Potomac Powerhouse: Catching River Stripers
September 30, 2010
When the summer winds down, many anglers put their fishing gear away. Those who know better head for the Potomac River's striper grounds.
In the 1970s, fishing for Potomac River striped bass (or rockfish, as they are locally known) was a big sport, both in terms of the number of anglers and the number of stripers it involved.
During the 1980s, however, anglers, commercial fishermen and fisheries biologists were alarmed as the number and size of rockfish plummeted on the Potomac River and in the Chesapeake Bay. Anglers began pointing fingers at the commercial fishermen, and commercial fishermen pointed their fingers at pollution and natural cycles as being the culprits. The truth of the matter is that there were a variety of factors in the decline in the striper fishery.
Luckily, the Potomac striper fishery is rebounding, thanks in part to protective measures such as creel limits and size limits, and today the fishery is back and very strong once again.
Executive Secretary A.C. Carpenter of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission is keenly aware of the rockfish situation, as the Potomac River fishery is his responsibility.
"The fishery is considered restored from the very low levels of the '80s and has been relatively stable over the past few years," he said.
Carpenter goes on to say that fishing for striped bass on the Potomac River is very popular, and, because the fishery is much improved, the Potomac River Fisheries Commission was able to open up the season for the striped bass from July to December.
So where do anglers go to catch striped bass during September?
Photo by Michael Skinner
The first thing a rockfish angler should keep in mind about finding these big fish in September is that this month is a transitional period for the stripers. The hot winds of summer have been replaced by (relatively) cool weather, which can come in spurts and rapidly chill the water and put the fish in different areas of the river and at different depths. During hot weather, the fish are scattered and can be found anywhere. Cooler temperatures tend to concentrate the fish in deeper waters with forays into the shallows during fast tides. Let's take a closer look at each scenario.
Warmer weather, such as that typical of early September, makes for tough fishing. Rockfish will be scattered under these conditions. However, there are a number of areas that regularly hold striped bass.
First, anglers should take a look at a map of the river (GMCO Maps makes an excellent chart). Notice the river is full of shoals and bars. During the latter part of August and early September, baitfish pile up on these bars in the river, drawing a crowd of rockfish. Depending on the tide, the water level on the bar itself may be as shallow as 3 feet. When the baitfish get caught on the bar, the rockfish go into a feeding frenzy. Gulls and other birds often join in, which gives anglers an obvious sign that bait and rockfish are around.
Most of the bars or shoals are found in the middle or lower portion of the Potomac River. Beacon Bar just outside of Port Tobacco River on the Maryland side is an excellent place to start fishing. There are numerous bars all the way to the Chesapeake Bay on both sides of the river.
Once an angler finds a concentration of baitfish, he should approach as quietly as possible so as to avoid disturbing the baitfish. Keep the boat on the outside fringes of the area and cast into the baitfish. If the baitfish are trapped on the bar, the rockfish will keep them there as long as possible, and as long as they are successful, the fishing will remain outstanding.
Any minnow-imitating lure will work well on feeding rockfish. Typical lures that are used include lipless rattling crankbaits, jerkbaits and spoons. A medium to medium-heavy action spinning or baitcasting rod-and-reel combo will work fine for fish during the warmer months. Typically, these fish average 18 to 24 inches.
When casting into a feeding mass of rockfish, anglers should keep a tight line and be ready to set the hook at any time. If strikes are not detected on the first two or three casts, change the retrieve to a stop-and-go action. If changing the action of your retrieve doesn't work, change lures.
Capt. Frank Markham and Capt. Walter Parkinson run the Big Dipper charter boat out of Colonial Beach. Markham has been fishing from the boat for 50 years. Both men now work for Potomac River Charters and often take clients out for rockfish. Because of all the years' experience both men have on the river, we turned to them to get ideas for catching a rockfish during the warmer months. Markham pointed out that the Chesapeake Bay angler's method of chumming and free-lining bait works very well in the Potomac River as well.
Chumming is not hard to do and can provide consistent action for a group of people such as a charter or a family outing. The chum is made by grinding oily baitfish such as bonker, herring or shad. The chum is scooped overboard in an area where rockfish are showing up on a fish-finder.
Markham points out that rockfish are displayed differently on each fish-finder. The best way to learn to identify rockfish is to use the finder and ask other anglers with similar models what their finder displays. Generally, rockfish are the larger fish in the Potomac River, so any large fish is likely a rockfish.
Once the chum is scooped overboard, anglers free-line a piece of bait that completely covers the hook. Bait is best gotten from the fish that is being ground up. The innards are prime for catching a rockfish fast. The bloodier the bait, the better.
A large split shot will get the bait down into the sinking chum when current does not allow weightless bait to sink fast enough. Lines should be fairly tight so the bail or reel can be set and the fish hooked quickly. A No. 4 hook is all that is needed to catch rockfish with cut bait.
In the upper part of the river above the Route 301 bridge, there are numerous tidal creeks that also provide good places to begin a search for striped bass. Old barge walls, pilings and bridges are all excellent habitat for rockfish. Begin fishing the sharp dropoffs where baitfish can be easily ambushed from deeper water. The mouths of Aquia Creek, Quantico Creek, Occoquan River, Nanjemoy Creek or Piscataway Creek are all good candidates for hooking a striped bass on the upper river. Jigs tipped with soft-plastic shad imitations, lipless rattling crankbaits and other minnow imitations all work well for rockfish in these areas.
Fishing from the shoreline is a good bet f
or catching rockfish during September. Shore-bound anglers do the best with bait, and for good reason. During the month of September, rockfish cruise the shallows, hunting baitfish or crabs. Shore-bound anglers have the most luck under low-light conditions: early morning, the evening, night or overcast days. The better fishing conditions are magnified when the tide is turning and running fast. Popular baits include peeler crabs, cut bonker and herring or live minnows.
Anglers who hook their bait and let it drift in or out with the tide will catch more rockfish than anglers employing most other methods most of the time, anyway. However, if the fish are in deeper water, a bottom rig with a weight will enable the angler to reach the fish.
A trick to fishing the shoreline where a creek flows out into the river or a rock jetty provides a haven for baitfish involves the use of a float. Rockfish cruise small creeks, the mouths of such creeks and the lengths of rockpiles or jetties while looking for a meal. Hook a piece of bait on a No. 4 hook and attach a stick float to the line so the bait travels above the bottom at least 6 inches. Toss the bait uptide and free-line until the bait is at the edge of the area you are fishing. Repeat the procedure a half-dozen times to cover the water effectively.
Numerous places are open to the public to fish from shore. These include Aqua Land on the Maryland side of the Route 301 bridge, The Municipal Pier in Colonial Beach, Wakefield National Park, Pope's Creek and Westmoreland State Park. All offer bank-fishing and the chance to take a keeper rockfish. There are also plenty of good places that an angler can fish if he takes the time to secure permission from private landowners.
Once the weather cools down and the fish begin to congregate for their run out into the ocean, the fishing changes considerably. All of a sudden, the smaller fish disappear, and the trophy-sized fish begin showing up on the fish-finders.
Most of the better cooler-weather fishing occurs downstream from the Route 301 bridge. Capt. Markham points out that the best fishing for bigger striped bass occurs near the end of September or beginning of October when the water cools. This is his favorite time of year to go after the bigger fish.
"Big striped bass begin to school up and can provide some outstanding angling in our stretch of the Potomac once the water cools down," he said. "We see fish over 40 inches each year, and they keep getting bigger!"
Markham told us that there is no one certain place to begin fishing on the river, but there are keys to finding the fish. The first is to look for baitfish in a ball on the fish-finder. Most of the fishing done in cooler water is done in water over 20 feet deep. Run the main-river channel and keep an eye on your depthfinder until a bait ball appears.
Once the baitfish show up, Markham suggests using a bucktail spoon or a jig tipped with a strip of bait or minnow. It is important to get the bait down to the proper depth. Work the jig or spoon up and down, allowing the spoon to flash or the bait to wave enticingly.
Another geographical feature that Markham looks for when targeting striped bass is the numerous "lumps" in the river. Most of these lumps, or rises and falls, in the bottom have names. Tyler's Lump or Carter's Lumps often hold fish. Sometimes baitfish are not present in great numbers here, but the rockfish will still be here. In these areas, the best method is to troll. Trolling accounts for the greatest number of truly large rockfish in the fall on the Potomac. Markham suggests using Mann's Stretch 18 or 25s over the bottom of the channel or around the lumps. Trolling can also maximize the possibility of catching fish by putting out a number of rods with different setups or rigs at different depths on each line. One rod could be pulling a bucktail spoon at a shallower depth while the Stretch 25 could be working the deeper water over the lumps.
Once the fish are located and anglers figure out what they want, you should change the lines to the same type of lure at the same depth. Double and triple hookups are common. Because the fish can be so large, it is important to use at least 20-pound line on a heavy-action rod and reel.
Trolling is also a popular inshore method of picking up fish that are cruising the shallows or the areas near the shore. Anything goes in September, and the fish can be found just about everywhere on any given day. If the fish are not in the main channel, anglers will often find them along bars or along the shoreline near cliffs or rocky areas like the one off of Westmoreland State Park. Here the better lure to troll is a Sassy Shad or a bucktail spoon.
The handful of islands and points in the river also offer great opportunities for fish of all sizes. Some of the larger fish that are taken trolling near islands are taken near St. Clement's Island (Blackstone Island) or Cobb Island. St. Clement's Island is deep on two sides and shallow on two sides, offering a variety of scenarios to accommodate any fishing technique. Many anglers like to troll near the deeper sides of the island. Quite a number of big fish are taken each September in this manner. Swan Point and Mathias Point are popular trolling spots in the middle river, too.
It is important that anglers realize that, although the fishery is in good shape, there is still a concern for its health. Anglers are encouraged to release quickly any striped bass that are not legal or will not be kept for table fare. The limit on fall rockfish is two per person at 18 inches or larger. Biologists tell us that the hotter water stresses the fish more and results in a higher mortality rate even when the fish are quickly released. Using barbless hooks and circle hooks is a big help in quickly releasing fish. Keeping the fish in the water and avoiding touching them are also good practices for anglers to adopt if they want to ensure the survival of the fish they release.
Potomac River stripers offer fantastic September fishing. The fish average anywhere from 18 inches during the early part of the month to more than 40 inches once the weather cools. Keep your rod out for another month or two and sample some of the state's finest fishing with a touch of saltwater. The power of a striper streaking against the current and putting throb in your rod will not be soon forgotten. Give it a try this month.
POPULAR LAUNCH SITES Upper River launch sites that are popular with anglers include:
- Aquia Marina on Aquia Creek.
Middle River launch sites include:
- Aqua Land Marina on the Maryland side of the Route 301 bridge;
- Colonial Beach at the end of Rt. 205 at Monroe Bay;
- Westmoreland State Park just off of Route 3 in Westmoreland County.
Lower River launch sites include:
- McGuires Wharf off of Route 202;
- Krentz Marine Railway on South Yeocomico Creek.
Call Potomac River Fisheries Commission (800/266-3904) for the latest lic
ense or limits on rockfish.
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