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Go West, Young Angler, Go West! Float-fishing on the North Branch

Rainbow trout; by Harold Harsh

Rainbow trout; by Harold Harsh

If you would like the adventure of an entirely different trout fishing experience similar to that of the western states, look no further than the North Branch Potomac River.

Spring Creek Outfitters guide; by Harold Harsh

Spring Creek Outfitters guide; by Harold Harsh

We’re off!

The Jennings Randolph Lake Dam in Garrett County supplies an abundant coldwater flow to the North Branch Potomac River to support a large river trout fishing opportunity. While you can wade in summer months or fish from the bank, a float-fishing trip in a raft or kayak is a unique way to experience all that this rolling river offers. Better yet, several fishing guide services are available to float anglers down the river and help you catch the trout of a lifetime!

The adventure begins at the catch-and-return area downstream of Jennings Randolph Lake. Its cold, gin-clear water supports populations of wild brown, rainbow and brook trout. Stocked by the state’s Fisheries Service, cutthroat trout also are caught.

Once floating this stretch, you will not see a house or passing car—only the steep green mountain ridges on both sides of the river. Guide Harold Harsh of Spring Creek Outfitters has float-fished this river for nearly 25 years. “The best fishing starts in June and runs through to the end of November, if the weather holds,” he says.

In an area abundant with bait, from ants and beetles to caddisflies, march browns, sulphurs and slate drakes, “The trout rise with gusto!” he exclaims.

Fishing Guide Services

Boulder-strewn rapids and small waterfalls occur throughout, so it is advised that an experienced guide take you down the river for the first time. Guides offer both half-day and full-day float wading trips. Let any of the outfitters below teach you how to navigate and locate the best trout holding locations!

  • Eastern Trophies Fly Fishing easterntrophies.com 571-213-2570
  • North Branch Angler kenpavol@gmail.com 240-321-1495
  • Sang Run Outfitters sangrunoutfitters.com 301-616-3814
  • Savage River Angler, LLC savageriverangler.com 703-999-8504
  • Savage River Lodge savageriverlodge.com 301-689-3200
  • Savage River Outfitters savageriveroutfitters.com 703-517-1040
  • Spring Creek Outfitters springcreekoutfitter.com 301-387-6587

Float on

The river changes character as you enter Allegany County near the town of Westernport. Despite nearby industry, the river now supports a great fishery in this area as many federal, state, private and non-profit organizations have worked together to improve water quality during the past three decades.

Rick Morgan (front) and his son Bryan with rainbow trout; by Harold Harsh

As a result, the river has become very productive and capable of producing some true trophy rainbow and brown trout. The river is managed by stocking fingerling trout that grow exceptionally well due to the abundant food supply of aquatic invertebrates and forage fish.

Access areas with boat ramps sit in both Westernport and the McCoole Fishery Management Area, four miles downstream.

Maryland native and avid angler Neil Jacobs, who pursues trout from the Arctic Circle to South America, particularly enjoys fishing this section of the river.

“I fish the North Branch every opportunity I get,” he says. “It’s so convenient, and provides trophy fish opportunities right here in my home state.”

Bait Tips

  • Aquatic insect hatches are prolific, as mayflies, stoneflies and caddisflies are found in abundance.
  • Terrestrial patters such as beetles, ants and inchworms produce good dry fly action during the summer.
  • Larger brown trout and rainbow trout are frequently caught on large streamers as well as artificial minnow and crayfish lures.

Phenomenal results

Continuing another five miles downstream to the Gary A. Yoder Fishery Management Area at Black Oak provides another good day of floating.

Jim Nashed enjoys this section of the river best. “I’ve been across this country, to Montana, Wyoming, Alaska, but few trips compare to a day I had on the North Branch of the Potomac River,” he says. “I found success with every possible technique—from dry flies to nymphs to swinging streamers. It’s almost difficult not to have great success here.” He boasts of the number, size and health, noting, “every fish we caught was a healthy, chunky specimen full of vigor!”

It truly is a one-of-a-kind fishing experience right here in Maryland. Your adventure awaits!Full of life, the fishery is a testament to solid management of water flows and fingerling stockings. “These efforts are paying off,” Nashed adds. “Continued efforts should keep the vitality of the river going for years. With a fishery this amazing so close to home, I hardly see a reason to venture to the western states very often.”

Know Before You Go

  • The river is large and the best flows to float-fish safely are about 300 cubic foot per second.
  • A Maryland Non-Tidal Sport Fishing License is required to float-fish, and a Trout Stamp is needed in catch-and-return areas.
  • Both spin and fly fishing tackle are permitted on all North Branch Potomac River Trout Fishing Areas. Most fishing guide services provide fishing equipment.
  • Fishing is open year-round. Best fishing is from late spring through fall.
  • Consult the Maryland Fishing Guide for complete regulations.
  • Call the Western Region Inland Fisheries Office with any questions at 301-334-8218.


Article by Alan Klotz—Western Region Inland Fisheries Manager.

Appears in Vol. 19, No. 3 of the Maryland Natural Resource magazine, summer 2016.


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