The Potomac, often called the Nation’s River, is one of North America’s largest and most important rivers. It originates as the North Branch Potomac River near the junction of Grant, Tucker and Preston counties in West Virginia. From Cumberland to Washington DC, the Potomac is paralleled by the C & O Canal.
The river runs thru four states and the District of Columbia before merging into the Chesapeake Bay at Point Lookout. Over its course, more than 100 species of freshwater fish have been identified.
In addition to the North and South Branches, the Potomac is fed by the Anacostia River, Antietam Creek, Cacapon River, Catoctin Creek, Conocoheague Creek, Monocacy River, Occoquan River, Savage River, Seneca Creek, Shenandoah River, and scores of smaller tributaries.
North Branch Potomac River
The North Branch Potomac River flows 27 miles to Jennings Randolph Lake, an impoundment designed for flood control and emergency water supply. Below the dam, the North Branch passes through the eastern Allegheny Mountains, parts of West Virginia, Cumberland, Maryland before joining the South Branch in West Virginia.
Trout populations in the North Branch upstream of Jennings Randolph Lake (JRL) are the result of decades of restoration efforts. Prior to 1994, the North Branch was polluted by acid mine drainage, which destroyed aquatic life and rendered the upper North Branch biologically dead.
Although pollution in the North Branch watershed has not been eliminated, it’s symptoms have been treated. Lime “dosers”, machines which add lime to neutralize the acid in AMD, were placed at several sites in the North Branch watershed in 1993. The dosers function to neutralize AMD and restore water quality while more permanent solutions are explored.
By 1994, water quality in the North Branch Potomac improved to the point that trout and other fish could once again survive. To restore trout populations in the watershed, Maryland DNR Fisheries Service initiated a trout stocking program.
Upstream of Jennings Randolph Lake, trout are managed in two different management zones totaling 21 miles. Approximately 14 miles are stocked for harvest under put and take regulations while about 7 miles within the Potomac State Forest are managed under delayed harvest regulations.
Float fishing is especially popular between Westernport and Cumberland. Anglers usually fish from canoes, kayaks, or inflatable float boats. In some areas, local outfitters offer float trips down the North Branch Potomac.
Since 2001, a 25 mile stretch of the river from Keyser, West Virginia, to Cumberland has been designated as a catch and release area for bass. The area is known for producing trophy-class smallmouth bass.
From the convergence of the North and South branches, the river flow remains non-tidal until it reaches Washington, D.C.
This section of the river is dominated by fishing for smallmouth bass, rock bass, carp, muskellunge (musky), and other species.
In recent years, the area between Dam 3 and Dam 4 has provided good fishing for walleye. South of Frederick, the Monocacy River is known for its smallmouth bass fishery.
The tidal portion of the Potomac begins below Little Falls near Washington, D.C. Below the capital, the river widens and salinity increases as it flows towards the Chesapeake Bay.
This section of the Potomac is nationally recognized for its outstanding largemouth bass fishery. In addition to its bass fishing, the tidal Potomac is populated by striped bass, white perch, channel catfish, common carp, and other species.
Decades of restoration work have resulted in improved water quality and re-growth of aquatic vegetation along much of the river below Washington D.C. In areas such as Gunston Cove, aquatic grass beds provide thousands of acres of fish habitat.
In the tidal Potomac, two fisheries have sparked debate among anglers and other stakeholders. Blue catfish are highly sought after by some anglers. Attaining weights in excess of 100 pounds, these fish are considered by many as a trophy species in the tidal Potomac River. Opponents of the fishery classify the fish as an invasive species and suggest that eradication efforts be implemented.
The northern snakehead is another fish that has received considerable attention from anglers, scientists, and national media. Dubbed “frankenfish”, this invasive fish has established itself throughout much of the river. In Maryland, regulations require anglers to kill northern snakeheads before releasing them back into the wild.
Point Lookout – Smith Point
Near the Chesapeake Bay, much of the fishing effort focuses on surface fishing for striped bass, bluefish, Spanish mackerel, and other species. All along the river’s last few miles, predatory fish feed by pushing schools of baitfish to the surface. Here anglers cast jigs or flies when schools of fish reach the surface.
On the Maryland side, Point Lookout Artificial Reef provides habitat for fish, oysters, and other marine life. According to the Maryland Artificial Reef Initiative (MARI), the reef’s center point is located at 38°02.80 076°18.63.
Located near Montross, Virginia, Westmoreland State Park Fishing Pier provides access for saltwater fishing, crabbing, and other activities.
In 2005, the US Geological Survey and the Fish and Wildlife Service began to identify fish in the river and its tributaries that exhibited “intersex” characteristics. According to scientists, intersex occurs in fish as a result of endocrine disruption caused by pollution. Other research involves aquatic invasive species, including northern snakeheads, didymo, whirling disease, and other organisms.
Potomac River Management
Because the river’s regional importance, management is administered by the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin. The ICPRB’s stated purpose is to enhance, protect, and conserve water and land resources of the Potomac River and its tributaries through regional and interstate cooperation.
The Potomac River has been recognized for its historical and cultural significance. In 1998, the Potomac was designated as an American Heritage River. Along its path, the Captain John Smith National Historic Trail includes much of the lower Potomac River. The trail commemorates Captain John Smith’s exploration of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries from 1607-1609.
The lower Potomac is also part the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail. The trail commemorates major events and related sites that figured prominently in the Chesapeake Campaign during the War of 1812.
Another important historic site is the wreck of U-1105, a German U boat which was sunk in 1949. The wreck of the U-1105 was rediscovered near Piney Point after lying forgotten for nearly 35 years.