Fishing the Potomac River in springtime: A Slumbering Giant Awakens
by Martin L. Gary Courtesy of The Maryland Natural Resource
From its origins in the southwestern portion of Garrett County to Great Falls only 14 miles upriver from Washington D.C. the Potomac River winds its way for more than 120 mile and forms a natural border for 11 counties in Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia. This stretch of river runs without tidal influence, fueled solely by the gravitational pull of its own weight as it descends the slope of the Eastern ‘Continental Divide from the Appalachian Plateau Province to the lowlands of the Coastal Plain.
After enduring several months of frigid winter temperatures, ice and annual low flows, the fish and fauna of the non-tidal portion of the Potomac slowly start to emerge from their winter slumber. By late February, Maryland sport fishermen begin to gather for the annual rite of spring fishing on the river. Read on as we tap the collective experience of over 60 years of fisheries management knowledge to find the best places and times to fish, and which species you are likely to encounter.
LEG ONE: KITZMILLER TO CUMBERLAND
Ken Pavol, a Natural Resources Technician specializing in restoration and enhancement projects with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Fisheries Service, is your guide for the first leg of our journey, starting in the westernmost portion of the watershed, the North Branch of the Potomac. Ken knows this stretch of the river as well as anyone and his efforts managing its fishery resources have resulted in many outstanding opportunities for sport anglers.
We begin upstream of Jennings Randolph Lake, where 21 miles of stocked trout waters are available to anglers, including an eight-mile stretch of delayed harvest waters. In the delayed harvest area bordering Potomac State Forest, large holdover trout from DNR’s hatcheries are stocked to provide a quality catch and release experience, and many of these trophy trout exceed five pounds in weight. This is a remote and spectacularly scenic setting, and rustic camping opportunities are available in the state forest.
Moving downstream to Jennings Randolph Lake, spring means exceptional bass and walleye fishing and it was here that the state record walleye of 14 pounds, 4 ounces was caught in 1998. Channel catfish to 12 pounds and trout are also abundant. Over 4,500 rainbows are stocked each spring, and thanks to the lake’s cold, well-oxygenated waters, any trout that are not caught will survive the summer and well into autumn.
Spectacular trout fishing opportunities continue in the area below Jennings Randolph Lake. The stretch of river that extends several miles below the damn is home to Maryland state records for brown trout (18 pounds, 3 ounces), brook trout (6 pounds, 1.75 ounces), and cutthroat trout (7pounds, 9 ounces), a native of the Rocky Mountains recently introduced into the Potomac and Patapsco rivers.
Here, several miles of alternating stretches of catch and release areas and put and take trout management waters are available. The put and take areas are heavily stocked each spring with adult rainbow and brown trout, while the catch and release areas are stocked with fingerlings (3 to 4 inches in length).
These areas also contain wild trout including rainbow, brook, and browns and there are even some cutthroat trout fingerlings stocked. Area anglers will spend hours spinning yarns about landing the “North Branch Grand Slam,” accomplished by catching all four species in a single day. Access is very good along this highly scenic stretch of the river, and is better suited to a float raft or inflatable kayak than canoe as the rapids are almost entirely class 2 or less.
From here we proceed to the stretch of the Potomac from Westernport to Cumberland, a 29-mile stretch of river. A zero creel limit for trout is in effect starting at Westernport and running 18 miles downstream to the town of Pinto and a quality catch and release fishery for brown and rainbow trout has developed along this section of the river. This has become a can’t-miss opportunity for anglers and it is not unusual to hook several fish greater than 3 pounds in a single trip.
A 25-mile catch and release area for bass begins at Keyser, WB and extends to Cumberland. The entire stretch is picturesque, often remote, and easily floated by raft, kayak or canoe. Although being improved, access is still limited along this stretch of the river. For more information on access, boaters are encouraged to contact Ken and the Western Region staff at DNR’s Mt. Nebo Office at 301-334-8218.
LEG TWO: CUMBERLAND TO GREAT FALLS
Since leaving the source of the Potomac and moving eastward, the river has changed dramatically in both its cadence of flow and the characteristics of the surrounding land. At this point, Ed Enamait, Rivers & Reservoirs Manage, takes over as our expert tour guide. Another of DNR’s most respected and experienced fishery biologists, Ed has worked on this stretch of the Potomac River for over 30 years.
As we wind through Paw Paw, past the town of Little Orleans and into the area east of Hancock, the river takes a slower, more sinuous path eastward. We are now in muskellunge territory. This is a fish that grows well in excess of a yard in length, is well armed with a set of sharp teeth, and more closely resembles a barracuda than it does its cool water cousins.
Muskies as they are known, are more abundant in the Potomac than is commonly believed. Two species are present – true muskies and tiger muskies. Tiger muskies actually a sterile hybrid cross between a northern pike and a true muskellunge, can reach upwards of 3 feet in length. They were introduced into the Potomac in 1989, and are now found throughout the river.
True muskies, which weren’t discovered in the Potomac until 1996, grow larger and live longer than tigers and are found primarily in the section of the river bordering Washington County. Spring is the best time for fishing for these leviathans, as they will take both bait (large minnows, live suckers) and artificial lures.
As we continue eastward toward the riverside town of Williamsport, we enter the hotbed of one of the most exciting, emerging fisheries in the state. First introduced by DNR to the Potomac in 1979, walleye began to naturally reproduce in 1985 and had their best hatch ever in 2001. Walleye can be caught from Great Falls to the spillway in Cumberland, but the area around Williamsport and Dam #4 is one of the best places, and fish up to 8 pounds have been landed there.
Heading downstream past Brunswick, Point of Rocks and White’s Ferry, a variety of species can be caught including smallmouth bass, channel catfish, redbreast sunfish and carp. Largemouth bass and yellow perch add to the list of other species fishermen may encounter.
While spring is the season when the greatest diversity of fishing opportunities exists on the river, anglers must remember to watch flow rates closely as conditions can quickly become treacherous for both boaters and waders. Flow conditions can be monitored online by visiting the U.S. Geological Survey website at http://waterdata.usgs.gov/md/nwis/rt.
Our trip concludes at Great Falls. Here, the geologic Fall Line sees the river drop 76 feet in elevation over a distance of less than a mile and fishing, is not advised by boat. Below Great Falls lies the vast stretch of tidally influenced Potomac, historic Georgetown, Washington D.C. and ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay. The fishing there is impressive as well, but reserved for another story.
Special thanks to Ken Pavol and Ed Enamait who have contributed their collective 60 plus years of work and dedication toward the rehabilitation and management of the Potomac’s resources and provided content for this article. They are both talented biologist, and mentors for future DNR fishery biologists that will continue to work on this great river.