- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 22, 2005

When I recently lamented the seemingly never-ending string of bass tournaments on the tidal Potomac River, the expected happened. Some supporters of competitive fishing called me a jerk who probably wears ballet slippers. (I guess that means I’m a sissy.) But the majority of mail solidly backed my position that the Potomac is being hammered to death in these contests, many of which are run by profit-driven, out-of-state organizations that come into town, take what entrance money they can from each participant, then disappear.

One bass angler who doesn’t cotton to these cast-for-cash outings, wrote, “I’m glad to see someone has enough nerve to point out what is happening to the Potomac River bass fishery. Like many other fisheries that have been decimated by local and big-time tournaments, the Potomac is taking an especially hard beating. I disagree with your statement [The Washington Times, May 11] that small tournaments do not adversely affect the river.

“Multiply the 15- to 20-boat tournaments by a factor of 25 to 30 per weekend and you have the same problem [as with big national contests]. The small club tournaments generally do not have facilities to keep the fish in good shape at the weigh-in. If the tide is low at Leesylvania [State Park in Woodbridge] an hour or so after a major weigh-in, count the numbers of dead bass laying on the bottom. [It’s one] reason for using release boats. Out of sight out of mind.”

Then there was a businessman from Virginia who asked that we not use his name. He wrote, “I noticed your comments regarding bass tournaments on the Potomac and thought I would add my two cents. I have endured bass tournaments for many years. Basically, I find the entire bass tournament culture to be distasteful. Not only are most (not all) of the practitioners rude, I have been cursed and threatened while standing in my own home after asking fishermen to be quiet 15 feet from my bedroom window (on a Sunday morning). Tournaments definitely are not recreational. Just watch these guys race up and down the river only to stop and go into a casting frenzy, hook a fish and jerk it into the boat without even a proper fight.”

However, Bob Lunsford, of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Fisheries division who is an ardent bass angler, said, “Despite all that happens in this incredible river system, the Potomac can sustain the current fishing pressure.”

That’s not what some anti-tournament fishermen want to hear, but Lunsford calls them as he sees them. Note that he’s not encouraging tournaments; he’s only saying that this resilient river can handle current fishing efforts.

Part of the problem with out-of-state bass contests conducted here by northern angling groups — some draw as many as 400 participants on any given weekend in early and late spring — is the fact that bass fishing seasons are closed up north, while tidal bass fishing is wide open in Maryland and Virginia. In Maryland, the bass minimum size requirement is 15 inches until June15, when it is reduced to 12 inches.

By start of summer, the Northerners’ own bass seasons are about to begin and there is a noticeable letup in the contests.

In reference to catch-and-release tournament participants actually relocating entire bass populations as they move the hooked fish miles away to a central weigh station, a local biologist said, “If tournaments were to stop tomorrow, in six months all the fish would redistribute again, spread out and return to areas where they were spawned. As it is, the bass never have a chance to relax and think about returning ‘home.’ In some cases they’ll get caught again and never have a chance to do their thing.”

Lunsford, meanwhile, points out that as the heat of summer arrives, the local tidal bass become nocturnal feeders, typical of larger bass in all river systems, thus making them tougher to find for visitors as well as residents. It might be one of the savinginterludes for the largemouth bass.

When Lunsford compares the mighty Potomac to other tidal rivers, he laughs and says, “There’s really no comparison with the exception of the upper Chesapeake Bay’s Susquehanna Flats. The Potomac has thousands of acres of 2- to 4-foot depths with gravel bottom and submersed aquatic vegetation at low tide, which is essential spawning habitat. Compare that to the Patuxent or Choptank rivers, both of which have bass. When tides recede in those rivers, waters that would normally be ideal for bass now will be far too shallow to support nesting. Not only that, you’ll find aquatic weeds close to the shores, but directly adjacent deep water that moves too fast.”

Lunsford allows that some spawning occurs in those rivers, but it in no way compares to the fish-rich Potomac. Only the Susquehanna Flats come close.

Among some of the recurring wishes heard from readers was for Maryland to begin having an 18-inch minimum size during the first six months of the year. It would certainly give out-of-town tournament anglers time to pause and rethink their plans about coming here.

It’s either that or having more Natural Resources Police spot-checking bass at tournament weigh-ins. A recent contest revealed that a goodly number of bass measured little more than 14 inches. A hefty fine from the NRP could have stopped that practice.

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

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