A Chesapeake Bay comeback plan

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Steve Bowman

HARFORD COUNTY, Md. – As three-time Bassmaster Classic qualifier Pete Gluszek idled across the famed Susquehanna Flats this morning, bouncing off unseen logs and dodging everything from barrels to basketballs, he pondered the historic nature of the weather conditions that forced the postponement of the Huk Bassmaster Elite at Chesapeake Bay presented by Mossy Oak Fishing.

He’s been fishing the Upper Chesapeake since 1988, and has seen flood conditions equaling these previously, but “exclusively in the spring. We never get these floods when the grass is growing.”

Had the tournament gone off as planned this week, he’s confident that most of the top finishers would be fishing the system’s fertile grass beds. Now, he can’t help but look forward and try to figure out if that belief will hold true.

“There are 10 bazillion gallons of fresh water pushing down the Susquehanna River from New York and Pennsylvania,” he said. “The biggest concern for me if I was coming back here to fish the tournament in a few weeks would be how it will rip and tear the grass. It will definitely bring massive siltation and cover the grass. At this point we don’t know how it will endure.”

It was already an atypical year because heavy north winds during the coldest part of the winter dropped the water and sat a layer of ice directly on top of where the grass would’ve grown for over a week. “It seems to have affected the grass. There’s definitely less milfoil than in some other years. But the fishing definitely has not suffered. If they’d been able to fish, there would have been a lot more limits than there were in 2015.”

The Chesapeake Bay, like all tidal systems, is built on a foundation of change. The tide is high twice a day, and it is low twice a day, and the behavior and feeding patterns of the bass often correlate precisely to those rhythms. The constant flux makes the fishing predictable at times, and confusing at others. Gluszek’s strategy is to focus on the constants and dial in the changing factors to the particular day. 

“This has been happening for millions of years,” he said of the floods, quoting his close friend Mike Iaconelli. “That’s why the flats are there. It’s all siltation from up the river. What’s amazing is that a lot of the high spots and depressions stay consistent from year to year. I have waypoints from five years ago, and the ditches are still there now.” 

Assuming that the tournament still goes off in a few weeks, Gluszek’s first practice stop would once again be on the Flats. Even if the amount of previously-prolific grass is partially or substantially diminished, he’d expect the bass to still be feeding there. In fact, the remaining vegetation might be even more productive, because “the bait and bass will be forced into smaller areas.”

This week’s weather might also change the tournament’s overall dynamic and shift the playing field. After a first half of July that was essentially bone-dry, the saltwater intrusion had crept up the bay, to the point where it had killed some of the milfoil on the southern end of the Flats. Now, the salt will be in retreat. Whether the bait and bass will migrate with that movement remains to be seen, but it could require anglers to alter their game plans. It could also bring other tributaries into the equation. If the grass pattern is harmed, smaller weights might contend for both the win, which means that an angler who has an allegedly less productive creek or river to himself could bring a new area to light.

That’s largely what happened in 2015, when Aaron Martens won out of the Middle River, surprising even the most seasoned veterans. 

“Twenty or 30 years ago, that’s where you’d run to try to win tournaments,” Gluszek said. “But in 2015, I would’ve said that after all of the die-offs and fish kills that had occurred, there was no possible way anyone could win out of the Middle River. It was shocking."

Once a new tournament date is announced, anglers will have a period of weeks before they can figure out what has changed from the consoles of their boats. Some of them will spend the interim period hoping that the fish they found remain stationary. Others, especially those who struggled to get bites this week, are hoping for a completely different system. As soon as the river crests tonight they’ll be one step closer to finding out what level of change they’ll experience.