Just a small stick -- that was all it looked like. A waterlogged black twig protruding above the marshy brown tidal flats of the Pamunkey River.
But judging from the beady gaze Tom Hicks fixed on it as he edged the bass boat forward, there was more to it than that. And if anyone should know what lay beneath the stick, it was Hicks, who proved his piscatorial prowess by placing second in the Virginia Bass Fishermen Association's tournament trial this year, one ounce shy of fellow Richmonder Dr. Greg South.
So if Hicks wanted to ignore mile after mile of flooded cypress trunks, undulating lily pads and beckoning blowdown to concentrate his casts on a tiny black stick, the observer in the back of the boat wasn't about to question his fishing savvy.
After all, this was the BBFA Classic, the old Dominion's miniature version of the bass master grand finale. First prize of a Fisher aluminum bass boat was up for grabs. Hicks was gambling for high stakes.
With a delicate plop, his homemade black plastic worm dropped inches from the branch. Seconds later a two-pound largemouth glided through the air and into the boat. Then another.
By now the observer had changed his tune and decided tiny sticks were intriguing casting targets. He dropped his worm in and promptly broke off a big bass.
Fortunately for Hicks, this didn't spook the other fish and he quickly jerked out three more keeper bass. When the action slowed, he explained that the stick was the only visible remains of a sunken duck blind -- but the rest of the blind was still intact and holding bass beneath the brown-stained surface.
The tiny twig masking the rich structure below in a sense epitomizes the nature of Tidewater bass fishing itself. Beneath a seemingly dull veneer, these dark rivers of the flatlands host a rich bounty of bass that goes untapped by most fisherman who are intimidated by the idea of fishing in tidal water.
Gene Myers and Harold Dulton, who run the Virginia Bass Fisherman Association out of Dumfries, are doing their best to demystify Tidewater bass fishing and focus attention on the immense untapped fishing potential these rivers offer. Their last two final "classic" fish-offs in the fall have been held on just such Tidewater rivers.
The 1978 event took place on our own Potomac. This year's, in which Tom Hicks was participating when he fished the sunken duck blind, was held on the Pamunkey River near West Point. Craig Vaughn landed two eight-fish limits weighing 42 pounds, 14 ounces to win the just-completed "79 Classic, in spite of muddy water, high tides, rain and win throughout much of the contest. Seldom do even the best bass lakes yield this kind of catch.
More impressive than the weights of fish on most tidal rivers are the sheer numbers of bass available. After the first hours of fishing, Hicks had his limit of eight fish and was releasing largemouths unless they measured bigger than the ones he already had. The more obvious cover offered by fallen trees also gave up bass. Even the observer in the back of the boat hauled in fish.
Besides being full of bass, the tidal rivers are particularly good choices for October trips. Recent cooling temperatures have breathed new life into bass that had become lethargic from summer heat.
Glenn Peacock, who guides full time on Maryland's Tidewater rivers, says action in his bailiwick is also heating up as the mercury drops. "Fishing should be good right through November and into December, unless we get a severe cold snap," he said.
For those new to tidal bass fishing, there's no better time than now to take the plunge. Here are a few tips gleaned from guides and skilled brackish bass anglers.The stage of the tide is critical. The lower the tide, the better the fishing. A low, falling tide, just about to turn, is best of all. This reduces the area where the bass can fan out, concentrating them on the edges of cover where they can be cast to easily.
Some fish can be caught on high tides, but usually only about a third as many as on a low tide. Concentrate on deep points and drop-offs and also try buzzing way back in the brush during rising tides.
No matter how desolate a Tidewater river may seem, waterfowlers know about it. You'll find plenty of duck blinds, both sunken and standing. All offer good bass cover. Hicks even likes to get right up close and flip lures inside the blinds. He's taken five-pounders this way many times.
Fallen trees, cypress trunks, dock pilings, decrepit barges and lily pads are other good bits of cover to cast at on Tidewater rivers. Plastic worms in black, blue and purple and grubs in smoke or white produce well on this type of structure.
October is also a great time for tossing crankbaits up into the mouths of feeder creeks. Bass lie in deep water where these tributaries come in, waiting for the current to wash food out of the creek on a falling tide. Find a feeding school in such a location and you can often catch fish until your arms tire.
A copy of "Fishing in Maryland" and "Freshwater Fishing and Hunting in Virginia" will show access areas for dozens of these tidal bass rivers, but here are seven good ones to start on.
:MARYLAND: Coptank -- on the Eastern Shore, this river is reached via U.S. 50 and 404, roughly two hours from Washington. It's one of the few tidal rivers in Maryland that receives such fishing pressure. From Goldsboro to Denton it produces well throughout fall.
Nanticoke -- also on the Eastern Shore, roughly 120 miles from D. C. Reached via U.S. 50 and Md. Rte. 313, the Nanticoke is producing exceptional catches right now, as is its feeder, the Marshy Hope, all the way up to Federalsburg. Plastic worms and crankbaits are working best.
Pocomoke -- a bit of a drive, at three hours, but worth the trip. The Pocomoke is reached via U.S. 50 and 13, as you would drive toward Chincoteague. The Shad Landing area has been particularly good with worms and surface plugs.
VIRGINIA: Chickahominy -- both this river and the James in their tidal portions are fish-for-fun only because of kepone contamination. Locals say it's made the bass fishing better than ever. Roughly 120 miles from Washington, the rivers are located east of Richmond, south from i-64.
Pamunkey -- there's a launching ramp on the York River at West Point. From here, it's a 10-to-20-mile run upstream to reach the best fishing, which continues on up for several dozen miles.
Rappahannock -- the best Tidewater fishing occurs between Port Royal (U.S. 301) and Ledstown (off Va. Rte. 3). :WASHINGTON: Potomac River -- one of the very best Tidewater bass rivers in the East lies right at our doorstep. The Potomac is always productive during October, though extremely muddy waters can slow things down for a few days. Plastic worms and crankbait work well around Roosevelt Island and Hains Point and in Washington Channel.
Guides: Glenn Peacock specialized in the Tidewater rivers of Maryland. Pete Cissel guides on the Washington portion of the Potomac, offering half or full-day trips.