The Potomac River stretches a little over 400 miles and drains portions of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, Washington DC, and Maryland. Its headwaters rise on the Appalachian Plateau and here it is a brook trout and dace stream. As the river leaves the Plateau province and enters the Valley and Ridge Province it widens and the brook trout are replaced by introduced rainbow and brown trout. As the river widens more smallmouth bass replace the trout and below Williamsport, Maryland, Walleye and Muskie start to make an appearance. The Potomac crashes through the Blue Ridge at Harpers Ferry and a short distance below it is joined by the Shenandoah and the river widens as it begins to drain the Piedmont Province. The 40 miles from Harpers Ferry to Great Falls are dominated by smallmouth bass and redbreast sunfish, but a versatile angler will also catch walleye, muskie, shorthead and golden redhorse, white sucker, longear sunfish and other species. At Great Falls the river narrows and rushes into the Potomac Gorge where it drops 130 feet on its 10 mile journey to the tidally influenced Coastal Plain. Despite being close to Washington DC this section of the river offers great fishing and spectacular scenery.
LICENSES AND ACCESS:
The Washington DC portion of the Potomac River from roughly Little Falls to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge is the focus of this article. District of Columbia fishing licenses are required on both sides of the bank. A DC fishing license can be purchased online here.
The Potomac in DC is surprisingly accessible with the majority of the bank open for fishing. If you are willing and able to walk a little bit you can almost always find some open bank space. Parking can be tricky. Readers are strongly advised to take all parking signs seriously! A good interactive map of the area, made specifically for anglers can be found here. Another great map, detailing the tidal Potomac Gorge area can be found here. Boats, baits, licenses and advice can be found at Fletcher’s Boathouse.
FISH AND SEASONS:
Unless its is frozen over there’s always something biting in the Potomac. High water can shut down some portions of the river and some fish species. Anglers should always be careful, several people a year drown in this section of the river.
January-February: Not the best time of the year to fish the Potomac but dedicated anglers still make good catches. Walleye are a real possibility for jig fishermen in the Little Falls/Chain Bridge area as these fish stage for spawning. Slackwater spots can produce black and the occassional white crappie for panfishers who scale their tackle down. Blue catfish and the odd channel cat can be caught on cut bait in 20-30 foot holes. By the end of February yellow perch and can be caught dunking worms and with small lures. While some yellow perch are found in the DC section of the river all year, bigger fish spawn in this section of the river and can be caught until about mid-March.
March-April: March starts off slowly but by the end of April the best fishing of the year is in full swing. The place to be this time of the year is the upper section from Fletcher’s Boathouse to Little Falls. Spawning gizzard shad (locally known as mud shad) flood this section of the river in the early part of the season and they are followed by blue catfish, some of which are greater than 50lbs. By St. Patricks Day the first white perch, which migrate from the Chesapeake Bay show up. These tasty panfish are easily caught with worms or clam snouts. By the end of March hickory shad and river herring (both alewife and blueback herring) will be taken by those fishing flies, spoons, darts, and jigs. This is catch and release fishing, all shad and herring must be released.
Striped bass arrive with the herring. The stripers are here to gorge on herring, perch, and shad before spawning. Big stripers are a real possibility. Catfish make bait fishing for stripers difficult, try artificials that mimic herring. Some smaller stripers stay in the river all year, but the bulk of the big spawners move out of this section of the river by early June.
The hickory shads larger cousin the american or white shad will start to be caught in April. When targeting american shad if often pays to fish a heavier jig to get below the more abundant hickory shad.
For reasons not known to biologists, a certain percentage of the Potomac’s northern snakehead population migrates upstream in the Spring. Normally associated with mud and marsh habitat in the lower river, they look out of place in the rocky Chain Bridge area where 100’s congregate below Little Falls. These fish are difficult to tempt, but many are snagged, speared, and netted as they are an extremely popular food fish.
Quillback, shorthead and golden redhorse, and white suckers can all be found in this part of the river in the spring. They can be difficult to catch with white perch and sunfish getting to the bait first. Worm fishermen can also expect american eel, small blue cats, largemouth and smallmouth bass, redbreast, bluegill, pumpkinseed, and green sunfish, yellow and brown bullheads and channel and white cats.
Below Fletcher’s Boathouse there are a number of fisheries heating up. Crappie and other sunfish head for shallow water and an angler with small jigs or a worm can catch a tremendous variety of fish. The tidal Potomac is a known largemouth bass hotspot, and bass can be caught just about everywhere from Theodore Roosevelt Island downstream to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
April marks the start of the best snakehead fishing season. Snakeheads move extremely shallow looking for food and nesting sites. Look for snakeheads in tributaries and shallow shoreline areas. Braided line and a flourocarbon leader are recommended. Most snakeheads are taken on artificials, with chatterbaits, frogs, buzz baits, and soft plastic creature baits and lizards in dark colors being the most popular.
Carp come shallow, usually by mid-March. This section of the Potomac has excellent carp fishing with fish over 30lbs a possibility. Carp are everywhere in the river but baiting up a spot can result in big catches.
May-June: Snakehead fishing peaks in early May with the fish aggressively feeding and at their best weights. They spawn in June and by the end of the month they can be found guarding their broods. If you are stealthy you have a chance to catch one or both parents.
Hickory Shad leave the river by the middle of May and by early June the american shad will be gone as well. Followed by the bulk of the Striped Bass although small stripers, and a few larger ones, can be caught in the DC section all year as can white perch.
By June bass and panfish fishing takes on a summer pattern, with the best fishing taking place early in the morning and late in the evening. Catfish and eel fishing can be good at night. The larger blue cats drop down river in June to spawn.
Carp begin spawning in successive waves, with some of the biggest fish of the year coming during this time period, goldfish are a common bycatch when carp fishing.
The Potomac has a small longnose gar population and May-June is the best time to catch them. Try backwaters like the tidal basin and the duck pond near Reagan National Airport. Standard gar fishing tactics apply but be wary of channel catfish aggregations underneath spawning gar.
July-August: Summer doldrums. It gets hot in DC during the summer and the best fishing is during low light periods. The river between Fletcher’s and Little Falls, so full of fish in the Spring, slows down in the Summer, although diehards catch huge smallmouths to 5lbs+ in the early morning among the rocks. Further downstream the fishing is better, everything can be caught but low light and patience is needed.
September-October: Shorter days and falling temperatures jump start the fishing in the Fall. Young of the year shad and herring are everywhere and predators gorge on them in the right situations. Look for school size striped bass from 12-30 inches in current seams that concentrate bait fish. In years with little rain menhaden schools will sometimes come up to DC followed by striped bass.
Bottom fishing picks up with carp and catfish feeding up for the winter. Look for carp on channel edges in the main river. Big blue catfish feed on gizzard shad on flats during the incoming tide.
Bass and panfish catches show an uptick. As vegetation dies back fish start to relate to hard structure. Snakeheads are always a possibility.
November-December: The predator bite can last until Thanksgiving but bottom fishing is the way to go on the back end of the year. Blue catfish will feed right through the winter, and as the water chills a greater percentage of big fish come out. Carp fishing holds up until about the first week of December. If you can find a hot water discharge pipe you can catch anything.
118 fish species are known to frequent the Potomac, and many of these can be caught in the DC portion of the river. With abundant bank access and a multitude of angling opportunities you owe it
to yourself to give the Potomac a try.