LA PLATA, Md. — With an opening limit of 21 pounds, 3 ounces, Ernie Freeman had reason to feel confident. He was sure he could add more weight to his total on the second day of competition because the hot spot he'd found in the Potomac River was still producing solid strikes when he left for the weigh-in at Smallwood State Park.
Early the next morning, carrying a 3-pound lead with him, Freeman raced to his hot spot. But his confidence soon waned.
"I fished for three hours and didn't get a bite," lamented the avid fisherman and 33-year-old roofing contractor from Gambrills, Md.
"I was afraid that was really going to hurt me. I was afraid that I'd blown it."
Fortunately for Freeman, past experience on the Potomac gave him an edge.
Freeman remembered a valuable lesson from many years of fishing this tidal river. "The key is knowing not only where but what time to be at the places to catch big fish."
He parlayed that knowledge into victory July 18-20 in the $313,100 Maryland CITGO Bassmaster Northern Open presented by Busch. His three day total of 52-13 was nearly 5 pounds better than the 48-pound total posted by runner-up Chris Daves of Spring Grove, Va.
"That first day, Ernie just blew it away," said Daves. "We had to try to catch up."
Rick Morris of Virginia Beach, Va., took third with 46-4, while Cary Bever of Rhinelander, Wis., and Art Ferguson of St. Clair Shores, Mich., each boated 43-4 to round out the Top 5 in the season opener.
As Freeman futilely worked his small honey hole in the Spoils area on the second day of competition, he feared that any of those four, as well as many others, might catch him. Then he remembered that the first day's bite had come around noon, just after the tide was high and started falling.
"Every day those big fish seemed to bite about the same time," he recalled, after claiming his first prize of a $35,000 fully rigged bass boat and $15,000 in cash.
With his confidence restored, Freeman caught three of his best bass later in the afternoon and managed 16-5 the second day — again, the biggest weight of the day. On the third day, with only the Top 50 pros and amateurs competing, he brought in 15-5.
Freeman caught many of his best fish by focusing on a small hole near the shoreline of the Spoils, a backwater area located just upriver from the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Because of its relatively clear water and abundant wood, rocks and other debris, the Spoils is probably one of the two most popular places on the Potomac for bass fishing. But Freeman's 20 years of experience on the river helped him focus on the best of the best.
"It was about 200 yards offshore, and not real obvious," he said. "I'd make short casts, work it down the drop and, when I couldn't feel the junk anymore, I'd reel in.
"The bass wanted a real slow retrieve. Boringly slow."
To catch these bigger fish, Freeman placed his boat parallel to shore, just in front of a submerged point that ran perpendicular. He would then cast to his right, across water about 20 feet deep into about 10 feet where an arc of wood and rocks fanned out from the point.
His most effective bait was a 6-inch Wave Worm (black) rigged with a 1/2-ounce weight and fished on Berkley Vanish fluorocarbon. "Fishing fluorocarbon is almost like fishing braid," he said. "It's abrasion-resistant and it sinks, but it also disappears in the water. I totally believe in it."
Freeman threw the worm with a Quantum spinning reel and a 6 1/2-foot All-Star spinning rod.
"I fished the same place in last year's tournament," he said. "But I was conservative and stayed there all day. This time I didn't do that."
This time, Freeman, who finished 10th the year before, also fished grass on the first two days and a channel drop on the third day, when the tide was just right. His other lures included a 1/2-ounce Stanley Flat-Eye Jig (black/blue), and Deep Little N and Strike King Series 1 crankbaits (fire tiger).
"But my biggest fish every day came on the Wave Worm," he emphasized. "I was throwing the jig a lot. But for some reason they wanted the finesse worm."
On the first day, Freeman fished grass as he worked his way north from Mattawoman Creek to the Spoils area.
"Usually this time of year, all I would be fishing would be grass in the middle," he said. "And that was what I was banking on. But it's not there like it usually is, because we had a wet and muddy spring."
By the time he reached the Spoils, Freeman had a five bass limit weighing about 15 pounds, which would have put him among the Top 20. Using spinning gear and the Wave Worm, he caught bigger bass, including two "pushing 5 pounds" and he built his weight to more than 21 pounds.
On the third day, with competition pared to the Top 50, Freeman decided to forgo the grass and fish pilings on a channel drop during the end of an outgoing tide before moving on to the Spoils. He boated a limit with crankbaits, and then used his finesse technique to cull three times and finish with 15-5, more than enough to claim first place.
Potomac River report
Weather: Partly cloudy skies and highs in the upper 80s characterized the weather during the CITGO Bassmaster Northern Open on the tidal Potomac River. Winds picked up on the second and third days, holding water longer than normal over some grassy areas, and forcing some anglers to change tactics or move to new sites.
Water: The Potomac is typically filled with aquatic vegetation — both milfoil and hydrilla — by mid-July. But a wet, muddy spring limited light penetration and, thus, inhibited growth this past summer. Consequently, some anglers moved often, looking for productive patches of vegetation, while others elected to fish hard cover such as wood, rock, docks, and riprap.
Level: Low tide occurred very early on the first day of competition and then an hour later each day, providing good conditions for most anglers who preferred to fish grass on a low and incoming tide.