JEFF KNAPP: Potomac River offers fresh venue
Western Pennsylvania is blessed with an abundance of excellent smallmouth bass rivers and streams. Large waters like the Allegheny River and West Branch of the Susquehanna come to mind. And there are smaller flowing waters, the likes of Tionesta, Mahoning, Red Bank and the lower portion of Buffalo Creek.
Anglers looking for a fresh venue on which to pursue river smallmouth bass need look no farther than the Potomac River, portions of which are only about a three-hour drive from the Indiana area.
The Potomac River, as well as its North Branch, borders West Virginia and Maryland. Once severely impacted by abandoned mine drainage, restoration work has helped the North Branch recover. The North Branch and the main stem now offer excellent flowing-water bass fishing.
West Virginia’s portion of the main stem runs to Harpers Ferry, where the Shenandoah joins the Potomac. These waters are managed by West Virginia and Maryland. I spoke with fisheries managers from Maryland for information on the Potomac.
“The best smallmouth bass fishing on the North Branch is located within the section we manage as catch-and-release,” noted Maryland Fisheries Service Western Region Fisheries Manager Al Klotz. “That area runs from Keyser, W.Va., downriver to Cumberland, Md. It’s about 25 miles of river.”
Klotz fishes this section on a regular basis, enjoying action from good numbers of chunky bass. While all types of tackle are permitted on this river stretch, bass must be returned to the water.
A river still in recovery from years of acid mine drainage issues, currently the smallies top out in the 18-inch range, weighing 2ﾽ to 3 pounds. Given the river’s healthy forage base, comprised of crayfish, spot-tail minnows, long-nosed dace, river and creek chubs and suckers, odds are that the upper end, size-wise, will increase over time.
While smallmouth bass are the predominant species along this portion of the North Branch, Klotz said anglers can expect to pick up a largemouth or two, particularly along the lower reaches of the special regulations area.
“As you get closer to Cumberland, the character of the river changes,” he explained. “There are longer, slower pools, which is where you’ll find the largemouth.”
Above Pinto, where the river is narrower and faster, is great smallie habitat, and most appropriate for summer fishing when the water is warm.
Near Paw Paw, W.Va., the North Branch joins the South Branch, forming the upper Potomac.
According to Maryland Fisheries Service River Fisheries Manager John Mullican, the upper Potomac, bass structure-wise, is in about the best shape as he’s seen it. While not common, 4- to 5- pound smallies are a possibility, especially at this time of year.
The 2007 year class was an exceptionally strong year class, Mullican noted, which should continue to bolster the population of adult smallmouth bass.
Though smallmouth bass are the mainstay of the upper Potomac, Mullican said that in areas where the habitat is suitable, some largemouths are found.
“Your best bet for largemouths is going to be in the impounded areas, places like Dargen, Big Slackwater and Four Locks,” said Mullican. “Those are the areas located above the old C&O Canal water control dams, Dams 3, 4 and 5. The other good area to find largemouths — and they seem to be increasing in numbers — is in the lower portion of the upper Potomac, from White’s Ferry to Seneca. We’ve collected some nice largemouths along there, fish in the 4- to 5-pound range.”
Mullican said he’s seen little variation, smallmouth bass structure-wise, within the upper Potomac. He said the entire section between Paw Paw and Harpers Ferry contains a similar bass population.
The free-flowing sections are appropriate for smaller boats. Jet-drives allow the navigation of longer river sections, especially when river levels are lower. Some anglers use prop drives with rock guards. Mullican said access areas such as Williamsport and McCoy’s Ferry are popular.
“McCoy’s Ferry offers access to both free-flowing and impounded water, as it’s located at the upper end of the impounded stretch,” explained Mullican. “Putting in there gives you the best of both.”