Thank you, Teddy Bradley. You gave me great advice. In 2011, Bradley competed in the FLW Tour Open event on the Potomac River and won a cool $10,000; graciously, he shared some of that wisdom with me before my event there, the first of three FLW Northern Costa tournaments.
The “thank you’s” only begin with Bradley; there are several people to credit. Tom Stark was my travel partner. In 2015 he competed as a co-angler and finished 20th in the FLW Tour event on the Potomac, and shared a great deal of his knowledge with me. (He’s also a heck of a stick who outfished me most days in practice.) No doubt, much of my success is derivative of his influence.
Any observation of any serious angler will show an astute attention to their gear. Before taking off to Maryland, a stop at ProX Outfitters and Schnelker Marine put the finishing touches on my preparation.
Even being gone during our anniversary, my wife, Nicki, was my biggest supporter. She sends me motivational quotes and images and none was more motivating than the one she shared with me the morning of the first day of competition: Arnold Schwarzenegger. As a poor teacher who is married to another poor teacher, these kinds of events are not possible without financial support.
Craig Dennis of TC Custom Lures has supported me for the past two years. Beyond the financial support he has provided, his paint jobs have won me a great deal of money. His unwavering support and encouraging words throughout the week kept me motivated.
Schnelker Marine and ProX Outfitters are incredible people. I will never forget after nearly drowning during practice at Lake Erie last September for the B.A.S.S. Open, how owner Terry VanDaele loaned me his 2015 Z8 boat to use for the tournament without hesitation. My success at that event can be entirely credited to him.
Admittedly, I am rough on my boat and equipment. Thanks to KeelGuard and Preston Shumway, there is little need to worry. Running around on a tidal river like the Potomac brings countless close encounters with debris. With a KeelGuard and SkegGuard, I never worried.
Dave Romanus of The Bait Sack has made my boat and tackle so much more organized, it is incredible. Because of his products, my time management is exponentially more effective than ever before.
While the best tubes on the planet by Wayne Carpenter, Xtreme Bass Tackle, did not produce any fish on the Potomac, they are responsible for countless fish and dollars for me. Without them, I would not be in a position to be competing in the Costa Series.
Lock-n-Haul Transom Saver out of Texas by Jim Smith allows me to travel thousands of miles without worrying about my outboard.
And all of these ambitions and goals began with Bass Pro Shops in Portage, Indiana. A very special shout out to Marty Nealon, Lynn Hubbard, Scott Tucker, and the entire Service Department.
Practice - Day 1
The first place Tom and I fished was a spot suggested by Bradley, 15 miles up river from the ramp at Smallwood State Park on Mattawoman Creek. Without giving it away, I’ll confess it was a main river grass bed. Quite literally, it took Tom just a few minutes to land his first fish on a Zoom Horny Toad. In one pass we caught a handful with the toad and a BPS Stik-O along the outside edge. The spot Bradley fished five years ago was still holding a good population of quality fish. I put that spot “in my back pocket” and moved on to Dogue Creek. The tide was low and I anticipated the fish would be on the outside edges of docks, and I was right.
Tom Stark with a 4.5 pound largemouth caught on a bladed jig in Dogue Creek.
Tom Stark (above) boated the first fish practice on a Zoom Horny Toad. (Below) I pose with my first fish from the Potomac River fooled by a BPS Stik-O.
While watching the FLW Tour event on TV from a year ago, I saw Andy Morgan fish the docks in this creek. Once again it took no time, because on my first pitch with a jig made by Michiana angler Steve Prange to a dock, produced a keeper. Tom then proceeded to kick my tail with a chatterbait. He caught several, including the biggest fish of the week, in between these docks.
From that point forward, the bite stiffened up. We fished several other spots, including main river docks and wood, but without any bites. A stop in Belmont Bay produced a single snakehead. Stops in Piscataway, Quantico, and Powells Creeks produced, combined, a single small keeper. After several hours of striking out, Tom showed me a spot close to the ramp that produced a few fish, and I felt it was a spot that would come in handy (I was almost right).
We ended the last two hours in Mattawoman Creek, but before we got there we had to ride through a rough chop. The wind had been blowing over 20 miles per hour all day into Mattawoman, and four foot waves greeted us. While bumpy, its fury was nothing compared to my mishap on Lake Erie last September. Despite the creek’s reputation as the best on the river, it failed to produce a bite. My day ended with three areas I felt confident were holding fish.
Practice - Day 2
The popular Aquia Creek demanded exploration. Research taught me the weed beds in front of the creek are one of the most popular community holes on the river. Shortly after arrival, they yielded a chunky 3.5 pound largemouth on a swimjig, but that was it. We then fished a bay between Bennetts and Shackley Points, but that only produced a dandy blue catfish. A marina just before the bridge produced a stout fish on a bladed jig.
We then went up stream, way upstream, which ended up being a waste of time. After a 30 minute idle, Tom caught a single small keeper from under a dock. Around noon we found ourselves back at the mouth of Aquia Creek. Tom had a spot he had some success on a year ago. It was a good stop. We ended up boating several fish on spinnerbaits and soft plastics. It became apparent to me that I could rely on this spot in the tournament; however, I was also confident it would be a popular destination for many anglers and was 25-30 miles from the same spots that produced yesterday, and I had more confidence in the areas from the day before.
On our way back towards the ramp way back, we stopped at Mallows Bay. Nothing played with us. Next we stopped in Chicamuxen Creek to find it nothing more than a muddy mess and lots of boats. From there we fished some weed beds at the mouth of Mattawoman Creek and that produced some 2.5 pound bass on plastics and flipping jigs. These weed beds would surely hold fish come tournament time, but they would also be popular destinations for other competitors, and I truly despise fishing in a crowd. In my mind, I was still sold on the areas up river that we found yesterday.
Aquia Creek was the site of eventual winner, Casey Smith. The most impressive fish it showed me was a blue catfish.
Practice - Day 3
We began at Neabsco Creek, but never caught a fish. I got to say, the current, marina, and lily pads made it look perfect, but all of that was undone by the chocolate milk looking water flowing through. Muddy water had been an issue all week. From there we went into Belmont Bay and caught a handful of small keepers with soft plastics. While this is a community hole, the size of fish told me it was not worth our time. Next, we went all the way up to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge by Washington, D.C..
While poking around a marina, Tom boated a giant blue catfish (we were told later by professional angler Aaron Hastings that catfish tournaments on the river have a two fish limit and typically take over 100 pounds to win! So, we realized our big catfish were not so big.)
A bit discouraged, we began heading south and stopped at Little Hunting Creek, also unproductive, and I realized it was time to quit fooling around. Teddy Bradley came to mind. While I didn’t have any other spots from him to try, it became obvious to me I needed to find as many spots similar to his as possible: main river weed beds. The weeds would filter the mud more quickly, and the cleaner the water, the better the fish would bite.
After some quick map study, we took off to the Greenway Flats. Only two words are accurate from this time forward: Game On.
By tossing a wacky rigged BPS Stik-O and flipping ½ ounce black/blue Steve Prange jigs, I made a dozen new waypoints just fishing main river weedbeds. Fish were relating to the outside edge of weed beds during the low tide, which was around 11:00, and seemed to prefer the finesse approach of the Stik-O. When we came across areas with other anglers who were flipping, we caught fish while they did not.
During the last hour, we fished some weed beds in Mattawoman Creek, and Tom showed me a tactic with a soft plastic worm that was dynamite (Out of respect for him, I am leaving that unnamed, and will refer to it simply as the Stark Rig.) It is a technique that would help me in the tournament and will surely help me for years to come.
The Potomac River proved itself to being quite diverse. Tom and I caught largemouth, smallmouth, blue catfish, channel catfish, snakehead, white perch, and yellow perch.
By the end of this day, my best five fish would have weighed close to 17 pounds. I had plenty of areas with quality fish to make me competitive for two, perhaps three, days. Things were coming together nicely.
Registration and pre-tournament meeting were held at the tournament location, Smallwood State Park.
Practice - Day 4
This was going to be a short day. My mind was already set on what I was going to do in the tournament, so we slept in until 6:00 and did not get on the water until 7:30. Also looming was a mandatory registration and meeting at 4:00. Once on the water, we, again, headed up river just looking for similar spots. I marked four new spots like this that produced fish.
I found two such spots holding fish. Before heading in Tom suggested trying Chicamuxen Creek one more time. It too is a popular community hole for good
reason. As soon as we arrived, you saw the water was cleaner from two days ago, and the tide was incoming. In less than an hour, we boated a 4, 3.5, 3 pound, and many other keepers. The place was just on fire. This was really too much. It was the best quality I had seen thus far, but would it hold up? This creek gets pounded by other anglers. I did not trust it.
That night I met Day 1 partner Toby Maddox and was assigned #58. I would fish from 6:30-3:00.
The hat above has been through scorching and freezing temperatures; rain, snow, sun, and clouds; killer waves and calm seas. It has stood the test of time and was ready for action on the Potomac River.
Tournament - Day 1
The biggest challenge I would be facing was timing, because it is unnatural for me. On Midwest lakes, the best bite is almost always first in the morning. Thus, it is a mad dash to your first spot to exploit it as much as possible. That was not going to be the case on the river that week. My best bite would be at low tide, when it turned to an incoming tide. This would not begin until nearly 11:00. As easy as it is to tell myself that any fish before 10:30 is a bonus, it is quite another thing to be sitting with a tiny limit at 10:00 with so much on the line.
My fifth keeper came at 9:51, but only one of them was worth keeping. That fish was 2.5 pounds and the others were only 12-13 inches. Like in practice, I was focusing on my main river weeds, but instead of the Stik-O on the outside edge, the Stark Rig produced most of the fish, including the best fish. It also produced a strike from a giant which aptly snapped my line.
Like clockwork, at 11:00 the dinner bell rang. As expected quality fish began biting the Stik-O on the outside edges. Culling a 12 inch fish for a 2+ pound fish is elating. A 4 pound fish swallowed a black/blue Steve Prange jig and got my heart pumping.
With less than an hour remaining, I had landed 14 keepers, but still needed another quality fish to make up for the big one that broke me off, so I ran to the area Tom showed me the first day of practice that almost paid off. The shallow weeds were being pounded by waves and were beginning to muddy up - not a good sign. However, amongst the mud I spotted a pocket of clear water and threw a spinnerbait into it. A 3.5 pound largemouth blasted it. After working it through the weeds and waves, I hoisted it into the net for Toby to scoop. The fish plopped into the net, coming unhooked in the process, and then swam out before Toby could lift the net. There was nothing to do but to criticize myself for horsing that fish and not getting a better hookset. Toby felt terrible, but it was entirely my fault.
I walked off the stage on Day 1 with a respectable limit, but it was the fish that got away that I had trouble forgetting about.
On stage I weighed a respectable 13-02 pounds, which had me at 48th place out of 144 professionals. It would take a miracle to make the Top 10 cut for Saturday, but not a miracle to get in the money (they paid the top 38 professionals). I was less than a pound from that. Barring any more lost fish, I was on the quality to make a run up the leaderboard on Day 2.
I've been a part of countless national anthems, and none are more touching than seeing competitive anglers pay respects to our country at 6:00 a.m. on the water. See the flag in the upper left corner.
Tournament - Day 2
The motivational speech from my wife that morning came from my daughter. See, my Little Angel is 8 years old and has always despised getting her face wet. While I was out of town, she was taking swim lessons. My wife sent me a video of her diving underwater to grab an obstacle off the pool’s bottom. She complimented the video by saying something along the lines of, “(Daughter) has grown to do something she once could not do. Now, today, you will too.” She was effective in her message: I teared up.
I have never been shy with a microphone, and when tournament director, Ron Lappin, put the mic' in my face I used the opportunity to send a message to each family member and several of my sponsors.
To say I am green in these Open Tournaments is accurate. This was only my fifth one. I am proud that Day 2 of these have been a strength of mine. Of the five, I have moved up the leaderboard four times and have cashed in three of them. These are all on massive bodies of water I have never once seen against professionals who have years of experience.
As predicted by my wife, I did something new: I followed eagles. All week I had seen bald eagles on the river. For some reason the first, and every subsequent one, reminded me of my deceased father (former fishing partner), and each time I saw one, I or Tom caught fish. When I saw an eagle, I spoke to him. So, Day 2 would be about following the eagles.
Since the low and incoming tide came in late morning, and I had struggled each morning, I decided to begin on the inside edge of weeds despite not trying it all week. My logic was that since I couldn’t catch them on the outside edges or in the weeds during high tide, they must be on the inside edge. It did not really work.
Photo credits to Google Images...
On my second cast I caught a 1.5 pound smallmouth with a spinnerbait. Just 20 minutes later I caught another on a bladed jig. For a short while, I thought I figured out the puzzle; I was wrong as that was the extent of my action. The bite was slower on Day 2, the eagles more scarce, and it took until 11:00 to finish my limit. That limit included the two little smallmouth and three 12-13 inch fish. To have any shot at going up the leaderboard I needed to replace all five of them.
Then I saw an eagle. Thank you, Dad.
From that point forward, I steadily began catching quality fish along the outside weed edge on the Stik-O. One by one, I culled out all five fish. After dialogue with a few competitors, I realized the bite had stiffened, but not so much for me. Most of my competitors were flipping jigs or soft plastics for their fish. That pattern definitely worked, but I believe the fish became wary of the fishing pressure and a more finesse approach became more effective, which was my presentation.
With less than 30 minutes remaining, I gambled on a spot towards the ramp I had located Wednesday morning. I had caught a lone fish there that morning, but had a hunch there were more. Most importantly, I had not seen another boat on it all week. Instead of the Stik-O, I worked the black/blue Steve Prange jig along the weedline and was awarded a 3 pound fish: a critical cull. It was my eleventh keeper of the day. While the giant sack needed in my livewell to make the Top 10 cute was absent, I knew there was a solid limit and in there lied a paycheck.
The day’s work produced a 14-05 pound limit, making my two day’s work 27-07 pounds and landed me in 28th place. I was awarded $2,451.
Next up is the 1000 Islands from Clayton, New York. More to come...