» Smallmouth Bass Dispatches from the Potomac

Words and Images from Ed Felker

Posts tagged “Smallmouth Bass

Dead Drifting on the Potomac

Meet Josh Williams. Back in 2004, as an infantry automatic rifleman with the Army, Josh was deployed to Iraq and returned home safely after 13 months. Then he was stationed in Ft. Hood, TX, a squad leader in 1-12 CAV, 1st Cavalry Division. One morning in April, 2006, a car pulled out in front of his motorcycle and changed everything. Josh lost his right arm in the accident.

While recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, during what Josh admits was a dark time, he was introduced to fly fishing through a fairly new program called Project Healing Waters. PHW founder Ed Nicholson, a former Navy Captain and Vietnam veteran, was recovering from surgery at Walter Reed a year earlier. He found himself surrounded by young, athletic men and women back from tours cut short by devastating, life-alterning injuries and disabilities, and he knew he could help. Like Josh, Ed is a passionate outdoorsman. He knew from his own experience that time spent outdoors connecting with nature can have the very real power to heal. And on the fishless, manicured lawn at Walter Reed, Project Healing Waters was born. As Josh learned to cast a fly rod on that grass, he knew that the door to the activities he loved so much was not closed. So with the help of a strong and loving family and his girlfriend, Lisa, Josh used his love of the outdoors to find his way — to fight his way — out of the darkness.

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Married since 2008, Josh and Lisa have been blessed with two beautiful children. Josh is studying mechanical engineering, is active in his church, continues his involvement with Project Healing Waters and stays busy with his growing fly tying and outfitter business, Dead Drift Flies. Oh did I mention he juggles all this while working full time as a designer for an engineering firm? So I was honored and excited when he took some free time he does not have, to come up to fish with me for a couple days.

Day One was an evening float on my home stretch of the Potomac. Josh, for whom the concept of not being able to do something is utterly disdainful, took to a pedal style kayak which gives him the freedom to fish bodies of water previously unaccessable on his own. The folks at Appomattox River Company recently set him up with this Hobie Pro Angler 12, and he is already very comfortable on it. And when you see him walking around on it like he’s on a bass boat, it’s important to remember how much your arms aid in your balance, particularly on something unstable.

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I’ve spent some time trout fishing with Josh, he is a very good trout fisherman. On small water, the expert deployment of the roll cast gets his line across the stream and his fly to land gently. But watching him fish from greater distances, while standing in a kayak, using his foot to move the rudder and his teeth to strip in a bass, was a thing of beauty.

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But while Josh was showing off, I was fishing too. As you can see, I had to get a good forty feet of fly line out there to fool this several-week-old smallmouth.

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I actually did catch a decent fish that day. Much to my surprise, a largemouth slammed this “6th Man” fly tied by William Heresniak of Eastern Trophies Fly Fishing (more on William in a minute). I’ve fished that stretch of water countless times and never caught a largemouth there before. I will be happy to catch this fellow again any time, he made a big jump and put up two good fights — one in the water and another at my feet loose in the boat.

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We caught a few more, but the fishing was pretty slow. No matter, though, we enjoyed catching up, floating in absolutely perfect weather with the backdrop of a beautiful setting sun. It is fun to watch Josh catch fish, though. He is genuinely grateful, and treats all his catches with care and respect. Here’s a little smallie that came up for a popper in the fading light.

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Day Two had us in William Heresniak’s driftboat about thirty river miles downstream on the same Potomac River, wielding bigger rods, throwing bigger flies and hopefully catching bigger fish. William has given generously of his time and expertise to Project Healing Waters since the program’s inception, and invited Josh to come up to fish with him. I’m thrilled to have been asked to come along. This post makes me realize how many great friendships have formed from that great organization.

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We were blessed yet again with great weather all day. This stretch of river, which I had never floated before, contained stretches with beautiful outcroppings of rock and vegetation everywhere. When the fishing started, right away I knew the one-armed fishing clinic Josh gave the day before was now an Advanced Placement course. Imagine casting huge, weighted flies, one-handed, from a boat, in a stiff breeze. I’m no expert, of course, but I have to use my left hand on the line to haul the line, pulling it through the eyelets on the backcast and forward cast to generate the speed necessary to try and keep the hooked, weighted barbell from smacking me in the skull on its way by. If my left hand slips off the line, all is lost for that cast. Line puddles in front of me and I start from scratch. Josh has developed almost a spey cast style to generate that speed required, and he gets that fly moving. He was hitting little pockets and pools probably sixty feet from the boat with a 6-weight rod he had never fished before. Meanwhile, I was not unhappy with casts ten feet shorter with my favorite Sage 7-weight. There is no shame in getting outfished by Josh Williams.

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I would say William looks pretty relaxed here, confident that Josh will be able to land the monster smallmouth he has on the line.

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Well, so the bigger fish thing wasn’t happening for us right away, but we stuck with it, switching from Clawdads to poppers trying to get some surface fish.

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Wildlife abounds in this stretch, which, incredibly, is only about five miles away from Tysons Corner, VA, one of the most densely populated and annoying places on the entire eastern seaboard. Hard to imagine. Great Blue Herons were particularly prolific. Any moment you looked up you would see one flying over, we probably saw a hundred herons. We also ducks, a swan, black vultures, an egret and a couple bald eagles.

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Josh hooked into what he described at the time as “the biggest bass I’ve ever caught.” It turns out it was a bass/catfish hybrid, which explains the size. Also the hybrid ratio was about 100% on the catfish side and something less than that on the bass side. But big fish are fun, no matter how ugly they are. And that big smile on Josh’s face came back about ten minutes later with yet another nice catfish. I caught a big one soon after that but, what with it being ugly and all, I decided to voluntarily let it leave my hook before it reached the boat. Three catfish in about a half hour on fly rods is, I would say, pretty unusual.

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Big flies don’t always mean big fish. Bluegill and sunfish are so aggressive they go after flies with hooks that barely fit in their mouths. This beautiful little fish went for one of William’s famous Clawdads.

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And speaking of William’s fly tying, he tied up a couple of these poppers for me the night before our float, using a cork body and deer hair from a deer I shot this past season. The fly is beautiful, and it was a real treat to catch fish with it. While I don’t tie my own flies, I plan on preserving more deer hide this season for my friends that do.

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William worked very hard for us all day long. That man loves to fish, and to have happy people on his boat. Here’s a fun fact about William: He can free a fly no matter where you have snagged it. For a while, Josh and I had fun wedging Clawdads in between boulders, getting them to spin around tree branches 25 feet up and putting Bassmaster caliber hook sets into sunken logs just to see if we could stump him. Nope. He can get that fly back.

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In the end, we made the most of pretty slow conditions, caught a good number of fish, missed a bunch of opportunities on some others, laughed from dawn till dusk and got pretty sunburned. And almost no one lost their wallet. Pretty good day.

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To connect with Josh, visit Dead Drift Flies online here. Be sure to sign up for his blog, you’ll be glad you did.

You’ll also want to bookmark William’s site, Eastern Trophies Fly Fishing, and book a trip or purchase some of the great flies he ties.

To learn more about Project Healing Waters, to make a donation or find out how you can volunteer, visit their site here.

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Smallmouth Fun

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn 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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo 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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis 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!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe 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!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere’s another shot of my shadow fish. It’s hard to compose these fish shots, but some of the ‘accidents’ end up growing on me. I like this one.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd that was it. Another 100 feet and an ice cold beer was waiting for me. Because I am an excellent planner.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf you enjoy fly fishing for trout and you go all summer just waiting for cool weather to roll around again, you are missing some serious fun with your fly rod!


Trophy Day on the New River

When David Coffman was putting together our trip to southwest Virginia, including finding guide recommendations for a day of fishing on the New River, one name topped the list: Shawn Hash from Tangent Outfitters. The trip, a six-day odyssey through a beautiful and rugged portion of my beloved home state I had never set foot in before, brought us on the final day to Pembroke, VA where we met up with Shawn.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was a beautiful day, but windy. I brought my 7-weight fly rod, which is a nice smallmouth rod in the wind, but I was not in the mood to fight it all day. We were there to relax and catch fish, and when the gusts are into the 35-40mph range, you leave the fly rod in the tube and grab a spinning rod. No apologies there, I love fly fishing but it was not the day for it.

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I love a brown trout. My favorite fish ever was a medium sized Yellowstone Cutthroat. Brookies, rainbows, salmon, steelhead, stripers, shad, they’re all special, really. But I have a particular affection for the Smallmouth Bass. I learned to fly fish clumsily throwing wooly buggers to smallies in my home waters of the Potomac and the last couple miles of the Shenandoah before the two rivers meet as one. I’ve fished from banks, waded for them and caught them from a kayak. On one kayak trip not far from where we now live, I caught my personal best smallmouth, about a 17.5 incher that towed me around for a while before I got it in.

Well that personal best was bested by a beefy 18-incher within 40 yards of the ramp where we put in. A good day already. But it gets better. I have never seen so many consistently big, hard-fighting smallmouth. One after the other we were pulling in fish measuring 16 to 18 inches. Then I hooked into a particularly heavy one, and the moment Shawn netted it, he said, “citation!”

I have never caught an official citation, or trophy fish of any species. A smallmouth has to be 20 inches in length to qualify, and this one is about 20.5″. It weighed in at 4.75 lbs. To get a citation of one of my very favorite species of fish is extremely special to me. But amazingly, probably seven of the biggest ten smallmouth I have ever caught, were caught on this day out of the New River.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut remarkable things were happening for the guy in the back of the boat, too! David, editor of the VDGIF Outdoor Report and a lifelong outdoorsman, declared this the best day of fishing of his life! He was reeling in a “mediocre” smallmouth, maybe 12-13″, it was up on the surface close to the boat. I was watching it when what I presumed for an instant was a shark of some sort crashed up through the surface of the water after the smallie.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWell of course it wasn’t a shark, it was a muskie! It had knocked the smallmouth free and was now on the line.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWith the exception of the big salmon up in New York, this is the biggest freshwater fish I have ever seen with my own eyes.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAShawn told David just what to do, let him have some line, and carefully David got this monster back toward the boat.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut the fish was pretty angry about the whole thing, and had plenty of means and desire to fight back.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFinally he got into a position where Shawn could net him.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJust watching this I could feel the weight of this fish in the net!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAn absolutely giddy David (left), holds his catch with proud guide Shawn. Congratulations, David, on a beautiful muskie!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThat night we celebrated with a great dinner at the nearby Palisades Restaurant, cigars and a few drinks. What a special day on the river, and I couldn’t be happier for David. I got my very special citation smallie, and he has a fish of a lifetime he will never forget. Wow.

That night we stayed in one of the riverfront cabins run by Tangent. This is the view from the porch. I didn’t think to get photos of the inside but I can’t recommend the cabins highly enough. Modern, comfortable, meticulously clean. Just a fantastic experience all around. I will absolutely return to the New River to have some fun with Tangent Outfitters!

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If you’re only going to catch one fish…

…might as well be a nice one.

I hit the river this morning for a couple hours with one goal in mind: to get a little more proficient with my Olympus TG-1 and the new fish-eye lens converter I just got for it. It’s supposed to produce better, more dynamic underwater photos. And with my trip to Montana just over a week away, I don’t want to be fumbling with my settings when I get the chance to shoot a cutthroat in those beautiful, clear Montana streams.

There are three different underwater settings for this camera: landscape, action and macro, each with a flash option. So there really is a lot of experimenting to be done to find the best settings for particular underwater photo opportunities. I wanted a fish subject but wasn’t having much luck until this beauty came along. All these photos are of the same cooperative smallmouth, the only fish I caught today.

Most of the photos were taken with the lens zoomed in all the way. I don’t know why it was set like that, but I’m glad I looked at the images with the fish still in my hand so I could back off and get some decent shots of the entire fish.

Having said that, I am very pleased with these oddly abstract close ups!

There’s the big fella! He was a real beauty, easily 16″ I think, and very thick.

Pretty clear underwater image, considering the water isn’t exactly gin clear. But it’ll take more practice to really dial in the best way to shoot these scenes.

See you next time, pal!


Evening Smallmouth in Haiku


It was almost dark
when I headed down the hill
in search of smallmouth

The river gave up
Five fish in twenty minutes
But light was fading

So I headed back
Up the steep hill to the house
Grinning all the way.


1 Fly, 10 Fish, 100 Degrees

It’s hot today. Damned hot. But I felt like walking down to the river with my fly rod and making the most of an otherwise dreadful day. I brought along my new trusty Olympus TG-1 waterproof camera and had some fun with it too.

The heat kept most sensible people indoors, but it wasn’t bad here on the water late morning. A steady breeze kept things reasonable. But I only spotted a couple people kayaking in the couple hours I was out there.

At this time of year, this grass grows in the river everywhere. The good news is it makes for good, safe habitat for fish. The bad news is it makes for good safe habitat for fish. It’s a challenge to fish water like this without getting snagged continually, but luckily the water was very clear, so you could actually cast to the gaps and watch your fly move underwater. To successfully navigate a streamer through these clumps and end up catching fish is pretty fun and rewarding.

I don’t understand what the camera is doing to make this dark edge around the fish, but to me it gives it the look of a bad movie special effect or something. This is a healthy little smallmouth bass, one of eight small ones I caught today along with a couple pretty sunfish.

This cool wooly bugger is the only fly I fished with today, tied by my friend Josh Williams of Dead Drift Flies. I think it really comes to life in the water, great looking fly.

I feel like the key to my photography is to just take a LOT of photos, because most of them are going to be uninteresting, technically flawed or both. If that’s true above the water’s surface, it is doubly true beneath it. Because you can’t see what you’re shooting, you just pick your settings, hold it underwater and snap away. I took over a hundred underwater pics today (many on ‘burst’ shutter to try to capture movement), and ended up with a half dozen or so keepers. And while the keepers admittedly aren’t that great, I did make some progress in figuring out the settings I like underwater.

On the settings that use a flash, like this one and the photo at the top of the post, to me the photos have almost a surreal look to them.

Well of course, I let this little guy go hoping he would swim toward the camera. No.

I don’t know if you can see these at the top of the picture, but I have a large pod of large carp right off our river bank, and I will figure out how to catch them one day! The largest of these, like the blackish looking one in the top right of the photo, is probably 30″ long and as big around as my thigh. I saw 12-15 carp and some impressive catfish in this hole. I fished to them for a while but they were not interested in my silliness.

And speaking of silly, you find odd things in and around the river all the time. This rubber ducky had a number on the bottom, leftover from an old Brunswick, Maryland Railroad Days game where you buy a number, they release the duckies upstream, and as they catch them downstream there are prizes given out. This wayward fella missed out on the game and was stuck in a little eddie for who knows how long, so I sent him on his way down river.


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