Fishing Potomac with Penrod an education


August 04, 1991|By PETER BAKER

LANDER -- The fellow at the bottom of the ramp has yet to launch the boat, but while waiting for a sleepy client to trundle downhill from the parking area, a white buzzbait already has turned up a respectable smallmouth bass.

"Yep, they're biting," the fellow says and smiles. Probably there never was a doubt in his mind that they would be.

After all, he is, quite literally, taking a page from his own books.

The fellow is Ken Penrod, and if you are a bass fisherman, you know the name -- and perhaps you know the place.

This three-mile stretch of the Potomac River upstream from Point of Rocks and below Brunswick, is Penrod's favorite corner of the world.

"It is as close as you can get to a microcosm of everything you can expect to find on the Upper Potomac," Penrod says as we head into the river in his shallow-draft jet boat. "When the water level is normal, there are grasses to fish along the shoreline, water willow, deep holes and fast water broken by boulders and ledges."

On this day, the water level is low, the result of a dry spring and early summer, and the shoreline grasses are fronted by almost a foot of pebbled bank.

The low water, says Penrod, who has been guiding on the river for a decade and has had a cabin here since the early 1960s, will have spread out the fish and the day might require a little scatter shooting, casting to current breaks that might hold only a fish or two.

It is a day that will be made better and safer by the knowledge of an experienced guide. The low water has made some channels impassable and others barely navigable.

Penrod sits toward the bow of his modified jon boat, left hand on a steering lever, right hand on the throttle of a 70-horsepower outboard motor fitted with a jet drive.

As we make our way from a private ramp just south of the public ramp at Lander toward the Virginia shore to start a short float downriver, Penrod steers around submerged boulders and throttles up and down slightly -- and one gets the impression that he could do this blindfolded.

The light of the morning is thin, the sun still behind the treeline atop the ridge that rises on the Maryland shore. The temperature is in the upper 70s, the first day of a veritable cool wave after eight or nine days well into the 90s.

Except in spots where carp have rooted in the bottom and muddied a quarter acre or so, the water is clear. Water temperature is 84 degrees.

"Long casts are going to be the key today," Penrod says as he casts and runs the white buzzbait above a series of underwater boulders. "In this clear water, the fish will be spooky and if we are close enough to see them, then they can see us."

The first couple of smallmouth either didn't see us or didn't care. One fell to Penrod's buzzbait; the other mugged a silver-and-black, white-bellied popper with a white tail.

At that moment, there was electricity in the air -- the crackle and hum of a set of power lines that cross the river -- and the fishing began to pick up quickly. Within a few minutes, a half-dozen smallmouths and a bluegill or two had been brought to the boat and released. The pace did not vary much over the next 6 1/2 hours.

The plan was to float downriver from the power lines, past Huffman's Rocks, and along the Maryland side of Bald Eagle Island while the sun still was blocked by the high ridge. Then we would run upriver to an intriguing place called the Fence, and work back and forth across the river on our way downstream again.

Being on the river with Penrod is not simply a matter of fishing. It also is a matter of seeing the river and appreciating its past, present and future.

Penrod has studied this place as well as the rest of the river from Paw Paw, W.Va., to its entrance to the Chesapeake Bay at Point Lookout, and has written two excellent books about it, "Fishing the Tidal Potomac River" and "Fishing the Upper Potomac River."

To fish with Penrod is to learn something of the history of a place, of Indian fish traps built from boulders set in the current to funnel fish into nets or baskets, to learn of early settlements and the railroad wars and the C&O Canal, and to understand that the river no more belongs to us than it did to Native Americans or gangs of German construction workers in the last century.

The natural river, you see, is in and of itself and only man, in his ignorance, may alter it.

"In this section of the river," Penrod says as we turn upriver at the south end of Bald Eagle Island, "there is some great fishing -- smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, walleye, an occasional tiger-muskie, catfish and, if anyone cared to catch them, a freight-car full of carp.

"But they are here only if we allow them to stay. We can't come in here and catch and catch and catch. We need to put them back. We need to be conservationists."

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