Fly Fishing the Upper Potomac River...
in western Maryland
...with Bill Byrd.
This is the first in a series of three articles on fishing the western Maryland area that I will add in this section of my website. I hope you will enjoy reading these articles and maybe pick up the phone and visit some of these little known wonderful fly fishing destinations.
I have wanted to fly fish the Potomac River (image above left) for smallmouth bass ever since I heard that the fishery had been rescued from pollution, and brought to its current level as a beautiful float with excellent fly fishing, photography, and wildlife watching potential. It hasn't been in this condition for too many years, but this stretch of the upper Potomac offers a wonderful float fishing experience.
Because my wife and I had driven up from Atlanta to be in eastern Maryland for a special occasion, I decided to include some fishing on the trip. After our stay in eastern Maryland, we drove southwest by Baltimore and then to the western most area of Maryland for the second phase of our trip.
We traveled west on highway 68 to Grantsville Maryland located in a part of Maryland that I didn't even realize existed prior to my research for this trip. This is some of the most beautiful country I've seen with miles of rolling hills, mountains in every direction, quaint towns, agriculture, and streams everywhere.
Grantsville was the perfect town in which to base our lodging for western Maryland fishing. From Grantsville I could reach many western Maryland streams within minutes and enjoy cozy, relaxed lodging at the Stonebow Inn. More on Grantsville and our lodging later.
Based on research well before the trip, highly recommended Harold Harsh of Spring Creek Outfitters (image right) was my guide on this trip. On the morning of September 21st, I rose, grabbed a breakfast bar and drove from Grantsville to Swanton MD. about 23 miles, left my vehicle there, and rode with Harold to the North branch of the upper Potomac, about a 35 minute drive. During the trip to the river, we had a chance to get to know one another. Harold is an easy going, likeable fly fisher. He knows these waters, their histories, and the features that make a successful trip.
Being the consummate guide Harold handled everything. We met his dad and headed to the river where Harold, his boat, and I were dropped off for the float. Then Harold's dad took the truck to the pick up point nine miles down river. It seemed to me that a nine hour float trip would be a long one, but once we got into fishing the river, the time flew by.
Harold's float boat was a two man rubber float craft that was designed for this service. After Harold had made some modifications to the craft, it became a perfect craft for trips like these. The two of us, gear, food, and rods fit perfectly. A rigid bottom craft would have been very difficult to use in these waters, because there were some very shallow rocky shoals. At times Harold had to stand up and use the oars dug into the river bottom to push us over shallow shoals. Occasionally he'd have to get out and push us over the really shallow shoals.
When I was planning our trip to Maryland, this float trip was conceived as a smallmouth fishing float trip. The plan was to try to entice some fat Potomac River smallies and even a tiger muskie might be present. As it turned out, we caught smallmouths plus two other fun river dwelling species as well. Harold brought a 7 weight 9 foot rod rigged out with a beautiful crayfish pattern that he ties and fishes with great success on the Potomac and other smallmouth waters. I told him I believe that I could catch red drum on the Georgia, Florida, and Alabama coasts with his fly.
Although I am an avid ultralighter and had an ought weight, a 1-2 weight, and a 2-weight rod for chasing trout with me on this trip, I also packed a 5 and a 6-weight rod for this float trip. I left my 6 weight rod in the truck, but I rigged the heaviest rod I've fished since my last salt water trip -- my Orvis TLS 5 weight 9 foot -- and a 10 foot leader/tippet for the float. My tippet was 2 feet of 6 pound test Orvis tippet and a strong knot to hold the big crayfish imitation.
Harold had rigged his 7 weight system to fish in case my 5 weight wasn't big enough. I had to adjust to fishing my 5-weight and cast for 11.5 hours. When I began to write this article the morning after our trip, I was sore from casting that heavier rod. In all it was worth the effort. I just wish I'd had a 3 weight or 2 weight system along with me. Why?
A front had passed through the area giving us a bluebird high sky day with light patchy clouds and a high temperature in the upper 60s. Fishing began slow as we probed great looking water with Harold's large crayfish fly and I felt many pecks on that fly but no hookups. There were smaller fish trying to take the large crayfish fly, but just weren't able to. I felt peck after peck, but no full strikes.
To try to determine what was pecking at the cray fly, I decided to tie on one of my smaller favorite bass and sunfish flies below the big cray fly as a dropper. Immediately I began to feel strikes. Once I got accustomed to the weight of the 5 weight system and how to just raise it quickly for hookset, I began to catch smallies and the first of a day full of beautiful and very strong redbreast sunfish, plus largemouth black bass.
Because my smaller fly was getting so many strikes, Harold suggested that I remove the big crayfish fly and just fish one of my streamers subsurface on the 5-weight. The results were really great. Smallies (like the one left), redbreasts, and largemouths all liked my smaller fly. Harold was happy, the fish were happy to be released, and I was happy to be bending my rod constantly.
Once in this mode I worked as much water as possible as quickly as possible. There was flat deep water, quick shots into fast current, outside bends with undercuts, pocket water -- everything you can imagine in the way of beautiful water and nice fishing opportunities.
We were using the subsurface techniques that I describe in my articles Fly fishing the Entire water column and Fly fishing dropoffs. Use these techniques while probing river waters. Regardless the depth down to 12 feet these tactics WILL WORK!
About half way down this section of the river, we pulled over to the lunch spot and beached the drift boat. Harold had great sub sandwiches, plenty of cokes, water, candy bars -- everything to keep our energy up for catching fish. It was a GOOD THING! We needed the energy the rest of the afternoon for catching and releasing fish.
After more conversation, we stretched, eased back in the boat and headed downstream. By this point in the trip I was really wishing for a 3 or 2-weight fly system. In situations when fish are striking so subtly, the lighter fly systems allow better strike detection and increase hookups. It also would have saved some wear and tear on my body. Since we were cut off from civilization, getting a lighter rod wasn't going to happen, so I decided to really concentrate on strike detection with the 5-weight.
A few minutes after lunch we floated down into a beautiful area with a sweeping outside bend featuring deep water to 8 feet and several over hanging trees. I rigged a longer leader/tippet to get my fly down deeper. I fished a size 10 streamer, cast it up current, counted it down to let it sink and sweep in the current and WHAM! fish after fish took my fly. I caught over 30 redbreasts, 2 largemouths, and 3 smallies in that spot alone.
Then I handed Harold my 5-weight rod and asked him to catch some fish while I took a rest. He obliged catching 10 or more redbreasts on that spot in short order. Even though the 5-weight was overkill for these fish, to my surprise they felt VERY strong even on the big rod.
As we drifted downstream, Harold glided and sometimes pushed the drift boat down the river with precision finding current tongues through the maze of rocks and wood. It was hard work and he handled it with ease and skill.
We saw myriad wildlife in the area: I saw 3 small black bears on the way to the river, and on the river we saw deer crossing the river, a bald eagle, a great blue heron, and a green heron to name a few of the critters.
It was a picture perfect day. We caught more fish than you would believe including a few fat bluegills like the one (image right). We caught several smallmouths, largemouths, and a boat full of "sunnies" or redbreast sunfish. We carefully released all unharmed. This stretch of the Potomac is also known for its bigger smallmouths, like the one Harold is posing with caught on Harold's crayfish fly (image below).
The nine miles of Northern Potomac River that we fished was the same, and at the same time uniquely different from the other rivers I have fished. Each river has its own similarities and characteristics. The northern fork of the upper Potomac is definitely one of the nicest, most beautiful floats I've enjoyed.
I hope to be able to return and fish with Harold on the Potomac on a different stretch of this beautiful river some day soon. We fished from 8AM to just after 7PM and found fish from beginning to end. All we had to do was unlock the mystery of what fly the fish were interested in that particular day. WE DID! It was quite a fishing experience.
My first experience on this beautiful Western Maryland River rates as one of my best river trips. If you would like a truly new river fly fishing experience in an interesting new area call Harold Harsh. He can guide you on the Casselman River, the Upper Potomac. the Youghiogheny River, or the Savage River. Just remember to bring a 3-weight fly system to fish the smaller flies. Harold Harsh is one of the best guides I've fished with. His general attitude is VERY agreeable, his knowledge of the water is tops. His desire to adjust tactics to make your trip a success is strong. We BOTH had a great time discussing fly fishing, nature, the river, and personal fishing experiences. We both caught and released some beautiful fish. If you are ever in this area -- fish with Harold Harsh. His fees are reasonable and his work is excellent!
To email Harold for full information Harold Harsh Email or go to Harold's website. You can call him at 301-616-8123.
While fishing in the area for this article my wife and I stayed in the historic and friendly Stonebow Inn. Located in Grantsville the Stonebow was located 100 feet from the Casselman River, and a short drive from the Savage River, the Upper Potomac, the Youghiogheny River, or the Savage Sadly the inn has closed its doors.
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