In my defense, I didn’t set out to target carp with my fly rod yesterday evening. The previous night I was out in the kayak around the same time with the dogs and there were bass jumping all over the place. So this time I left the dogs at home, grabbed a box of poppers, my 5-weight Hardy fly rod, a couple of iced beers and launched around 5:30.
The river was pretty low and slow, so I just cruised around, settling in behind boulders where the eddy kept me in place to fish. I caught my first smallmouth in the new Native Slayer, got a crappy photo of it and a few more small ones. Nothing special. Although I did see a very large smallmouth among some underwater logs around a bridge piling. But the river was getting squeezed between the pilings, quickening the current, and I could not figure out how to anchor myself safely to take a shot at him. Special fish know safe places to live.
So I moved on upstream, switched colors on my fly and caught my biggest smallie of the day on a white popper, but he was probably no more than ten inches. I was just releasing him when over near the bank I saw a massive carp jump all the way out of the water and splash down. I don’t know why they do this, maybe someone could comment if they know. They’re not feeding on surface bugs like trout. Someone once told me they do it to knock parasites off of their scales. I paddled over to investigate. The terrain underwater changed as I got closer to the edge, and not in the way I expected. The underwater grasses that are quite heavy in the rest of the river were not present along this edge. There were big boulders, deep holes, no grass, and the water was fairly still and much murkier.
But in the shadows I could see cruising carp. Big, cruising carp. I even saw one tail up, presumably feeding, in the shallows right along the bank.
I was ill equipped to fish for carp with a light 5-weight and poppers. But I had a lone, peach wooly bugger that was on the rod when I put it in the truck. So I took off the popper and tied on the bugger. I looked for movement, mostly just vague shadows but every now and then I could make out the outline of a monster, maybe thirty inches. I threw the wooly bugger upstream and let it dead drift like a nymph along the bottom in the nearly still water. There wasn’t a sound, anywhere. My kayak was dead still. I stared at the end of my fly line a foot below the surface of the dark water, watching for the slightest pull, easing up on the rod ever so slightly to keep contact with the bottom. I wanted one of those carp so bad.
On my third or fourth cast using this method I felt like I was really putting the best drifts out there I could. Although I had no idea if it’s the type of fly or presentation a carp might go for. Intensely focused, I felt like I could feel in my fingertips the vibration of the fly tumbling across the gravel below. I waited for the strike. Waaaaiiiit. I could feel the temperature drop as the sun dipped behind the mountains. Three degrees, maybe five. I felt in tune with everything from my kayak to the fly rod, the line, leader, tippet, knot, down to the eyelet, down the hook all the way to the point. All my focus was on the unseen point of that hook five feet below the black surface.
Boom! I saw the fly line surge forward at the same instant I felt the bump through the line and into my fingertips. I brought the rod up fast and hard behind my head, finger tight on the fly line to set that point deep.
To really feel — not guess, but feel — an extremely subtle take of a fly that you cannot see, and to do it in a place where you have seen very large fish known for subtle takes, and to know when you bring that rod up that you were right and there is life on the end of the line, is pretty damned exciting. But it became immediately apparent that I had not caught my first carp on a fly. What I had caught, it turns out, with the hook set of a pro bass fisherman on a Saturday morning TV show, was about a seven inch smallmouth.
Only the resistance of five or six feet of water kept me from launching that smallie many yards in the air behind me. I instantly felt horrible for the little guy, I literally had to have dislocated his jaw with that hook set. When I got him in the boat and removed the fly, I said I was sorry, that I got a little carried away. He said nothing, which I took as tacit acceptance of my apology. I slipped him back in the water and he shot back to the hole from which he was so violently removed.
I reeled in my fly line, opened my last beer and watched the sun set over the bow of my kayak. Every now and then I’d glance over at the shadowy depths I had just fished. I was not expecting the opportunity and had no business attempting it, but I had fun toying with them. I’ll be back, soon, armed with a 7-weight next time. I think this might just be the pool. One day I’m going to pull one of those big ugly bastards out of that murky water. One day.
After a brief test run a week ago to make sure Finn was open to the idea, we went out for his maiden point-to-point voyage Sunday afternoon. I’ve had Winnie in the kayak with me before, but she’s 50 lbs. and Finn is 70 and a lot taller when he sits up. But as long as he didn’t make any sudden moves, the whole arrangement proved pretty comfortable.
But, no question about it, the best possible position for him to be in is lying down. He got pretty comfortable, although I forgot to bring the plugs to put in the scupper holes. So between my fat ass and his, we were a little back heavy and he had to deal with some water back there. He doesn’t mind this, he loves to lie down in the water in fact. But next time I’ll bring those scupper plugs and keep the back seat a bit drier for him.
So we left the safe confines of the boat launch area on the C&O Canal at Brunswick, MD, and ventured out into the main stem of the Potomac. The first thing we see are geese. I wouldn’t say this was unexpected, I see thousands of geese on the Potomac. But I kind of forgot that Finn would be encountering new things on the water in addition to just the flowing river. He moaned about these geese, some of whom crossed right in front of the boat (I did not have the camera for that because, truthfully, I was preparing for a Finn-induced capsizing). But an easy, “staaaaayyyyyy,” and he kept calm.
Once we encountered a few obstacles, ran through a couple areas of riffles, and got a few miles under our belt, it was time to find a lazy stretch of river, hang my feet over the side and share a cold beer with my boy. I am so proud of him!
After the beer break, a storm started building behind us. We were in sight of the takeout ramp but still had some paddling to do. Finn doesn’t like thunderstorms one bit, so maybe he was keeping an eye on the storm here. But facing the back of the boat proved to be I think the most comfortable orientation for him, and he just rested his chin on the back there.
We beat the storm back to the ramp and of course Finn made fast friends. I’ve certainly never had a dog that makes friends so easily, but everybody loves this boy. And, as I noticed at the festival down in Richmond, people kind of just want to put their hand on him.
The gentleman on the left was talking to me about fishing and asked if I had fished my way downstream. I told him no, this being Finn’s first trip I didn’t want any extra distractions. We were watching his friend fish off the side of the ramp as he caught a little smallmouth. He brought it over to us while he was taking the hook out and Finn just FREAKED OUT! He wanted that fish! I was holding Finn’s collar and the fisherman walked back to the water’s edge and tossed the bass back in, about fifteen feet away. We continued talking for a few minutes and, with Finn in a sit, I didn’t think twice about letting go of his collar. The instant I did he took off at full speed into the river right to where the fish was thrown in! I called him back and he did his upright, front legs splashing, barely making forward progress swim back to the ramp. One of the men said, “He’s not a very good swimmer.”
No, no he isn’t. Although he’s pretty good at dog paddling. He just prefers the kind with a boat.
The Northern Snakehead Fish, subject of much discussion and debate among anglers and conservationists, seems here to stay. And while certainly invasive, the nightmare predicted by some who thought they would eat everything in the river doesn’t seem to be playing out. And in the middle section of the Potomac River, their numbers, size and fierce fight have attracted countless anglers. When my friend Kodi, who recently caught a 30-incher from his kayak, invited mutual friend and guide Harold Harsh of Spring Creek Outfitters and I to join him for some kayak largemouth bass and snakehead fishing, I had to go.
We went down the Maryland side to Mallows Bay and met at sunrise. At one point in the planning process I wondered if it would be easier for me to take the shorter drive down the Virginia side and just paddle across from Quantico. This picture shows what a stupid idea that was. The Potomac is wide where I live, maybe 800 yards or so. But down here, it’s got to be at least five miles across. I couldn’t understand how all the muddy water from the Upper Potomac from recent downpours wasn’t turning the Middle section just as brown. To quote the old Saturday Night Live skit about how the National Change Bank can make a profit just offering change for various denominations, “The answer? Volume.”
This is Harold, one of the best people you’ll ever meet. I met Harold many years ago when I first started fly fishing and booked a float with him on the North Branch of the Potomac. It’s worth noting that the farthest upstream and the farthest downstream I have fished the waters of the Potomac (over 200 miles between), I fished both with Harold.
The picture above looking out past the shipwreck across to Virginia is out in the main stem of the river. Mallows Bay looks more like this, with weeds and grasses providing lots of cover for bass and snakehead. It’s tidal here, so at low tide normally the fish that seek cover in the taller weeds you see here get forced back into a position where they are more exposed and, presumably, easier to catch. But the rain pushed the water levels up a bit. For whatever reason, the fishing was extremely tough.
My very first Snakehead encounter happened in a little cove. You see Harold’s kayak in the distance, he’s at the opening of the cove there. I was paddling quietly back there in maybe twelve inches of water, the bottom eleven of which was all grass or Hydrilla or whatever it is. I heard a noise to my left and saw large, black fins weaving and splashing between the tall weeds. Snakehead. I threw the popper tight against the weeds but could not entice him out. When I had exhausted that option, I decided to paddle over and just see if I could get a closer look. I drifted silently to the weeds, peering over the edge of my kayak, looking for movement. Then the water exploded next to me in a violent burst as the Snakehead bolted to safety. Not gonna lie here, it scared the shit out of me. But I immediately knew I just had to get one of those fish on my line!
The fishing did not improve. Harold caught a decent largemouth and hooked a Snakehead but lost it. And I missed a few bass and that was it. So we left Mallows Bay and headed to a pond that Kodi knew about which held a lot of Snakehead. It was a little tricky too, as you had to cast out beyond the lily pads, which left you very little room to strip in a top water fly before you had to pick it up and recast. But I got lucky and fooled this little one right as my fly reached the lily pads. People asked me how the fight was. He was overmatched with my 7-weight Sage, and I had to basically horse him over the pads, if he went down in there I never could have gotten him out. Even a small one, though, is pretty intimidating. Slimy, more beautiful in color and more hideous in form than I expected. They look equal parts ancient, evil and angry.
It was a tiring day of not catching many fish in the hot sun, but it is always a pleasure to be among good friends, and the challenge of catching fish who don’t want to be caught is a character builder. Sometimes the fish win. Regardless, if you’re only going to catch one fish all day, let it be something new and exciting!
On the 4th of July I spent a few beautiful evening hours on my home stretch of the Potomac River, and had one of the most fun outings I’ve ever had here. Conditions were perfect for wading. The level was low but not too low, and the water was crystal clear. Later in the summer, the grass will take over and the water temperatures will approach bath level. The fishing can still be very good, but it’s less pleasant to be in the water when it gets that way. But for now, perfect. Although the clear water has a down side. You can see below just how well the fish can see me, the camera was completely submerged here. So I find for the most part, some longer casts have good results. There is one notable exception described later in the post.
I’ve been really wanting to entice some smallmouth to poppers and other surface flies. I know lots of people who have great success on the top. But for me — and maybe it’s technique, location or both — I only catch sunfish when I try surface flies. Of all the smallmouth I’ve caught on the fly, I’d say less than 5 percent have come on the surface. If anyone has some advice on how to entice a smallie to the surface without having a sunfish feeding frenzy, please comment here.
So after several sunnies in a row I went back to my go-to fly, the peach wooly bugger from Dead Drift Flies. On my first cast I brought in this beauty, and that was just the beginning. The smallmouth bite was ON, and it was a blast. By the way, this 5-weight Hardy rod is new, and I can’t get over how much fun this rod is. It throws line like a dream, but feels like a 3-weight with a fish on. You feel every tail beat and head shake. Fun, fun, fun.
This was the first Potomac River outing this year where I had far more smallies than panfish. I always catch some tiny smallmouth, and quite a few were what I’d consider large fish for this stretch. But most were about this size, which you smallie hunters know, is plenty big to put up a nice fight!
The nicest fish of the day, though, was the last of the day. I had waded upstream from the house a ways, and then went across the river a quarter mile or so. It was so beautiful out there, far from either bank, cool water on my legs, the sun setting upstream and fish enthusiastically biting. But, shallow or not, I like to see my feet when I’m wading, and darkness comes quickly when it comes. So I reeled up, secured the fly and admired the setting sun one more time before wading back to shore.
Along the way, now close to the bank and walking parallel with it, I passed three or four holes I fished on my way out with not much luck. I thought I saw a shadow move in the current, but didn’t have a lot of faith in my eyes at dusk. I decided to toss a fly in. I totally half-assed it, though. I never stopped walking, and didn’t even take any fly line out. I just unhooked the wooly bugger from the guide where I secured it earlier, held the rod out to the side and let the fly drop in the water. The shadow immediately slammed the fly. I pinched the fly line to the cork and set the hook, but I think the fish had already done that for me. He jumped four times under the tip of my rod — I basically had only the leader and about a foot of fly line out past the guides. What a great punctuation to a fantastic evening of fishing!
The conditions were right. The day was hot, river was low and relatively clear but still cool, and I hadn’t spent quality time with my dogs, Team Orange, in too long. I knew they would enjoy romping in the river this evening, the first such outing this summer.
What I sometimes forget about dogs — maybe my dogs, probably all dogs — is their almost limitless capacity for joy. I’m not sure I have ever seen them happier than they were tonight, with bright eyes, wagging tails, curious exploration, barks of joy and irrepressible affection. Here Winnie has a blast digging up a stick. Simple pleasures.
As great as those Adult Swim moments are, though, this trip to the river was about the kids. They seem to love this water level, shallow enough to bound through it after a toy, but with spots deep enough to swim, too. Here Finn shakes off after returning the bumper.
Sandy got them this great bumper toy from Chuckit! that they just love. It’s easy to spot, floats high in the water and is soft in their mouth. Finn is much stronger (and taller, which helps) in shallower water where he can bound through it. Once they are swimming, they are both about equal. But Finn will stay and wait if Winnie hasn’t gotten one in a while, and let me throw it just for her to retrieve.
God I love this dog. This is one of my favorite things, the watching. Something either touched her foot or caught her eye and she stared at it like this for a minute or more, fascinated. What a lovable dork.
I’ve been keeping these wading boots down at the river, hanging up to dry in the shelter that sits on the bank. That way I can make the trek down there in hiking or work boots and have dry feet for the trip back up.
This morning I went down to get some fishing in and was startled (um, okay, it scared the crap out of me) when I reached for my boots and a wren flew out of one of them right into my face. Once my heart rate slowed to double digits, I knew what the situation was without even looking.