Photo by Marc N. McGlade.
The tidal Potomac River is among the best largemouth bass fisheries in the country. Two- to 5-pound bass are quite common, with outstanding numbers of fish possible throughout the year. The month of May is an excellent time to catch fish from the popular tidal waterway that separates Virginia from Maryland.
The length of this river and the available creeks afford anglers the room to spread out. That said, the anglers and recreational boaters at the Potomac River have a reputation for needing a lesson in Southern Hospitality and manners. That should not be the case, as this river has plenty of water for anglers to chase springtime bass.
Tidal creeks dot the map along the Virginia and Maryland shorelines. Some of the creeks are quite large and hold largemouths throughout their length, while others are smaller and have less fishy-looking spots to try. There are also several main-river locales that are worthy of dropping the trolling motor and casting for open-mouthed bass, hungry for their next meal.
As fervent bass casters know, these eating machines will stuff anything into their wide gapes. At the Potomac, the list of bait is extensive; hence, their potbellies. Fisheries biologists have noted that largemouths chomp on the available bait choices of sunfish, gizzard shad, white perch, killifish, golden shiners and small goldfish. However, even with the presence of dozens of minnows and young-of-the-year fish species, the omnipresent prey is crawfish, particularly during certain periods of spring and fall.
That is one reason the condition of bass is excellent: There is an incredible amount — and variety — of forage. Largemouth bass are opportunistic and will eat whatever is most available at the time. Sunny afternoons in late winter or early spring will find them chasing killifish on shallow mud banks. Later in the spring, anglers find many medium and even large white perch regurgitated in livewells. Maybe that explains why big white spinnerbaits are so effective.
By summer, there are a huge variety of minnows including silversides, spottail shiners, silvery minnows and golden shiners. Young-of-the-year anadromous and resident species are also available, including white perch, yellow perch, gizzard shad, and recently, American and hickory shad have become more abundant. How could any species near the top of the food chain not be a chub with all of that available on the all-you-can-eat buffet?
This river, once dubbed a “National Disgrace,” is now a tidal river teeming with a large number of 1- to 3-pound fish in the population and a good number of 4- to 5-pounders. That imprints a much better impression in anglers’ minds than the cesspool that it once was some decades ago.
Potomac River largemouths tend to top out around 6 to 7 pounds. There are occasional fish that weigh more, but they are rare.
Kurt Dove, a touring professional bass angler who hails from Fairfax, Virginia, fine-tunes his tactics and techniques for the tournament trail by chasing the chunks that swim in the fertile Potomac River. Dove cut his teeth fishing the Potomac and, when he isn’t fishing a tournament in a distant location, he can be found fishing here. Perhaps that’s why he chose to attend George Mason University — so he could stay close to his home water.
DOVE’S DO’S AND DON’TS
“The Potomac’s best fishing in the springtime (May) is in the creeks around the spatterdock fields and in the aquatic vegetation (milfoil beds),” Dove said. “They can also be in the main-river coves and eddies with grassbeds.”
Dove, 35, doesn’t fish deep in May. He targets depths ranging from 6 inches to 4 feet. He said the bigger females will generally come from 3 or 4 feet, while the smaller males will come from 2 feet or less.
Dove’s best Potomac River largemouth weighed an impressive 6 pounds, 15 ounces. He has landed quite a few others in that same size range. That indeed is a big tidal-water largemouth, even though some bigger specimens lurk in the Potomac.
Astute anglers pay attention to water clarity, and visitors to the Potomac should do the same.
“Water clarity is very dependent on wind direction and the location of grassbeds,” the affable pro said. “Generally, the water is more stained in the creeks around the spatterdock, and clearer in areas around the grassbeds. I always look for the cleanest water I can find in the grassbeds. Really dirty water will completely shut down a once-productive grassbed until it has time to settle down and begin to clear again. Water clarity is less important around the spatterdock in the creeks.”
The bane of most tidal water bass casters is understanding the tidal fluctuations. Two low tides and two high tides in a 24-hour period can cause head scratching and confusion for even experienced anglers.
“I always prefer the last half of the outgoing tide because it will move the fish to the outside portions of the cover and the fish will be more vulnerable to a good presentation from the fisherman,” he said.
That scenario increases the odds a sight-fisherman can score, as well.
“In early May, I’ll concentrate on sight-fishing during the lower half of the tide fluctuation,” Dove said. “There should still be quite a few spawners that would be easy to catch in the early part of the month.”
Dove said in the latter part of May, on lower tide situations he will pick up a frog or his flipping stick.
“I like to use a Snag Proof Frog or flip baits like a Zoom Super Speed Craw or a JDC Baits Gibroni and make presentations to holes in the grass or over just slightly submerged vegetation,” he added. “However, most of the grass will not be topped out yet in the month of May.”
Conversely, when the tide flows, Dove likes to use moving baits, such as a 1/2-ounce Cotton Cordell Super Spot or a 3/8-ounce ChatterBait. This pro continues to move and work over the top of the grass until he finds an area that has a concentration of fish, and then he will slow down with flipping techniques.
“One bait that many anglers overlook this time of year on a high tide is the Zara Spook,” Dove said. “This is an awesome prese
ntation on high tide with post-spawn largemouth bass roaming the flats.”
Dove prefers mainly natural-looking colors for chubby Potomac largemouths.
“I really like a 6-inch JDC Baits green pumpkin lizard, a Snag Proof Frog, a Stanley Ribbit and a JDC Baits Gibroni (because of its effectiveness on the river due to its slow, natural fall),” he stated.
Many experienced anglers change tactics or lure colors based on lighting conditions. After all, sunny or cloudy conditions present a different look and feel beneath the water’s surface.
Dove remains quite basic regarding color selection on the historic river.
Said Dove: “I like three colors on the Potomac: black and blue, green pumpkin and watermelon. I like the green pumpkin and black-and-blue combos 90 percent of the time, and watermelon in super clear water in the creeks when it presents itself.”
Regarding cloudy or sunny conditions, Dove doesn’t feel that it makes a difference with lure colors. He caveats that statement by indicating that he keeps the Snag Proof Frog in the rod box on cloudy days.
“They really bite it (Snag Proof Frog) much better on sunny days,” he explained. “When it’s cloudy, I prefer to use buzzbaits or buzzing frogs like the Zoom Horny Toad.”
LOCATIONS FOR LURKING LARGEMOUTHS
Like many experts on a given body of water, Dove relies on some locations that have proved effective for him over the years. Dove said he recommends the following as his top five places at the Potomac River for May largemouths: Chicamuxen Creek from the mouth to where the creek narrows down to a no-wake zone; Mattawoman Creek in its entirety; Piscataway Creek from the mouth to just past Fort Washington Marina; Aquia Creek from the mouth to the railroad bridge; and Nanjemoy Creek in its entirety.
“There are many other areas on the Potomac that produce great fishing, and opportunities certainly should not be limited to the above, but these are my top five spots for May,” he explained.
Most average anglers often wonder how bass pros approach a given fishery. Since most of the population can fish only during the weekends, their on-the-water experience is a fraction of a person who casts for cash. Some pros like to run and gun, while others camp on a spot waiting for the perfect tidal condition.
Dove prefers to camp on his pet spots at the Potomac regardless of the time of year. For this Triton/Mercury pro, that means maybe fishing two to three spots throughout the day.
“Of course, though, you better be camping where the fish are living,” he chuckled. “Until I find areas that the fish are holding and living, I’ll run and gun until the opportunity to camp on them presents itself.”
TECHNIQUES AND GEAR
There is plenty of structure and cover at the Potomac River, so how best to unlock the day’s secret? During May, Dove prefers to target mostly milfoil beds in the creek mouths along the main river. If the main river becomes stained or muddy, he will then key on spatterdock in the creeks.
A technique Dove likes to employ around spawning fish that he cannot see is ripping a No. 11 Floating Rapala hard jerkbait. He uses a rapid jerking motion with small twitches to keep the bait from moving long distances at once. Dove prefers to use Powell rods when presenting his lures.
“The longer I can jerk the bait and keep it in a fish’s strike zone (bedding area), the more bites I will generate,” he explained.
Dove generally uses bait-casting gear with line sizes ranging from 12- to 20-pound-test. He tends to lean toward fluorocarbon and braided varieties.
“The only time I use mono is with topwater baits,” he said. “I generally never use a spinning rod on the Potomac. The only time I may use one is in the summer when the creeks get really clear and I drop down to 10-pound-test line.”
Dove feels line size is important on this incredible fishery. One reason that he rarely uses anything less than 12-pound-test line is to prepare to do battle with Potomac River bass. Dove said they have plenty of cover to wrap themselves in, and it is important to get them coming to the boat once a strike is detected and the fight begins.
“The color of the line is not so much a factor, although I do like to use a black magic marker to go over about the last 3 or 4 feet of braided line before the lure,” Dove said. “I think black is a better camouflage than light green, particularly once the braid is worn a bit. But most importantly is that you have confidence in what you are doing.”
Dove also said he heavily relies upon his electronics. He pays serious attention to his Lowrance depthfinder, and he went the extra mile by adding a digital media card by Navionics to enable him to really zero in on the Potomac’s intricacies. Anglers who pair today’s modern technology with real-time experience on the water can greatly increase their odds of hoodwinking fat Potomac bass.
Expectations can vary from person to person. The Potomac River is not unlike other fisheries in some respects. The bite can vary from “el stinko” to average to exceptional. However, most Commonwealth bassers will take their chances at the Potomac, knowing the potential exists for great days, both in number of fish and in quality.
According to Dove, “typical” days at the Potomac during May are centered on the last of the spawning fish; however, those first bass that spawned in April are now actively feeding and crushing lures with a vengeance.
“Anglers can expect to catch 10 to 20 bass in a day with seven or eight of those going over 15 inches, or weighing about 2 1/2 pounds or better,” he said. “It is not uncommon to catch fish exceeding 4 pounds with the biggest fish up to 8 pounds being available.”
With expectations like this, it is no wonder that major bass tournaments come to visit the Potomac River each year. For weekend warriors, it makes perfect sense to trailer to this famed body of water and wrangle with some late-spring and early-summer largemouths.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
For questions concerning the Potomac River largemouth bass fishery, contact the Maryland Department of Natural Resources in Brandywine at (301) 888-2423, or visit the Web site at www.dnr.state.md.us . The following are launch ramps close to many of the Potomac hotspots mentioned in this article: Leesylvania State Park on the main river, Hope Springs in Aquia Creek, Gravelly Point at Reagan National Airport and Pohick Bay Regional Park. No bass less than 15 inches can be possessed from March 1 through June 15 at the Potomac River.
GMCO produces the Pro Series Map of “Tid
al Potomac River” that details the stretch from Georgetown to the Route 301 bridge. Contact them by phone at (888) 420-6277, by e-mail at email@example.com or visit their Web site at www.gmcomaps.com .
To learn more about the career of Virginia bass pro Kurt Dove, visit www.kurtdove.com .