The Potomac River

The Potomac River runs 405 miles (652 km) from Fairfax Stone Historical Monument State Park in West Virginia on the Allegheny Plateau to Point Lookout, Maryland, and drains 14,679 square miles (38,020 km2). The length of the river from the junction of its North and South Branches to Point Lookout is 302 miles (486 km).[4] The average daily flow during the water years 1931–2018 was 11,498 cubic feet (325.6 m3) /s.[2] The highest average daily flow ever recorded on the Potomac at Little Falls, Maryland (near Washington, D.C.), was in March 1936 when it reached 426,000 cubic feet (12,100 m3) /s.[2] The lowest average daily flow ever recorded at the same location was 601.0 cubic feet (17.02 m3) /s in September 1966[2] The highest crest of the Potomac ever registered at Little Falls was 28.10 ft, on March 19, 1936;[6][7] however, the most damaging flood to affect Washington, DC and its metropolitan area was that of October 1942.[8]

Map showing the five geological provinces through which the Potomac River flows [9]
Major sub-basins and cities of the Potomac River basin[10]

The river has two sources. The source of the North Branch is at the Fairfax Stone located at the junction of Grant, Tucker, and Preston counties in West Virginia. The source of the South Branch is located near Hightown in northern Highland County, Virginia. The river's two branches converge just east of Green Spring in Hampshire County, West Virginia, to form the Potomac. As it flows from its headwatersdown to the Chesapeake Bay, the Potomac traverses five geological provinces: the Appalachian Plateau, the Ridge and Valley, the Blue Ridge, the Piedmont Plateau, and the Atlantic coastal plain.

Lower North Branch to Cumberland

The North Branch watershed becomes more populated beginning about 9 miles downstream of Jennings Randolph Lake. Although the setting is not always as remote, the fishing can be excellent in the 30 miles of river from Westernport downstream to Cumberland, Maryland. Water quality improvements at the Westvaco Paper Mill at Luke have resulted in much improved water quality in the North Branch over the past several years. Encouraged by improving water quality and evidence of an improving forage base, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Fishing and Boating Services began an effort to reintroduce smallmouth bass to the North Branch in 1993. Smallmouth bass had long since been eliminated upstream of Cumberland by the effects of pollution. The effort was a huge success and smallmouth bass established a reproducing population by 1997.

A 2001 regulation implemented by Fisheries Service established a 25 mile catch and release area for bass from Keyser, West Virginia, to Cumberland. The area supports some of the best smallmouth bass fishing, and the largest smallmouth, to be found anywhere in the Potomac watershed.

Bass are not the only gamefish to benefit from improved water quality in the North Branch; trout are showing up in large numbers as well. Because the combined discharges from Jennings Randolph Lake and the Savage River Reservoir make up a large proportion of flows in the North Branch downstream, water remains cold and suitable for trout management for many miles. Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Fishing and Boating Services studies revealed the presence of many stocked and also wild trout for several miles downstream of Westernport. With the goal of developing a high quality trout fishery, Fisheries Service designated a 0 creel limit for trout in an 18 mile area of the North Branch from Westernport downstream to Pinto, Maryland, effective in 2003. The growth and survival of several thousand fingerling brown and rainbow trout stocked in the area by Fisheries Service over the last two years has been encouraging. The 0 creel limit area currently supports an excellent trout population.

The scenery along the North Branch between Westernport and Cumberland is impressive. Jagged cliffs tower above the West Virginia shore and abundant wildlife appears around almost every bend. Much of the area has a remote and wild character and few signs of nearby communities can be seen. Like the Jennings Randolph Lake tailwater area, the North Branch between Westernport and Cumberland is probably best enjoyed while float fishing. Canoes are suitable as well as kayaks or inflatable rafts, and guided float trips by local outfitters are available. Access is limited so boaters will need to carefully select their put-in and take-out sites. In some cases, landowner permission may be required to launch or take out.