The Upper Potomac River: Lander

The Potomac River is 358 miles long, beginning at a place called Fairfax Stone, just 500 yards inside West Virginia territory, and ending at/in the Chesapeake Bay. The river is owned by Maryland except for about 11.5 miles deeded to Washington, D.C. Only 108 miles of this famous drainage is tidal water while the balance is free flowing water—and a seemingly forgotten smallmouth bass fishery.

I wrote the book “Fishing The Upper Potomac River” in 1989 and it continues to sell well. While some of our fishing tactics have changed over the years, the geographic descriptions have not. The quality of the fishery dips and spikes over the years, because of spawn success/failure, climactic occurrences and contributing human abuse. Life under the surface of this river runs the gamut of extremes such as the severe drought in 2007 and 100-year floods in 1986.

I’ve been fishing this river since 1961 so I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly. There were years when we went several days without catching a bass and there were days when we caught more than one hundred. I dubbed 2000 as the finest smallmouth bass year of my 46-year history and now I’m claiming 2007 as my #2.

My favorite areas of the upper Potomac River are Edwards Ferry, Whites Ferry, Lander and Shepherdstown with Lander as the hands-down favorite. We had a pole-mounted cabin on the shores of this stretch for about 25-years. I’m going to explain how I fish this water and from time to time I will write about other stretches. Let’s consider this a series—and Lander is the first of a series.

I fish smallmouth rivers from an Xpress jet boat redesigned by Mare, Inc., a Ranger/Xpress/Mercury Dealer in Thurmont, Maryland (301-898-3717). Together, we have come up with the perfect river boat. The Xpress is 17-feet long, carpeted interior and powered by a Mercury jet drive 90/65. I use the Minn Kota Maxxum Pro, 36-volt trolling motor, mounted on the bow of the boat and I steer the boat from the front also with a “stick-steer” system. I have four batteries aboard, three deep cycles in a box under my seat. A 20-gallon gasoline tank is also forward—just behind the boat operator, under a carpeted closure where guests may sit during long, cold rides. This boat is capable of 34 miles per hour with three persons aboard.

The Lander launch is located on the Maryland side between Point of Rocks and Brunswick. From Route 15 in Maryland, approximately one mile north of the river crossing, take Route 464west toward Brunswick. Turn left on the second Lander road, cross the railroad track and C&O Canal bridge to the launch.

Keep this telephone number handy (703-260-0305) because you can use it to retrieve information about the Rappahannock, Shenandoah and Potomac Basins. The Potomac at Lander is “safe” for most skilled boaters when the gauge at Point of Rocks is between .75 to 3-feet. It’s safe for highly skilled boaters to six feet. It’s a good level to wade at .75 to 1.5 feet.

Stand on the launch and look across the river. Those two large rocks are named “Twin Sisters.” Look downstream, toward Point of Rocks. The power lines cross a section of river called Hales Pond. That long island from the power lines, downriver, is called Bald Eagle Island. The ledge that stands above the water and runs in the same direction as the river is called Huffman Ledge. There are six such ledges in Hales Pond that you can’t see above water. We never fish further downstream than the south end of Bald Eagle Island because it’s just too rough. That area is called the “Fish Pots.” Let’s fish this area—then come back and explore upriver.

I’ll use spinning rods predominantly, 5’-9” to 6’-0” graphite, medium to medium-heavy, Gator rods (www/gatorrods.com) with fast retrieve spinning reels (Shimano 2000 or Pflueger 2500) spooled with eight-pound test, green monofilament called Xcell by Bass Pro Shops. My lures will include Mizmo tubes (www.mizmo.com) in 2.75 to 4-inch (green pumpkin, Penrod Special, road kill and red craw), Case Magic Sticks (green pumpkin/gold, pink and halogen), Luhr-Jensen 1.8th ounce Speed Traps, 4” Rapala jerk baits, white buzz baits for summer and a few topwater poppers, again, for summer. There isn’t a day when I don’t use the tube—and 90-percent of every day I use the tube predominantly.

 You may begin fishing immediately upon launching your boat, and while I brag about my wonderful Xpress jet boat, just about any flat bottom jon or canoe will suffice.

For sake of expediency though, let’s get to the power line where fishing really picks up. Stay on the Maryland side, about three or four casts off shore and maintain a controlled drift. If you can’t control the drift, anchor in the best places. This Hale Pond drift is best when the level is between .75 and 1.5 feet. The attraction for Hales Pond is the underwater ledges that offer canopy-like habitat to ambush savvy smallmouth bass. I prefer to “overcast” a ledge and expect my strike when the lure is dropped in the front door. There are three drifts, this one, then, right down the middle, then along the Maryland side of Huffman ledge. I like this area for summer conditions. The sun comes up on the Maryland side. It takes about an hour per drift and each drift should get you 10-20 bass each.

If you are not wearing polarized sun glasses while fishing, you are handicapped. I wear prescription glasses and my advice is to contact Jennelle Optic at 703-437-8300) and have him make you a set of OGP-Angler Vision sunglasses. That’s the brand I’ve used for 20-years, and I’m very pleased. Jim Jennelle is a professional fisherman and he knows what we need.

The area between the power lines and Two Sisters Rocks is “ok” but let’s go fish upriver. From the launch, I’ll hug the Maryland shore until we get above Twin Sisters ledge, then go to the middle of the river and begin to fish. That’s Catoctin Creek coming into the river on the Maryland side. This is a wonderful area where a mix of huge underwater boulders, ledges and deep holes combine with rocky shallows. I’ll always refer to this are as Penrods Swirls. That ledge upstream that seems to block-off the river is called The Sawbuck Ledge.

In Penrod Swirl, stay a few casts off the Virginia shore and upriver where two ledge outcroppings block you. Fish downriver, in a very controlled pattern for about three hundred yards. There is another drift in the middle, then another favoring the Maryland side. The bottom here is very irregular, with steep dropoffs and it takes some time to fish this area properly. I seldom use anything other than tubes and Speed Traps. This is a 12-month, most-any-level fishery. In the summer I save this area until the sun gets high. This is a great fall habitat.

The next pond upriver is called Penrods Pond, but first you have to get there. The Sawbuck Ledge has a notch in the rocks favoring the Maryland side. That’s how I get upriver, on plane, with clients gritting their teeth. There are a few “V's” in the ledge that you may negotiate if the level is 2-feet and better. By the way, I love to maneuver the boat along the down-current end of the ledge and the area near my notch contains some of the deepest water in this sector.

Penrod Pond is a great spring-time area because the next upriver ledge (The Wall) acts as a dam and creates excellent spawning areas down-current. That’s when I’ll fish Penrod Pond. In the summer this area is usually so choked with submersed grass that it’s hard to present lures properly.

Get through the Wall, to the left of the standing stones and work your way upriver to the next ledge we call The Fence. You can spend the entire day here if you choose. Rather than drift this area, I tend to work my way back and forth across the river fishing so many dropoffs, holes, ledges and rocky shallows. This area between the Fence and the Wall is referred to as Eagle View.

I’ve fished every mile of the Potomac from Paw Paw to Little Falls—and this area is my favorite. I can fish here during droughts and high water. This is about the end of the Mountain portion of the Potomac because from Point of Rocks to Capital City it’s the Piedmont.

Maryland state license is required and Virginia state license is honored. There is a catch and release regulation from March 1 to June 15. There is a life jacket requirement from mid-October to mid-June. We catch big, fat blue gills and shoot geese here during the season. I’ve spent a great deal of my life here and look forward to much more. Oh yeah—did I tell you about the tiger muskies?

Ken Penrod is the owner/operator of Life Outdoors Unlimited, a highly regarded fresh and brackish water guide service with 18 licensed guides. Ken was enshrined into the Fresh Water Fishing Hall Of Fame in 1989 and has written six books. Rack Ken at kenpenrod@comcast.net or 240-447-2206. See www.penrodsguides.com for details about the guide service, youth camp and weekly fishing reports

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