The fishing on the Lower Potomac River has been tough according to most anglers that we have spoken to, others seem to be catching good numbers of fish. Below we will discuss the river and how fishing has been. What are your thoughts?
The fishing on the Lower Potomac River has always been pretty good. Over the last 30 years that I have fished the river, fishing has always cycled between good to one of the best fisheries in the country. Today, many of the anglers I have spoken to say bass fishing has been lousy. These anglers claim to fish hard all day without catching a keeper bass, some of these anglers are seasoned high caliper fisherman. Other anglers say that fishing is tough but they are catching good numbers of bass on the river. On a recent visit to our Virginia location last month, an angler came in complaining about his day on the river, later on that same afternoon I talked with a different customer that claimed to catch 40 fish with 17 being keepers while fishing with his buddy that day. Seemed like the river wasn't the same dead sea that others have been complaining about. So what is the deal with the bass fishing on the Potomac River and what can be done about it? Let me first start by stating that I am not a marine biologist and don't claim to be an expert. I look at issues in a simple way and sometimes the answer is not as complex as it seems to be. Sometimes the complexity of an issue is far more involved and for those answers you will have to see what the marine biologists come up with. Below we will look at some of the issues and causes with possible solutions to those issues.
Grass or lack of Grass: Everyone that has fished the river has noticed the lack of grass in the river. Hundreds to possibly thousands of acres of grass has disappeared on the river over the last couple of years. When the river was full of aquatic vegetation, fishing was great. BassMasters Magazine always listed the Potomac as a Top 10 Best Bass Fishery. The weights in tournaments and catches overall kept growing as long as the grass kept spreading throughout the river. I can remember the river before grass arrived, with a very few exceptions, no one fished below Mattawoman. The pre-grass Potomac was hard structure fishing; drop offs, holes, rock piles, docks, barges etc. Weights in tournaments were low, sometimes under ten pounds to win. Then grass started growing up river in the mid to late 80's. Around 1991 grasses spread to the waters south of Mattawoman and the bass fishing gold rush on Potomac River was on. For the next couple of decades the river was the best bass fishing ever. Grass thrived which meant the water quality got better, small fishes and other food sources had a nursery to grow in up in while expanding the food-chain for the predator fish. As the grass dies off, these great qualities die off with them, water quality gets worse, food sources and young of the year have no where to hide and don't survive. The bass in these locations that have grass die off are often caught be anglers quickly on any piece of structure or grass that remains, making it a great place to fish for a limited time before it becomes the dead spot. Nanjemoy Creek is a perfect example of no grass killing a great fishery. Several years back the salt wedge entered the creek killing all the grass, bass fishing was over in that creek within 2 years. Lack of grass I believe is truly one of the largest issues that faces the health of the Potomac River bass fishery. Grass on the river has cycled from area to area over the years; but now the cycle appears to be no grass in many areas. How do we fix it? Mother Nature and good environmental practices control the growth of the grasses that are the lifeline to our bass fishery. Hoping for better weather, a new cycle of grass growth and controlled smart growth regionally is all we can do going down the road.
Tournaments: Some locals including some guides blame the demise of the Potomac on tournament anglers; over-fishing, to much pressure on the resource and fish kills caused by those tournaments. There are a lot of tournaments on the Potomac, especially in the spring when the northern states have a closed season. Most tournaments are run well, especially the national tours that work hard to protect the fishery as their lively-hood depends on tournaments. Some local tournaments are run well but some not so much, all of us have seen guys standing in line with bags of bass on hot days trying to weigh their fish. These guides that blame the poor fishing on tournaments for poor fishing should look at the fishing hours put in by their companies, often having several boats out on any given day. That's 3 people fishing per boat several times a week. That is as many fishing hours as a club tournament. Some of these guide companies also put on corporate tournaments a couple times a year. So they could also be part of the problem they complain about. Here are some thoughts I have on mitigating harm caused by tournaments if they are part of the problem. Really high non resident fishing licences prices, it may keep some anglers from traveling to the Potomac during their closed season. Just remember not to complain when your fishing their state and the price for a license is high. Make every tournament on the river pay a user fee that goes into a dedicated funds used only for the restocking of bass on the river, kinda like a greens fee in golf. The fee would vary by size of tournament, even club tournaments would pay a nominal fee but fishing would be better for everyone in the long run. Change the daily creel limit to 4 or even 3 fish per day per angler whether you are in a tournament or not. This would make the tournament standings a lot tighter and make it more exciting for all. It would also put an end to the talk that tournament anglers are not willing to contribute to the health of the fishery.
Water Quality: Water quality is a huge issue facing our bass fishery; it controls the growth of grass and the health of every living creature in the river. Our river is fed by several rivers, streams and creeks; Shenandoah River, Manocancy River, Difficult Run, Broad Run, Rock Creek, Occoquan River, Mattowowan to name just a few. When these headwaters flood and poor millions of gallons of water into the Potomac they bring with them thousands of tons of chemicals, trash and silt that fill in the lower river. Water quality drops and the rivers overall health pays a price. One of the most damaging results of this is the muddy water that happens in late winter and early spring. The silt in the water in conjunction with the cold temperatures stunt the growth of the aquatic vegetation in the river. This keeps the grass from growing and in turn hurts the water quality even more. The grasses help to filter the water, no grass, no filter. We have had several hard winters in a row that contained a lot of wind. Wind stirs up the water and keeps the grass from growing down river. Again Mother Nature and good environmental growth are he key to controlling this problems.
Invasive species: Some say that the snake-heads and blue catfish have a roll in the demise of the bass fishing on the Potomac. I have heard that snake-heads are eating bass on the river and I have heard from people that have checked the stomach content of these fish that no bass were found. This could also be true with the blue cat. Invasive species do not have any natural predators in the body of water that they are introduced into. This means that nothing in the river is keeping their population in check and from getting out of hand as nature intended. Humans are the only controlling factor of these species. This I do know, snake-heads and blue cats eat a lot of little fish, bait fish that in the past have been a food source for the bass. A diminished food chain means a unhealthy river and when fish have to compete for food, only the strong surviving. The solution to the snake head and blue cat is to kill and remove every one you can catch, both Virginia and Maryland fisheries management groups are pleading for this to happen. Maybe there could be a bonus weight at tournaments for adding one to your creel. Time will be the only judge on the effects that snake heads and blue cat have on the bass fishery, hopefully the results will be recognized before it is to late.
Largemouth Bass Virus: Largemouth Bass Virus has been detected in the Potomac River. No know large scale fish kills have occurred on the river due to this virus. But it could be a issue going forward as the health of the river diminishes. Bass that carry the virus are more susceptible to death when they are in a unhealthy waterway, with a poor food-chain and with extreme water temperatures. All of these conditions appear to be present on the Potomac River today. We can only hope that conditions improve going down the road that allow the bass to remain healthy enough to avoid submitting to the largemouth bass virus.
We have looked at some of the issues and solutions to the struggling bass fishery on the Potomac River, but have we solved the problem? I would say not, but there are some things that we as angler can do to contribute to a better bass fishery. 1. Remove every invasive fish that we come across. 2. Change some of the game regulations to help with conservation and help the river recover quicker. 3. Change some of the bad practices in fish handling plaguing some of the tournaments on the river. All of these will make a difference to the bass fishery. I believe that a tough fishing is a combination of several issues facing the fishery, Some fish could have died from the bass virus, some could have been eaten by snake-heads, some do die after tournaments but the lack of grass seems to be the largest factor. Healthy grass beds spread all over the river help the water quality, create a nursery for food sources to thrive and helps keep the river temps lower for the fish during the summer months. Nothing bad other than overheated motors occur from grass in the river. There is not much we can do to make this happen except pray for a mild winter and spring. Until the grass rebounds. do your part to help change the issues we can affect, it will make a difference.