Forming the borders between Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia, the Potomac River is one of the great fishing rivers on the Atlantic Seaboard.
The river originates in the Potomac Highlands of West Virginia and ultimately drains into the Chesapeake Bay. From the point where its north and south branches meet, the main stem of the Potomac alone is 302 miles long.
Along the way, the Potomac transforms from a tumbling mountain stream populated by smallmouth bass and walleye to a broad tidal river known for epic striped bass runs, trophy largemouths and massive catfish.
There’s even great trout fishing in the north and south branches. Suffice to say, the Potomac River offers a little something for everybody.
Potomac River Sections
Including its north and south branches, the Potomac River stretches roughly 518 miles. Each section of the river offers excellent fishing opportunities, but each stretch is also unique, with different fish species and varied habitats that often require anglers to adapt their tactics.
Tidal Potomac River
The lowest 108 miles of the Potomac River are significantly influenced by the tides. This section begins at Little Falls, where the river crosses the Atlantic Seaboard fall line. Little Falls also marks the boundary between Virginia, Maryland and Washington, DC.
The tidal Potomac River offers outstanding seasonal fishing opportunities for anadromous game fish like striped bass and shad. Backwaters and tributaries of the tidal Potomac also provide the river’s best largemouth bass fishing, and trophy blue catfish have become common in recent times.
Lower Potomac River
The section of the Potomac River from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, to Little Falls is generally considered the Lower Potomac. The Shenandoah River feeds into the Potomac at Harpers Ferry, and then the larger river follows the Virginia/Maryland border downriver to Little Falls.
Several dams impound the Lower Potomac River, which creates productive tailwater fishing. Truins of several historic locks and dams are also great fishing structure.
Catfish, smallmouth bass and panfish are abundant in the Lower Potomac.
Walleye are also available, especially at the upper end of this section. Largemouth bass are also common in weedy backwaters away from the main current.
Upper Potomac River
Forming the border between Maryland and West Virginia, the Upper Potomac River looks much like the Lower Potomac, although the farther upriver one goes, the wilder it gets. The Potomac is free-flowing above Dam 5 in Clear Spring, MD.
Smallmouth bass are the most sought-after game fish on the Upper Potomac. Flathead and channel catfish are also abundant, and walleye are available in many pools.
Some large muskellunge have also been caught in deep parts of the river.
North Branch Potomac River
Just over 101 miles in length, the North Branch Potomac River originates in West Virginia’s Fairfax Stone Historical Monument State Park. It merges with the South Fork to form the main stem near Green Spring, WV.
Much of the North Branch is rural and remote. In the past, it has suffered greatly from acid mining runoff, but cleanup efforts have resulted in a much healthier river in recent years. Trout once again inhabit the North Branch, and smallmouth bass are also common.
South Branch Potomac River
Much like the North Branch, the South Branch Potomac River begins as a tiny mountain stream. Its headwaters are in Highland County, West Virginia, and it flows 113 miles to where it combines into the main stem.
Smallmouth bass are among the most often caught game fish, and the South Branch Potomac offers excellent trout fishing, especially in the North Fork of the South Branch.
Major Game Fish
Bass Fishing on the Potomac River
The tidal Potomac River has earned a reputation as one of the best largemouth bass fisheries on the East Coast. Largemouths weighing 3 pounds are plentiful, and catching bass in the 5- to 7-pound range is a real possibility.
The upper portion of the tidal Potomac offers the best bass fishing, as the increasing salinity closer to the Chesapeake limits largemouths’ range. The Washington, DC, area is excellent, and most tidal creeks down to the Route 301 bridge offer great bass fishing.
You’ll catch the occasional smallmouth here too, but largemouths dominate. As vegetation, including milfoil and spatterdock, proliferate in creeks and coves in springtime, largemouths head shallow and start to feed.
Some top largemouth spots on the tidal Potomac include Piscataway Creek, Chicamuxen Creek, Nanjemoy Creek and Aquia Creek. Each offers abundant forage, ample vegetation, and deeper creek channels that bass can retreat to.
In April and May, fishing in shallow water is usually the best. Try flipping and pitching soft jerkbaits, wacky worms and tube jigs along the edges of vegetation, into pockets, under docks, and around fallen trees.
Largemouths mostly head to deeper areas along creek channels as the river heats up in summer, but anglers catch some huge bass in shallow spots right around dawn and dusk.
Emergent vegetation can make summer challenging, so try a topwater like a weedless frog.
When the river cools off in fall, look to the shallows again. This season, bass have abundant forage in the form of young-of-the-year shad and herring, and they take full advantage.
Regardless of the season, tides are an important consideration. There’s no right or wrong time of day to fish for largemouth here, but anglers favor different tides for different reasons.
Rising and falling tides stir up the water, get baitfish moving, and prompt bass to feed. One of the best times to fish is toward the end of an outgoing tide, when bass gravitate to the outside edges of cover.
High tide is often a good time to fish tight to the bank, and low tides force bass into deeper water.
Potomac River Smallmouth Fishing
Above the fall line, the Potomac runs bronze. Smallmouth bass abound from the DC city limits all the way up to the north and south branches of the Potomac in West Virginia.
And they get big here. Plenty of 5-pound smallmouths come to the net every year. It’s also common to catch and release 50 or more in the 10- to 14-inch range on any given day, making the Potomac River a great spot for numbers as well as trophy bass.
The best times to catch them are generally summer and early fall.
Spring provides some good options too, but high flows can make the fishing somewhat challenging through May. But by June, water levels have typically fallen to levels that make fishing easy.
Most smallmouths will also have spawned by then and come off their nests hungry.
Crawfish-imitating jigs and grubs are great summer smallmouth lures, along with jerkbaits like Rapaka Husky Jerks and topwaters like Heddon Tiny Torpedoes.
Fly anglers also catch a lot of smallmouths on the Potomac. Streamers are widely used, with Clouser Minnows being very popular. Crawfish and hellgrammite imitations are great too.
As for where to fish, good spots are too numerous to list. There’s a lot of top-notch water in the Harpers Ferry area, including around Taylors Landing and Snyders Landing, as well as the Brunswick and Point of Rocks areas.
If you’re fishing farther down in the Middle Potomac close to Washington, try the stretch from the old C&O Lock 23 to the fall line, which includes Seneca Breaks, Watkins Island, Great Falls and Little Falls.
A canoe or kayak is ideal to fish these areas. But the farther upriver you go, the easier the Potomac is to wade. The north and south branches are also less pressured than the main stem of the Potomac River.
Look for smallmouths below any structure that forms a current break, including rocks and bridge pilings. Rock ledges are especially productive smallie structure on the Potomac. Bass often wait below ledges for a meal to sweep into their waiting jaws.
Potomac Striper Fishing
There’s no more iconic fish in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries than striped bass, also known as rockfish. It’s the state fish Maryland, and many of the spawning stripers that enter the Chesapeake every spring make their way up the Potomac.
Expect to see stripers in the Potomac when the water temperature hits 53 degrees. The striper run usually coincides with the shad run, with shad providing an essential food source for stripers.
Beware of the river’s somewhat convoluted striper regulations before you hit the water. At present, striper fishing is off-limits during the month of April. To even attempt to catch stripers this time of year is illegal.
Early season catch-and-release fishing is available out on the bay in March, and Potomac River striper fishing officially begins in May. The entire tidal portion of the river offers striper potential, but the best stretch is from the Route 301 bridge up to the DC area.
Stripers spawn on river flats and then gorge themselves on shad and herring afterward.
The Fletcher’s Cove area is a favorite spot for striper anglers. Live and cut bait accounts for some of the biggest catches.
Stripers over 20 pounds are possible in spring.
Once these migratory fish leave the river in summer, anglers mainly target the Potomac’s non-migratory resident stripers, which are smaller but still offer some great action.
Trolling tends to be the best option in summer, with umbrella rigs accounting for a lot of fish. Many anglers also cast from piers and banks, but summer stripers are usually scattered, and the fishing is often spotty.
Fall offers a better opportunity to target “schoolie” stripers, typically weighing 5 to 10 pounds.
Shoals and bars on the river attract a lot of baitfish this time of year, and stripers follow. The bar just outside the mouth of the Port Tobacco River is just one of many great fall spots.
This is the best time of year to take advantage of a topwater bite. When you see surface splashing and gulls circling, that’s often a sign of a striper feeding frenzy. Have a rod ready with a Rat-L-Trap, Zoom Fluke or Swim Shad.
Catch More Stripers
Catfish are available throughout the entire main stem of the Potomac River, with various sections of the river offering different catfish angling opportunities. Channel catfish are the most widespread species, inhabiting virtually the entire river.
But it’s trophy blue catfish that have really put the Potomac on the map as a catfish destination in recent years. Multiple Maryland state record blue cats have been caught in the tidal Potomac River, including an 84-pound monster in 2012.
Excellent fishing for blue catfish is available during both summer and winter in the tidal Potomac. Drifting large cut bait along the bottom near shoals, ledges, and other deep structure is the best tactic.
Despite offering great fishing opportunities, blue catfish are actually considered invasive in the Potomac River. The Virginia DWR stocked them in the James River in the 1970s, and they have since found their way into other Chesapeake tributaries, including the Potomac.
If you simply want to catch channel cats, you can do so almost anywhere. Much smaller than blue catfish, channels in the Potomac typically weigh 1 to 3 pounds. A channel cat weighing 10 pounds would be considered a trophy here.
Often found in shallower water than blues, channels are most common in creeks off the tidal Potomac. Shrimp, cut bait, chicken livers and worms are all effective baits that work best close to the bottom.
Channel catfish are also common in pools throughout the middle and upper portions of the Potomac River. Summer is the best time to catch them, and they often bite best at night.
There are also some big flatheads in the Potomac River. Like blue cats, these fish are considered invasive, so anglers are encouraged to keep any they catch. Potomac flatheads typically weigh around 5 pounds, but anglers have landed individuals over 20 pounds.
The best flathead fishing tends to be in the Upper Potomac River, from Harpers Ferry up to Dam 5. The Dam 5 and Dam 4 tailwaters are both great spots, along with the Dam 3 ruins just above Harpers Ferry.
Try live or cut bait in deep holes and current seams.
You wouldn’t know it by looking out across the Potomac in the DC area, but this river supports an impressive trout fishery. To find it, you have to go several hundred miles upriver to the North Branch of the Potomac, which meanders along the Maryland/West Virginia state line.
Once devoid of life due to acid mine runoff, the North Branch Potomac has been rehabilitated to an impressive degree. Today, various sections of the North Branch offer excellent trout fishing. About 21 total miles of the river support trout.
Let’s start near the river’s headwaters, above Jennings Randolph Lake, where a 13-mile stretch of the North Branch is abundantly stocked with rainbow trout. The occasional wild brook trout can be caught here as well.
The upper North Branch is a freestone trout stream that offers great fly-fishing, with midge, stonefly and caddis patterns all being effective. Terrestrials are also good in summer.
Much of the upper North Branch is remote, and can only be accessed on foot, making it a truly wild trout fishing experience. The stretch that flows along the border of Maryland’s Potomac State Forest is especially good.
A little farther downriver, an excellent tailwater trout fishery has also developed in the 8-mile section below Jennings Randolph Lake. The dam releases consistently cool water from the bottom of the lake year-round, providing ideal conditions.
This is the section that gets the most attention from fly fishers. It is unique because this is one of very few East Coast streams stocked with cutthroat trout, providing an uncommon opportunity to catch a brook-brown-rainbow-cutthroat “grand slam.”
Midges are the most common hatch in the tailwater section. Flies that imitate sculpin, small crawfish and minnows are also effective.
The tailwater is suitable for wading in places, but drift boats are also employed, particularly inflatable pontoon-type boats.
Catch More Trout
Other Fish Species
Anglers also catch a wide range of additional fish species in the Potomac River.
In addition to those listed above and below, bluegill and sunfish are also common. Trophy-size carp and an increasingly widespread population of invasive northern snakeheads also reside in the tidal Potomac.
Thanks to decades of stocking, walleye have been common in the non-tidal Potomac River since the 1990s. Typically weighing 3 to 5 pounds (but capable of weighing 10 or more), walleye are mostly caught during October-November and March-April.
Early spring is an especially good time to find walleye concentrated in predictable areas. Before and after the spawn, they’ll head upstream until they reach a natural or artificial barrier.
That makes tailwaters below each of the Potomac River’s dams prime walleye spots, as well as falls and old lock-and-dam structures. Walleye typically gather at the heads and tails of pools and below any major current break.
Dam 4 in Sharpsburg is a good spot, and some nice walleye have been caught below Great Falls, just upriver from Washington, DC.
Walleye are common in the middle and upper Potomac but only occasionally caught in the tidal portion.
A wide range of lures can be effective, including curlytail grubs and jointed Rapala minnows. A jig tipped with a live minnow or nightcrawler is an especially effective bait.
The tidal Potomac River offers some of the best crappie fishing in Maryland and Virginia, with an abundance of black crappies in the 10- to 13-inch range and many that are even bigger. The best fishing for them is during the cooler months of the year, especially early spring.
March is arguably the best month for Potomac River crappie fishing, with water temperatures creeping up into the 50s, prompting slabs to stack up on predictable shallow cover like weeds, reeds, brush and dock pilings. Crappies avoid strong currents when possible.
That being the case, the best crappie fishing is not in the main river but in the smaller tidal creeks that feed it. Any creek between the Route 301 bridge and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge has potential.
That includes Aquia Creek, Occoquan Bar and Hunting Creek on the Virginia side, and Mattawoman Creek, Pomonkey Creek and Piscataway Creek on the Maryland side.
Live minnows below slip floats are the best bait, along with small jigs.
Known as “ring perch” among many local anglers, yellow perch thrive in rivers throughout the Tidewater region, including the tidal Potomac River and its creeks. They commonly measure 9 to 12 inches and readily bite shad darts, tube jigs and hair jigs on ultralight tackle.
Yellow perch school together near the bottom in the deepest parts of the Potomac in winter. But early warming trends will prompt them to head toward shallow creeks to spawn in February and early March, often seemingly overnight.
Piscataway and Port Tobacco are a couple of the better spring perch creeks, but virtually every tidal creek of the Potomac offers yellow perch in early spring.
In summer, they shift back toward deeper areas again.
White perch—technically not perch at all, but rather members of the temperate bass family—are also common in the tidal Potomac.
These fish enter the river from the Chesapeake Bay around St. Patrick’s Day most years and are easily tempted by small minnow-imitating jigs.
Catch More Perch
The spring shad run on the Potomac and other Chesapeake Bay tributaries is an annual event that has drawn anglers to the Tidewater region since Colonial times. Though shad populations were greatly diminished by the late 20th century, they have rebounded nicely.
Shad fishing on the Potomac usually starts in mid-March and continues through May. Hickory shad are first to arrive, followed by American shad. Both species typically weigh 1 to 3 pounds and are known for fighting well above their weight class.
Anglers commonly catch shad from the banks and from kayaks and float tubes. Shad darts are the most widely used lures, but spoons are also effective, and many fly anglers catch shad using small streamers.
At this writing, there is a moratorium on possession of both American and hickory shad on the Potomac River, but catch-and-release fishing is allowed. Excellent shad fishing is available throughout the tidal Potomac. Try around Little Falls and Fletcher’s Cove.
Catch More Shad
The non-tidal Potomac River offers excellent muskellunge fishing. While these giants inhabit a handful of other waters in Virginia and West Virginia, the Potomac has the only naturalized muskie population in Maryland. A 33-pound state record was caught here in 2022.
Muskellunge favor deep water and avoid strong current when possible. Tributary mouths, deep river bends and areas above dams tend to be the best places to find them. The Big Slackwater area above Dam 4 is a perennial favorite.
The best muskie lures are large crankbaits, jerkbaits, swimbaits and in-line spinners.
Summer is one of the best times to catch them, though muskies can become stressed in very warm water, so avoid targeting them in August. Late fall also provides some solid muskie fishing.
Planning Your Trip
The Potomac River offers four-season fishing opportunities and is within a few hours’ drive of several of the largest cities on the East Coast. In addition to flowing through the heart of the Washington DC area, the tidal Potomac is also within 90 minutes of both Richmond and Baltimore.
Upper portions are more remote, but several smaller cities, including Leesburg, VA, Harpers Ferry, WV, and Cumberland, MD, are located directly on the river. Numerous state parks and campgrounds are convenient to the river in all three states.
Bank and boat access to the river is also abundant. Access points are too numerous for an exhaustive list, but we list some of the best spots on each section of the Potomac below:
Tidal Potomac River Access
The tidal Potomac has more access than just about any other part of the river.
The Mattawoman Creek Boat Launch is one of the most popular spots on the Maryland side with access to some excellent fishing grounds.
Fletchers Cove is a very popular bank and boat access site in Washington.
Lower Potomac River Access
Both Little Falls and Great Falls of the Potomac are accessible through C&O Canal National Historical Park, a linear park that extends westward from Washington, DC, along the Maryland side of the river. The park offers ample access to its namesake canal and the Potomac River.
Upper Potomac River Access
Above Harpers Ferry, the Potomac is easily accessible at the Dam 3 ruins and the still-operational Dam 4 and Dam 5, each of which provide excellent bank fishing.
Both of the above are on the Maryland side. In West Virginia, a public boat ramp and fishing access are available along the Princess Street Riverfront in Shepherdstown.
Farther up along the free-flowing section of the Upper Potomac River, access can be found at McCoy’s Ferry (Maryland), Cherry Run Access (West Virginia), Hancock Access (Maryland) and Paw Paw Access (West Virginia), among others.
North Branch Potomac River Access
Several excellent access points on the North Branch Potomac River are located in the Cumberland area, including Wiley Ford Boat Ramp on the West Virginia side and the Gene Mason Sports Complex on the Maryland side.
The tailwater stretch of the river below the dam at Jennings Randolph Lake is accessible at various points in and around the North Branch Fish Management Area. Above the reservoir, numerous road crossings provide informal access, along with bank fishing within Potomac State Forest.
South Branch Potomac River Access
The South Branch Potomac River flows entirely through West Virginia and is mostly very rural. Some great access is available through state Wildlife Management Areas, including Fort Mill Ridge WMA and South Branch WMA.
Know Before You Go
Though portions of the Potomac River are shared by four states and the District of Columbia, it is primarily managed as a fishery by the state of Maryland, and Maryland fishing limits and seasons apply.
That being said, reciprocal agreements among the various states that share the river allow anglers with a valid license from Virginia and West Virginia to fish any part of the river that touches their home state, as can anglers from Washington, DC.