On the surface, so to speak, bass fishing on the upper Potomac River and its tributaries is something like it has been for 30 or more years.
In the 1960s, when the minimum size limit was nine inches, th majority of the catches seemed to be just under the limit; when the limit went to 12 inches, the bulk of the landings seemed to be just under a foot. Always, it seems, there have been enough small bass to go around.
But there is another side to fishing the Potomac above the fall line. What has happened to the big bass, and if the big bass are missing, what is the future of the species?
It is a question that is not easily answered, and there are those who believe it is a question that needn't be asked.
The big bass are there, they say; one simply needs to know where to find them. But perhaps that is part of the problem.
Before the advent of an affordable jet propulsion unit for shallow draft fishing boats, there were many areas of the Potomac that were virtually unreachable by fishermen. Now, however, there are relatively few spots an angler cannot work over.
Add the mobility of the jet boats to the number of bank fishermen, drift fishermen and those aboard conventional fishing boats, and the numbers translate to unusual and unnatural pressure on the resource. Factor in the natural variances such as spring floods, and there are years in which the pressures are too great to overcome.
"We've got a combination of very complex things that are interplaying," said Robert Bachman, chief of freshwater fisheries for the Department of Natural Resources' Tidewater Administration. "One of them is that we have a lot of people who are fishing, and it is pretty clear across the board with bass in nontidal waters that fishing pressure crops off a lot of the big fish.
"That doesn't mean that there are not big fish out there. Those people who are really good at fishing for those big fish and know where they are, they still do reasonably well."
Well enough, in fact, that the DNR moved decisively last spring to protect spawning stocks by prohibiting the possession of bass from March 1 through June 15. There also is a restricted area on the Potomac from Dam 3 to Dam 4 (from Harpers Ferry, W.Va., to Williamsport), in which an angler may not possess any bass from 11 inches up to 15 inches and only one bass 15 inches or longer per day.
In each case, the restrictions are expected to promote the growth of the species. And in each case the regulations will be continued in 1991.
"[The] slot limit on that 22-mile stretch of the Potomac is geared to determine whether or not by reducing the fishing pressure we end up with more big fish," Bachman said. "But it is going to take a number of years to see clearly whether it is working."
The Catch-22 of the smallmouth bass, in particular, is that it is a long-lived and slow-growing fish. It may take as many as seven years for a smallmouth bass to grow to 14 or 15 inches in length. In eight years, it may reach 18 inches.
The catch-and-return policy during spawning season, Bachman said, is one way to get a quicker read on the population growth because "we are automatically cutting back on harvest of big bass during spawning season."
The restriction on keeping bass during the spawn grew out of a pilot program started four years ago on Deep Creek Lake, where a basically captive population could be observed and assessed. West Virginia also has instituted a catch-and-release program during spawning season.
"The best information we've got is coming from Deep Creek Lake," Bachman said. "Last year was the fourth successive season that the average size of bass caught in tournaments [on the lake] was bigger and bigger and bigger every year.
"So we suspect that, in general, we should find that same thing taking place across the state. But it is one thing trying to get information from all the different types of habitat across the state, as opposed to monitoring just one lake."
For example, in years where there is high turbidity in the spring, as there was in 1985, the eggs can be silted over and die. The result is poor recruitment that year, which will result in fewer keeper-size fish six or seven years later.
"But that generally tends to even out after a number of years," Bachman said. "So it is a combination of factors. You can't point to one thing and say here it is."
The problem apparently is not water quality. The river system is judged to be in better shape than it was 30 years ago.
Edward C. Enamait, DNR Region II fisheries biologist, has charge of the Potomac from Cumberland to the Maryland line at the District of Columbia. In his estimation, there is simply too much pressure on the fish.
"Not long ago, there were safe bass havens, river sectors that could never be reached by fishermen," Enamait said recently in an article by Gene Mueller of The Washington Times. "Today, forget it. There isn't a place these guys can't get to. The current skill level is amazing."
Enamait could not be reached for comment late last week.