. To read more about his practice and what he expects once the competition starts, click here to read BassFan's Pro View Report.
> Anglers will launch at 6:15 a.m. ET all 4 days from Smallwood State Park (2750 Sweden Point Rd., Marbury, MD 20658). Weigh-ins on days 1 and 2 will get under way at 3:15 p.m. at Smallwood State Park (same address). Weigh-ins on days 3 and 4 will be held at Indian Head Pavilion on the Village Green (100 Walter Thomas Rd., Indian Head, MD).
> Thurs., Aug. 11 – Partly Cloudy - 92°/76°
- Wind: From the SSW at 8 mph
> Fri., Aug. 12 – Partly Cloudy - 92°/77°
- Wind: From the SSW at 10 mph
> Sat., Aug. 13 – Partly Cloudy - 95°/77°
- Wind: From the SW at 8 mph
> Sun., Aug. 14 – Partly Cloudy, Chance of PM Thunderstorms - 93°/75°
- Wind: From the SW at 7 mph