Bonus Largemouths of Upper Chesapeake Bay

The North East and Elk river systems provide the ideal habitat for brackish water largemouth fishing in Maryland. Here's the latest on this exciting fishery!

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By Jeff Knapp

Given the large diversity of habitats it contains, Maryland offers a wealth of fishing opportunities, both freshwater and saltwater. Among these options is the quality largemouth bass fishing found in the state's tidal areas. The lower Elk and North East river systems are among the waterways that provide such bassing action.

The Elk and North East rivers augment the fresh water supplied by the mighty Susquehanna River. Both enter the upper Chesapeake Bay east of the mouth of the Susquehanna. The North East is separated from the mouth of the Susquehanna by a relatively small stretch of land that features Carpenter Point, Furnace Bay and Stump Point. The Elk River is found farther south, along the Eastern Shore of the bay. The long point of land that culminates at Turkey Point separates the two estuaries.

Don Cosden is the Southern Region manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR). He is familiar with the area's bass fishing history, including its ups and downs.

"It's no secret that the waters of the upper Chesapeake Bay offer excellent largemouth bass fishing at this time," reported Cosden. "It's our second-most fished bass water in the state. Only the Potomac River sees more attention by bass anglers."

While there's been a rebirth in the area's bass fishery in recent years, and hence the ensuing fishing pressure, the picture hasn't always been so rosy. Like most any scenario regarding the health of wild creatures, habitat is a primary controlling factor. Declining habitat usually equates into similar declining numbers of the species in question. In this case, the habitat is aquatic vegetation, with largemouth bass being among the declining species.

"When I was young, I can remember huge grassbeds covering the shallow areas of the upper bay," noted Cosden. "As early as the 1960s, these grassbeds began to diminish. In the last 10 to 20 years, the weedbeds have been coming back. As they have rebounded, so, too, has the health of the largemouth bass fishery. While weed growth hasn't nearly reached the level it once was, the last decade or two has seen big improvements. The largemouth population is now decent."

Submerged aquatic vegetation (often referred to as "SAV" by DNR personnel) is vital to the health of many species of the bay, largemouth bass included. The cover is important to both adult and juvenile bass.

"Levels of submerged vegetation that are in balance with a particular waterway are beneficial to the reproduction and recruitment of largemouth bass," explained Cosden.

Weed growth provides young bass with the cover necessary to elude predators. Being an ambush predator, adult bass use the edges of weed growth as points to intercept forage. Rarely does one find dense populations of largemouth bass in waters lacking good levels of aquatic vegetation.

The watersheds that feed the upper bay drain a wealth of suburban and agricultural lands. Such land usage commonly sees the use of fertilizers, sometimes the overuse of the agents. Elevated levels of nutrients - in this case, nitrogen and phosphorus - create a complex number of problems for a waterway, decreasing levels of light penetration being among them.

Ironically, it's been an exotic species that has filled in the void left by declining native species of submerged weeds. Eurasian milfoil is now an important plant for the upper bay bass angler. The introduction of milfoil was accidental in the bay, but to this point, it has been a positive occurrence.

Resource agencies across the country as a whole try to educate anglers in ways to prevent the spread of this exotic plant, as it tends to choke out native species. In the upper bay, where the production of native species has been stifled, the milfoil has worked out.

Even with the weed situation on the rebound, things will differ from year to year. During wet years like those that we had last year, water clarity will be down. As such, weeds will be fewer and will not grow out to the same depths as drier years when the water is clearer.

"Most of the time the deep edge of a weedbed will be in about 5 to 6 feet of water," noted Cosden. "Up in the rivers themselves the water tends to be clearer, and weeds will grow out to about 10 feet or so."

According to Cosden, both the Elk and North East rivers offer good bass fishing, though he thinks the North East provides a larger amount of good habitat. He adds, however, "The Elk is good and doesn't receive as much attention."

Much has been written here about the weed growth situation in the upper bay - the Elk and North East rivers included - since it is so important to the health of the bass fishery. As one might expect, it is also quite important in finding the bigmouths of these two rivers. Bass relate to edges in the weeds, edges provided along the outside edge (where the bottom drops off into deeper water), open-water pockets in weedbeds and the inside edge of a weedbed. The top of a weedbed can also be an important area, particularly early in the season before the weeds reach the surface.

Finding bass along the outside of extensive weedbeds often means looking for that little something that is different. According to Cosden, depth is often a big factor.

"Often it takes only an extra foot or two of depth to hold bass," he noted. "Also, pay attention to turns in the weedbeds, as the cups and points found here can hold bass along an otherwise straight, featureless edge."

In addition to the weedbeds, the North East and Elk rivers have an abundance of what some bass anglers call "city structure," manmade features that often hold bass. Examples include docks, piers, breakwaters and pilings. Cosden also recommends the Furnace Bay area as being worth checking out.

Tides play an important role in fishing these two estuaries. Cosden noted that bass might be caught at various tides, but that most anglers fare better when the water is at low ebb. Water level fluctuation due to tides averages about 2 feet.

"It seems to concentrate fish," he explained. "Current also draws fish. If you can find a rip tide pulling across a point, it (the fishing) can be excellent."

For an angler to do well within these two river estuaries and nearby waters, a host of tactics is needed. Spinnerbaits and topwaters are good for working over the tops of weedy flats that

have not reached the surface, as well as within pockets of open water found in weed-choked flats later in the year. The deep edge of the weed growth is better plied with a vertical bait, such as a Texas-rigged soft plastic or jig-and-pig.

When making lure selections on the Elk and North East, keep in mind that the forage base there is diverse. Minnow species include shiners, gizzard shad and young-of-the-year American shad and herring. Crayfish are also common and are an important food source. According to Cosden, one can expect to catch lots of bass in the 13-to 16-inch range, with a fair number of 3- and 4-pounders being present. Tidal bass top off in the 6- to 7- pound range.

Boating access can be found on the Elk River at Elk Neck State Park, off state Route 272 about 10 miles south of North East. A smaller facility serves the North East River. It is located in Charlestown at the end of Water Street.

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