Upper Potomac River Smallies: Part 1

After several fish kills, the upper reaches of the Potomac River seem to be bouncing back to life -- and once more providing great smallmouth action. Read on for hotspots to try this season. (February 2008).

Photo courtesy of Bruce Ingram.

Every summer for the past four years, various friends and I have float-fished a different section of the South Branch of the Potomac and the West Virginia section of the upper Potomac. This past June, fellow schoolteachers Doak Harbison, Tim Wimer and I navigated a three-day float from Hancock/Berkeley Springs to Shepherdstown.

As readers no doubt know, the Potomac Watershed has endured a number of fish kills since 2002, beginning with a kill on the South Branch that year. In this two-part story, I will cover the latest on the health of the river, as well as give information on how to explore the upper Potomac from Berkeley Springs/Hancock to Shepherdstown.

UPDATE ON THE POTOMAC SYSTEM

Last May, Bret Preston, an assistant chief for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR), reported that a kill took place on the North Fork of the South Branch and the South Branch itself at a number of locations, including the famed and pristine Smoke Hole. And the Shenandoah and its tributaries in Virginia also endured a substantial fish kill, similar to the ones earlier in both states. (Note: West Virginians can report fish kills to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection's (DEP) Spill Hotline at (800) 642-3074 or they can complete an online reporting form at www.potomacwaterwatch.org.

As readers may know, the DNR and DEP have been dealing with fish perishing on the Potomac and Shenandoah watersheds since the 2002 fish kill on the South Branch. Fortunately, these latest West Virginia reports only concerned mostly Northern hogsuckers and golden redhorse suckers, as well as some fallfish and sunfish. And, again, fortunately, there were no reports the rest of the spring, which is when the fish kills occur. Unfortunately, the James River in Virginia experienced a kill similar to the ones that have taken place on the West Virginia and Virginia arms of the Shenandoah and Potomac.

The DNR and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) have an excellent reputation for working cooperatively on numerous issues and are doing so on this matter as well. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service has personnel working with the two states also, as has the U.S. Geological Survey.

John Mullican, a Maryland fisheries biologist for the upper Potomac, which forms the Maryland and West Virginia border, gives this very positive overview.

"Smallmouth bass fishing has been very good with anglers reporting good catches of smallmouth bass between 12 and 15 inches," Mullican said. "Our young-of-the-year seining results documented an average hatch in 2006 and an above-average hatch in 2005. Of the adult smallmouth bass collected by electrofishing during October 2006 that exceeded 7 inches, 34 percent exceeded 11 inches and 13 percent exceeded 14 inches. The October 2006 electrofishing catch rate for smallmouth bass 11 inches and larger was consistently 20 bass per hour throughout the river. For the angler, this means that quality-sized smallmouth bass are relatively abundant.

"There have been no reported fish kills of smallmouth bass on the upper Potomac. During the spring of 2006, a low-level, chronic redhorse sucker kill occurred, primarily in western Washington and Allegheny counties. Lesions were observed on 31 percent of the redhorse suckers collected at Paw Paw and 17 percent of the redhorse suckers collected at Hancock during May 2007. However, no fish kills have been reported and lesions were not observed on any other species."

Besides the apparent comeback of the smallmouth bass, Mullican notes that channel catfish are plentiful throughout the upper Potomac. Walleyes are also available throughout the upper Potomac with the highest abundance occurring from Dam 4 downstream to Harpers Ferry. A naturally reproducing population of muskellunge is now established in the Potomac from Little Orleans downstream to Point of Rocks.

HANCOCK/BERKELEY SPRINGS TO McCOYS FERRY

(Distance: 14 Miles)

At Hancock, a concrete ramp exists off Canal Street some 300 yards below the state Route (SR) 522 bridge. A paved parking lot is available. At McCoys Ferry, a concrete ramp exists off McCoys Ferry Road via SR 56. Paddlers can also take out at a ramp at Cherry Hill on county Route 10 in Morgan County, 10 miles below Hancock. Parking is available in a paved lot. An alternative take-out exists at Fort Frederick State Park 12 miles below Hancock. The ramp is concrete and can be reached via SR 56 and Fort Frederick Road. Parking is available.

John Mullican recommends that for fishermen, the Hancock float is "a long way to paddle, so skip the flat, shallow sections and concentrate on the best habitat." Riverside camping is available at Fort Frederick State Park and McCoys Ferry, as well as the hiker/biker campsites on the C&O Canal along river left.

The Hancock ramp is often a very busy place, so those anglers wanting to travel to McCoys Ferry may find it prudent at the start of the trip to put some distance between them and the access point. The first mile features the odd riffle, water willow beds, and the entrance of Tonoloway Creek. Note the arch over the tributary.

Next comes a large island; the left side of this island offers the best passageway and a riffle to Class I. The submerged rocky stretch above the island offers potential, especially in the early spring. For the next three to four miles, the Potomac flows fairly straight. From late spring through fall, expect to find plenty of star grass in this area.

It was through this section last June that I caught a

12 1/2-inch smallmouth that savaged a Case Salty Sinkin Shad. At first glance, such a small keeper-sized smallie might not be noteworthy. But the fish was bigger than any that Wimer and I caught in 2006, when we journeyed from above the confluence of the North and South Branches to Hancock/ Berkeley Springs. In short, that smallmouth gave us hope that the river was on the upswing.

There's certainly nothing wrong with the habitat on this 14-mile float. Matt Knott, who operates River Riders in Harpers Ferry, said that the Hancock/Berkeley Springs junket has much to offer.

"There are a lot of riffles and no major rapids," Knott said. "The banks are mostly wooded with rolling hills in the background. In 2007, the reports that we got from the upper river were that the smallmouth bass fishing was much improved."

At mile six, you'll come to a small island on y

our left and a much larger one to your right; go between them for the best and safest passageway. Below the islands, some riffles will send you on your way. And a local campground lies along the West Virginia shoreline. You'll also see where Sleepy Creek enters on that side, which is, of course, river right.

At mile seven, you will encounter another island, which is nearly a mile long. Take the left passageway for the best fishing. This section features quite a bit of deep water and dropoffs -- a good thing to know if you aim to take this float during the spring when deep-diving crankbaits and Carolina rigs work so well for habitat such as this.

Around the mile eight mark, a much smaller island will come into view. A power line also crosses here and Licking Creek soon enters on river left near more islands. For the next two miles, the Potomac flows fairly slowly; the major feature is the Cherry Hill ramp on river right, which is also where the namesake creek enters. A railroad trestle also helps mark this area.

The next four miles until the McCoys Ferry take-out offers numerous places to fish. A number of areas feature water that is 3 to 6 feet deep with riffles and submerged rocks. It was through one such area that I experienced my biggest thrill of the 2007 fishing season. I had been fan- casting a 4-inch Cordell Red Fin through this type of rocky habitat when a 15-inch smallmouth attacked the lure.

Fortunately, and yes the word is fortunately, I lost the smallie after about 10 seconds and then proceeded to miss another 15-incher that likewise hit the hard-plastic jerkbait on the same cast. But while I was moaning about my incompetence -- and the Red Fin was slowly rising to the surface -- yet another bronzeback blasted the bait.

I quickly felt that this brown bass was far bigger than the other two, as it commenced a searing run and I was forced to begin back reeling as Doak Harbison expertly kept our canoe positioned parallel to where the fish was cavorting. When the bass first jumped, it was confirmed that I was dueling with a real lunker -- something that was hammered home each of the next three times that the fish surfaced.

Finally, I was able to land, take pictures, and release a bass that measured 20 inches.

Between mileposts 12 and 13, you'll note where Back Creek enters on the right and Fort Frederick State Park lies on the river's left. In this area, you'll also encounter a number of riffles, a Class I, and a cliff on river right. As noted earlier, the McCoys Ferry take-out is at mile 14, but since Doak, Tim and I were on a three-day excursion, we opted to float a mile more downstream so that we could have a more secluded campsite along the C&O Canal.

The C&O Canal is a wonderful part of the overall Potomac experience, and I thoroughly enjoy spending the night along any of the many campsites available. Luckily, we found a campsite that offers a water pump, picnic table, and a place to grill, which Doak used to cook some fresh tuna that he had brought. Good food and good conversation after a good day of fishing is always memorable.

McCOYS FERRY TO

FOUR LOCKS

(Distance: Six Miles)

At Four Locks, a concrete ramp exists off Four Locks Road via SR 56. Parking is available.

Matt Knott describes this float as "miles of no current" and he is correct. Some scattered riffles appear for the first mile, but after that, the backwaters of Dam 5 dominate. That first mile, though, can offer some quality angling as ledges, water willow beds, and dropoffs exist in addition to the aforementioned riffles.

After that first mile, you may be better off to target largemouth bass rather than smallmouth and to be in a motorized boat instead of a canoe. Indeed, canoeists infrequently take this trip. Actually, the wintertime is one of the best times to use a powerboat on this section, as the scattered rocks off the river tend to concentrate bass.

Those rocks are part of a four-mile-long U-curve. At the bottom of the curve, you will float by the community of Little Georgetown. Generally, the river's left shoreline is heavily wooded and farmland, campers, fields and houses characterize the Mountain State side. As you near the Four Locks ramp, you will notice a helpful landmark, a cliff on river right.

FOUR LOCKS TO WILLIAMSPORT

(Distance: Eight Miles)

At Williamsport, a concrete ramp exists at River Bottom Park via Salisbury Road. Parking is available in a gravel lot.

Since Harbison and I were in a canoe and Wimer in a kayak, and since we were on a three-day voyage, we obviously opted not to debark from the river at Four Locks and quickly paddled the two miles from there to Dam No. 5. As you near the structure, you'll see the obligatory "Danger Dam Downstream" warning, as well as buoys indicating the dam's proximity. The best portage is on river left, and you can put back in just below the dam and above some water willow-covered islands.

The six-mile section below Dam No. 5 has much to recommend it. We caught good numbers of smallmouths up to 13 inches throughout and found the habitat superb -- more encouraging signs toward hopefully a better future for the upper Potomac. After you work the islands below the structure, some swiftly flowing riffles and gentle Class I rapids will send you downstream. A little over a mile below the dam, you'll come to a series of large islands that extend for approximately a mile. The best passageway is down the right sides of these islands. At the end of these islands, an old bridge support serves as a landmark and a quarry is also in the area. Numerous water willow beds, dropoffs and cuts lie within these islands and offer marvelous mossyback potential. You also may be able to glimpse where a spring enters the river.

A river-left outside curve (known as Millers Bend) characterizes the next two miles with a cliff occurring on river right at the beginning of the bend and a stone wall lying in its heart. Once again, we caught plenty of bass through here, as much of both shorelines are heavily wooded. In the spring and summer, this area is a wonderful place to work slow-sinking soft-plastic jerkbaits through the water column. The next major feature is a quarry on river's left and the rocky pools and riffles continue to provide angling opportunities.

The quarry ends about a mile above the Williamsport ramp, and the river slows considerably below the quarry. During the warm weather period, expect to see vast fields of star grass throughout this section. A half-mile or so above Williamsport, you'll drift by Duck Island, which is soon followed by another island as the Potomac makes a gentle turn. Below these islands, figure on observing a number of wade- and bank-fishermen, as well as pleasure boaters and anglers motoring upstream from the launch.

Right before the take-out, you'll see Conococheague Creek enter on river left and you'll paddle under the SR 11 bridge. Next month, this magazine will cover the upper Potomac from Williamsport to Shepherdstown and hear from others about how the Potomac's smallmouth fishery can hopefully recover.

IF YOU GO

Contact the C&O National Historical Park at (301) 739-4200, www.nps.gov/choh River Riders, Harpers Ferry, (304) 535-2663 or (800) 326-7238, www.riverriders.com

For topo maps of the Potomac, contact MapTech at (800) 627-7236, www.maptech.com Ask for the CD titled, West Virginia: Eastern Gateway and Greenbrier Valley. I extensively used these maps for planning and implementing my three-day voyage.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bruce Ingram is the author of the following books (cost in parentheses): The New River Guide ($15) and The Shenandoah/Rappahannock Rivers Guide ($18.25). To obtain a copy, send a check to Ingram at P.O. Box 429, Fincastle, VA 24090 or contact him at be_ingram@juno.com

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