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Ken Penrod’s 10 Seasons For Tidal
Potomac
Largemouth Bass
By Ken Penrod

Like many of you, in my early years, I drove to the river with preconceived plans based on our seasons. Wow, was I wrong much of the time.

I’ve been obsessed with tidal Potomac River largemouth bass for about 40-years, the last 26 as a full time professional guide. Forty years sounds like a lot of time but “thousands” of days are more credential-worthy. I chose not to believe generally accepted bass behavior because the “written and documented accounts of bass” were of impoundment fish.” There were no reliable studies of tidal water bass—so I assumed the challenge

For about 30-years I have been keeping day to day fishing logs, most in the form of fishing reports, and I have learned that it’s water temperature, not air temperature and human-season that dictates fish behavior, thus, their seasons.

Water temperature, surface water temperature at first light, will dictate where I fish, and with what offering. There will be hourly changes and you must adjust. There is “overlap” and you must be aware. You must also realize that barometric pressure has much to do with fish behavior—but that is another story.

I use a Ranger/Mercury and an Express/Mercury for my largemouth/smallmouth bass guided outings, and both of these perfect combinations would be pretty ordinary with out the Lowrance Sonar/GPS equipment mounted about the boats. I rarely monitor my Lowrance equipment for their fish-finding ability but there is seldom a ½ hour goes by that I don’t pay close attention to the water temperature information—because that data is vital to my day—to my client’s production.

Yes—I do have a distinct advantage over most of you because I’m on the water most days. However, you do have the ability to “estimate” water temperature from home.

From your TV news or newspapers, take the high and low air temperatures for the three days prior to your outing. Add the six figures and then divide by 6.

There is more information in this math. Add the high and low for each day. If day #2 shows an increase, that’s a good thing. If day #3 shows an increase over day 2, that’s really good. If there is a decline--that’s not good.

So, keep this article in your boat and a copy in your calendar, because this is the way I see it:

32-39 Degrees; Winter. It’s silly to think that bass don’t eat during cold water seasons because the larger of the bass, the females, are plump with eggs that require nourishment constantly. They will take up positions in relatively deep water with little current because deeper water reacts much slower to air temperature changes. They rarely move vertically but they will choose areas within the water column that holds baitfish. For the most part, they will suspend, within the lower portions of the water column, and they will take on a “white/bland” color to camouflage themselves. Old gravel pits, marinas and deep outside channel bends in creeks are prime locations.

My “tools” of choice for this time frame will be: Silver Buddy blade baits; four-inch, flat-tail grubs, Luhr-Jensen Sugar Shads used in a jigging motion, four-inch Mizmo Tubes and drop-shot plastics.

Release these fish quickly because they are suffering from the “bends” and they will have bulged eyes. Forget that “fizzing” method because if you do it wrong—you may as well tear her gills out.

Caveat: On very sunny days, the surface can warm beyond the air temperature so look for bass and bait to move vertically slowly. Remember—the sun is your friend now.  

39-45 Degrees; Post Winter. This is the season when bass will make vertical movement but they will never be far away from the deep water comfort. They may move to the shoulder of the dropoff or a deeper flat, but they want to be able to “go home” quickly.

I’ll begin my day in the deeper water, where strong currents are not a factor. My tools will be; Silver Buddies in the morning, Mizmo tubes, Luhr-Jensen Speed Shads, Luhr-Jensen Hot Lips crankbaits and Big Mouth Spinnerbaits worked very slowly over the drops.

Caveat: If your day begins near the top temperature of this season, be sure you are working deeper flats where grass beds grow. My favorite season, for bigger bass, is the top-end of his season—and the following season. This is lipless crankbait time, especially Sugar Shads and Rattlin’ Rapalas. 

45-60 Degrees; Prespawn. This is everyone’s best season because by now bass have committed to shallows with cover. Grass beds and spatterdock will be several inches tall by now—and rocky flats are the best of the best. Creek mouths and main river grass flats become fish magnets. Deep channel bends with wood cover hold “staging” bass and old sunken wood barges and former wharves beckon the bigger girls that are a bit hesitant to commit to the shallows.

It’s tough to avoid areas where large numbers of fish stack-up in vegetation and shallow cover but I will always start the day in the deeper water nearby, away from the dropoffs and around hard, deep cover because of the ability to catch larger bass.

I’ll attack deeper bass with Hot Lips crankbaits or cast and bang Sugar Shads. I know the grass has bass but give me shallow, chunk rock near creek mouths and along main-river, small coves. Those soaked, fallen trees of creeks like Mattawoman or coves like Penrod Cove and Belle Haven Cove will always provide smiles and photo opportunities.

60-70 Degrees; Spawn. I’m not a big fan of bed-fishing or sight-fishing but I don’t condemn those that do. There is no solid evidence that catching bass from beds is detrimental to propagation—but I don’t do it.

The “spawn” as we have come to understand it, is a very short engagement. Contrary to popular belief, the female seldom stays near the bed very long. There is a short period of bumping and dance, but she moves off quickly after depositing her eggs—and she doesn’t put all her eggs in one basket. She may save eggs for another prime period, or another prime nest. Spawn in the Potomac will often encompass a month or so. New moon periods, and full moons, when temperature is conducive, is the key.

70-75 Degrees; Postspwn. This is a highly underestimated season. Postspawn simply means that bass that has spawned and moved on—not turned off. They retreat to fairly deep water, usually the drops, near beds, and take a short holiday from the rigors of nest protection and work on body building. A female will lose about 14% of her weight and the males are just exhausted.

This is crankbait time—and probing deeper grass clumps with jig/pig, tube and weed-banging spinnerbaits is a very reliable option.

75-90 Degrees; Summer. This is the longest season of all, and the toughest for many. The key to remember for this season is that Potomac largemouth bass simply want to eat. Find the food, and you have found the bass. The difficulty is that there is just so much cover in the form of grass beds. I’m a big fan of the creeks this time of year, where I will examine the cover for reasons to stop and fish. If I see great blue herons, standing in the water, I will stop and fish. If I see surface activity, I will stop and fish. When I see large “clouds” of baitfish—go fish. You may have to cover a lot of river to find quantities of bass but there are magic places where the numbers are amazing.

There’s nothing better that a great topwater bite, with buzzbaits and frogs, but they have a limited time to prove that bite is-on for me. My favorite baits are a six-inch, Case Magic Stick, Johnson Spoon and a Penrod Special, Big Mouth spinnerbaits.

Caveat: there comes a time, in the warmer weather, when bass seem to avoid grass beds. That’s usually when the vegetation is covered with sediment stirred up by boat traffic and strong wind. Find unseen grass clumps, away from the obvious vegetation and spend some quality time probing it. I will also cast 1/8th ounce spinnerbaits to shallow wood and spatterdock. This is another time to do the unexpected—go deep with crankbaits.

90-75 Degrees; Post-Summer. When water temperature consistently declines, you may find that your most productive areas seen void of life. That’s a normal cycle, and you will find that hard cover is more productive for the first part of the day. Baitfish will be abundant but look for movement into creeks and outskirts of huge grass beds. The higher end of this period is “summer-like,” but the cooler end of this season is wood and rock strong.

Caviet: Just because you are wearing a jacket does not mean you should abandon the prime grass beds. Wood cover is a magnet and “wood” can be fall down trees, old wharves and sunken barges. This is a great topwater time. I love tubes, Magic Sticks and Speed traps. I will do many things this season.

75-60 Degrees; Pre Fall. You will not recognize or understand this for the most part. Generally, we simply decide that the fish aren’t biting. Believe it or not, but the baitfish move to very shallow water and you should also. I go back to prespawn tactics, with smaller baits and creeks begin to attract life big time. Main river grass may begin to die off and pull free—and that’s oxygen depletive.

Whenever I struggle, I resort to basics. If I can’t find bass in surface grass, I’ll find grass in deep water—or go to the drops. I’m a big fan of deeper creeks and I’ll cast spinnerbaits to spatterdock—but crankbaits in unexpected places is my savior most days like this.

60-45 Degrees; Fall. I love this season. Bass will shy away from dying grass and it’s tough to fish favored areas because of the dead and floating grass. You have to make a pretty drastic move now, and that may not mean leaving vegetation. Think about the temperature difference. The high end of this season offers shallow opportunities but there is a chance that there will be a 10-degree difference in one day. Baitfish will move into creeks and coves. Slower currents and lower tides will be best. I often change drastically in a day.

Caveat: spend lots of time in creeks like Mattawoman, Occoquan and Aquia, plus gravel pits near the I-95 bridge. Washington D.C waters will be a good bet—as will Luhr-Jensen Brush Babys, Mizmo tubes and Big Mouth spinnerbaits.

45-39 Degrees; Pre-Winter. See the post winter season above, but this is another of those big-bass seasons for a few reasons; there are fewer fishermen, bass are away from the massive grass cover, food is scarce and the big girls must feed that egg growth.

I seldom give up on crankbaits, but wait until later in the day. There is a big range for this season. Attack near the top end—finesse near the lower end of the season. Bass want subtle, small offerings and Mizmo tubes and grubs may be your best bet. Don’t hesitate to check deeper, calmed water with Silver Buddies and jigged Sugar Shads.