- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 18, 2002

Outdoors

For those of us who live along or near the upper parts of the tidal Potomac River, the stories about this magnificent, oft-maligned but somehow always rebounding waterway are a never-ending source of fascination.
For example, during the recent Bassmaster Maryland Northern Open fishing tournament headquartered in Charles County's Smallwood State Park, I heard a New Jersey angler breathlessly explain to a fellow from Wisconsin, "The Potomac ain't what it used to be. Back in the '60s, this place was full of bass and the water was clean enough to swim in it. Now it's dead."
Apparently, the lad had been sniffing the air around New Jersey's refineries a little too long and his brain had been fried. The fact is that in the 1960s, you would see metal signs along the waterfront, urging you not to touch the water. That's how poor the river's condition was.
Thankfully, President Lyndon B. Johnson listened to his wife Lady Bird and he bullied, cajoled, threatened and sweet-talked Congress into passing a clean-water bill. Soon, state of the art waste treatment plants were built everywhere, and the river slowly began to heal itself especially so after a Park Service employee planted the quick-spreading aquatic weed hydrilla. He was later supposed to have said that he wasn't aware it was hydrilla.
The vegetation grew and spread far and wide, irking sailboaters and putting a smile on fishermen's faces. The hydrilla later also Eurasian milfoil and wild celery filtered dirty water and provided a protective nursery for newly hatched bass, striper and perch fry. The good fishing began in the late 1970s.
So much for the history lesson.
At the tournament site, there were some of the best professional bass fishermen in America who last week couldn't get a decent bite from the bass. They were totally blown away by it, disgusted, and soon headed home to Carolina, Ohio, Florida you name it. One of them was the famous Roland Martin, arguably the best known fisherman in the U.S., maybe the world. His television shows are broadcast to fishing families all over the land, and since the 1970s he's won so many big-bucks fishing contests it's almost scary.
"I don't know what's going on in this river," he said. "I can't get bit." (That's Tour fisherman's lingo for not being able to find enough willing bass to make the cut for the final day's competition.) Martin left early.
Several others complained that the river was a mere shadow of its former self as far as bass numbers.
But then you could ask fellows like North Carolina's Wally Szuba who caught a mess of bass in three days and told anybody who would listen, "Man, this river is on fire," which of course means that the bass were leaping into the boat well, almost.
"I'd find the outside or inside edges of a river grass bed, throw my spinnerbait to an open pocket of weeds or just bring it along a rim of the grass, sometimes over top of it if the tide was high enough," Szuba said. "The bass did the rest. The Potomac is great. What a great fishery you have here."
Also ask someone like Aaron Hastings, a western Marylander who knows the river inside out and who found fat, sassy, healthy bass simply by locating various grass beds during the high tide, then casting a shallow-running, lipped crankbait across the narrow band of unobstructed water.
"I could reel the lure across those weeds and, bang, a bass would rise and slam it," said the handsome youngster.
It was almost that easy for new pro angler Jay Boettner, a Pennsylvanian who had never competed in a Bassmaster event.
"I fished the grass on the Virginia side of the river close to the Wilson Bridge," he said, happy with a third-place finish on his very first big cast-for-cash outing. "All I needed was my spinnerbait, the one with the chartreuse skirt and the gold blades, and crank it across the weeds in varying speeds, sometimes slow, sometimes fast."
Boettner whacked those bass to the tune of receiving a $35,000 bass boat rig.
The same spinnerbait results were noted by the winner, another Pennsylvanian named David Hall.
"I used a Terminator 3/8-ounce model, and the bass wouldn't leave it alone in the weeds," he said after he won $50,000, which included cash and a bass boat.
It is easy to see what a rich bounty the river held for those who believed in it.
As long as there was moving water from incoming or outgoing tides, the fish cooperated for at least 100 of the contestants. The remaining 304 fared poorly, but not because there weren't enough bass heaven knows there are plenty of those. It was a general lack of confidence that spooked many newcomers, not the lack of fish.
And what can everybody do to catch bass when the sun stands high, you're new in town and don't know what lure to pick?
You won't go wrong with the ever versatile spinnerbait, especially if it has a chartreuse or a white skirt and twin gold blades, preferably in a willow leaf shape. You'll get action alongside or across the many water weeds in this wonderful river.
If that doesn't work, try a rubbery grub on a lead-headed jig hook. Pitch it under boat docks and around sunken trees and rock piles, watch the line as it falls and if it acts the slightest bit odd, set the hook. Chances are it will be a bass.
With apologies to Mark Twain: Rumors of the Potomac River's death are greatly exaggerated.
Look for Gene Mueller's Outdoors column every Sunday and Wednesday, and his Fishing Report every Friday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: [email protected]

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