September 21, 2020
With apologies to Charles Dickens, these are the easiest of fisheries, these are the toughest of fisheries. They are a smallmouth bass haven, they are a largemouth bass haven. They are full of rock, they are full of vegetation. They are all about finesse fishing, they are all about power fishing. In short, the Niagara and Potomac rivers—both historic waterways on which the legend of our country was writ—offer a bit of everything that is wonderful about late-summer bass fishing in our great land.
When you talk “bucket list” destinations, the Niagara and the Potomac make the cut on many levels. They are historic, they are beautiful and they are terrific fisheries. The differences between the two, however, are stark.
Smallmouths on the Niagara
For late-summer bronzebacks on the Niagara River, it’s all about current and eddies, says veteran guide Frank Campbell.
“Now is a great time to catch smallmouth bass on the Niagara,” he says. “You can catch 20 to 30 bass in a six-hour day. It’s a good time for big fish, too, and you can catch them casting to shallow targets with spinnerbaits.”
For most of us reading that quote, Campbell had us at “20 to 30 bass in a six-hour day.” Add some lunkers and spinnerbait fishing to the mix and you have a dream getaway.
“I concentrate on the section between Devil’s Hole downstream to the mouth of the river where it enters Lake Ontario. It’s about an eight-mile stretch in which the water is moving pretty fast, but that keeps it well oxygenated and the fish are very active.”
Campbell’s go-to bait is a half-ounce Strike King Premier Plus Spinnerbait in chartreuse and white with gold and silver willow leaf blades. He casts it on 12-pound-test Seaguar AbrazX fluorocarbon line spooled onto a Lew’s Custom Lite SLP casting reel (7.5:1 gear ratio) and 7-foot Team Lew’s Pro Speed Stick LFS-X5 medium-action casting rod. He likes AbrazX because it holds up well in the rock and wood cover, and prefers a fast reel so he can quickly gain control of his bait in current that sometimes tops 5 mph.
“Anything that breaks the current can hold fish at this time,” Campbell says. “Blowdowns, rocks, points—all hold and position the fish.”
The best cast will put the spinnerbait tight to shore, in slack water. From there, pull it through the eddy and into the edge of the current. If there’s a brown bass nearby, you’ll know it and soon.
And the bass you catch could be a really big one. Smallies weighing 7 pounds are not uncommon on this stretch of the river. Set the hook hard, keep your line tight and don’t get in a big hurry to land such a fish of a lifetime.
“Since the current is pretty fast in this stretch, the targets can be pretty small,” Campbell says. “You may only have one good chance to present your lure to a spot without spooking the fish, and you want to make the most of it. Casting accuracy is very important at this time.”
Apart from the stellar fishing advice, Campbell suggests that newcomers bringing their own boats to this section of the river be very careful until they learn the water. The area he recommends is not bass boat-friendly. Campbell does his fishing out of a Lund 2025 Impact XS aluminum boat that’s comfortable, stable and made for the conditions.
Largemouths on the Potomac
Legend has it that George Washington once threw a silver dollar across the Potomac River. Turns out it was actually a hair jig, but why fight folklore?
When you think about punching soft plastic baits through matted vegetation, you usually think of the Deep South, but in a 2006 national tournament, Texan Kelly Jordon proved that the technique works on the Potomac, too. According to longtime guide Steve Chaconas, it changed the way savvy anglers fish the river.
“The Mattawoman Creek area of the river is ideal for punching,” Chaconas says. “It has all kinds of vegetation, and—when it’s thick—there’s nothing better to hold quality fish and no better way to catch them than by punching.”
Of course, all matted vegetation is not created equal. Some is better than others, and Chaconas is a master of finding and fishing just the right stuff. For one thing, he prefers small, isolated mats that he can fish quickly and thoroughly. For another, he likes mats that satisfy his “tennis ball test.”
“When you see a nasty-looking mat that’s got tennis balls and other trash trapped in it, you know it’s thick and has lots of decaying stuff in there,” Chaconas explains. “That’s usually a good place to start. If the weather’s hot, sunny and there’s not a breath of a breeze, it’s even better.”
Those kinds of conditions are seldom welcomed by D.C. tourists, but experienced punchers love it. It means the bass have few other options. They’re going to be under the canopy, where they can find slightly cooler water and excellent ambush opportunities on food.
To catch them, Chaconas recommends Texas rigging a small craw-style bait like those made by Mud Puppy Custom Lures. He prefers black-and-blue, but it’s hard to imagine that bass can see color under the thick mats.
“I rig the craw on a 5/0 Mustad Grip Pin Max Flippin’ Hook behind a 3/4- or 1-ounce tungsten sinker,” he says. “I fish it on a Quantum flipping rod and Quantum Smoke HD 200 casting reel with 65-pound-test Gamma Torque braided line.”
Picking a mat apart with the big stick and heavy line is an acquired talent and taste. This is not the time or technique that will bring you 50 bites a day, but it is your best shot at quality fish under such challenging conditions.
“I like to pitch the craw on top of the mat gently so that it lays on the surface rather than splashes through the canopy,” Chaconas advises. “Then I’ll shake the lure until it finds a seam in the cover and slips through. The way I envision it, if there’s a bass in the area that senses the vibration of that lure on top of the weeds, he may move toward it. Then, when the lure breaks through, that bass is there waiting to grab it.”
When that happens, there’s nothing else to do but set the hook hard and get the fish moving toward the surface. A big Potomac largemouth will be in the 5-pound range, but there are plenty of 3-pound bass in there.
Master the Current: Boat control is critical in moving water
Current is the most important factor to consider when fishing rivers. It determines where both predator and prey will be positioned. As a result, the ability to move into and stay on the best spot for presenting your bait is crucial.
Holding in current using traditional anchors simply doesn’t work. It’s awkward, time-consuming and noisy. Staying on the trolling motor to hold a position in the current is fine, unless you also want to fish—or actually hook a fish—in which case it’s difficult to accomplish and impossible to maintain.
Minn Kota’s Talon shallow-water anchoring system offers anglers hands-free boat control in the stiffest of currents. By electronically deploying the Talon’s vertical spike, you can securely hold your position, focus on your fishing and make the precise presentations necessary to catch more and bigger fish.
Minn Kota Talons come in a variety of lengths, from 8 to 15 feet. Talons are simple to install and require no hoses or pumps to operate ($1,899 to $2,499; minnkotamotors.com). —Dr. Todd A. Kuhn