Finessing Potomac River Largemouth
By C.C. McCotter with John Hutchins
Every year it seems like some new tactic comes along and a select few anglers adopt it and cash in. Remember when the MannÕs Minus 1 plug was all you threw on the Potomac River? Then came the great frog fishing craze. Next was grass mat punching. So what comes next?
If you analyze who is winning tournaments on the river youÕll see that John Hutchins seems to have something figured out. This has been his best personal season yet with 15 wins in five different series. Hutchins is leading the points race in all four series he is currently fishing including Championship Teams, LAPR Bass Series Lake Anna Division, the ABA Draw Trail Maryland Division and the BASSMasters Weekend Series Maryland Division.
Hutchins is on a role and I wanted to know why, as IÕm sure many of you do, too. Was it a tactic, area or change in fishing philosophy that has helped him go from top finishes to the winnerÕs prize?
Turns out itÕs a tactic that reflects his fishing philosophy; stay open-minded and continuously upgrade your skill set using technology and new gear. Hutchins is actually finessing a lot of the Potomac River (and Lake Anna) bass coming to the livewell of his Triton Tr21X. Yep, heÕs using light tackle and little lures in the land of 65-pound braided line and clumps of milfoil that can make a two-pound bass weigh 20.
Here are his answers to the questions W2 posed to him recently about this unusual river tactic.
1) What made you consider using finesse tactics for Potomac River bass?
Having grown up on the west coast where many of the modern finesse fishing tactics originated, the light line, slow and subtle presentation has always been one of my favorite ways to catch bass.
The problem I faced when I first came to the Potomac was the grass. Prior to moving to the region in 2001, I had virtually no experience fishing grass, let alone with light line finesse tactics. However, I soon became aware that not many other anglers were taking advantage of these techniques and that these unique presentations from the west coast may at some point, prove to be a big advantage for me. The real question for me was the how, when and the where to take advantage of this over- looked opportunity on the Potomac
2) Please describe the first time you used finesse tactics for Potomac River bass.
I can recall my first trip to the Potomac back before I actually lived here. It was with Pete Herbst, a good friend and fishing partner who showed me much of the river that I know today. We were out on a day that Pete described to me as a very uncharacteristic day for the Potomac.
We had thrown spinnerbaits, crankbaits, Texas-rigged plastics, and just about everything you can imagine. I then naturally started leaning to my spinning rod. Since I had just flown out for the week, I had brought limited tackle with me. I recall saying to Pete,Ó Man I wish I had some Senko's."
To my amazement Pete replied, "Those are made by Yamamoto arenÕt they"?
I was surprised since back then in 2000 you couldnÕt even buy them locally, however Pete dug into his boat and pulled out a bag of five-inch chartreuse Yamamoto Senko's. If I didnÕt catch a bass on my first cast it was the second cast. We then continued to catch several more bass that day using light line with a weightless Senko.
3) What conditions are prime for finessing bass from the Potomac?
During the spawn in Late April through May and then I pull out the finesse in mid July through September.
Warm water and low oxygen levels late in the summer make the bass very inactive during the heat of the day. They don't stop feeding, they just do the majority of it after 10 at night. To catch them during the daytime hours can be difficult especially once the sun gets high and the water is flat. ItÕs the slow, methodical finesse presentation that will really shine during this time of year under these conditions
4) What type of rod, reel and line do you recommend?
Generally speaking you want to match the rod with the line size as well as the thickness of your hook.
The lighter the line the softer the rod. The length of the rod is important also. For long casts you want a longer rod perhaps seven feet or longer, but not just for the cast. On a longer cast you will need more leverage to set the hook and pick up all that line quickly.
For shorter casts I like a smaller rod since it gives me higher sensitivity. I probably use a much heavier rod that most do for finesse fishing. This allows me to be more versatile with one rod. As long as I stay aware of where the fish is when he bites, I can adjust the power of my hookset based on how close he is to the boat to prevent breakoffs with the light line.
The heavier rod allows for better hooksets on long casts as well. My top three rods are 1) a St. Croix 7 medium moderate Avid series for Senkos with 10lb Segaur fluorocarbon, 2) a 6'6" medium heavy St. Croix Avid for "shakey heads" with 8- 10 lb Segaur and 3) a six-foot medium moderate St. Croix Avid with 6-lb. Segaur for drop shotting.
As far as line goes, if your not using fluorocarbon your not going to catch as many fish with this tactic. ItÕs that simple. It has low stretch, more abrasion resistance, doesnÕt absorb water (which causes stretch), and is not affected by the sunÕs UV rays or hot and cold conditions, which makes it last much longer than mono.
One of the most over looked tools for finesse fishing is the reel. I prefer a wide-spooled, over-sized spinning reel for two reasons. First, the larger reel and spool allow me to pick up more line with each turn of the handle. This is critical when you need to pick up line in a hurry since many times while finesse fishing the fish will bite and run toward you without you even knowing. You will need a reel that can recover in a hurry.
This works the same going the other way when "back reeling". I back reel any time I hook a fish that is probably too much for my line to handle. Just turn off the anti-reverse and when the fish surges you simply reel backwards to give the fish line while maintaining constant pressure. This gives you so much more control of the fish and will increase your odds with the big ones dramatically.
If you donÕt believe me, just ask Rich Newton who sold me on it years ago.
Second, the wider spool allows you to cast further with less twisting or coiling.
5) What lures and actual tactics do you employ with this style of fishing?
For drop shotting I use a Kinami 4" cut tail in baby bass and 3.5-inch Fish Belly Hawg Shad in Milky Greenback. Ninety-five percent of the time I will get more bites with a shorter leader. A distance of 8" to 13" from your bait to the weight will get you more bites, trust me.
On the Potomac it is important to match your weight to not only the depth youÕre fishing but to the speed of the current. You want your bait to move with the current naturally while still maintaining contact with the bottom. This is critical!
As a rule you donÕt want to over work a drop shot. Let the current do the work. On the river especially around grass, I Texas rig my drop shot to make it weedless. If you do this you must use a very light wire hook or else you wonÕt hook up. My hook of choice for this is an Owner down shot hook in a 1/0. ItÕs got a big bite but the wire is very light allowing for sure hook ups.
For Senko fishing I use a 5" green pumpkin and dip the tail. I incorporate a light wire hook here as well. A 2-3/0 offset shank hook is ideal.
I work this bait weightless most of the time, targeting grass edges and holes in grass beds. One thing I have discovered about fishing this bait on the river is that you donÕt always have to fish it slow. By that I mean you can often times trigger strikes by fishing it like a soft plastic jerkbait, giving the bait hard twitches. When the bait comes in contact with grass pull it free and then let it fall and hold on.
Also, I have discovered that most bites come within seconds of the bait hitting the water and have found that the bass are reacting to the splash of the bait on the surface. With that in mind you can be more effective most of the time by making more casts systematically fan casting than if you were to just let the bait soak. This is really one of my biggest secrets to fishing a Senko on the river.
My next go to is the "Shakey Head". Like with the drop shot I generally match the jig head with the depth and flow of the current. The key here is natural presentation. You want your bait to move along with the tide just like their forage does. The only exception is heavy wind or boat traffic in that case I am forces to go heavier.
I use a 1/8, 3/16, and 1/4 ounce jig heads depending on these conditions. The lightest you can get away with while still maintaining contact with the bottom will always get you more bites.
My favorite worm is the Net Bait T-Mac worm in Summer Craw, Bamma Bug, and Red Bug. I fish the bait mainly on grass edges holes in grass beds, docks and other hard cover. Work the bait slowly in and shake the rod in place vigorously between short pauses. When you feel a bite, reel down to the fish, let the fish load the rod and give a nice easy sweeping hook set. DonÕt set early. Give the fish a chance to suck in the entire bait. They hold on to this bait for a while.
6) How do you keep your line from breaking?
I get this question a lot and I give the same answer every time. The most difficult aspect of fishing is getting bit. Because I feel light line gets more bites I will use it in any situation if need be. I will worry about getting the fish in once I have him hooked up.
You would be surprised how many giant fish I have pulled from dock pilings, brush piles and boat props on 10-lb and even 6-lb. line. The key is to let the fish work himself out. You can give the bass a little guidance, but never pull back with any thing but a delicate pull when the line is wrapped up.
One of two things will happen if you are patient. The bass will either work himself out on his own or he will tire and just lay there motionless right where you are hung up. At that point you can often go right to him reach down into the water if itÕs shallow enough, and pull that pinned fish right out. The key is patience.
The same goes for the grass, the only difference is the grass usually wonÕt wear your line down. The issue here is the fish balling up in the weeds. Keep your rod high and go to him. Never just try to pull him out. A nice-sized bass will often times pull himself free as long as you stay close and keep the rod high.
I also check my line for nicks or kinks often. If I feel something I donÕt like, I will break that portion off. I also retie often. With light line, knots tend to get stressed even harder that heavier line so I am constantly re-tying. This is a no-brainer.
7) Do you think these tactics could work on other tidal rivers?
Absolutely, and I have used these same tactics on the James, Chic and many others. Different bodies of water, yes, but a bass is still a bass.