When I meet a person who hasn't had success on the Potomac before or speaks poorly of our Nation's River for its fishy qualities - the first thing I ask them is, "Where were you fishing?" This is SOP of course, but a necessary evil because believe it or not different places fish better at different times of day and stages of tide. One place void of the life, the other chock full of it. So, when I get the standard answers: Four Mile Run, Gravelly Point, Duck Pond, Tidal Basin, etc.....Well, we all know those places hold fish. So what gives?
Sure, certain areas are fishier than others. It’s a fact of fishing. But simply put, we're lucky to live in a region that boats a multitude of options for fly fishermen. We have genuine year round fly fisheries in our backyard (the Potomac and tribs) and the mountains (Mossy Creek, Beaver Creek, North Branch, Savage, etc.). However, what separates the Potomac from other world class fisheries is that you have to know how to work it. It can be a fickle mistress sometimes with some days being mind-blowingly simple and others being seemingly worthless (remember, every day on the water is a lesson learned). But like any fishery, there are certain windows of opportunity that are better than others (for most freshwater fisheries, full moon, new moon, first and last light are good examples of high activity periods for game fish).This is true to the Potomac. But here, one factor dictates fishing success above all else- tide (follow DC/Alexandria here).
Simply put – to find fish on the Potomac this time of year you need two of the following three things: current, bait, or structure.
The Potomac River - the Chesapeake Bay's main tributary - is incredibly tidal. With a double dose of salinity and tidal fluctuation every day, game fish have learned to take advantage of the outpouring bait fish from tidal creeks and tributaries at their least opportune moments. Knowing how a certain spot fishes according to the tide is key.
For example, let’s look at a tide cycle on Four Mile Run – your typical tidal tributary and a scenario every fly angler in the District has at least heard about if not experienced. On outgoing tides, warm water and baitfish are pushed through the channel past the bridge pilings to hungrily waiting game fish. On the rising tide, those same game fish which were previously trapped in the channel can now move freely throughout the stream. Targeting fish holding structure (rip rap, over hanging branches, boulders, etc) will help locate fish in what we call, “establishing the pattern”.
On the outgoing tide, baitfishes that originally entered/were chased into the stream are essentially flushed out of Four Mile Run (no pun intended) where they are awaited by game fish in deeper water at the creek mouth by the RT. 1 bridges. Those that are not flushed to their toothy death seek refuge from would be predators in the shallows.
As the tide steadily drops, game fish are funneled out of the shallows and into the main channel or deeper cuts near the bank waiting for easy meals. They remain trapped in these spots until the tide comes back up. It is during this time that these fish don’t have anywhere to hide. In other words - there are only so many places that can accommodate a large fish in a small creek or run. Predators are aware of the dropping water and will seek refuge in deeper water or holding areas until the next change. That’s why the discharge pool consistently holds big fish. Thus, larger quarries become more easily accessible to us at these times but simultaneously – more wary of your presence as well. If you can see a fish, they can probably see you (just saying) so don’t be offended if they won’t offer at your fly. During a low/outgoing tide the strategy is to catch fish on their way out the creek or find fish in deep pockets and try and get the presentation just right.
Slack Tide (transition from low-high, high-low): Go to the bathroom, take a nap, grab a bite to eat, or pop a beer. More often than not, you’re spinning your wheels if you’re fishing slack tides anywhere on the Potomac.
Incoming/ High Tide: During an incoming tide, fish have more water to move around. They can be here, there or everywhere. But more often than not, they’re found moving into the creek in or near structure along the main current seam being gluttons. As the water levels rise, more area becomes accessible to game fish, thus making it more of a game to cover water. Hit every piece of structure you can. Know the fish highways.
Below are my recommendations for where to fish according to certain tides.
INCOMING: Duck Pond Tidal Basin
OUTGOING: Gravelly Point Little Hunting Creek Four Mile Run
BOTH WAYS: Rock Creek Park Fletcher's Cove/Chain Bridge