By Steve Chaconas
The Potomac River Fisheries Commission held its third annual symposium to discuss the status of the Potomac River largemouth bass fishery. Virginia, DC, and Maryland provided a look at the fishery management mosaic and opened a dialog for regulatory consistency. The latest fisheries data was revealed to members of Maryland’s Black Bass Advisory Subcommittee, representatives from VA Region 1 Bass Federation, New Horizon Bass Anglers, The Nation’s Capital Bass Federation, a few guides, and Curtis Dalpra (Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin). A handful participated via webinar.
Leading off was VDGIF biologist, John Odenkirk. Surveying the Potomac for largemouth bass began with the appearance of the Northern Snakehead. Prior to this invasive showing up, they were not surveying the Potomac. Odenkirk began collecting data in 2004. Shoreline electro surveys take place in Little Hunting, Occoquan, Dogue, and Pohick Creeks in April and May, when fish are vulnerable in less than 4-5 feet. Virginia surveys each area twice.
Odenkirk reported his surveys were the best in 2009 and the worst in 2012 and 2013. However, a gradual improvement to 2014 and 2015, in spite of a fish kill cause unknown. 2016 was a very good year, reflecting the success of previous year classes. The good news is fingerlings, fish less than 8 inches, also increased more in 2016 than in the last two years. Odenkirk says the LMB population is rebounding and ties variable recruitment to changes in submerged aquatic vegetation (SAVs) abundance. It is his opinion the LMB population is not affected by tournament related mortality. He further states there is nearly zero bass exploitation with no bass being kept for consumption according to creel surveys. With 99% or more voluntarily released, low mortality and the rebound, he doesn’t support a slot limit harvest restriction.
Next up was DC biologist Chris Adrian. DC has conducted more extensive and ongoing surveys over 9 sites. DC surveys monthly for more complete data in water 2-5 feet deep from the Wilson Bridge to Fletcher’s Boat House to Anacostia. Reporting the juvenile index in 2015 was the highest since 1990, Adrian noted 2016 saw the numbers slip, but still a positive trend. Numbers showed declining relative abundance for larger fish, but an uptick in smaller fish. As SAVs returned LMB abundance also rose, compared to declines when grass was sparse.
However, he revealed all bass tested, were positive for largemouth bass virus (LMBV). Bass are carriers and it’s uncertain what tipping point puts it into a lethal state. There have been no major die offs due to LMBV. These tests will provide baseline data. Interestingly, DC conducted a large tagging survey and less than 1% of the tagged fish were weighed in during tournaments in MD and VA. Like VA, DC reports zero consumption of LMB according to hundreds of creel surveys.
MD DNR Tidal Bass Program Manager Joe Love cites surveys dating back to 1984 but relies on more recent data compliant with recent methodologies. In 1989, MD began to attend tournaments to observe and to collect data. Maryland created a Fishery Management Plan (FMP) 4 years ago. In 2016, the Black Bass Advisory Subcommittee was established to focus on LMB issues. Consistent with DC findings, LMBV is present, though not prevalent.
MD conducts fall electro surveys, when critics feel over abundant hydrilla makes surveys more difficult. 2011 was a bad year for SAV and bass. Juvenile fish populations in 2007 and 2008 were good. As grass disappeared in 2011 indices took a hit and MD saw fewer younger bass. 2013 was below average. Since then SAVs increased resulting in above average numbers of fish. Improved reproduction and recruitment made for a better 2016. However, Dr. Love points to the FMP, as surveys slipped below their line for 3 consecutive years. He feels the fishable slot limit, four fish 12-15 inches and only one allowed over 15 inches, would help save the older, bigger fish. These special restrictions will go into effect June 15-Oct 31. Waivers are negotiable. Until then, efforts to educate anglers on better fish care practices will continue. Proper handling of fish from livewell to release will protect bigger fish that are more susceptible to handling stress.
Doing their part, MD DNR has planted over 80 reef balls in National Harbor with plans to add wood cover. Although Love predicts modest benefit, MD stocked over 100,000 LMB into the Potomac River. The Department’s outreach includes fish care videos, mandatory for MD permit applicants. He does see examples of LMB consumption with anglers taking advantage of tournament release fish.
DC played gracious host at their Aquatic Resources Education Center. The PRFC has set the cooperative wheels in motion as the three jurisdictions continue to put the fisheries management puzzle together.
Potomac River Bassing in March
Longer days bring a change in the weather and warming water. The month starts cold, but warms dramatically.
Use Silver Buddy lures to find fish on drops, in out of the current areas. Follow with Mann’s Stingray grubs on ¼ ounce heads and drop shot with 3.75 Mann’s Reel N Shad on a 1/0 Mustad Octopus hook! Line is key with soft plastics especially. Start with 6-pound test GAMMA Edge Fluorocarbon and beef up as fish move shallower and grass emerges. Use Mizmo Tubes on insert heads early and Texas rigged later in the month. Soak in garlic Jack’s Juice Bait Spray.
Crankbaits, when water warms to 50, are effective. Mann’s Baby 1-Minus and Baby X cover depths to 3-4 feet.
Using suspending Lucky Craft Pointer 78 jerkbaits on 10 pound Edge works in clear areas and when water is around 50 or more.
When water moves to 45 degrees, use Mann’s Classic 3/8-ounce spinnerbaits with white skirts, gold Colorado and willow blades. On 12-pound Edge, slowly crawl along the bottom, hesitating every once in a while.
Author Capt. Steve Chaconas is Potomac bass fishing guide & contributing writer for BoatU.S. (BoatUS.com) Potomac River reports: nationalbass.com. Book trips/purchase gift certificates: info@NationalBass.com.