In what seems to be a repeat of last summer, heavy rainstorms repeatedly spike water levels that dirty local rivers and can make them unsafe to navigate. It is important to check water levels on the USGS real-time water data website before transporting your canoe or kayak to the river only to arrive at the put-in to find the water unfishable or more importantly dangerous.
Such was the case recently when I planned a trip from Brunswick to Lander on the Potomac River on July 3. I planned a short float in our canoe with my wife, Nayibe, and our dog, Nana, in an effort to do some fishing while the water was at a fishable level and before the onslaught of the July Fourth paddlers and tubers.
The water levels on July 2 were at just below 4,000 cfs, slightly above average levels for this time of year. I neglected to check the water levels online before leaving my house the next morning despite the fact a rainstorm had come through the area the previous night.
Arriving at the boat ramp I could see the river was high and discolored, not ideal for fishing. The water level had jumped to over 10,000 cfs, approximately 2 feet higher than I was expecting. The river was not unsafe to navigate yet I knew the fishing would be more challenging, especially with my fly gear. I looked through my assortments of flies for a large streamer pattern that I could work close to the bottom.
My go-to-pattern for these conditions is a black woolly-bugger. In fact, this fly is my favorite freshwater pattern for trout, bass, catfish, carp and pike because it imitates several aquatic creatures. By dead-drifting the wooly-bugger with a swing at the end of the drift it can imitate a hellgrammite or a large stone fly rising from the bottom. By pinching a split-shot to the line directly ahead of the fly and jigging the fly along the bottom on the retrieve it imitates a leech, crawfish or possibly a sculpin looking for a place to hide among the rocks.
Fishing from a canoe or kayak is a productive way to fish local rivers like the Potomac as it flows through Frederick County. In my opinion, the sections of water between Harper’s Ferry and Point of Rocks have some of the best structure for smallmouth bass in all of the upper Potomac.
Unfortunately on that day, the high and discolored water was hiding the submerged structure where I planned to work my fly. I was hoping that if I kept the fly in the water, casting and retrieving as the fast current pushed us quickly downstream that eventually a fish might catch a glimpse of my fly and attack it. I am not sure my wife or our dog believed I would catch anything that day.
The fast current offered little time to work any visible structure that could be holding fish. I continued to cast away as I enjoyed the opportunity to be on the river, an experience that has decreased in frequency since the record-breaking precipitation that have elevated local river levels for more than a year now.
I was thinking that this just might be a fishless day when I felt the tug of a fish on my line. It wasn’t a large fish but the foot-long smallie gave a valiant fight, leaping several times from the water in an effort to throw the fly. I lipped the bass and showed it to my wife before releasing the fish as if to reestablish my stature as an angler, at least in her eyes.
It wasn’t long after landing the bass that I cast alongside a partially submerged log and began my retrieve. The fly stopped and I set the hook. It felt as if I hooked the log at first but the object on my line was moving. Unlike the bass, this fish stayed close to the bottom and fought sluggishly but with powerful weight. The fish did not want to be pulled downstream with the canoe and my reel screeched as I put more pressure on the fish that I knew had to be a big catfish.
I finally was able to land the fish and get a photo before releasing. My wife appeared to be a bit more impressed, but Nana was not excited at all with my catch. She nervously panted and stared at the shoreline almost the entire trip. Whenever we neared the shoreline, she seemed intent on jumping into the water either to cool off or just escape. When we stopped for a brief picnic lunch on an island, she had to be coaxed back into the canoe when we were ready to depart. She is definitely not a water dog.
The fishing conditions seemed to be improving as the water level was dropping and clearing somewhat as we approached the take-out. Nana bravely jumped from our canoe and swam to the takeout. The trip was quick due to the fast water and Nana was probably glad for that.
Before you decide to fish our local rivers be sure to check the USGS website. Look for water levels that are close to or below the average flows that are clearly marked with brightly colored triangles on the cubic feet per second discharge chart on the USGS water data website at:
• Monocacy River —https://waterdata.usgs.gov/md/nwis/uv?site_no=01643000
• Potomac River — https://waterdata.usgs.gov/md/nwis/uv?site_no=01638500.