Fishing the Upper Potomac River with Joe Nielsen

DockTalk365 Maryland

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The Upper Potomac River is one of those extraordinary fisheries that many people overlook in favor of the largemouth paradise of the tidal Potomac. But this water while not the easiest place to access and fish provides some great fishing. We had the opportunity to talk to Joe Nielsen who loves this body of water and details some of the tricks to catch fish on it.

How often do you get to fish the Upper Potomac?

As often as I can without getting divorced or fired.  My river fishing season usually starts in late March and I fish thru November. Spring can be hit or miss depending on how much rain and snow melt is flowing down the river, but eventually the river drops to safe levels and the fun begins.  I switch to trout and crappie fishing over the winter to avoid cabin fever and get me thru to spring.  I try to get out on the river at least once or twice per week, especially in the spring and fall, which usually have the best fishing.

Why do you love fishing this River so much?

I love fishing for river smallmouths and have easy access to four boat ramps on the Upper Potomac River that are less than 30 minutes from my house.  My commute also travels along the river giving me lots of opportunities to fish on the way home from work.  It’s the smallies that keep me coming back. Some days all you have do is show up and the fishing is so good you think you have them figured out, and the next time you can’t buy a bite.  I love the challenge of working the smallie puzzle, and I enjoy being outdoors on the river and sharing that experience with family and friends.  I love all kinds of fishing, but for me there is something special about fishing a river, especially one that’s loaded with scrappy smallies like the Upper Potomac.

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The Upper Potomac is a generally shallow river. How do you fish it? 

I fish the Upper Potomac primarily from my aluminium jet boat. The jet drive gets me to most spots I want to fish on the river, and the 24 volt trolling motor allows me to hold and work spots in current. The jet drive is great for the shallow water in the Upper Potomac, especially in summer when the river can get very skinny, like right now. When I don’t have enough time to get the boat out, I fish from the shore.  There are enough access points on the Maryland side to fish the river and do pretty well without having to wade.

What is the average size smallmouth bass you catch on the river?

10-16 inches is probably my average smallmouth length range.

What is considered a trophy size for the River?

Maryland DNR considers a trophy smallmouth to be over 20 inches.  Personally, I’d say an 18 inch smallie is a pretty special fish on the Upper Potomac.  I haven’t caught any smallies over 17 inches this year.  Talk to me at the end of November, hopefully I’ll have one by then?

What is your biggest bass on the River?

My biggest smallmouth from the Upper Potomac is 20 inches. I’ve caught a few 20 inch fish over the years.  The last one was late last year and it was the only fish we caught that day.  I threw a stick worm upstream from a log lying in the middle of the river.  The water was clear and I got to see the fish come out and hit the worm. One really nice fish in 5 hours of fishing was totally worth it.

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What are your 3 favorite baits for fishing the river?

I have narrowed my lure selection over the years, but I still can’t name just three. These are my confidence lures for the times and situations I face on the Upper Potomac.

Tube: hard to beat tubes for river smallie fishing. I always have one tied on and use either a dark or light color depending on water clarity.  I like to throw 3.5 inch tubes on a 1/8 oz jig with an open hook.

Stick worm: This is my new favorite lure. Potomac river smallies really like these things.  They’re easy to rig weedless and are really effective when the river gets overgrown with grass in the summer.  I also started throwing them when fishing my local lakes and ponds and have been doing well with largemouths.

Plastic craw: If I can’t get the smallies to chase faster moving baits, I slow down with craws bounced along the bottom.

Spinnerbait: There was a time when I fished with spinnerbaits almost exclusively.  I still have one tied on for those days when the smallies are turned on and chasing anything that moves. But now I switch to plastIcs pretty quickly if the smallies are not aggressive.

Swimbait: My other go to lure when the smallies are aggressive.  In the summer, I like to throw swimbaits as far as I can to deal with clear water and smallies that are spooky and scattered.

Inline spinner: This lure catches the greatest diversity of fish for me.  I catch a lot of catfish on inline spinners especially in the spring.  It’s a great lure to hand a kid because the action from panfish, smallies and an occasional catfish will usually hold their attention

Buzzbait: I use a buzzbait before sunrise in the summer. It’s hard to beat the thrill of a big river smallie blowing up a buzzbait, even if you miss the hookup.

On such a rocky shallow River, how do you avoid constant snags?

When the smallies are aggressive, I throw spinnerbaits and swimbaits and don’t worry about getting down to the bottom.  However, on most days at some point you have to get the lure down and I usually use a 1/8 oz jig depending on the current and wind.  When I get hung up while fishing from the boat, I use the trolling motor to get over the snag and can usually free the lure by pulling in different directions.

What other fish beside smallmouth do you catch on the Upper Potomac?

I regularly catch smallmouths, largemouths, catfish and redbreast sunfish.  I’ve caught a handful of crappie, rock bass and walleye over the years as well. I caught one small tiger muskie about 10 years ago. I see lots of carp in the river, but I’ve never caught one on an artificial lure.  I used to go night fishing using bait and did hook up with some pretty big carp and a few eels.  The strangest fish I ever caught on the Upper Potomac was a trout.  I was fishing the mouth of a creek and caught a nice brown trout a couple of years ago.  I think the trout was stocked into the creek miles upstream in the spring,  and had survived all of the angling pressure and had made its way down to the river well into the summer.   The trout wiggled out of my hands as I was taking out the lure and dropped right back into the river.  I have no doubt that fish is still alive.  

That is great detail about fishing the Upper Potomac. Thank you Joe for all the info and the great photos. I can’t emphasize enough that a fishery like the Upper Potomac demands practicing proper conservation methods. Please please please catch, photo and release the big bass on the River.

Find Joe on Twitter where he regularly Tweets about his fishing.

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