By Todd Ceisner
When Mark Rose pulled off back-to-back wins to kick off the 2017 FLW Tour season, he made history as the first FLW Tour competitor in the circuit’s 21-year history to accomplish the feat. Could BassFans see another back-to-back winner to close the season?
It’s entirely possible as the scene shifts to the nation’s capital, where Maryland pro Bryan Schmitt welcomes his Tour compadres to his Potomac River playground for the season finale.
Schmitt still has a full head of steam coming off his first career Tour victory at the Mississippi River last month and would’ve been considered among the favorites this week even had he struggled in Wisconsin. Schmitt’s pursuit of his own slice of history is just one of the sub-plots playing out this week. The others are just as tantalizing:
> Can Bryan Thrift, who loathes river systems, shrug off his worst finish in more than a year and sew up his second career Angler of the Year award?
> Which anglers on the Forrest Wood Cup bubble will fish their way into a trip to Lake Murray in August and which ones will leave Washington, D.C. mumbling, “Maybe next year?”
The answers, more than likely, are scattered somewhere in the prolific grass that consistently makes the Potomac one of the top bass fishing destinations on the East Coast.
The Potomac is a vast, diverse and, at times, cyclical fishery that knifes through the nation’s capital and serves as a fitting venue for the final Tour stop of the season. Judging from practice reports and outcomes of recent local tournaments, it appears the FLW Tour competitors are hitting the Potomac at a prime time to showcase the river’s potential.
The aquatic vegetation that is so vital to the health of the Potomac bass fishery is plentiful this year and there are reports that milfoil is re-emerging in some creeks where it hadn’t been as copious in recent years. As is typical, where there’s grass the water is cleaner than areas with sparser vegetation, but wind and wave action from boat traffic can churn up areas in no time.
There are vast submerged fields of grass, numerous creeks with all kinds of visible targets, urban settings and places where competitors can run away from the crowds if they so choose. Hard cover is widespread throughout the river system and some anglers may run a combo program of grass and docks or wood, but it doesn’t appear as though a hard cover-only approach will be reliable. Last August, though, Justin Lucas scored an Elite Series win by pitching a dropshot around the pillars of an elevated parking deck just south of metro Washington, D.C.
The trick with a tidal fishery such as the Potomac is timing. Competitors will have plenty of key decisions to make, but not a whole lot of time to make them. Some will opt to camp in an area and key in on certain windows of time when the fish are active and feeding. Others will follow the water in or out and “run the tides,” as the saying goes.
According to some competitors, the tide cycle during the competition hours this week won’t be ideal as the end of the outgoing and start of the incoming tides will occur outside of the timeframe that they’re on the water. That’ll force some to adjust their strategies from previous Potomac visits.
Weather-wise, the D.C. area is in the midst of a heat wave and the water temperature around the Potomac has jumped as much as 10 degrees in some areas since the start of practice. Somewhat cloudy conditions with the chance of thunderstorms on the weekend highlight the forecast for the competition days.
Before getting into more about the bite, here's the lowdown on the river 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 on day 1; 12 inches on days 2-4
> Reputation: Goes through cycles with vegetation, but is on the rebound now after a down cycle
> Weather: In the midst of a heat wave, competition days will be partly to mostly cloudy with temperatures in the 80s
> Water temp: Mid to upper 70s
> Water visibility/color: Various conditions, from stained to clear, depending on area.
> Water level: Normal
> Fish in: All depths
> Fish phase: Post-spawn/summer
> Primary patterns: Flipping, bladed jigs, swimjigs, frogs/toads, shallow cranking shell beds and wood, jigging the ledges and rocks
> Winning weight (4 days): 63 pounds
> Check weight (Top 50 after 2 days): 23 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 20 after 2 days): 29 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 3 for the Potomac
> Biggest factors: Crowding – you need a certain mentality to do well here.
> Biggest decision: Join the crowds in a community area and ride it out or run elsewhere in search of untapped water
> 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:
On The Upswing
Few know the peaks and valleys of Potomac River bass fishing better than Steve Chaconas, who operates the National Bass Guide Service and also serves on the Black Bass Advisory Subcommittee for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Last year at this time, the Maryland DNR found itself at the center of some controversy after it adopted measures meant to promote the long-term health of the black bass fishery. Those measures, among them a slot limit for bass tournaments between June 16 and Oct. 31, were viewed as anti-tournament and a wave of negative feedback ultimately prompted the state to modify some of the new regulations.
Chaconas says the river is fishing as well as he can remember it in the last decade.
“Not only for numbers, but for size,” he said. “The fishery is definitely healthy. There have been a lot of 20-pound bags coming in in almost every local tournament. It seems like it’s taking 18 pounds to make a check when 15 used to be enough to win.”
Bryan Thrift will be looking to bounce back this week in hopes of securing a second career AOY title.
Chaconas credits the quality of the vegetation for the uptick in fishing.
“It’s the right kind of grass,” he said. “The milfoil has come back strong. Piscataway Creek is just full of it and that’s going to attract a lot of boats.”
Chaconas said that in addition to the known community holes and creeks that are consistently productive, another facet that could impact some areas on day 1 is that several local tournament circuits now have Wednesday night tournaments. During FLW Tour events, Wednesdays are an off day, so it’ll be interesting to see which areas remain viable once competition gets going in the morning.
Do the Math
In 2016, the last man into the Forrest Wood Cup was Troy Morrow, who finished 36th in points with 853 points over six tournaments. Ironically, if this season’s schedule were also six events, Jim Moynagh (40th place) would be the last man into the Cup with 853 points.
The points-per-tournament average of the last man into the Cup over the past four seasons is 143 (average finish of 58th place), so any competitor who exceeds that figure after the Potomac should be in good shape to advance to Lake Murray in August.
Jeremy Lawyer and Zack Birge are two anglers who’d be on the bubble had they not already qualified via last year’s FLW Series championship. Lawyer is currently 36th and Birge 37th and because of other double-qualifiers who are currently higher in the points standings, they are also considered double-qualifiers, which opened up two more spots via the points.
If either or both of them slip out of the top 35 to 37 in points, that will shrink the number of anglers who qualify for the Cup via points since they’ll no longer be considered double-qualifiers.
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
Carl Jocumsen (61st in AOY points)
“I’m liking it a lot better this time around. It’s different. Last year, I tried to run the tide and didn’t bunker down. I had too good of a practice and had too much stuff. All of my practice this week, I wanted to find a couple areas that had the size. There are fish everywhere and you can catch them on whatever you want wherever you want, but I tried to focus on numbers and size in an area that won’t get hit by a crowd.
“I have a couple back-up areas where if I have a limit, I can go after a single big bite. I’ve fished a lot of tidal water and have done well on tidal rivers here. I like it and understand it. One thing people try to do is on a river you haven’t competed on, they try to run the tides. Last year, I had it mapped out and I’d get there and it’d be wrong. The wind direction and moon phase can switch it up. To run the tides, you literally need to know hundreds of spots to hit. My lesson is to get in an area and learn what those fish do in those areas as the tide comes in and goes out.
“I feel like I’ve narrowed it down and I have an area I feel like could be pretty special. I hope it works out.”
Anthony Gagliardi (5th in AOY points)
“I don’t ever seem to catch them good in practice here. I’ll catch them one day and I’ve never been able to expand on it. I thought it’d be better from what I’ve experienced and recent history. They’ve been catching them here, but it wasn’t as good as I expected. That’s not saying a whole lot based on my history here.
Alex Davis is comfortable fishing grass and needs a solid finish to help his chances of making the Cup.
“There are definitely bites to be had. Sunday was the best day for me and I thought I’d found a good area with a school of fish on it that I didn’t think would get a whole lot of pressure. I checked the area on some different tides and now I feel like the fish might be gone. I’m going to fish around and do some different stuff and then go to that place on the same tide as I caught ‘em in practice.
“If I’m fishing grass that’s not exposed and not topped out, I feel like those are the fish you can catch throughout the tide cycle. If you’re fishing tighter to the bank and around matted grass, my experience is those fish are more tide-dependent.”
Wesley Strader (15th in AOY points)
“I don’t want to say it’s as tough as it was in ’15, but it’s close. I don’t know if we’re here during that post-spawn funk where they don’t bite as well, but it’s weird. You can go a long time without catching one. It’s a grind for sure.
“There’s a lot of grass growing in places where I hadn’t seen it before and it’s thicker in places where it had been knocked down. In Acquia Creek, I’ve never seen so much grass in there, but I think that’s a product of them not having much of a hard winter here.
“I try not to be overconfident. I just want to catch some fish to make (the Cup). I know everybody wants to win, but I want to catch enough to make the Cup and if I can make the cut, that’ll be a bonus. I’ll spend most of my time around grass. I tried to look for a place where I could catch them on high and low tide, but we’re going to have almost all incoming tide.”
Alex Davis (46th in AOY points)
“When we were in Wisconsin and I was looking at tournament results for here, it was taking 23 (pounds) to win. It was real, real good. Since I’ve been here, I’ve seen no change from 2015 other than the quality may be better. When we were here last, there were a lot of fish in that 1 3/4- to 2 1/4-pound range. This year, it seems that you’ll either catch a 9-incher or if you catch a keeper, it’ll be a 2 1/4- to 3 1/4-pounder, so it seems that year-class has grown up.
“I think there’s a lot more grass this year. Quantico and Acquia have always had grass, but this year there’s more milfoil. In other areas that had milfoil, other grasses have grown up. I don’t see anything extraordinary emerging. The X-factor is if you’re willing to find something off the wall and how many hours are you willing to spend trying to find that grass line nobody else has found while others are figuring out the sweet spots in community holes.
“This tournament will fish the closest (smallest) as any tournament on our schedule. It almost rivals Okeechobee. Everybody going in knows where to fish. We’ve all tried new stuff, but at the end of the day we all wind up looking at each other.”
Jim Moynagh is the "bubble boy" entering this week's event, but he has a strong track record at the Potomac.
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. Bryan Schmitt – As good as they get on tidal waters, Schmitt is riding high in the wake of his first Tour win at the Mississippi River last month. He has three FLW Series wins at the Potomac, including two in June. Currently 7th in AOY points, so his place in the Forrest Wood Cup is sewn up.
2. Scott Martin – A former Tour winner at the Potomac, Martin’s prowess on grass fisheries with moving water is well known. He’s 25th in AOY points, so he has to avoid a bomb in order to secure his 17th career Cup berth.
3. David Dudley – Owns three top-10 finishes in Tour events at the Potomac and is coming off a 9th-place showing at the Mississippi. A tidal expert, for sure.
4. Andy Morgan – If not for Thrift’s incredible run this year, Morgan would be eyeballing his fourth career AOY title this week. Has recorded three top-12 finishes at the Potomac, including a runner-up effort in ’15, so if Thrift slips Morgan cannot be counted out, especially if he’s able to settle into a productive milk run.
5. Larry Nixon – The decorated veteran continues to amaze and impress with his vigor for competition. He’s 4th in AOY points and fresh off a top-5 finish at the Mississippi.
6. Clark Wendlandt – After three straight top-15 finishes in the middle of the season, he’s coming off two un-Wendlandt like efforts, including a 142nd at Beaver Lake. Has been a powerhouse at the Potomac in the past with a win (2015) and two other top-10s.
7. JT Kenney – Outside of his runner-up showing at the Harris Chain, the Floridian hasn’t finished higher than 39th in any Tour event this year. Still, he’s 28th in points and he’d love to lock up a Cup berth in his old backyard (he grew up in Maryland) despite past struggles at the Nation’s River.
8. Shin Fukae – Is a consistent top-30 finisher at the Potomac and appears to be Cup bound for the 12th time. Needs a good finish to lock up a fourth straight top-12 points finish.
9. Jim Moynagh – The jig specialist is on the Cup bubble (40th in points), but has been a top-10 finisher in the last two Tour stops at the Potomac. A third such finish would lock him into the Cup field.
10. Scott Canterbury – In the midst of another stellar season, but looking to rebound from a triple-digit dud in Wisconsin. He’ll want to close the year on a high note heading to Lake Murray, where he was on the short end of a 1-ounce loss in 2014.
> One item of note for the tournament is due to the timing of the event, the minimum length requirement on day 1 will be 15 inches (that’s the standard requirement between March 15-June 15). For the final three days, it’ll drop to 12 inches.
“That won’t bother the pros,” Chaconas said. “They’re not fishing for 12-inch fish as it is. To weigh in 12-inchers to save face might be good for some, but to win, you’re going to need 15-inchers or better.”
> Anglers will launch at 6:30 a.m. ET all 4 days from Smallwood State Park (2750 Sweden Point Road, Marbury, MD). Weigh-ins on days 1 and 2 will get under way at 3 p.m. at Smallwood State Park (same address). Weigh-ins on days 3 and 4 will start at 4 p.m. at Smallwood State Park.
> Thurs., June 15 – Partly Cloudy – 79°/66°
- Wind: From the ESE at 5 to 10 mph
> Fri., June 16 – Mostly Cloudy – 82°/69°
- Wind: Light and variable
> Sat., June 17 – Thunderstorms Likely – 84°/71°
- Wind: From the SSE at 5 to 10 mph
> Sun., June 18 – Partly Cloudy – 89°/73°
- Wind: From the SSW at 10 to 20 mph