LANDER, MD. -- Who could fault a June day like this, with real Baltimore orioles flitting about in the trees, cloudless skies overhead, a cool breeze, a clear creek to fish and no one else around?
This formula for angling satisfaction assumes just one thing -- some decent-sized fish to catch.
Which, sadly, was the missing ingredient when Kevin Kenno and I trekked to Catoctin Creek off the Potomac here last week. The aim was to renew acquaintances with smallmouth bass on the eve of the end of Maryland's 3 1/2-month spring freshwater bass ban.
Instead, we renewed acquaintance with piscatorial frustration as the few bass we found were small and far between. But who cares, anyway, on a day like this?
Maryland's ban ran March 1-June 15 as the state sought for the first time in decades to protect large freshwater bass during spring spawning season, when they're most vulnerable to anglers. The plan met some initial resistance, but now that it's over no one appears mortally wounded.
"If it does what the scientists said it would do for fishing, I'm all for it," said Monty Embrey of Angler & Archer sporting goods in Gaithersburg, "It hasn't hurt our business and most of the people who come in the store are in favor of it."
Embrey said he'd sold normal numbers of worms, minnows, little spinnerbaits and plastic grubs this spring to anglers who evidently pursued their fish for pleasure, returning what bass they caught to bite and fight again.
"Oh, we had a few come in with big ones for us to weigh," said Embrey. "We told them it was illegal and that we couldn't give them a citation. They obviously didn't know about the ban. What are you going to do, turn them in?"
Now, as of Friday, Marylanders were again permitted to keep five freshwater bass a day, 12 inches or longer. The same limits also apply on tidewater like the popular Potomac tributaries below Washington, where the minimum bass size was upped to 15 inches during spring spawning season but now reverts to 12.
It was fish of 12 inches or better Kenno and I were after, too, as we bucked the I-270 morning commuter traffic and headed west into Frederick County. Rumor had it the lower Catoctin harbored chunky smallmouths in that size range and it was with high hopes we donned waders and strode into the water.
Kenno brandished a tiny spinning outfit with 4-pound-test line with a pocket-sized box of grubs and spinnerbaits to select from; I had an eight-foot fly rod for seven-weight line and a box of mostly feathered minnow and crawfish imitations.
We started out side by side in the biggest pool we could find, but got only a couple of small-fish taps for our trouble. Then, as usually happens on a little stream like this, we split to ply our pleasure solitarily.
Kenno went downstream, I went up, shooting my casts across the 30-foot-wide creek and jigging a black marabou streamer back along the bottom with the current to imitate a wounded minnow.
"Hey!" I heard Kenno yell after a few minutes, and turned to see him hassling with a little, leaping smallmouth about six inches long.
"Hey!" I hollered back a bit later when my fly eased by a boulder on the bank, bumped once, and I set the hook on a goggle-eyed rock bass about the same length.
Then Kenno vanished around a bend and I set to work in earnest, trying to dope these smallmouth out. What on earth did they want?
I tried cork and deer-hair poppers on the surface in shallow water, hoping to find bass lurking around blown-down trees and root stumps near shore.
I put on lead split shot and dragged minnow imitations down to the bottom of the deepest holes. I tried fast retrieves in riffles, slow retrieves in pools, herky-jerky retrieves, smooth retrieves; black streamers, brown streamers, muddler minnows.
But the only perceptible action anything induced was a steady run of dinky sunfish and minnows following the flies back to my feet, then looking up in horror to find Godzilla standing there.
All of which would have been infuriating if it weren't so disarmingly gorgeous. Really, what kind of heel could complain on a day like this?
The Washington area is blessed with a surfeit of eye-appealing places to wade in summer for smallmouth bass and other freshwater species like rock bass, bluegills, crappies, largemouth bass and channel catfish, and the season is now officially upon us.
Fishing should remain good until October in most area streams, although stable weather and low rainfall always improve conditions. Remember: High, muddy water is dangerous; never wade a flooded stream.
Local waters are verging on warm enough for tennis shoes and shorts now, and even the oft-muddy Potomac was clear enough to try by late last week after being mostly unfishable during a miserable, rainy spring.
Herewith, then, some recommended places to go:
Patapsco River near Ellicott City, Md., has plentiful bass and sunfish, though small, and is the perfect size for wading.
Catoctin Creek off Route 464 near Point of Rocks, Md., is a clear, pristine stream that sources say offers good catches to bait fishermen using shiner minnows.
Shenandoah River's South Fork between Bentonville and Luray, Va., is prime smallmouth water. Excellent for wading in low water, or rent a canoe from Shenandoah Outfitters in Luray. Fish around the grass beds and in the whitewater below small ledges.
Rappahannock River from Remington to Fredericksburg, Va., is best approached by canoeing in, then getting out at pools and riffles to wade and fish.
Monocacy River at Frederick, Md., is quick to muddy, but the perfect size for wading when the weather stays dry.
Goose Creek off Route 7 near Leesburg, Va., is ideal size for wading, though fish are mostly small.
Potomac River is generally too big for easy wading, but offers excellent smallmouth fishing and good wading opportunities at selected sites such as Seneca Breaks at Violets Lock near Poolesville, Md.; upstream of the Route 15 bridge at Point of Rocks; Sandy Hook below the Route 340 bridge; and Packhorse Ford south of Shepherdstown, W.Va.
The hot smallmouth lure this year is a 1/16- to quarter-ounce lead-head jig with a salt-impregnated, Gary Yamomoto plastic grub. Beware, however, because the grubs alone were priced at an astonishing $5.50 for 20 the last time I checked.