What happened to the Potomac River? Through the early B.A.S.S. tournament days, the Nation's River was the site of perennial pro slugfests and was near the top of every angler's fishing bucket list. However, in the past 5 years, anglers have struggled as several factors collided to create the perfect storm.
In 2002, construction of two of the largest development projects (Woodrow Wilson I-95 Bridge, National Harbor) in the history of the river not only took place simultaneously, but also were separated by only a few hundred feet. In addition to the 5 years of developmental disturbance, storms wiped out submerged aquatic vegetation.
The result was a huge loss of the essential river grasses. When construction began, the D.C. portion of the Potomac had 700 acres of grass, then only 25 for the following year. Even now, only 400 acres appeared last year and none were the preferred milfoil grass. This loss has continued to this day, working its way downriver.
As fishing became tougher, angry anti-tournament letters and aggressive written assaults on fishery managers appeared on social media, primarily attributed to one disgruntled guide. Efforts to revive the river have included grass and structure planting, and more studies to find answers. This year, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources has taken bold steps, and none are sitting well with tournament anglers.
Catch-and-return areas, where essentially tournament anglers are not welcome, may go into effect in July. These year-round off-limits sections are in prime Maryland creeks; Piscataway, Chicamuxen, and the river's perennial hotspot, Mattawoman. Only catch-and immediate-release would be allowed in these areas, intended to encourage the spawn, eliminate fish removal and to provide space for non-tournament anglers. However, guiding and commercial harvesting could still take place.
As if this didn't raise the ire of tournament anglers enough, a letter sent out this week to tournament directors from Maryland tidal bass manager Joe Love is pushing them over the edge. In conjunction with the DNR's permitting process for all events launched from Maryland ramps, further immediate restrictions were imposed. While anglers can still bring five fish to the scales, only one fish can be over 15 inches. Rationalizing this move, the letter proposes the stress on larger fish and the shortage of these fish would be reduced with this moratorium.
"We hope this action will help replenish older age groups of largemouth bass," the letter staged. "Replacement of these age groups should result in a healthier, more robust population of bass."
Fines will be directed at the tournament director for each infraction. In addition, the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries, which shares the Potomac shoreline, was apparently not consulted, nor did they receive a copy of this letter.
However, this might be a situation where a nose is being culled to spite the limit. For ramps just across the river in Virginia, there are no restrictions, as they are outside the reach of the Maryland tournament permitting process.
Anglers in events originating in Virginia can still fish the same waters Maryland is proposing to protect. This scenario is real. Maryland is in a lose-lose situation. It will lose the economic boost tournaments bring. License sales, ramp fees and the dollars spent on gasoline, hotels, meals and tackle will cross the bridge into a welcoming Virginia.
The catch-and-return areas (located in Maryland waters) will be enforced for all anglers, but the “slot limit plus one” being imposed will not apply to Virginia-based tournaments. None of the perceived benefits will be achieved, as anglers fishing in Maryland, Virginia or D.C. portions of the river are exempt when they weigh in in Virginia.
Since the upcoming August Elite Series tournament is not already permitted, this new tournament limit will be in effect when the country’s top pros visit. B.A.S.S. is working with Maryland DNR to find a solution, as holding a major fishing event under these restrictions might force the event to relocate. This will also involve Charles County, Md., as it's the host and has made its commitment.
Here’s where Maryland must be careful. If it makes an exception for the biggest tournament of the year during the season’s hottest weather, yet holds other clubs and organizations to the letter of the law, it could further jeopardize its already fractured credibility on this issue. Regardless, the newly enacted catch-and-return areas could be in force, further shrinking an already-small fishing venue.
Perhaps after the smoke on the water clears and Maryland makes a few calculations, this second shoe to drop will be shoehorned back to the drawing board. Future B.A.S.S. and FLW events are in the balance, as it is unlikely either organization will take to these limits.
Until all Potomac River jurisdictions – Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia – are on the same page, a loopholed fisheries management plan needs to be reevaluated. For now, it is apparent that the Maryland DNR is blaming tournament anglers for poor fishing conditions.
(Capt. Steve Chaconas is a Potomac bass fishing guide and contributing writer for BoatUS.com. He can be contacted by sending an email to info@NationalBass.com.)