Seneca Creek: weekday solitude, bounty

OUTDOORS

June 12, 1991|By PETER BAKER

SENECA -- Some 25 years ago, during that confused time when some people were burning draft cards and some were waving flags, the shoreline of Seneca Creek in Montgomery County was somewhat different.

Just upstream from the C&O Canal aqueduct, where Seneca Creek meets the Potomac River, a string of cabins stood and a country store sold bait and rented small boats and smaller outboard motors to those who wished to cruise or fish.

These days, the cabins and the old store are gone and a ramp in a county park offers boating access to the creek and river.

On weekends, the river, creek and park land can be crowded with recreation enthusiasts, including water-skiers, wind-surfers, joy riders, fishermen, cyclists, hikers and bird-watchers.

On a recent weekday, the pool above Dam No. 2 was empty of boaters, the shoreline void of fishermen -- and the river seemed full of smallmouth bass.

At Seneca, as along virtually all of the Maryland side of the Potomac River, the towpath in the C&O Canal National Park allows periodic access to the shoreline.

On the north point at the entrance to Seneca Creek stands a small picnic area where tables have been pulled down to the water's edge and prop sticks have been set up by prior fishermen.

A hundred or more yards farther north, a series of short paths lead down to the riverside.

Before midmorning, each of these dozen or more spots within 500 yards of the Seneca Creek aqueduct lies in the shade, and any of them will produce fish.

The question is, what kind of fish do you want to catch? The answer lies on the river bottom.

Closer to the point and back into the creek, slow, murky water over a soft bottom will turn up catfish and largemouth bass.

But above the point, where the water moves more quickly inshore over a shaded, stony bottom edged with patches of water willow, the catch is likely to be smallmouth bass.

At one such area, where the underwater contour dropped off from two to about six feet at a distance from three yards to 10 yards off the shoreline, nine smallmouths from 10 to 13 inches were caught and released in little more than an hour.

Two similar spots produced four more over a similar time period, although by then the sun was high and the fish probably had moved into deeper water.

In this case, they were taken on a 4-inch, blue and sparkle, salty worm with a pink tail fished on an 8-ounce leadhead jig.

Almost certainly, salty grubs, minnows or earthworms would have worked as well, because once you have found the fish, catching them becomes almost a minor problem.

The classic smallmouth habitat, in terms of shoreline fishing in warm weather, is an area that allows oxygen, food and protection.

In warm weather, quicker water provides the most oxygen, and a boater might prefer to beach at the head or tail of a riffle and wet wade. The bank fisherman is not so lucky.

So, look for drop-offs close to the shoreline where the water is moving well, where the bottom is cobbled or, even better, strewn with flat-topped rocks the size of cinder blocks. A stand of water willow, a fallen tree or overhanging branches will make it all the better.

Cobbled bottoms support populations of helgrammites and crayfish, and smallmouths will use crevices between flat-topped rocks as hide-outs and feeding positions.

Sandy bottoms or exposed bedrock, unless it exists as a ledge and creates a drop-off and current break, are less productive because they support virtually no aquatic life forms.

Current breaks will occur where the water meets or leaves an object -- shoreline, tree, rock or ledge. These breaks will hold bait fish, which, in turn, will draw the smallmouths.

The drop-offs will allow cooler water close to the shoreline and an escape route if the fish are spooked.

Downed trees and overhanging foliage offer some protection from predators, which, in the case of a mature smallmouth bass, are limited to birds and man.

Once you have found such a spot, fish it slowly and thoroughly. Once you have caught a smallmouth, keep at it. Where there is one, there usually are several others.

The Potomac is low, and that presents the shoreline fisherman with a good opportunity to learn something extra about the river while fishing or walking to or from a favorite spot.

Take a look at the exposed shoreline and mark the areas that might be productive once the water level rises.

A distinctive stake driven into the bank above the high water line or a line of positions among two or more landmarks might serve you later.

*

Until the end of the week, black bass fishing in non-tidal waters of Maryland is allowed only on a catch-and-release basis. Starting Sunday, the size limit will be 12 inches and the daily creel limit will be five per person.

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