“It was a grind” may be one of the most over-used phrases in fishing. Yet, sometimes, it’s actually accurate.
The T-H Marine FLW Bass Fishing League Regional on the Potomac River Oct. 17-19 was one of those times.
A cold front and significant winds didn’t just cancel the first day of the event; they drastically changed water levels and left anglers scrambling for any semblance of a pattern. A total of 37 pros never weighed in a fish either day, and Bradford Beavers sure felt like he might be one of them when he got to his planned starting spot and found it on dry ground. Yet, a little luck can go a long way in an event like that, and he got just the right amount of luck.
The FLW Tour pro found a magic pass through a grass flat that accounted for the majority of his weight, as he caught 13-15 and 14-9 over two days to win with a total of 28-8.
“I don’t really know why they were there,” says Beavers, who hails from Summerville, S.C. “There was nothing really different. But if I had gone 50 yards in either direction, I never would’ve found them.”
Beavers had only been to the Potomac once before – five years ago – for a Costa FLW Series event in the summertime. So he spent the majority of practice refamiliarizing himself with the fishery. Overall, practice was OK, and he figured he at least identified a starting spot for Thursday.
Then the storm happened, with winds gusting so hard the river went from flood stages to as low as what even locals had ever seen. Bryan Schmitt, who finished third in this event, guides on the river and said he’d never seen the Potomac change that much so quickly.
“The place was a mud hole,” adds Beavers, who never ventured more than five miles from takeoff. “I was afraid I’d get stuck at blastoff because we were kicking up mud. I got to my first spot and it was practically dry. So I went to another spot that was a little deeper. I was fishing around, not catching anything, so I started fishing my way out because it was too shallow.”
As he fished his way out, he caught his first keeper. And then he caught another, and another, and another. He landed four keepers by 9:15 a.m. from a 50-yard stretch by alternating between a 1/2-ounce white spinnerbait and a black-and-blue homemade vibrating jig thrown on Dobyns Champion 734 C rods.
At that point, Beavers thought he might’ve figured the fish out in terms of depth, and he made two more passes – on either side of his first pass. Both produced the same result: nothing. So he made one more pass exactly like the initial “accidental” pass and caught two more before leaving.
Beavers fished another five hours without a single bite, making it pretty easy for him to know where he’d be starting on Saturday.
“I lined up and made the exact same pass, and I had a limit by 9:30 a.m.,” says Beavers of the final morning. “It wasn’t a flurry or anything. You just had to grind and fish for them; make a lot of casts and eventually you ran into one.”
Fortunately, the water had started to come back by then, which allowed him to get back on his previously planned starting spot. He then played ping-pong between the two spots the rest of the day, seemingly able to catch one keeper that culled him up every time he moved.
One key to his best water was the presence of plenty of bait.
“There were seagulls picking crawdads off the top of the water,” adds Beavers. “I’d never seen that. I’d seen them dive down to get shad, but never just easily picking up crawdads like that.”
By the time Saturday was over, Beavers had managed to land nine keepers, with seven coming from that magic 50-yard stretch, to help him close out his season with consecutive victories.
“I won the BFL on Lake Hartwell in September to qualify for the Regional,” says Beavers. “So, I’m extremely surprised and extremely satisfied to win the Regional. It’s the best way to end my season.”
In a tournament where more guys zeroed both days (37) than caught a limit both days (32), having a spot where catching keepers was easy is a true luxury. Al Fiorille certainly had that luxury.
Fiorille hails from Mount Airy, Md., so he knows the river well. When he realized the water level was the lowest he’d ever seen on Friday, he knew anything he had in practice was shot, and instead decided to go off a bit of history.
“I remembered two old ditches I’d found years ago right off the edge of a big grass flat out in front of Farm Creek,” says Fiorille. “With the water being so low, I thought it might congregate the fish, and it definitely did.”
The ditches weren’t anything special, maybe 2 feet deeper than the adjacent flat. Yet, when the flat only has a foot of water on it, that extra 2 feet is a lot. It still wasn’t enough water at low tide to congregate the fish, as Fiorille didn’t have a fish in his livewell by noon. However, by around lunchtime, the tide had come in enough to bring the fish with it, and in 20 minutes he caught a limit.
“I never left that 200-yeard stretch after that for the rest of the tournament,” says Fiorille.
Fiorille caught all his fish on one lure: a 3/8-ounce Big Mouth Lures Big Shakey bladed jig in KM candy with a Reaction Innovations Little Dipper trailer, which he threw on 15-pound test Seaguar Tatsu Fluorocarbon line. He cast it down the center of the ditch, which was only 4 to 5 feet wide.
However, as easy as he made the fishing look come lunchtime on day one, that was nothing compared to day two.
“I blasted off the last day at 7:40 a.m., and I had a limit by 8 a.m.,” says Fiorille. “I probably caught 20 keepers, and I never lost a fish. The bigger fish just weren’t there. So I was close, but it just wasn’t enough.”
With more than 30 top-10 finishes on the Potomac and other nearby tidal fisheries, Bryan Schmitt was the obvious favorite coming into the Potomac Regional.
Yet, when you’re the favorite, there’s pressure; pressure that only multiplies when the conditions bottom out like they did.
“I knew the conditions were lining up to be tough. Being the backside of a full moon was already going to make the tide go lower than usual,” says Schmitt. “Then with the wind, I scrapped everything I had in practice and decided to 100 percent fish the current conditions and fishing ‘simple stupid.’”
“Simple stupid” for Schmitt meant basically hunkering down in Belmont and targeting isolated stretches of grass out off the main grass beds that were now too dry to fish. Unfortunately, he was only able to find two of them, and both were maybe 40 yards long. They were so isolated that he figures he wouldn’t have been able to find them if the water had not been so low. So it was better than anything else, because everything else was gone.
“I mean, we were fishing places in practice you normally could never get a boat in because the water was so high at high tide,” says Schmitt. “So, [in the tournament] I never fished anything I did in practice because you couldn’t.”
With such limited options, Schmitt slowed down and beat up on both grass patches, flipping a Missile Baits D Bomb in El Diablo on a 5/0 Hayabusa straight shank hook with a 3/16-ounce weight. He threw the rig on 17-pound-test P-Line fluorocarbon and a Fitzgerald Bryan Schmitt Signature Series Swim Jig rod.
While the setup seemed just as simple as his plan, one key for Schmitt was the color of his soft plastic.
“I think a big thing was matching the crayfish,” he says. “They’re very plentiful right now, and they’re all orange and red. So the El Diablo color is a spitting image.”
Schmitt admits the fishing was slow going, as he only got seven or eight bites a day, but it was enough to punch his ticket to the All-American.
“With the conditions changing so much, I’m thrilled to finish third,” says Schmitt. “I feel like I won.”
(The top six qualify to fish the 2020 BFL All-American)
1. Bradford Beavers – Summerville, S.C. – 28-8 (10) – $71,200
2. Al Fiorille – Mount Airy, Md. – 25-11 (10) – $10,100
3. Bryan Schmitt – Deale, Md. – 24-5 (10) – $5,00
4. Dennis Burdette – Pembroke, Va. – 23-12 (10) – $3,000
5. Otto Hecht – Snead Ferry, N.C. – 23-5 (10) – $2,000
6. Frank Ippoliti – Mercersburg, Pa. – 23-4 (10) – $1,800
7. Ryan Powroznik – Hopewell, Va. – 23-3 (10) – $1,600
8. Andrew Heivly – Malvern, Pa. – 23-0 (10) – $1,400
9. Chris Baldwin – Lexington, N.C. – 22-15 (9) – $1,200
10. Derek Brown – Charlottesville, Va. – 22-12 (10) – $1,000
When you’re a co-angler, you’re at the mercy of where your boater wants to fish. Fortunately for co-angler Mark Blankenship, his boaters wanted to fish more or less exactly where Blankenship wanted to go, which sealed the co-angler’s victory.
The Christiansburg, Va., co-angler put in plenty of practice time for the event, during which he located a key stretch up the Occoquan River in the back of Belmont Bay were the fish were more than willing to eat a drop-shot.
His first-day boater John Vanore of Mullica Hill, N.J., initially ran to the Occoquan River, but it wasn’t the stretch Blankenship had found. Instead, they started out on a grass bed in the middle of the river, where they were getting beat up by the last remnants of the cold front blowing through.
“We ended up running up to D.C. when the tide got up to fish some jetties, but we really didn’t do much up there,” says Blankenship. “So we ended up running back down to the same grass bed in Occoquan, and I had a limit by about 10 a.m. and was even able to cull up three more times by 10:45 a.m.”
A key was simply committing himself to throwing a 3/8-ounce Dave’s Tournament Tackle swim jig in green pumpkin with a Zoom Super Chunk trailer.
“The grass was on top of the water, and I felt a vibrating jig would get hung up,” says Blankenship. “So I’d toss the swim jig to every pocket or hole I could. I’d swim it on the surface until it reached a hole, and then I’d drop it in.”
The game plan had him in first by a commanding 2-pound, 2-ounce lead thanks to his 12-2 limit, but Blankenship knew he’d have to back it up to be one of the lucky few co-anglers to make the All-American.
Paired with Thomas Guthke from Townville, S.C., on Saturday, Blankenship went back to D.C., where he was able to coax a pair of keepers to eat his drop-shot. But after that, they hit a long dry spell until a fateful move.
“He knew I was leading and wanted to help,” says Blankenship. “I couldn’t tell him where to go, but it just so happens that around 1:45 p.m. he decided to move to the Occoquan River. As we’re idling all the way back, I was giggling to myself inside.
“Within 15 minutes I had my three other fish, and I probably caught 10 or 12 more keepers. It was a pretty magical thing.”
“My absolute favorite thing to do in a tournament is throw a drop-shot,” adds Blankenship. “So it was kind of cool to be able to win like I did on the lure I love.”
(The top six qualify to fish the 2020 BFL All-American)
1. Mark Blankenship – Christiansburg, Va. – 21-3 (10) – $50,200
2. Michael Duarte – Baltimore, Md. – 19-3 (9) – $5,050
3. Robert Wedding – Welcome, Md. – 18-13 (10) – $2,500
4. Chad Dorney – Mucungie, Pa. – 18-12 (10) – $1,500
5. Brent Jones – Okeana, Ohio – 18-10 (10) – $1,000
6. Timothy Kinder – Manassas, Va. – 18-7 (10) – $900
7. Patrick Hash – Roanoke, Va. – 18-6 (10) – $800
8. James Wilcox – Cincinnati, Ohio – 18-3 (9) – $700
9. Mike Wotanowski – Lake Hopatcong, N.J. – 17-9 (10) – $600
10. Cort Gardner – Jessup, Md. – 17-4 (10) – $500