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Angus Phillips

Decision Not to Rock the Boat Pays Off

By Angus Phillips
Sunday, February 6, 2005; Page E03

Capt. Norman Bartlett is a big man with a small boat. There's no place to hide, but he was trying, looking unhappy as we angled for rockfish last week at the power plant spillway on the Potomac in Morgantown, Md.

We'd been at it more than an hour, mostly watching a trio of Virginia anglers in a fancy bass boat catch rock up to 20 pounds from one small spot where the warm-water discharge emerges from the seawall. We hadn't caught anything on the perimeter, and I could take it no more. "Let me run the boat," I suggested, "and you fish."


Jim Dudley of Lynchburg, Va., shows off a 20-pound rockfish he caught in the warm-water discharge at the Pepco power plant in Morgantown, Md., where fish congregate during the winter. (Angus Phillips For The Washington Post)

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He agreed, but instantly regretted it. Where he'd kept a respectful distance from the Virginians, I forged in shamelessly, navigating so close that Bartlett and Larry Coburn, third man in our party, could toss lures right under their boat. Bartlett, a professional guide, hunkered down, fuming, and looked for a hiding place. Finally he spoke up.

"You can't do this," he said. "It's not right. That man got here first. He found a good spot and you have no business trying to climb in there with him. If you were a guide, you'd understand. He's not saying anything but I know what he's thinking, and it ain't nice."

"Well, he's been in there an hour and a half that we know of and caught at least 20 good fish," I said. "If I were him I'd move along and let somebody else in. That's just good sportsmanship."

"That's his decision," said Bartlett. "I know I wouldn't do it if it was me. Now let's get out of here, find another spot and wait 'em out. There's other fish around."

It was his boat, after all. We drifted back 30 yards on the rushing, warm-water current and dropped anchor on the edge of the flow. Bartlett retook the helm and I went back to casting a 1 1/2-ounce bucktail, working it slowly along the rocky bottom on the edge of the fast water. Third cast: Bang!

"Got one!" I sang out. It was five-pounder, first of more than 30 rock up to eight pounds we'd catch in the next hour or so as feeding fish finally lit on a new spot. Twenty minutes later, the Virginians abandoned their hotspot and were circling ours, keeping, Bartlett noted with a satisfaction, a respectful distance.

Halfway between our two boats, Bob Linn, another Virginian fishing alone in the only other boat in sight, set the hook on a 19 1/2-pounder. The bite was on, having shifted to favor us, proving once more that what goes around, comes around.

Everyone wound up with action aplenty on a remarkable fishing day for early February, particularly considering that most of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries were frozen and inaccessible. The river at Morgantown stays open in part because of the warm, power plant discharge, and anglers are lucky to have a working launch ramp at Aqualand at the foot of the Route 301 bridge, just a few hundred yards away.

We couldn't have picked a nicer day, sunny and calm and relatively ice-free, but it always makes me nervous to recommend fishing open water in boats this time of year. You have to be cautious, as a fall in the frigid river could be disastrous.

Morgantown is one of several warm-water discharges where fish congregate in the winter, other notable ones being the nuclear power plant at Calvert Cliffs, Chalk Point on the Patuxent near Benedict and Brandon Shores on the Patapsco near Baltimore. Last week the others were all locked in ice, but that can change quickly.

Linn, the Virginian who landed the 19 1/2-pounder alongside us, said he's fished the discharge at Morgantown about 15 times this winter. "Sometimes you get 'em and sometimes you don't," he said. His biggest rock this year was a 25-pounder.

He fishes alone in a small, aluminum john boat, which struck me as riskier than anything I'd do regularly. Jim Dudley of Lynchburg, the other Virginian out that day, had two friends with him in a stable bass boat, while we fished from Bartlett's sturdy, 16-foot aluminum boat, which seemed like a happy medium.

Feeding fish were all right on the bottom in 30 to 40 feet of fast water, which meant using heavy bucktails or jigs to get down, and working them slowly to elicit a strike. It's not always that way, said Bartlett, who prefers a fly rod and says he often outcatches spinning rod anglers by using flies at moderate depths.

In any event, there's nothing like a good fishing day when all around is ice and snow. If this be winter, can spring be far away?


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