Gone Fishin' - Oct. 23, 1995

October 23, 1995                                        By Charlie Taylor

This summer saw a number of changes in fishing on the tidal Potomac River. The grass continued it's move southward, leaving bare the traditional grassy areas above Dogue Creek. The makeup of the grassbeds also changed, as more and more milfoil and wild celery beds were noted where only hydrilla was found. Since hydrilla is so aggressive, it is theorized that the hydrilla colonizes the bottom, breaking the current and affording protection for the less aggressive vegetation to take hold. Once these plants begin growing, they begin to shade out the hydrilla, which must have lots of sunlight to grow. This evolution, then, is constantly changing the face of the river.

This summer also saw the overall size of the fish increase by leaps and bounds. Where team tournaments used to be won with catches of 18-22 pounds for a 10 fish limit, these same contests are now being won with 10 fish limits weighing 35-40 pounds. Although fishing pressure has increased over the past 10 years by a factor of about 75, most anglers are still able to catch a limit of bass during a day's outing.

Tournament anglers were almost certain of taking lunker honors with five pound bass, as little as three years ago, where today's lunkers are likely to weigh seven pounds or more.

Most of this increase is attributed to the extensive beds of submerged vegetation throughout the river. Although much maligned when it first appeared, the boating and fishing public has learned to live with, and appreciate it for the changes it has wrought. It is easily apparent that the grass beds line both Maryland and Virginia shorelines, from Pohick Bay to well below Aquia Creek. These thick beds are responsible for a number of changes. As the tide flows in and out, the grass filters out the mud in the water, leaving clear water around the beds. It also dampens wave activity, generated by wind and boat wakes. This prevents erosion of the banks and muddy water at the shoreline.

The grassbeds provide excellent areas for fish to nest, thereby increasing the fish population in the river. In addition to largemouth bass, the beds also host spawning shad, herring, white and yellow perch, bluegill and other sunfish, all manner of minnows, crayfish, crabs, and many other crustaceans. The vegetation provides protection for the juvenile fish and aquatic animal life to grow and develop. However, as the lower part of the food chain, they also provide food for the predators, such as largemouth bass, channel catfish and striped bass.

During the late spring and early summer, there is so much baitfish activity in the grassbed edges, that one would think a bass would have only to open it's mouth and 20 baitfish would swim down it's throat.

As the season winds down, and the water turns colder, the grass begins to die. Organisms that were born or hatched in the grass, are having to move out of it, as it begins to decompose and use up the available oxygen. It does not die all at once, but a little at a time. Fish are sensitive to available oxygen levels and immediately leave the beds when the grass is dying. However, during sunny afternoons, the grass begins to perk up and the fish return to feed some more. As long as the grass remains green, it will produce oxygen and attract the entities that represent food for the predators. But, when it begins to turn dark, the fish will desert it immediately.

Some of the better fishing activity during this period of the year is had by fishing topwater baits over the top of the grass. Slowly worked baits, such as the Pop R, Zara Spook, Tiny Torpedo and Jitterbug, can produce some good fish while the grass is still green. Small, white, Colorado-bladed spinnerbaits, fished through the grass are also attracting bass, as well as stripers, marauding the schools of baitfish in the grass beds. Small, shallow running crankbaits should be fished parallel to the outside edges of the grass, pulling the bass out of the grass. Plastics do not seem to work as well during this season, but will still account for some fish, particularly when fished on a Carolina rig. Stick with small worms or grubs, as the size of the available forage is small.

As the grass dies and the bass leave the security of the beds, they normally do not go far. Generally, they head to the closest bank, point or dropoff, where small baits will result in good catches. Tiny Tubes, fished on 1/16 ounce jig heads, cast onto the bank, and retrieved back to the boat slowly, will take some surprisingly large bass. This method works particularly well when the shoreline is composed of gravel or rock. Don't be surprised when your next bass is a trophy sized crappie, as these delicious eating fish frequently school up on just such a place.

Small spinnerbaits or crankbaits are also good choices of lures during this period. Cast these up on the bank and retrieve them as slowly as possible, feeling the rod tip vibrations as you retrieve the bait. As the water temperature falls, bass will suck the bait into their mouth and swim in the direction of the retrieve. The only indication that a fish is on the line is the lack of vibration in the rod tip. If this vibration stops, set the hook. It may result in a little good natured ribbing from your partner, as a lily pad, leaf or piece of grass goes flying overhead, but it may also result in the net being slipped under a beautiful 5-6 pound bass, after a decent fight. Never hesitate to set the hook anytime the lure does not feel right. In a lot of cases, this is your only indication that a fish has the lure.

Good fishin'.....