- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 20, 2008

SHARPSBURG, Md.

Not far from Antietam, where the bloodiest Civil War battle was fought in 1862 resulting in more than 23,000 casualties, lies a long section of the rock-laden Potomac River that can provide some of the finest walleye fishing anywhere. This is no idle chatter. I mean anywhere and that includes the hallowed walleye fishing grounds of Minnesota, New York and Pennsylvania.

After having said this I’m sure I’ll have to field e-mailed nasty-grams from out-of-state detractors, but I’ve fished for walleyes in Mille Lacs Lake, Minn., and Lake Erie, Pa., during prime days and saw fewer well-fed specimens there than I did a few days ago no more than a mile below the public Taylor’s Landing boat launch in Washington County. On top of that, we never saw another fishermen on the river all day.

The feisty, well-fed walleyes we encountered weren’t the least bit bashful. John Mullican, the large-river specialist for the Maryland DNR’s Inland Fisheries, proved as much within the first 30 minutes of a wonderful outing. Mullican, 42, who spends his days caring for all the finned freshwater critters that live in the Potomac from Cumberland down to the falls line in the District, is as skilled a walleye angler as you’ll ever meet.

He fired up the jet-drive motor attached to a comfortable aluminum boat, found a sharp rock ledge that fell from the shoreline shallows into 10-foot depths, cut the outboard and slipped a trolling motor into clear river water. Unlike bass boaters in the tidal Potomac who use their bow-mount electric motors to propel them forward, Mullican used his to keep his boat from drifting too fast, aiming the bow upstream.

We carried medium-action spinning rods with 6- to 10-pound testline on the reels, with Mullican careful to point out that good visible line was important. He showed why minutes later as he cast a 4-inch-long plastic Bass Assassin body on a 1/8-ounce jig hook to the side of the boat, then watching the line roll across underwater rock gardens.

“You need to know that the lure is on the bottom,” he said, “and if it isn’t you should change to a 1/4-ounce jig. Even more important is that you see what the line is doing. Walleyes don’t always smash a lure the way a pike or bass might. Sometimes they just barely touch it and if the line is nicely visible, you can see an odd movement here and there. Set the hook whenever it acts strange.”

Mullican watched his fluorescent blue monofilament line and suddenly lifted the rod sharply. A walleye had picked up the plastic lure, and it did all it could to shake the hook but to no avail. He lifted the walleye into the boat, gently removed the hook, measured it (it was 20 inches long) and then released it.

Bob Lunsford, the former head of freshwater fisheries for the DNR who now is with the state’s Boating Administration, set the hook to a 21-incher, and I lost one but later also got the barbs into a respectably sized ‘eye, as I’ve heard Pennsylvanians refer to these delectable fish.

Mullican, who has caught walleyes up to 8 pounds in the upper Potomac, says it is possible to catch the tooth-filled species all year long up and down the freshwater portions of the river, but it’s during the cool months they appear to be most cooperative.

“They spawn in April,” the river specialist said, “which shuts them down for a week or two, then they scatter widely, but they can still be caught.”

Mullican easily outfished Lunsford and his newspaperman guest. However, we too latched onto some real beauties and let them go again and again amid much banter. In all, about 22 walleyes were hooked, with only two of them considered real youngsters.

This time of year, Mullican looks for ledges adjacent to 8- 9-, or 10-foot deep pools, then drifts along with the lures some 30 feet off to the side of the boat, hoping not to get them hung up on bottom obstacles (which is sure to happen now and then), but in late spring and summer the ‘eyes also can be caught on colorful, bright crankbaits and hard jerkbaits as they enter shallower layers of water.

Walleyes are subject to a 15-inch minimum size year-round with a 20-inch maximum size limit on the main stem of the Potomac (from above Chain Bridge to the spillway at Cumberland Dam) from Jan. 1 through April 15. Mullican says the larger females are protected during the spawning run, particularly below dams where they tend to concentrate.

Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washingtontimes.com