Smallmouth, catfish, snakes & canoes!
In 2003 I went over to America for the wedding of one of my oldest friends. Gaz had met an American girl and was moving “across the pond” permanently. I’ve since heard stories of the kind of lifestyle he lives over there and I must say that at times, I’m jealous! Despite living in the “city” of Fairfax – just outside Washington DC – within half-an-hour’s drive he has access to several large National Parks and recreation areas (not like a “rec” over here; just a piece of grass and a swing!) which either contain well-stocked lakes or free-to-access rivers.
I used to fish a lot with Gaz when we were kids, but in recent years he hadn’t really fished much. The distance between us means that we don’t get chance to meet up often, so when I saw Gaz at Christmas and he told me he’d got the fishing bug again, I was delighted! He and his current girlfriend (now wife! – Ed), Liana, had both bought fishing rods and they’d even invested in a canoe! I’d had an open invitation to go back and visit since I was last there, and upon hearing that they’d spent most weekends the previous Summer canoeing, camping and fishing on a nearby river, I simply couldn’t resist making this my Summer holiday; I immediately hatched a secret plan with Liana to visit them. Several months of secretive pan-Atlantic plotting followed, and although I drafted in a few days sightseeing – as one surely must when visiting the capital – Liana made sure plenty of fishing would fit into my ten-day trip.
During my previous visit to the States I had taken a couple of telescopic rods and done some light lure & bait fishing on a large lake; nothing too hardcore, but I had great fun catching Chain Pickerel, Bass, Trout and Catfish. This time I had a little more idea what I was doing, and because of the vastly superior lure selections available in the States, I bought all the lures I’d need (and a “few” more for use back home) while I was there. I took along my two most trusted travel companions, my Shimano Exage Mini-Tele STC telescopic for lure fishing and my telescopic Wychwood Rogue rod for the catfish and carp.
The surprise worked perfectly, Gaz suspected nothing about my arrival and Liana had arranged for time off from their respective workplaces. As luck would have it, the day after I arrived was a public holiday; so we loaded the car with our fishing tackle and a canoe and headed out to the Potomac River for a spot of reconnaissance ahead of an overnight camping trip where we’d target catfish, the following week. On route we stopped off so I could buy a Virginia fishing licence, some tackle and a packed lunch, but we were soon paddling our small vessel across the unbelievably wide river, above some serious looking rapids! On the far side, a small arm of the river broke off and meandered through several small, heavily-wooded islets; I remember being surprised by how much it reminded me of the tropical rainforest in Borneo! With large, rounded rocks and a relentlessly fast flow, the main river reminded me a lot of the Ramganga where I fished for Mahseer in India. We stopped at some really “fishy”-looking swims, with fallen trees and deep eddies aplenty, but these yielded nothing to our lures. Maybe it was because of the bright mid-afternoon sunshine, but still I would have bet plenty that we’d coax a bass from between the roots. I spotted a snake swimming in the river at the first spot we stopped, which got me pretty excited as I wasn’t expecting to see much wildlife so close to Washington, especially snakes.
A little further downstream, we passed a group of small fish “spraying” on the surface, much like roach do back home when fleeing pike! Immediately I said we should pull to shore and fish here, but before we started the manoeuvre towards dry land, up popped an otter! I have only seen one otter before, so this was an unexpected and special sight. Needless to say, I changed my mind about fishing there; even a fairly large bass would have fled a feeding otter!
Eventually we rejoined the main river, and here several larger islands dotted the river; it was these we were checking out for our future overnight session. One island had some small reedbeds, along with a fallen tree and plenty of depth changes surrounding it; it seemed perfect. The three of us spread out, but after almost an hour we’d caught nothing. Gaz hooked and lost a small bass from a little further out, which spurred me on to go wading up to my waist and fish my favourite Mepps Aglia Long #3 (which was the only lure I’d taken with me from the UK) into the faster water. After a few casts I felt a bump, which caught me so much by surprise I forgot to strike! The next cast went to the same place and this time when the bite came I was ready. The fish, although small, leapt spectacularly, and I knew I’d hooked a bass. It was a smallmouth bass of around half a pound, and as my first fish caught on American soil for 6 years, it was just the confidence boost I needed. A few casts later I hooked a much heavier bass, which spared none of the acrobatics; I did wonder if I was going to land it before it threw my barbless hook! Luckily, the hook held and I lifted a beautiful smallmouth bass of around 2lb from the river. It was no monster, but apparently a bigger-than-average fish for the Potomac, and my biggest Smallmouth too. That was it, apart from a few Bluegill Sunfish that Liana caught (with some good-sized specimens of this mini-predator too!). The beauty of fishing this area of the Potomac was that, although we’d canoed quite a way downstream, a canal runs parallel to the other bank of the river, so all we had to do was paddle across, lift the canoe from one waterway to the next and paddle up the canal, back to the car!
Unfortunately, the sun we’d had on that first day turned to rain for most of the following week, so by the time we were due to return, the river had risen considerably and was a real dirty brown colour. If we’d been fishing for anything else, this would have been a death-blow, but we were targeting catfish, which with their keen sense of smell and huge barbules, would surely have no problem finding our baits. We arrived at the river in the middle of an absolute downpour, and for an hour we sheltered beneath the tailgate of Gaz’s car (in our T-shirts and shorts!), contemplating whether or not to call the trip off. We’d stocked up on supplies (so much so we had to take two canoes!) and come this far, so we waited for a break in the rain – which thankfully arrived in time for us to get out there before dark – and set off towards the far bank channel.
A quarter of the way across, Liana and I looked back to see Gaz battling to stay above the rock and tree-strewn rapids! He was on his own in an inflatable canoe, with the majority of our camping gear. Within a few seconds he was drifting backwards helplessly into the rapids, so we had no option but to catch him up and all brave this far more dangerous (but much quicker!) route together! As we caught Gaz up, we threw him one of the two lifejackets we had between us and then led the way. We navigated between each sharp obstacle for maybe ten minutes before we were clear of danger, in the calmer water which surrounded the islands we were heading for. All the practice we’d had in Bakewell Raft Race as youngsters finally paid off!
The island we’d pinpointed on the previous trip was half-underwater, and it was too risky to set up camp there, so we headed to a larger one nearby, which had a beach perfect both for landing our flimsy craft, and hopefully later, some catfish. I waded out and found a deep hole which seemed perfect to cast into, so we set up camp and prepared for dark. As I stood taking photographs of the breathtaking sunset we were being treated to, I noticed something swimming in the margins towards me. Looking down, I realised it was a snake, and as I stood on the water’s edge, it slithered to a halt on some sticks right by my foot. This was too good an opportunity to waste – I love snakes – so I switched the camera to macro and snapped away a few close-ups before it continued its journey upstream.
When Gaz and Liana usually fish for catfish, they have most luck using dead bluegills as bait, but in the brown water our lures were useless and we caught none. Plan B was to use “catfish dough”, which is very smelly, soft paste which I suppose is quite similar to the pellets we’d use over here to catch wels catfish. I set up a “UK catfish”-style running leger rig with a long hair upon which I mounted my bait. Gaz and Liana used a more common and crude American-style set-up, incorporating a drilled bullet lead and side-hooked baits. I’d also taken along some starlites to fix to the rod tips for bite indication. We sat quietly near the campfire, drinking a few beers, until 2am; the only bite we’d had between us was on Liana’s rod, but unfortunately it was missed.
As the other two were getting ready to go to sleep, I decided I’d try and catch some deadbaits, so I rigged up my mini-tele rod with a couple of swan shot and a size 10 hook and baited up with a worm. I cast it out into the shallow margin and wedged the rod butt in the canoe, then went back to watching my catfish rod. I’d only left the worm rod for a moment when I heard the drag scream! I ran over to find the rod doubled over and line tearing off my tightly-set drag! I lifted the rod out of its makeshift butt-rest and was shocked at the power of the fish I was connected to! After all our efforts using “catfish baits” in the deep hole, I’d only gone and hooked one in the shallows on a worm! The fish was around 4lb in weight but it fought like it was possessed; a fluke, surely, but I baited with another worm and flicked it back out in the margin.
A few minutes passed and the same happened again; this time a fish of around 6lb. Sensing this was the spot and the method, and now fishing alone, I moved my chair next to the canoe and concentrated on the worm rod, touch-legering for bites. If I thought the previous fish fought like demons, the next one was Lucifer himself! I clung to my rod in awe, as the catfish ran a good fifty yards into the main flow between the two islands. Initially I didn’t give myself a chance of landing it, but eventually I started gaining line faster than the fish and after an epic 15 minute tussle, I landed a fish of about 8lb. I couldn’t believe the fight it had given, I had visions of some leviathan of at least three times its size, but it was by far my biggest channel catfish, so I was chuffed to bits. I caught a further six fish, all on worm from within 10 feet of the bank, but none compared to the battle or size of the eight pounder. I was having so much fun, but it was getting late and I was running out of worms, so I dragged myself away from the river and off to bed at around 4am.
As we were packing up next morning, I cast out my “catfish” rod, baited with some of the catfish dough (which I think would work brilliantly for British cats too, but due to a disaster with my bait freezer last week, I’ve none left to try out, or any of my several kilos of pike deadbaits for that matter!) and sat it on a bite alarm I’d taken, along with some mini stainless banksticks. Low and behold, I caught two more catfish using these “proper” tactics and although they didn’t give me the same fight on the bigger rod, it was great to catch some in the daylight before we headed home.
I’m pleased to say the weather improved a couple of days before I flew home, so Gaz and I took out the canoe for one last trip. There was a large lake nearby called Burke Lake, which was famously good for bass and catfish. The weather was scorching, with hardly a cloud in the sky all day, so the bass fishing would be tough but the surroundings were beautiful.
We paddled to the far side of the lake, where a small reedy bay was still covered in shade from the surrounding trees, so it looked a perfect place to start. We’d both set up float rigs (which were far closer to British coarse rigs than American “Bobber” rigs, courtesy of some wagglers and split shot I’d taken with me!) and also had a lure rod each. I was first to have a bite, but it was a bluegill taking my worm, which they do with the same reckless, greedy abandon as 2-3 ounce perch do over here. Gaz didn’t have too much action on the float, but he soon struck into a fish which took his blue rubber worm on a jig head. The bend in the rod said this wasn’t a bluegill and sure enough, a few seconds later, a decent largemouth bass of around 4lb leapt from the water, but as it leapt it managed to throw the hook! It was a positive sign, but after we’d fruitlessly, frantically cast lures through the rest of the swim, hoping there’d be more, we moved on to a swim next to an island. First cast here, Gaz let his rubber worm sink towards the deck. Just as he was about to start to retrieve, his rod was almost pulled from his hands! This, we were sure was a very, very large bass. Shows how much we know; the scrap went on for a few minutes before the fish neared the surface. I reached out to land the bass for Gaz, only to see that it was in fact, a catfish; not only that, but a rare lure-caught one.
This first, surprise cat set the tone for the rest of the day. We fished several swims and neither of us hooked another fish on the lure, but the worms were emptying the place! Catfish followed catfish, followed bluegill, followed catfish. I did hook and lose a largemouth on worm. Just as Gaz had lost his fish mid-flight, mine also took me by surprise and by the time I realised it was jumping it was already too late. I lost count of what we actually caught, but I know I had over 25 catfish, 10 bluegills and a couple of smallmouth bass. In blazing sunshine that’s not bad going, and although the catfish got a bit tiresome after a while, it was brilliant fun. It just goes to show that you don’t need to go on guided fishing trips when you’re on holiday to catch and have fun. Just do a bit of research, know what species you’ll be targeting and a couple of good methods to use and get yourself out there fishing; you might surprise yourself.