Potomac bass fishermen hope for a better 2014

Potomac River bass fishing guide Captain Steve Chaconas took WTOP\'s Michelle Basch on a boat ride near National Harbor\'s Capital Wheel, which is scheduled to open in May. (WTOP/Michelle Basch)

WASHINGTON — As the weather heats up, so does fishing on the Potomac River. But a longtime bass fisherman hopes this year is not a repeat of the last.

Capt. Steve Chaconas, a bass fishing guide on the Potomac, calls 2013 “one of the toughest years we’ve had bass fishing on the Potomac River.” He heard it from guides, tournament fishermen and the Department of Natural Resources.

“So by all accounts, fish counts were down, and we tried to figure out what it was,” Chaconas says.

He says some people blame the invasive snakehead fish, but he doesn’t buy it.

“They cut open the fish to see what they’re eating, and they haven’t seen any signs of largemouth bass in the snakeheads. In fact, snakeheads are actually eating snakeheads in a lot of cases, so that wasn’t it,” Chaconas says.

Others blame a largemouth bass virus.

“It was reported last year that snakeheads actually were carrying the largemouth bass virus,” Chaconas says. “It didn’t affect the snakeheads, but it is a virus that can kill bass if they’re older or stressed out.”

A third theory was that the many bass fishing tournaments held on the Potomac are affecting the numbers.

“But in a Maryland black bass roundtable that was held by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources in February, we discussed all these aspects and came to no conclusion,” Chaconas says.

He thinks something else may be impacting the fish: A lack of certain underwater grasses that Chaconas says began disappearing during construction of the new Wilson Bridge and National Harbor. One type, called milfoil, grows vertically.

“It grows early in the year, allows bass areas to spawn in; it clears the water, allows the water to get warmer; sunlight reaches the eggs; the spawn is much more effective and the baby bass have a place to hide.”

Hydrilla, another type of underwater grass, grows horizontally, creating a cavern under the surface where fish can hide, evading fishermen as well as biologists using electroshock techniques to study and count them.

“It comes in usually late June or early July. Well, (last year) it came in a little bit earlier and took off … so by all accounts, after mid-June last year, the fishery was very tough.”


Another view of the new Capital Wheel from Capt. Steve Chaconas’ boat. (WTOP/Michelle BaSch)

There is no grass at National Harbor, Chaconas says.

“No grass above the bridge, no grass below the bridge, and grass is a sure indication of a healthy fishery, and will help perpetuate a healthy fishery. In addition, now that National Harbor is up and running, you have a lot of boat traffic, you have people coming in, coming out. You have a full marina, and you have a lot more boat activity. This continually churns up the water, and makes the water muddier, so now we have the turbidity that prevents grass from growing above and below the bridge and at National Harbor, and the tidal movement carries this muddier water up and down the river.”

Early this year, he says, biologists with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries brought encouraging news.

“The bass population numbers they’re getting are higher than ever,” he says.

Chaconas says the only thing that concerns them is they’re not seeing as many younger, smaller bass.

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