MARBURY, Md. – With the Tackle Warehouse Invitationals season drawing to a close, there’s a lot on the line in the final two events. For perhaps the Top 20 or 30 pros, the points considerations are paramount with Bass Pro Tour qualification on the horizon. For the rest of the field, including some super-talented locals, all eyes are on the $80,000 first-place check and automatic REDCREST qualification. Though the season finale at the Mississippi River will really ice things down, T-H Marine Stop 5 at the Potomac River is set to be about as interesting as a tournament on such a well-known fishery can be.
After Lake of the Ozarks, conventional wisdom was that the BPT could expect six new entrants in 2024, with Michael Neal and Dakota Ebare taking up space in the top eight to keep a few newcomers waiting another year. Now, Ebare’s decision to skip the Potomac in favor of extra practice at Saginaw Bay has thrown that into flux, and everyone is on notice that there will likely be seven spots to take advantage of.
In ninth heading into the event, Brock Reinkemeyer is the bubble boy with 668 points. Surely, folks like Scotty Villines in 13th and Marshall Robinson in 16th have a chance, but how far down does the chance go? Could past Potomac champion Jacopo Gallelli get in the mix from 27th? Does Virginia native Cody Pike need two good events to join roommate Neal at the next level? Everyone will be watching the standings this week, but the Top 30 or so pros are likely to be extra-dialed.
Since he moved up from the Toyota Series, Ron Nelson has won Rookie of the Year on the Pro Circuit in 2019, and then followed it up with an Angler of the Year title in 2020. Now, he’s leading the race for AOY in the Invitationals with 777 points and a 42-point margin over Matthew Stefan. While Stefan has 735 points, Martin Villa is a hairsbreadth away with 733 points, and Grae Buck, Neal and Keith Carson are all less than 60 points off the lead. Nelson isn’t in a runaway, and the Mississippi River is no sure thing, but a Top 20 (15th is Nelson’s worst showing on the year) could give the Michigan pro a lot of breathing room at the finale.
Points will be updated unofficially after Day 2 of the event, so be sure to check out the standings page to keep up with the situation.
Back in 2021, Justin Cooper knocked out a Top 10 on the Potomac in the Pro Circuit event, tallying 16 and change on Day 1, with three 14+ bags to follow it up. Unfortunately, practice hasn’t exactly provided him with a repeat blueprint.
“It was great the first day, OK yesterday, and sucks today. It’s gradually gotten worse,” Cooper said of practice.
In 2021, Cooper mined a few key stretches with a vibrating jig for the most part, doing the classic grass winding deal one does on the Potomac.
“For me, it’s probably going to be similar,” Cooper said. “I may mix in some more flipping, instead of moving baits like I caught them on last time. Practice has been better than practice was two years ago. I got dialed in during the tournament, but the grass hasn’t been as good as I hoped.
“I’ve gotten more bites in practice compared to two years ago. I haven’t seen any big ones, but I’ve seen good quality fish. The first day of practice I probably had 15 pounds, but it was with 3-pounders. I didn’t get a big bite, like some guys are getting. I’ve heard of guys getting 4-, even 5-pound bites.”
Cooper says the river is looking good overall, but not quite what he expected.
“To me, on average, the river is a little dirtier in the majority of places,” he said. “There are some places that I think are a little cleaner, but Aquia and Potomac seem dirtier than two years ago. Belmont is still really clean, but outside Occoquan Bay it is dirtier. There’s a lot more grass, a lot more topped-out grass. There’s one stretch of the river that has got to be topped out grass for 4 miles, I mean, maybe not be 4 miles, but it’s a darn long way.”
That topped-out, thicker grass may give rise to an interesting possibility in this event.
“I could see somebody doing well on a frog and maybe flipping some matted vegetation,” Cooper said. “Usually it’s a vibrating jig, speed worm, swim jig in the grass, and it’s still gonna be (those). But, I think something we didn’t see last time was frogging and flipping grass, and we could see that this time.”
As for weights, Cooper figured that 16 ½ pounds a day for a 49+ total will have someone in the trophy conversation.
The preeminent local on the Potomac, Bryan Schmitt’s soothing accent could probably be prescribed for anxiety. Of course, his competition needs it, because Schmitt’s success up and down the east coast is downright legendary. Hailing from Deale, Maryland, and guiding for stripers on the Chesapeake Bay between bass fishing, there’s hardly anyone in a better position to break down the state of the bite.
“Weight-wise, this year has been a big uptick,” Schmitt said of the river. “Every year, it’s kinda creepin’ back. We’re getting a little more milfoil every year. I think that’s a big key, that’s the only grass that stays around all winter – as soon as the spring hits, there’s something for them to get in.”
In June on the Potomac, the fishing can flip from so-so to electric in a hurry. Unfortunately, Schmitt thinks the switch hasn’t quite been hit.
“I think it’s traditional June, but just a piece behind,” he said. “It’s kinda been unseasonably cool a little bit. June is always really good, but it’s just a little behind, as far as full-out, everybody has 15 pounds. It could happen by the tournament, but I think a lot of fish are in that zombie phase, just getting done, maybe even still some doing it.
“June is a deal where in a few days it can go off. They just had that BASS Nation deal, and another big team event this weekend. The weights really showed you that overall fishing wasn’t that good. Everybody should have 13, 14, 15 pounds, and it’s just not happening. But, it’s coming, those fish are here.”
Still, Schmitt expects to see some really strong weights at the top of the field, with some really good fishing showcased on MLFNOW! live stream.
“I think the overall top weights for this week are going to be a little up,” he said. “To win, I think a guy is going to be around that 18, 19 a day. I think the top couple guys are going to have better bags than the last couple years, maybe it’ll just wake up and everybody will have 14 pounds, but I don’t see that just yet.
“The weights this spring, March, April, even into May, were 22, 23 pounds to win most everything. With that being said, in June, when they get done and they’re on the feed, I consider that to be as good as the spring, just knock a pound or so off. There are a lot of 4- and 5-pound fish to be caught – they might not be committing suicide right now, but I’ve personally seen the potential for that this week. It wouldn’t surprise me if somebody had that kind of weight.”
There are two factors that Schmitt thinks could derail his big estimates – the weather and the pressure.
“We do have a little wind the first day,” he said. “It’s going to make it very difficult in 80% of the river. If a guy could catch them the first day, shew, he’s going to have it made in the shade the next couple days. But, the first day is going to be trying, it’s not too rough to fish, but it’s going to make it tough, there will be a real low tide, and it’s going to take away a lot of real estate.”
Generally on the Potomac, the best grass beds can turn into parking lots, a little like Florida. This year, Quantico Creek in particular has received a ton of pressure. Schmitt says that it can be important not to let it get to you.
“There’s a lot of pressure, but it’s one of those times of year, if you try to go do some goofy stuff, you’re not gonna win this tournament,” Schmitt said. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you can’t have a good day, but you’re not going to have three days of fish, it’s never that way in June. July, August, September, sure, but in June, if you let the boats get to you, you’re gonna be out of it quick.”