The North Branch of the Potomac River forms the border between Maryland and West Virginia from it's origin at the Fairfax Stone downstream to it's confluence with the South Branch of the Potomac. The following are descriptions of three management zones in the upper watershed beginning with the most upstream area.
The area of the North Branch in Garrett County upstream of Jennings Randolph Lake is a high quality trout fishery, but that wasn't always the case. Prior to 1994, the North Branch was badly polluted by acid mine drainage, created when surface water comes in contact with mine wastes left over from old coal mining activities. Those old mining activities, conducted before the advent of modern mining practices, left a legacy of pollution that destroyed aquatic life and rendered the upper North Branch biologically dead for many decades. Today, environmental laws regulate the mining industry and protect water quality, but eliminating water pollution from old sources is a continuing challenge.
Although acid mine drainage 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 acid mine drainage, were placed at several sites in the North Branch watershed in 1993. The dosers function to neutralize acid mine drainage and restore water quality while more permanent solutions are explored. By 1994, the system of lime dosers had improved water quality to the point that fish life could once again survive in the North Branch. Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Fishing and Boating Services initiated a trout stocking program in two different management zones totaling 21 miles upstream of Jennings Randolph Lake. About 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.
The upper North Branch affords anglers an opportunity to fish for trout in a truly wild setting. Although some areas can be reached easily from roadways, much of the river is very remote and scenic and can only be reached by hiking in. For those anglers willing to walk, the reward is the opportunity to fish in solitude. The trout will be there because Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Fishing and Boating Services stocks remote areas from a tank truck that rides the railways, courtesy of the CSX Company through a cooperative agreement.
Jennings Randolph Lake was completed and filled by 1982. The lake is owned and operated by the Army Corps of Engineers. Because the lake's release tower permits the withdrawal of water from various depths, the Army Corps of Engineers is able to select zones of higher water quality to discharge from the dam. Improved water quality downstream of the dam enabled the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Fishing and Boating Services to initiate a trout stocking program in the late 1980's. The tailwater area of the dam supports a popular trout fishery and is managed under put and take as well as catch and release regulations and is stocked with several thousand trout annually. The release from the dam remains very cold all summer, supporting year-round survival of trout for many miles downstream. In addition to stocked trout, the North Branch downstream of Jennings Randolph Lake supports the natural reproduction of wild brook trout and brown trout, with some limited spawning by rainbow trout as well. Like the North Branch upstream of Jennings Randolph Lake, the tailwater area is beautiful and remote, with many opportunities for anglers to fish in solitude.
One of the best ways to fish the North Branch downstream of Jennings Randolph Lake is to float it in a raft with a guide. Guides and outfitters are available locally to provide guided float fishing opportunities.
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.
Contact Us - Comments and questions regarding fishing the upper North Branch Potomac River, or other area waters:
Maryland Department of Natural Resources
Fishing and Boating Services
1728 King's Run Road, Oakland, MD 21550
580 Taylor Ave, Annapolis MD 21401