By John Neely
Nearly 50 miles in length and straddling the Maryland-West Virginia borders, the North Branch of the Potomac was first surveyed under a British sovereign’s land grant to Thomas Lord Fairfax in the first half of the 18th century. The Fairfax Stone survey marker, dated 1746 and located at a small spring, still designates the headwaters, and can be visited today. Lord Fairfax was awarded all of the lands between the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers, and that grant established state borders and water rights that still exist.
What to say about the North Branch, as it is popularly known, as a fly fishing destination? Is it the Madison River of the East, as was touted by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources in the early 1990s? Or is it a fishery of unfulfilled promise? Remarkable progress in stream remediation has been made and the North Branch offers fine fly fishing opportunities to the patient angler.
In the early 1980s, the river, reservoir and adjacent lands were devoid of wildlife. Due to extensive mining and clear-cutting of neighboring forests for much of the previous century, the river did have a pH of about 4, a level that could not sustain resident trout populations. During that decade, the Department of Natural Resources developed a comprehensive program for restoration of the main stem and its tributaries. Probably the most effective project was the installation of numerous limestone dosers to neutralize acid mine drainage.
Many of the mountains in Garrett and Allegany counties are honeycombed with coal mines. The tailings from these mines, when combined with groundwater, produce sulfuric acid, destroying aquatic vegetation and insect life. Using a Rube Goldberg-type contraption, lime dosers were installed in several tributary streams. Stream flow drives a waterwheel which raises a pestle, which in turn crashes down, crushing limestone pellets into fine powder which is dispersed into the stream.
In a relatively short period of time, this effort increased the pH levels in the North Branch to around 7, a level which easily supports trout. Today, bald eagles, black bear, wild turkey and other native species have returned to the river’s drainage area. Rainbow trout and a lesser brown trout population are the predominant salmonids, and brook trout have returned to the feeder streams. In the 1990s, Department of Natural Resourcesbiologists introduced westslope cutthroat trout, and today the North Branch of the Potomac is the only river east of the Mississippi where a grand slam of all four trout species can be caught.
This river has the potential to become an even finer fishery and a destination equal to the more famous rivers in the East. There is now instream natural reproduction of rainbow trout below the town of Westernport and Black Oak Landing—a rarity in Maryland - there are only a handful of streams with spawning rainbows, in particular Little Antietam Creek in Washington County and Hoyes Run in Western Garrett County. The recovery of this 8-mile stretch suggests that there will be other North Branch sections that will become even more productive water. And with miles of water that receive little or no fishing pressure, there are plenty of places to seek solitude and “less educated” trout.
My experience focuses on the lengthy stretch starting at Lostland Run above Jennings Randolph Reservoir to Black Oak Landing and Bridge in Rawlings. I like to fish size 16-20 attractor patterns such as trudes, humpies and wullfs, tan and olive caddis, and on rainy or overcast days, blue wing olives. Copper John, pheasant tail and hare’s ear nymphs fished as droppers are also productive. Fish the riffles- rainbows love oxygenated water in the summer months- and they find protective cover around submerged rocks.
About a three-hour drive from Annapolis, lodging and restaurants are available in nearby Frostburg, Grantsville and Deep Creek Lake.
Get Ready for Your Next Fly Fishing Trip
In need of additional information on where and how to fly fish? Check out Maryland’s Fly Fishing Trail. The first state-wide trail in the nation highlights 48 sites spanning from the shorelines of the Chesapeake to the mountain streams in Western Maryland.
Before you head out, be sure to acquire your license and check out the latest regulations from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
And if you’re up for turning your fly fishing trip into a getaway, check out Visit Maryland for places to stay, dine and things to do.
Information about the author: John Neely is past Chairperson of the Maryland Sport Fisheries Advisory Commission, a long time board member of the Chesapeake Conservancy, and a life member of Trout Unlimited and Coastal Conservation Association.