Upper Chesapeake Bay Bass Revival

Upper Chesapeake Bay Bass Revival

From Bush River to Saltpeter Creek and beyond, here are prime places to seek lunker largemouth bass in a brackish water setting. (April 2006)

Upper portions of Chesapeake Bay continue to provide topnotch largemouth bass fishing. Larger estuaries provide the bulk of the attention, contain the most habitats and receive the most attention from bass anglers. For enterprising anglers, there's also potential for good fishing sport in the upper portions of smaller tributaries, many of which are near the Baltimore area.

Negatively impacted by poor water quality and diminished habitat, fish populations in the upper Chesapeake Bay had plummeted. When aquatic conditions improved, fisheries responded in a positive manner, largemouth bass included. Recent years have seen a rebirth of largemouth bass populations, a species first introduced to the area in the 1800s.

Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) fisheries biologist Mary Groves has witnessed the difficulties of the upper bay's largemouth bass population. She points to one significant habitat change, the rebounding of the bay's grassbeds, as being the major factor in the bass fishery's comeback.

"The main things are the recurrence of the grassbeds," Grove said. "That's the key. For any of our river systems, the SAV (submerged aquatic vegetation) beds are the most important things. The same is true on the Potomac and Patuxent rivers, any of the rivers that I work on. When we start seeing grassbeds come in, we notice more young-of-the-year bass. We begin seeing more of the forage fish that are utilizing those beds.

"We sampled the upper bay area from Swan Creek up around the Susquehanna to the Northeast River in 2004. We do that on an every-other-year rotation. I've sampled off and on up there since the late 1980s. It's the grassbeds that definitely make the difference. Last year, we had the best sampling we've ever had up in Swan Creek and where the Susquehanna comes in at Havre De Grace. Normally, we do five or six sample sites in a day. We got very few done that day because we had so many fish to work up. And these were nice fish. Three and 4 pounds were not that uncommon.

"As long as the grassbeds are in, the fish are doing fine. Since the grassbeds have done so well the last few years, the fishery seems to have rebounded favorably. When I hear someone tell me of finding good numbers of bass in an area we have not sampled in a while, I ask them how the grassbeds look. In nearly every instance, they reply that the grassbeds looked great."

Biologist Groves added that the area contains bass in the 6- to 7-pound range, particularly in the upper portion of the upper bay.

The highlight of the upper bay's largemouth fishery is its large tributaries -- the Susquehanna River, the Northeast River, Swan Creek. It is this area that Groves recommends when someone from outside the area wants to sample the quality largemouth bass fishing in the upper bay. After all, it is here where the largest amount of good habitat is found.

From a fisheries management standpoint, less is known about largemouth bass populations in the area's smaller tributaries. Groves said this is due in part to both the limited amount of habitat available, as well as physical problems relative to sampling efforts. If salinity levels are too high, electrofishing gear becomes ineffective. The watersheds of the smaller tributaries are quite short, and as such can't demand the attention of resource managers at the same level as larger waters. Therefore, some of what Groves passed along to me regarding smaller feeder waters is anecdotal information.

The area south of Swan Creek contains a series of tributaries that provide varying degrees of largemouth bass potential. This area -- much of which is in Baltimore County -- features estuaries such as the Gunpowder, Bush and Middle rivers, and Saltpeter Creek. Groves shared with me her experience of working this water. Since much of the sampling occurred several years ago, she emphasized that conditions may have changed since then. In general, though, it's likely the bass fishing is better, since many areas may now have better levels of submerged vegetation present than when Groves last sampled.

Keith Lockwood puts together the fishing reports for the DNR. His latest reports contain not only largemouth bass but also chain pickerel.

"Dundee Creek gets a lot of fishing pressure from bass fishermen. Typically, there are good grassbeds in there. The local bass clubs have put together a really nice permanent weigh station. We had one put in at Mattawoman Creek, and the Maryland B.A.S.S Federation worked together with the DNR on that. Some of the northern clubs offered to put one together on Dundee."

The weigh stations feature tanks that circulate water, increasing the chances of survival of any bass taken during tournaments that are then released back into the water.

"The Bush River areas that we sampled included Otter Point Creek, James Run and Church Creek," Groves continued. "In all three of those systems, you really need to go up them as far as you can before you are going to see decent numbers of bass. It's been about eight years since we sampled there. In James Run, there are some bulkheads and riprap areas. The fish hold in those spots. Downed trees also held bass during our sampling."

Otter Point Creek turns into Winters Run. It was a fantastic place to fish. I don't know how it is today. I have not heard from fishermen. Years ago, when the BASS Masters Classic was here, during the early 1990s, I knew some anglers went up in Winters Run when they were pre-fishing, maybe even during the tournament; but you have to go quite a ways up it to find bass. It's very shallow and not easy to get into, even during a good tide. At least back then, when you got to the deeper water, where the creek narrows down, we found good numbers of bass.

"In Middle Creek proper we never did well. Within that area, the best water was Frog Mortar Creek. There are many marinas along there. We caught some fish along the marinas, but the better bet was way up in the creek. There are four of five fingers of Frog Mortar Creek, and the farther up you go, you find overhanging trees and brush. Anyplace we would find wood, we would do quite well. I don't know how well the grassbeds are doing there now. In the Bird River we've never had much success, since salinity levels were too high at the time of our sampling. When we have gone in there, we haven't found much. Keep in mind, though, that this information might not apply now. We haven't been in there since the grassbeds have come in," Grove said.

From Groves' comments, it's easy to see a pattern. As far as Baltimore area tributaries are concerned, the best bass fishing is often in the uppermost portions of the watershed. Also, grassbeds are paramount to

not only the bay's ability to produce largemouth bass, but in anglers' efforts in finding them. The upper bay contains a host of submergent vegetation species.

Water clarity influences the level and depth of the upper bay's vegetation. Periods of dark water, driven by early spring rains, tend to retard weed growth. Generally, the upper bay's weeds grow out to depths of 5 to 6 feet. Groves said that she'd like to think improved water quality has been a factor in the return of grassbeds. Point source pollution has been curtailed, but there are still major concerns regarding non-point sources, like excess nutrients entering the bay, often from suburban and agricultural sources.

Anglers will also find the food sources as varied as cover and habitat. Upper bay largemouths have a good food selection.

"Some areas have crayfish, particularly in the upper portions of each watershed," Groves said. "There are sunfish, gizzard shad, plenty of shiners -- golden shiners and spottails. There are also killifish, which the bass will feed on. There is a variety of forage."

From the more popular, larger waters to less fished ones in urban settings, the upper Chesapeake Bay offers a host of largemouth bass fishing options. You should check them out this year!

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