MARBURY, Md. – Overcast and slightly cooler conditions on the first two days made the fishing look pretty good at the Toyota Series Presented by A.R.E. Northern Division finale on the Potomac River. Going into the final day, three pros had crossed the 30-pound mark and everyone in the Top 10 had caught a limit both days. Hot and sunny conditions on the final day changed all that – with four pros failing to limit and only winner Thomas Wooten catching more than 14 pounds, the practice predictions turned into reality in a big way.
Overall, the event turned out to be a good finale, and finished up close, as is usual on the Potomac. While Wooten was frogging grass for the win, there was a good spread of tactics represented in the Top 10, which showcased most of what the Potomac has to offer.
Just 21 years old and already the owner of five Top 10 finishes in MLF competition on the Potomac, Aaron Dixon nearly pulled off a win in the fourth Toyota Series event he fished. Leading through the first two days, he only mustered 12-6 on the final day to drop to second.
Catching most of his weight flipping, Dixon tossed a spinnerbait some in the mornings as well. All week, he did most of his damage in Aquia Creek, but added fish near Quantico, Belmont and one in Mattawoman as well.
“I’ve been doing this on the river for years, but I’ve been dialed into a certain type of grass, and you’ve got to have the right baitfish,” Dixon said of his flipping bite. “It seems like every time I go into an area and I see baby bass swimming around, or 3- or 4-inch fingerlings, there’s going to be bigger ones that you can’t see.
“There was a lot of coontail out deeper, but up where I was flipping was star grass, it provides a better canopy,” he explained. “I flip right in the middle, or next to the hole, I don’t flip in the hole, I flip next to it. That’s why I need the 2-ounce weight. I’d flip it in, bring it up to the top of the grass two or three times and then pull it back out. Once I picked up the flipping stick I didn’t put it back down.”
Flipping with 65-pound braid and a 4/0 hook, a California 420-colored Reaction Innovations Sweet Beaver carried the weight for Dixon. His spinnerbait in the mornings was a double-willow model, and a trailer hook was key because the fish were slapping it. On the final two days, after losing his starter bait, Dixon went with a ½-ounce Strike King Burner Spinnerbait he grabbed from Walmart.
Fishing a ¼ mile stretch of creek in the back of Aquia, Gaskin stuck to his shallow roots with a Reaction Innovations Sweet Beaver Texas-rigged on 3/8- and ¼-ounce weights.
“I was flipping every pad and piece of wood I could find, like every pad, it felt like today,” Gaskin said. “Practice was so tough, it was so tough, but I got four bites in there. That was the only stretch I got four bites in, so I went in there on Day 1 and got 15 pounds pretty quick, and I was shocked. I didn’t know what was in there because I didn’t set the hook.”
Tallying 10 keepers each day, Gaskin left his fish early the first two days. On the final day, he needed a bit more time.
“The tide messed me up a little bit today,” he said. “They said it would go out at 10:50, and it didn’t go out until noon. The fish started biting – I caught three fish in the last five minutes and then had to go. Two of them were close to 4 pounds, and I had to leave.”
Going back and forth over the same stretch of creek wasn’t fun work, but Gaskin didn’t leave anything on the table.
“I think the key was you just had to hit every single pad,” he said. “There’d be one sitting on one every now and then, and when you got it close to them they’d bite. But, there wasn’t a whole lot, 30 fish in three days isn’t a whole lot of fish. You’ve got to stay focused the whole time – I went 3 hours today without a bite, and then I caught two 3-pounders back-to-back. Flipping, if you don’t stay focused, you might as well go do something else.”
Fishing grass, Hatfield had good topwater bite with a Lobina Rio Rico going early. On the final day, he caught all his fish, including a 5-pounder, on a 3/8-ounce Z-Man Evergreen ChatterBait JackHammer with a Zoom Ultra Vibe Speed Craw.
“Everything I weighed came from Potomac Creek,” Hatfield said. “I saw that there was a lot of bait in the grass, and I saw fish blowing up on the bait. Once I realized how the tide worked and figured out the bait, I was able to run around in there and catch them in multiple places instead of one specific spot.
“It was all about finding the current seams in the grass,” he detailed. “When the tide would come in or go out, you could see areas where the current was flowing in the grass. Those were the best places to get bit, and I had four or five places I found that kept reproducing fish. Some of them were probably the size of a bass boat, some were bigger, like 50 yards.”
A standout in college at Tusculum University and locally in east Tennessee, Hatfield’s good finish will give him a chance to fish at the next level in 2022.
“It feels good, I wanted to come here and have a good showing and stay in the points race,” he said. “The goal was to make the Championship and try to get an invite to the Pro Circuit, so to make the Top 10 is great. You get that close, and all you can think is win, win, win. I may not have won it, but it’s been a fun week, and if someone would have told me I’d make the Top 10 before the tournament started I would have been like ‘Heck yeah, let’s go.’”
Fishing docks in the back of Aquia, Brian Latimer ground out three limits in a row, which helped him move up from eighth to fifth on the final day.
“I was just flipping hard cover, picking everything apart,” Latimer said. “It was a really slow bite, almost like they were spawning. I just had to take my time and go through a marina. There were certain slips that I noticed through the tournament that were shallower or deeper. And, on incoming tide, there was one stretch of docks I caught probably five of my keepers on the last three days. So, I started to hone in on certain docks that were holding a lot of bream, which is where I caught a lot of my bigger fish on a spinnerbait.”
Going north near D.C. is a time-honored strategy for tough events on the Potomac, and Robby Lefere went with it for his second Toyota Series Top 10 in two years.
“I was fishing isolated wood on shallow flats,” Lefere said. “My bite was better on low tide when those fish would suck out to them. The big thing for me was finding wood that was underwater on low and high tide, just something a little submerged that you couldn’t see as well unless you found it on 360 or saw it at low tide.”
Flipping and pitching to the wood, Lefere caught all his fish on a Strike King Punch Bug with a 3/8-ounce weight.
Frank Ippoliti took the northern, hard cover route like Lefere, but his quality ran out on the final day.
Running across one big flat to get to an unpressured stretch of water as well as fishing more common hard cover places in D.C., Ippoliti plied a 5/16-ounce Jewel Baits Finesse Jig with a Berkley PowerBait MaxScent Power Chunk and the venerable Z-Man Evergreen ChatterBait JackHammer and Zoom Ultra Vibe Speed Craw combo.
“The grass, it’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” he said. “We have so much grass this year, the past several years it’s never been like this. It’s usually more sparse, which makes it easier to find the fish. You can flip for miles and not get a bite, and I did that one day of practice and said ‘Nah, this is not for me.’”
“I fished hard cover and hoped for a big bite,” Ippoliti said. “I knew 12 to 13 pounds was pretty easy, I had a dozen bites the first two days and they were all cookie cutters, and I hated to throw them back. On the final day, I got two big bites, but never got the 2-pounders.”
A native of Alexandria, Virginia, it was only natural for Jason Williams to head north for the tournament. On Day 1, he caught a 5-pounder, and that fish carried him a long way.
Fishing Four Mile Run the entire time, he plied hard cover with a variety of baits including a green pumpkin weightless Zoom Super Fluke, an ima Finesse Popper, a Strike King Rage Craw, a Whopper Plopper 130 and a wacky-rigged Yamamoto Senko.
“I fished the whole creek, every pillar, every piece of gate, every piece of fence,” Williams said. “I fished that whole entire creek.”
Fishing only his second Toyota Series event from the bow, Williams was thrilled with the Top 10.
“I’m stoked, I dreamed about things like this,” he said. “I watched TV, I watched pros like Brian [Latimer], Bryan Thrift, Kevin VanDam, I fished with [Scott] Canterbury a few years ago. I’m dreamin’, somebody pinch me, this isn’t real right now.”
Wrapping up the Angler of the Year title with a Top 10, Matt Becker had a legit shot to win the event heading into the final day. Unfortunately, he caught just one keeper on Day 3 and dropped from third to ninth.
“Everyone thought I was sandbagging, but I really wasn’t,” he said. “Today showed that I wasn’t on much at all. The trick on the Potomac for me, is you find a couple of areas and spend half your day in them. I found an area for an outgoing tide, and I would spend my mornings there, and I could catch some keepers. That was to catch a couple of fish and get a limit, and I really wasn’t expecting the weights to be this good.
“Once it got low, I would switch up and go to another area and start punching,” Becker added. “That was more for a low and incoming tide. It was the only area I found with hydrilla in 2- to 4-feet of water that was matted over. I still believe the winning fish live there, I just couldn’t get them to bite.”
Fishing in the morning in Quantico and punching in Belmont, Becker did most of his big-fish damage with a Googan Baits Bandito Bug with a 1 1/2-ounce weight, a 4/0 Trokar TK130 and 50-pound Seaguar Smackdown Braid. On the rod side of things, Becker tried the new 7-foot-7 Favorite Zack Birge Signature Serie Rush.
“This is the first time I really used it, and I don‘t think I lost a fish that I hooked,” he said. “I was really impressed – generally when I’m punching I lose a lot of fish, so I might have found the rod for it.”
After uncharacteristically not qualifying for the Tackle Warehouse TITLE, taking home the AOY title over a strong Northern Division group was a big deal for Becker.
“So many little things went my way,” he said. “Every decision I made in the Toyota Series this year just turned into the right one. Even if I made a bad decision, the next thing I would do was better than I anticipated the first one being. So, every little decision worked out, and I caught a lot of nice fish.
“It feels pretty good, this is my fourth shot at it, and I’ve been wanting it since I started fishing these,” said the Pennsylvania pro. “It’s so hard to win Angler of the Year in any trail, but especially the Northern Division, because you have to average a Top 10 finish throughout the three tournaments to win it. I’m very happy with that, it’s been an up and down year on the Pro Circuit – I won an event, but I had a couple of really bad ones and wanted to get some revenge here on the Potomac. So, I got a little revenge and got that Angler of the Year.”
Danny Shanz used to work at a golf club near the Potomac, and says he’s taught four sitting presidents to golf. Though he blanked on the final day, he rode a unique spinnerbait bite into the Top 10.
“I was throwing a buzzbait over eelgrass in the morning, I caught a limit the first day, and two good ones the second day,” Shanz said. “Then I was throwing the spinnerbait, targeting the coontail, it stands straight up in the tide, and I’d reel my bait right into the middle of it. You pop it out, and that blade explodes with eh sunlight and they hammer it.”
Fishing near Powells Creek, in Pohick and Belmont, Shanz had a unique homemade ¼-ounce spinnerbait with a single No. 4.5 willow leaf blade to himself.
“It’s a bait I’ve been throwing for 30 years,” Shanz said. “I just throw it down, reel it, pop it off the grass, let it flutter and keep crankin’ it.”