Potomac River Fishing: The Complete Guide


Potomac River Fishing: The Complete Guide

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Boasting over 400 miles of fishable waters and a wide variety of species, the Potomac River provides a chance to escape the city and reconnect with nature. Fishing on the Potomac River serves as a rite of passage for many local DC, Maryland, and Virginia anglers. Visitors from all over the East Coast also travel to the Potomac in order to check out one of the most underrated fisheries in the US. 

the potomac river

The Potomac River has long been a vital part of the DMV area’s economy, recreation, and way of life. Also referred to as the “Nation’s River,” this tributary represents the cultural and historical seam of the nation’s capital. It also serves as the main life source for one of the most important estuaries on the East Coast, the Chesapeake Bay. 

There are lots of reasons why you should prioritize a visit. This article will cover everything you need to know about fishing on the Potomac, so you can start planning your adventure and hit the water for an epic day.

Top Catches in the Potomac River

What makes the Potomac River so special? For one, its biodiversity. The Nation’s River is home to a wide variety of fish, making it an excellent place for anglers to try out a few different techniques and target multiple species all in one day.

Striped Bass

Perhaps the most iconic of them all is Striped Bass, locally referred to as Rockfish. Over the last half-century, they’ve become a symbolic fish of the Potomac and one of the top-targeted species in the region. They’re a favorite due to their strength, versatility, and last but not least, their delicious taste!

Three anglers holding Striped Bass on a boat

In recent years, anglers on the Potomac have recorded catches in the 30–40 lb range, despite facing dwindling populations. Maryland and Virginia have ramped up efforts to combat overfishing and help restore this historic fishery. 

You can still catch big Stripers in the lower portions of the river, down by the Chesapeake Bay. They migrate upstream to spawn in fresher waters and tend to wander even further up the river during summer. Up north past DC, you’ll mostly likely encounter smaller schools of Rockfish – perfect for beginners starting out on spin tackle. 

Various techniques are used to catch Striper. Anglers typically troll or drift from a boat and cast live baits or lures from the banks. Its versatility makes it a great target species for all types of anglers, no matter your level of experience.

Snakehead

Snakehead is an invasive species that was originally introduced to the region in the early 2000s. Since then, their population has multiplied and they’ve expanded their territory throughout the entire Potomac and its surrounding tributaries. 

A boy holding a snakehead fish on a boat

Snakehead is an excellent game fish, known for their elusiveness and aggressive striking power. In other words, this isn’t an easy fish to take on. Seasoned anglers will usually use light tackle, however, don’t be ashamed if you have to switch to slightly heavier equipment. 

Some of the go-to techniques when targeting Snakehead include fly fishing, throwing surface lures, and even bowfishing. Overall, a positive attitude, patience, and extra elbow grease are key for a successful battle against this river monster!

Due to their rapidly increasing numbers, there is little regulation on the Potomac for Snakehead. Since they’re an invasive species, anglers are encouraged to take their fish home. You can fish them whenever you want and they can be caught throughout the entire river and connecting creeks, such as Mattawoman and Pomonkey.

Largemouth and Smallmouth Bass

You can’t talk about fishing on the Potomac without mentioning Largemouth and Smallmouth Bass. They inhabit vast portions of the river and have thrived here for over a century.

two fishermen holding four Largemouth Bass

Largemouth and Smallmouth occupy different areas of the river – DC serving as the boundary that separates the two regions. Largemouth Bass can be caught throughout the river’s tidal region while Smallmouth Bass are typically found in the Upper Potomac.

There are lots of ways to fish for Bass in the Potomac. Wade in the shallows, cast from the banks, or fish from a canoe. Spin, drift, fly fish – it all works. Surface lures work very well in shallower waters for targeting Smallmouth. Largemouth is less choosy and will also go after small live baits, such as minnows, night crawlers, and crawfish.

Bass fishing on the Potomac River is deeply rooted in the region’s sportfishing history. The river is also one of the most popular Bass fishing tournament destinations in the US. Big name sponsors such as Bassmaster and Fishing League Worldwide (FLW) host annual competitions here, attracting hundreds of Bass fishermen from all over the country.

Catfish

Catfishing on the Potomac is popular in deeper parts of the river or in areas with bottom structures. Blue, Channel, and Flathead Catfish can be caught throughout the entire river, but the largest ones are found from DC down to Indian Head. 

A happy angler holding a trophy Blue Catfish

Look for areas with bridge pilings, boulders, and underwater trees that break up the current. You’ll want to use live bait, such as herring or mullet, when going after this beast. Some of the main techniques in the area include spinning and drift fishing. 

How to Fish the Potomac River

There are lots of different ways to explore the Potomac. That’s the beauty of fishing such a vast river with loads of access points on both sides. Whether you plan on joining a guide, renting a kayak, or exploring on foot, you’ll have a number of options to choose from.

By Boat

Boat on the Potomac River

If you’re looking to cover more ground and fish multiple areas in one day, your best bet would be to fish by boat. Since planning a trip can seem a bit overwhelming, joining a local guide is probably your best option. Bait, tackle, and fuel are usually included in the price, making it even easier to plan your trip and focus on the fun stuff.

Both Maryland and Virginia provide guided services for all skill levels and types of anglers. Whether you’re looking to go fly fishing, bow hunting, or spend several relaxing hours on the water, you’ll be able to find the guide that’s right for you.

Most fishing guides are located in the Lower Potomac, in places such as Fort Washington, MD and Alexandria, VA. The towns of Potomac, MD and Leesburg, VA are also great options if you plan on launching from the Upper Potomac.

On Foot

fly fisherman fishing on the Potomac river

The Potomac is famous for its easy accessibility on foot. With over a hundred creeks stemming from the river, you’ll be able to find a nice quiet spot and enjoy a relaxing day on your own. 

Many towns in Loudoun County, VA provide excellent spots for on-foot fishing. Areas such as Goose Creek in Leesburg and Sugarland Run in Sterling are prime locations for wading and fishing from the banks.

You can also get some great “on-foot action” smack dab in the middle of the city. The Tidal Basin is a great spot to experience some good urban bank fishing. This is also arguably the most picturesque part of DC. The MLK, FDR, and TJ memorials make a great background shot for Instagram as you reel in a prize-winning fish! 

Kayak Fishing

kayaks on a dock in DC

Kayak fishing on the Potomac has gained lots of traction over recent years. You’ve probably noticed more and more ‘yakkers on the river during the spring and summer. With new business popping up in the city and suburbs, you can pick a rental close to you and plan a weekend adventure with you and your fishing buddies.

Kayaks are especially advantageous for fishing in shallow waters. You’ll be able to sneak into narrow spots and be closer to the water, making it much easier to spot your target. You’re also much less likely to spook the fish since there’s no loud motor attached. Talk about stealth!

Where to Fish on the Potomac River

No matter which part of the Potomac you plan on visiting, you’ll find plenty of spots where you can post up and enjoy a productive day of fishing. You’ll come across honey holes, channels, creeks, and bridge pilings scattered along the entire river – from the Upper Potomac all the way down to the Chesapeake Bay. 

Washington, DC

a bridge in Washington DC

There’s a lot more to the nation’s Capital than just bureaucracy and politics. The DC fishing scene is often overlooked by non-locals and it’s a darn shame. DC offers some of the best urban fishing in the country and it’s definitely worth checking out! 

This segment of the river is filled with tons of bottom feeders. Blue, Flathead, and Channel Catfish inhabit the river, especially around channels and deep holes, as well as boulders, bridges, and trees submerged in water. Blue Catfish, the largest of the three, typically average between 20–40 pounds, with some monsters even weighing in at 50 pounds!  

You can also catch Longnose Gar, Snakehead, Shad, Walleye, Carp, and Chain Pickerel. Areas such as Fletcher’s Cove, Rock Creek, and Anacostia Park are excellent for day trips, especially if you’re looking for a good spot to take your kids. All in all, this is a great way to experience the nation’s capital while enjoying a fun day of fishing with the family. 

Prince George’s County, MD

Fort on the river

Less than 20 miles south of the Capital, you’ll find amazing fishing opportunities near the towns of Fort Washington and Indian Head. This portion of the river holds a huge variety of fish. 

You shouldn’t leave PG County without checking out Mattawoman Creek. This tributary is known for its excellent Perch, Bass, and Snakehead fishing. In 2018, the Maryland record for Snakehead was broken here – a 35-incher weighing in at 19.9 pounds!

Just a short boat ride away, you can also hit the Occoquan Bay – a National Wildlife Refuge located at the intersection of the Potomac and Occoquan River. Here, you can expect to reel in lots of Largemouth Bass, Bluegill, Catfish, Northern Pike, and White Perch.

You can find plenty of guides that will take you here or you can fish from the banks on your own. Fort Washington is also a great place to fish with a kayak or paddle boat which are usually available for rent during the springtime. 

Fairfax County, VA

Water falls

The Virginia side of the Potomac also has its fair share of excellent fishing spots, accessible by foot as well as boat. Places like Riverbend Park in Great Falls, VA is a great place for children and beginners to pick up on some of the basics. This windy, narrow portion of the river provides one of the most beautiful landscapes of the region, making you forget you’re only miles away from the city!

The main target species here are Smallmouth Bass, Sunfish, and Catfish. Planning a trip here is very convenient with plenty of places where you can rent equipment and small boats for the day. This is also a great place to go hiking, check out the waterfalls, and experience some of the Potomac’s amazing wildlife.

Other towns in Fairfax County where you can fish the Potomac include Mount Vernon, Fort Hunt, and Pohick. From here, you’ll be able to target lots of the same species as on the Maryland side. You can also access most of the same waters since VA and MD licenses are both valid for fishing either side of the Potomac.

When to Fish the Potomac River

You can fish the Potomac year-round, however, some months are better than others when targeting specific types of species. Check out our fishing calendar for a full run-down of the area’s fishing seasons.

snowy bench in DC

Fishing Seasons

Spring is excellent for fishing on the Potomac River because the weather is just right. Summers are infamous for being hot and muggy while winters can get quite cold. However, it really depends on the priority of your trip. Also remember to check the local regulations before your trip as some species are subject to seasonality.

Summer is arguably the best time to go fishing because of the variety of species you can target. Fall is known for its great Rainbow Trout and Steelhead runs, especially in the Upper Potomac, near the North Branch and South Branch Rivers. Fall is also a great time to target Striped Bass, especially in the Lower Potomac region. Catfishing is best in the winter.

Tournaments

competitive anglers fishing off of a bass boat

If you’re a competitive angler looking to win some cash (and bragging rights), the Potomac should definitely be on your radar. Each year towards the end of summer and beginning of fall, several organizations host tournaments with the chance of having your name placed among the greats.

Bassmaster and FLW hold their annual tournaments near Smallwood State Park in Charles County, MD. Each tournament has an entrance fee and you can register online on each of the organization’s websites or by visiting Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

You’ll have a chance to put your skills to the test and compete against some of the most elite Bass fishermen in the country. Oh, and did we mention you can win upwards of tens of thousands of dollars? Ka-ching!

Local Regulations

So now that you have a sense of what to expect from a Potomac River fishing experience, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the local laws and regulations. The last thing you want is to be slapped with a fine for not having a license or targeting something that isn’t in season.

All anglers over the age of 16 must purchase either a valid MD, VA, DC, or Potomac River Sport Fishing License. VA, MD, and Potomac licenses are valid in portions of the river where the two states share their border. Anywhere above the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, you’ll have to buy a DC fishing license. You can purchase each of them online or at any approved fishing license vendor. 

Keep in mind, some species can only be targeted seasonally, like Striped Bass and Crab. Many fish are subject to size and bag limits as well. Just make sure you stay up to date as rules and regulations can change each year. If you’re not sure, you can always check with a licensing agent or a fishing guide before heading out.

The Potomac River: A Fishing Haven for All!

sunset over the river

As we mentioned earlier, the Potomac provides anglers the opportunity to connect with nature while staying close to the city. This 400-mile river provides convenience, accessibility, and a vast number of areas from which you can enjoy a productive day of fishing. 

You may choose to go fishing with some of DC’s famous monuments as your backdrop or head into the wilderness for a more tranquil fishing experience. Just depends on what you prefer! No matter which option you choose, at the end of the day, you’ll experience one of the most diverse and unique rivers on the East Coast.

Have you ever been fishing on the Potomac River? If so, we’d like to hear about your experiences. What did you catch? Where is your favorite spot to go fishing? Leave a comment and let our readers know if you have any advice or special tips before heading out!

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