River to Reservoir: Learning a New Game

Tue, May 26, 2009

Lakes, Places, Smallmouth Fishing

Within a period of two years, several events occurred which put a crimp in my river smallmouth fishing plans. I had relocated 45 minutes further away from my favorite watershed, the Rappahannock, a fish kill wiped out the majority of the Shenandoah smallmouth population, the price of gas went from under $2 to over $3, and the Susquehanna smallmouth population was suffering from poor recruitment and young of the year fish kill. My options of reliable river smallmouth waters were shrinking. I needed to learn something besides river smallmouth. So I looked close to home, in Carroll County, Maryland.

The tidal largemouth fisheries of the upper Chesapeake Bay caught my attention first. After fishing the Susquehanna Flats several times with good results, I decided to attend a Susquehanna River Smallmouth Club meeting, where largemouth guide Capt. Karl Bunch was the guest speaker. He provided some valuable pattern information on how to best target the grass beds for summer tidal largemouth. In the months following I was able to use that knowledge on a few outings, but I missed the bulldogging surge of a huge river smallmouth.

Needing to wrap up the photography for my book on kayak fishing for river smallmouth, I found myself driving further and further to get the needed shots of big bronze. The following fall, with the amount of daylight shrinking, and the price of gas rising, I started to seek other options. One quick fix was to car top my kayak on my Honda Civic instead of just throwing it in the back of my Dodge Ram pickup. But that only half solved one of my problems.

At the Timonium, Maryland fishing expo, I spoke to Bill May, an outdoor writer for the Carroll County Times. He looked through my album of smallmouth pictures from the previous season. I made a comment about how much driving I had done to catch them. The conversation turned to the local smallmouth scene, the City of Baltimore owned reservoirs, Liberty, Prettyboy, and Loch Raven. At some point, Bill cautioned that a special permit was required, and that they did not allow people to fish from kayaks in these reservoirs. Maybe it was the prospect of good local smallmouth fishing, and maybe it was my irritation over such a senseless regulation, but I decided to learn more about these smallmouth fisheries.

The first source of information was the regulation book itself. I sent a self addressed stamped envelope to the City of Baltimore, and received the permit application and regulation book. To my delight, I found that the regulation that Bill spoke of had been updated. Under the “New Regulation” section, it stated that 2006 is the first season that kayaks will be allowed as fishing vessels. So I sent in my application and check, and in a few days, I was paddling my Tarpon 140 sit on top kayak across Liberty Reservoir. My first thought on the water was, “Wow, am I lost!”

I possessed a great deal of knowledge on how to find and catch river smallmouth. But even with the aid of a depth finder, I had no clue where to start. I paddled to a rocky shoreline, threw a jig straight out, let it settle to the bottom, and waited. The cold March wind was whipping up white caps and my hands felt cold. The previous month on the Rappahannock in worse weather conditions than that, my hands never felt cold. Self doubt is chilling.

Through different connections I had made as a kayak fishing instructor, president of the Potomac River Smallmouth Club (PRSC), and being an outdoor writer, I started to speed up my learning curve. However, looking back at the people I spoke to, I realize that I didn’t need to be that guy: president, author, instructor/guide for these people to disclose their knowledge. The type of people who have the most valuable knowledge are so passionate about it that they can’t help but speak of it. Their enthusiasm overrides any issues of ego or secrecy that are so common in less secure “experts”.

In a conversation I was having with C.C. McCotter, editor of Woods & Waters Magazine, I mentioned that I was trying to learn about the Baltimore Reservoirs. He immediately said, “You have to speak with Jerry Sauter!” He had fished with Jerry a few times to do a story on Liberty Reservoir’s Stripers. Jerry is certainly an expert on Liberty’s stripers. He also turned out to be an incredible wealth of information on reservoir smallmouth and largemouth. In fact, Jerry has held the Maryland state record for all three species at one time. During the hour and a half that I spoke to him on the phone, he mentioned that he had caught a lifetime total of 41 smallmouth six pounds or better. He was not doing this through annual trips to Dale Hollow or Erie. These 41 fish were Maryland reservoir smallmouth.

I prepared for the phone interview as I did as President of the PRSC. For the monthly club newsletter, I needed to write the speaker biography. Before calling, I sat down and wrote out a list of interview questions that I thought Jerry could answer.

“What is the primary forage of smallmouth in these reservoirs?”

“What color are the crawfish?”
Slate – brown.

“Where in the reservoir are the smallmouth right now?”
In the channels leading to coves.

“Where will I find them this summer?”
On rocky points near the thermocline, which is between 26 and 32 feet, but closer to 32 on Liberty than on Prettyboy.

“What’s a thermocline?”
His explanation of this was more in depth that I could write down notes, but you get the idea.

At the end of the conversation, I thanked him several times. I then looked up his address and mailed him another thank you with three of my hand tied rabbit hair jigs.

I thought about other reservoir smallmouth anglers. My friend Robert Segal, who fishes several Virginia reservoirs like Smith Mountain and Claytor was able to tell me a few other very true and very valuable tidbits. He said that in the spring, go to where the creek or river is dumping in warmer water following a good rain. He mentioned that after the spawn, you will find some smallmouth in the coves. He continued to explain that the biggest fish will be on main lake points, and where the underwater contour is at a 45 degree angle leading away from shore. A month and a half after he said that to me, I was able to witness firsthand how true his statements are.

While reading one of Bill May’s articles in the Carroll County Times, I learned about a tournament club, Electric Bass Anglers, that was going to be at the Bass Pro Shops the following Saturday. I cut out the article, and attended the “Reservoir Day”. I spoke with several tournament club anglers, asking them to divulge their most productive patterns. They did. I did not ask for specific location information. It is interesting that a few of them provided location information even though I did not ask for it. I was looking for a jumping off point to go find my own honey holes. It was also interesting that the club member who seemed to be the one who won most of the tournament provided plenty of very specific pattern information such as lure choice, lure color, depth range, retrieval speed, cover and structure information. The club members who seemed to be less frequently “in the money” went right to disclosing specific location information.

Jeff Little making map

Next on my list were two fisheries biologists. Mike Nailor and Ed Enemait of Maryland Department of Natural Resources were able to provide an in depth assay of the forage base, subaquatic vegetation, trends in bass population, spawning success history of the reservoirs, and a set of fishing structure guide maps from the 1970′s that are no longer in print. I took the maps to Office Depot, used the blueprint copier, marked the maps with different colors for different depths, and laminated them. I now have a way to go directly to 26 to 32 feet on a rocky main lake point. I also have an understanding of what spawning habitat each species prefers, and have some new ideas about what alternate forage types I should try to mimic when tying rabbit hair jigs.

Jeff Little with smallmouth bass

Around the same time, my fishing buddy Dave Stine had been doing the same kind of research, and had spoken to another Maryland DNR fisheries biologist, Letha Grimes. Letha had shared graphs of the different species, and their relative abundance. Dave and I shared notes during each of our research of the Baltimore reservoirs.

So, let’s count the different sources I used to speed up my learning curve for reservoir smallmouth: three fisheries biologists, one state record holder, countless members of three different fishing clubs, two outdoor writers, two different websites, someone who according to Gord Pyzer’s InFisherman article he was featured in “has probably caught as many 4-pound smallmouths as anyone in North America”, a 3 decade old out of print structure map, several of my fishing buddies, and the agency that oversees the fisheries in question.

Tomorrow morning, when I launch my kayak on Prettyboy Reservoir in search of the next state record smallmouth, I will not feel the chill of self doubt. The information is out there. The people who have the information that you want will give it to you. You just have to ask.

Jeff Little is owner of Blue Ridge Kayak Fishing LLC, which provides kayak fishing instruction for river smallmouth bass, tidal largemouth bass, and reservoir bass in Maryland and Virginia.

By: Jeff Little, Originally Published: 6-30-06

Blue Ridge Kayak Fishing LLC

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3 Responses to “River to Reservoir: Learning a New Game”

  1. Lannie Waston Says:

    The plastic worm is widely heralded as the best Bass lure out there. I myself would have to agree. I cant name one other lure that produces the fish that a worm does.

  2. Whitetail deer Says:

    my favorite stuff to fish is spring creeks and small rivers, because they are almost always wadeable.

  3. Sea fishing Says:

    I just use 3 flys. I’ve never hooked up on the jigs (usually grim reaper style used) when jigging – but they seem to work well when cast and retrieved. The hook at the bottom of the jig is a snag magnet! My typical formular is snap off tear drop sinker – as light as possible – but don’t be afraid to chainge up if you are drifting too fast to keep the line vertical. Dark bully style fly on the bottom – wooly bugger or similar…it tends to look like a bully or a kura and smaller smelt type patterns on the top two. Keep the flys as far apart as is managable at the boat, there is a lot of water to cover. If you are on fairly snag free bottom – put the lowest dropper quite close to the sinker and thump the sinker into the sand/silt every now and then to disturb the bottom -this can often attract curious cruisers!

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