Potomac yields stripers and a special kind of peace

MORGANTOWN — MORGANTOWN -- The Zara Spook dropped a few feet off the rocks at the upper end of Pascahanna Bar and was walked steadily across the top of the water toward the boat. A rockfish (striped bass) came off the submerged rock ledge and swirled at the lure once, twice, three times and then a fourth before breaking off the chase.

"Every time that fish swirled behind the lure, it made your heart stop, didn't it?" said Bob Denyer, for 21 years a Washington policeman and for the past six years a full-time guide on the Potomac River.


"After all these years on the river, it still does it to me."

Early last week, Denyer and I spent a half-dozen hours on the river between Upper Cedar Point and Lower Cedar Point. And, truth be known, the fishing was inconsistent.


"But that is just how it is sometimes," said Denyer, who has fished different parts of the Potomac since his childhood in Southeast Washington. "On these bluebird days, and with all the fronts that have come through every couple of days, you just have to work hard at it.

"And if you are going to have to work that hard, you might as well work for the bigger fish."

While the tidal Potomac is renowned for its largemouth bass fishing, some of the really big fish in the river are striped bass, and these were what we were after.

Denyer specializes in using medium tackle -- 7-foot rods, spinning or bait-casting reels, 10- to 17-pound test line and lures that are similar to those used for largemouth bass, rattling lures, sassy shad-style plastics, Zara Spooks and so on.

"You know a lot of fishermen buy a lot of stuff to fish with," Denyer said, "but a lot of that tackle you don't need, unless it just makes you feel good.

"People say this or that thing needs certain colors or big eyes to fool the fish. Ever see a fish swim up and check out the eyes on a bait before it eats it? Now who's fooling whom?"

His is not the traditional approach to striper fishing, and the change is enjoyable.

Farther downriver, the charterboats load up, head out and set out their trolling rigs and spoons or bucktails. The fishermen sit back and await a strike, while the captains go about the business of finding the fish.


Denyer, with his background as a black bass guide for Life Outdoors Unlimited, finds the spots that should hold fish, and then the anglers are expected to go about catching them by casting to bridge pilings, shallow oyster bars, rock piles or current breaks.

"There is no secret to success when fishing this river," Denyer said as we waited for the tide to start moving and worked and reworked a series of pilings at the Route 301 bridge with lead heads and 4-inch plastic shad. "Anyone can do it as well.

"You look for the moving tide first. Then you pick where to go to best take advantage of it. Rock like moving water, and when that water is sweeping across an oyster bar or past a point or a bridge piling, then it is carrying food with it, and that is where the fish will be feeding."

Having had no success in our first stop at the bridge, Denyer ran his bass boat upriver to Light No. 8 off Upper Cedar Point, where a bulwark of rock breaks the current and swirls it around and across a bed of oyster shell before it merges again with the deep channel of the main river.

Some 30 minutes of casting three-quarter ounce rattle traps failed to turn up a fish, and Denyer ran back downriver to Light No. 5, another shallow bar off the Virginia shore at Mathias Point. There, too, we did not get a bite -- save a small white perch that tried to eat a lure almost half its size.

"If we are not going to catch fish, then we might as well miss on bigger fish," Denyer said, and ran the boat back to the Route 301 bridge to await a stronger tide.


Part of fishing tidewater with spinning or casting gear, of course, is waiting for the fish to come to the feeding zones you can reach with the tackle on hand. And while the fish finder marked fish in deeper water virtually all day, it would have been ludicrous to fish a four-inch shad on light line in 70 feet of water.

"So I concentrate on the shoulders of the channel," Denyer said. "If I can find a 12-foot ledge next to deeper water, I know that usually the big fish eventually will work up there to feed."

The first fish of the day, a striper of about 33 inches, came from such a ledge on the Virginia side of the channel at the Route 301 bridge before the tide was at full flood.

In the time we were fishing and not catching, there was a chance to learn something of Denyer, who joined the Metropolitan Police when he came out of the service because he was newly married and needed a job.

Some two decades later, he retired after walking a beat and working on the morals squad.

"Sometimes, the things you see [as a policeman] make you wonder where our society took the wrong turn," Denyer said. "Ask anyone who has worked a long time where people need immediate help -- firemen, emergency room nurses and doctors, police officers, paramedics -- they will tell you we are changing, and we are changing for the worse.


"But you get out here on the river, and whether you are catching fish or having a day like we are, there is no stress. This is just pure enjoyment."

With the tide moving well, Denyer ran the bass boat downriver to Light No. 33 and pulled two more 30-plus inch stripers off the edge of lower rock pile.

Smaller stripers were chasing baitfish across the shallow bed of oyster where rattle traps were bringing more frequent strikes, but as the sunlight melded into a windless sunset, we ran across the river to the rocky ledge in front of the power plant that dominates the Maryland shore at the Route 301 bridge.

The spooks flew toward the shoreline, and indeed my heart paused each time the striper swirled behind the lure.