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About the Basin: Great Falls Park

Great Falls Park

September 3, 2021

A wide-angle view of a river between two rocky banks.The dramatic rocky rapids of Great Falls Park provide the perfect background for yesterday’s history and today’s selfies.

According to archaeological records, this area has been a meeting place for thousands of years. The Piscataway and Powhatan tribes used the area for trading missions from 8000-1700 BC. Much of the modern history of the area involves the boom-and-bust cycle of towns built around one industry: the construction of the canal. The ruins of one such town, Matildaville which was named after the mother of Robert E. Lee, are still visible today.

Starting in the early 1800s, city folk would venture up the river via a 6 to 8-hour boat ride to eat, dance, and spend a mere $.25 to stay the night at the lodge. A carousel, installed in 1906, was a big draw for the Great Falls Amusement Park. The amusement park closed in 1952 but the carousel stuck around until Hurricane Agnes blew through and destroyed it in 1972.

Today, getting to the falls is much more convenient. Whether accessed from the Virginia or Maryland side, the falls are possibly the most photographed section of the Potomac River. As one of the more popular parks in the area, the riverside retreat is still a popular meeting place and can get crowded on nice days. There is a Visitor’s Center with maps and history of the area and picnic tables to enjoy an alfresco meal.

Visitors can get a small taste of the history by taking a boat ride through the 8-foot rise of the canal while park attendants, dressed in period costumes, tell the story of the area.

The falls are a natural boundary between the navigable tidal Potomac below and the river’s freshwater mainstem above, thwarting those who travel by water. This holds true for both humans and aquatic species, as this area is the natural upstream boundary of the American shad migration.

The variety of hiking levels go from “Easy Stroll” to “Mountain Goat-Inspired.” If you are of the mountain goat-variety hiker, check out the 1.7-mile Section A of the Billy Goat Trail. Make sure to bring water, snacks, sunscreen, and a map, as the short distance can be deceivingly hard, especially on warm days.

The rapids are for admiring, not for swimming or wading. It is dangerous and illegal to swim anywhere in Great Falls Park. The 15-mile Potomac River Gorge can create unexpected treacherous conditions even for the most skilled swimmers and paddlers.

Always check Current Park Conditions before visiting the park as trails or other areas of interest could be closed.


Looking for someplace new to visit in the Potomac basin? The weekly About the Basin feature highlighting destinations (on our Facebook, Twitter, and Potomac River Watch) are now available on the Wandering the Watershed map. Readers can now choose a destination from our compiled list of basin gems. Visit regularly as new postings will be added. Enjoy your tour through the Potomac basin! The new feature also can be accessed through the maps page on our website.

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Potomac River Fishing Report – September 3, 2021

Boy fishing at sunset. Large river in the background.The Shenandoah and South Branch Potomac basins are full and are running at or near record levels for this time of year. Please check local water conditions before venturing out, and don’t go if there is any doubt. The muddy water will be difficult to fish, but larger, dark-colored baits will likely work best. Fishing should be much improved after levels recede and water clears. The high flows may scour algae blooms from the area, and reduced water temperatures will not be conducive to their regrowth. Mountain streams in the Shenandoah will clear quickly and the lower temperatures should get the trout engaged.

Trout management areas on the North Branch Potomac should fish well after water levels decrease. Fly fishermen will enjoy the cooler temperatures and elevated water levels. The ICPRB continues to assist the Maryland Department of Natural Resources with creel surveys and data collection that will help in future management decisions.

The upper Potomac River will be very high and muddy for the next several days, making fishing difficult. The feeder creeks and streams will clear first and so may be better areas to fish. Before the storms, the river from Seneca to the Mouth of the Monocacy was fishing well, particularly rock formations in the middle of the river. Panfish and some crappies tributary creeks were being caught on beetle spins and spinner baits. Topwater baits and chattering lures may be a good bet in the muddy water.

Fishing will be difficult in the metropolitan Potomac, with increasing sediment and debris making its way from upstream. The water is quite high at Fletcher’s Boathouse. Before the storm, anglers were successfully targeting wood structure, docks, and bridge pilings with plastic tube baits on light jig heads in the District. Some largemouth bass were taken in the coves around Wilson Bridge.

Downstream in the tidal Potomac, anglers are finding some largemouth bass and snakeheads off Piscataway and in Mattowoman Creek. The tidal creeks will clear before the river, and snakeheads and largemouth bass should be biting after the storm in the significantly cooler water. Blue catfish are taking cut bait off the bottom in the main channel around Fort Washington and downstream. To the river’s mouth. Anglers are finding some fish off National Harbor and near Belle Haven Marina. Grass beds downstream should be productive, but as the water cools for the fall the beds will begin to die off and anglers will be looking to hard structure to find fish.

Water in the Colonial Beach area currently is running clearer, and anglers are finding a lot of striped bass, including some fairly large fish. Spanish mackerel are being caught in large numbers, although they will eventually head south as the water cools. Blue catfish are a common catch in the area. White perch and spot are plentiful. Water temperatures in this area have dropped to the low 80s. Conditions may decline in coming days as the mud and debris comes from upstream.

Those conditions continue down to the river’s mouth, where anglers are trolling and jigging for striped bass along the shipping channels. Spanish mackerel are being taken in good numbers. Some large red drum are found around Point Lookout, Anglers continue to find some nice cobia although they are thinning out. Sea nettles are thick in the river from the mouth up to Colonial Beach. Crabbing remains slow. The area of low dissolved oxygen on the river bottom should keep anglers fishing above 25 feet to avoid the dead zone.


This is the final edition of the Fishing Report for the year. It has been our privilege to bring you these recreation reports that also highlight some basin and ICPRB issues. None of this would be possible without the help of our river watchers who keep us informed. We welcome your comments and suggestions on how we can make this product more useful in the future. The fall season in the basin offers wonderful fishing, boating, and touring opportunities, and judging by the full parks, residents are taking advantage of those opportunities. Please use our natural resources wisely, and help others you meet to become better stewards of our precious natural resources. 

We are grateful to the many river watchers who contribute to this effort. Particular thanks go to the state departments of natural resources, Potomac River Fisheries CommissionNational Bass GuidesShallow Water Fishing Adventures, and Machodoc Creek Marina.

See you on the river!

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Kristina Peacock-Jones Named New Pennsylvania Alternate Commissioner

The Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin Welcomes new Pennsylvania Alternate Commissioner Kristina Peacock-Jones. Peacock-Jones serves the Commonwealth as a Program Manager in the Compacts and Commissions Office at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and serves as the Commonwealth Drought Coordinator.

She manages the State Water Plan and Coastal Resources Management Program Sections and has experience with various grant programs. She began working at DEP seven years ago in the Bureau of Safe Drinking Water as the Environmental Group Manager of the Source Protection and Allocation Section. Previously, Peacock-Jones worked as an environmental and civil engineering consultant in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New Jersey. She has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Environmental Engineering from Drexel University and is a licensed professional engineer in Pennsylvania.

Peacock-Jones serves as an alternate to ICPRB Pennsylvania Commissioner Patrick McDonell, the DEP secretary. She replaces Summer Kunkel, also a DEP staff member.

Peacock-Jones’ wealth of background and experience make her a valuable new member of ICPRB, and we welcome her aboard.

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About the Basin: Smallwood State Park

Smallwood State Park

August 27, 2021

An aerial view of the marina at Smallwood State Park.

Photo Credit: DestinationSouthernMaryland.com

Smallwood State Park in southern Maryland offers a variety of activities alongside a picturesque view of Mattawoman Creek, a tributary of the tidal Potomac River.

The area was the ancestral land of the Piscataway Conoy tribe. Eventually the land became a thriving tobacco plantation as part of a large tract of land known as the Mattawoman Plantation. The park is named after General William Smallwood, who was born and raised on the plantation in the 1700s. He was both a decorated soldier in the American Revolution and a popular politician in the Maryland assembly. Smallwood’s economic success was built on the backs of the 56 enslaved people who lived on the property during his time. Many worked as field hands, vegetable gardeners, blacksmiths, and carpenters.

The Smallwood Retreat House, built in 1760, was used as a respite from Smallwood’s aristocratic life as a politician and military-man. In 1792, Smallwood passed away without heirs. The house and land eventually fell into disrepair. In the 1930s a group of enthusiastic locals organized the restoration and put the gears in motion for the area to eventually become Smallwood State Park in 1957.

Tours of the restored Retreat House and the 19th century tobacco barn are available. A Colonial Christmas open house, showcasing historically accurate holiday decorations, is held each December.

At only 628-acres, the Smallwood State Park as an impressive variety of activities. Birding, especially for waterfowl, is a popular activity due to the wide variety of species to see and hear. However, you will want your binoculars in one hand and your fishing pole in the other. Anglers rave about the fish caught from the piers along Sweden Point Marina (please follow local licensing requirements). The park is the launch location of several fishing tournaments.

At only 2 miles of trails, the hiking opportunities in the park are short but beautiful. Want to go further? Jump onto a section of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail which runs alongside the park. This 710-mile trail follows the Potomac River while highlighting historical and cultural features along the way.

The Mattawoman Creek Art Center within the park features local as well as up-and-coming artists. The center provides several art shows throughout the year showcasing a variety of fine art pieces.

A campground offers 8 rustic cabins and 15 tent and RV-friendly campsites. There is a playground, picnic area and pavilions.

With quick and easy access to the Potomac River, the Sweden Point Marina is a popular place to launch boats.

If you can’t make it down to southern Maryland, you can still enjoy the view with the Smallwood State Park Osprey Cam. The birds are most active late-spring through early-summer, but the camera provides a nice view of the river all year long.

Looking for someplace new to visit in the Potomac basin? The weekly About the Basin feature highlighting destinations (on our Facebook, Twitter, and Potomac River Watch) are now available on the Wandering the Watershed map. Readers can now choose a destination from our compiled list of basin gems. Visit regularly as new postings will be added. Enjoy your tour through the Potomac basin! The new feature also can be accessed through the maps page on our website.

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Potomac River Fishing Report – August 27, 2021

Little boy sitting on a bench reaching for bait. A lake is in the background.The Shenandoah and South Branch Potomac basins are low but running near normal for this time of year. Both streams are showing some better fishing as river levels have risen from very low water levels. Anglers are reporting catches of smallmouth bass, channel catfish, and sunfish in both systems. A segment of the North Fork of the Shenandoah is till harboring blue-green algae blooms that could be harmful to people or pets that have contact with the water. Mountain streams in Shenandoah Park are running low and clear, requiring anglers to carefully approach wary fish.

Trout management areas on the North Branch Potomac continue to provide a cooler area that holds some nice brown and rainbow trout. Fly fishermen are using terrestrial and nymphs to catch some nice fish. The ICPRB continues to assist the Maryland Department of Natural Resources with creel surveys and data collection that will help in future management decisions.

The upper Potomac River is challenging for anglers who are finding the improved river levels still carry a fair amount of stain and sediment. Early morning and evening are the best, coolest times to find fish that are keeping to the middle of the river over rock gardens and boulders. Large eddies in the current are good spots to find fish. Anglers are using dark-colored soft plastics, spinners, and chatterbaits to get attention. The bite remains very light and presentations should be worked very slowly. Pay close attention to feel the gentle bite. Lander, Whites Ferry, and Brunswick provide access to some good stretches of river. Anglers are finding some bass and catfish at Fletcher’s Boat House.

Fishing is challenging in the metropolitan Potomac, with stained water and some patches of debris. Anglers are targeting bridge pilings and wood structure for largemouth bass. The Washington Channel is yielding some fish at the seawall and adjacent grass patches. Anglers are finding some fish off National Harbor and near Belle Haven Marina.

Downstream in the tidal Potomac, anglers are finding some largemouth bass off Piscataway and in Mattowoman Creek. Lilly pads and aquatic grass are good places to look on a moving tide. Stands of aquatic grass at lower tides are good places to use a floating frog or chatterbait for largemouth bass and northern snakeheads. Both species are also found in the Virginia embayments, where anglers are finding some large snakeheads. Early mornings and sunset are the best times to explore these waters which are about 85 degrees during the day. Large blue catfish are taking cut bait throughout the tidal river, with the largest found along channel edges. These fish are found all the way down to the river’s mouth.

Water in the Colonial Beach area continues to show stained water and large populations of sea nettles that can make line and lure handling difficult. Some areas are showing water temperatures in the high 80s. Striped bass are in the area, although many are smaller fish. Anglers are trolling or jigging for them in the early morning and evening. They are joined by good populations of Spanish mackerel that anglers are catching by trolling or jigging. Some nice spot and small croaker are being caught, with white perch and some blue catfish rounding out the menu.

Those conditions hold down the river’s mouth, where anglers are trolling and jigging for striped bass along the shipping channels. Anglers also are finding some large red drum. Anglers are sight fishing for cobia, and there are still some speckled trout. Crabbing remains tough. The area of low dissolved oxygen on the river bottom should keep anglers fishing above 25 feet to avoid the dead zone

We are grateful to the many river watchers who contribute to this effort. Particular thanks go to the state departments of natural resources, Potomac River Fisheries CommissionNational Bass GuidesShallow Water Fishing Adventures, and Machodoc Creek Marina.

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Potomac River Fishing Report – August 20, 2021

The Shenandoah and South Branch Potomac basins have risen from their extremely low levels, but the rains are making for cloudy, mud-stained conditions. Anglers who venture out will find a lot more water to toss soft plastics in darker colors and catch some smallmouth bass or channel catfish. The challenging conditions will require a lot of patience, as the bite will remain very light. Mountain streams in Shenandoah National Park will see improved flow but carrying some stain. Hellgrammites and Dobson flies are out, so anglers will use them as a guide to choose flies.Silhouette of a young boy fishing at sunset.

The South Branch Potomac is near median and showing some muddy color in some areas. Thunderstorms and clouded water could make conditions difficult. The North Branch Potomac will benefit from higher flows and cooler water temperatures, but the cloudy water will be a challenge. Anglers are using terrestrial flies to catch some brown and rainbow trout. The ICPRB continues to assist the Maryland Department of Natural Resources with creel surveys and data collection that will help in future management decisions.

Along the upper Potomac, the rising water is carrying stain and sediment, making for difficult conditions. The Monocacy River is carrying a lot of mud into the Potomac and fishing upstream of the confluence has clearer water. The best fishing will remain in main channel rock and boulder gardens, where soft plastics or spinner baits can catch some fish. Some anglers are using larger soft baits to increase their visibility in the stain. The higher levels will be greeted by boaters who have seen their range impeded by the low flows. Lander and Whites Ferry are good places to start. There is still a high level of baitfish in the water. Grass is continuing to grow at Point of Rocks, a welcome development after several years of poor growth.

Fishing in the metropolitan Potomac continues to be slow, with water temperatures decreasing but stain and sediment keeping conditions difficult. Bridge pilings, wood, and other structure can be targeted with soft plastics and noisy topwater baits. Fishing shallow in the muddy water is a good bet. Search for spots of clearer water in the grass beds on a moving tide. National Harbor, Mattawoman vegetation, and the Virginia embayments are giving up some largemouth bass with snakeheads active at the heads of tidal creeks. Patience will be a virtue to pick up the slow bite. Blue catfish are most everywhere and taking cut bait throughout the tidal river.

The Potomac River mainstem and Virginia tributaries reopen to striped bass fishing on Saturday.

The Colonial Beach area continues to report a lot of baitfish, although the profusion of sea nettles is making fishing difficult. Spanish mackerel are chasing baitballs of bay anchovy and other small fish. Bluefish and cownose rays are attracted by chum slicks put out for striped bass. Anglers are having some success trolling. Croaker have appeared in the river in force. White perch can be found in shallower areas of tidal creeks. Anglers are reporting some catches of smaller striped bass.

Near the river’s mouth, anglers are taking Spanish mackerel and speckled trout. Anglers are finding some striped bass . Cobia are being taken in chum slicks, which also attract cownose rays. Bluefish are competing with the stripers. Some nice red drum are being caught in deeper waters. An area of low dissolved oxygen on the river bottom should keep anglers fishing above 25 feet to avoid the dead zone that etends up to Colonial Beach. Crabbing remains on the slow side..

 

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About the Basin: Bull Run Mountains Natural Area Preserve

Bull Run Mountains Natural Area Preserve

August 20, 2021

The Bull Run Mountains Natural Area Preserve is an outdoor living laboratory located only an hour drive from the D.C. Metro area. It is staffed with Natural Area Preserve managers who carefully oversee the 2,486 acres to preserve the impressive biodiversity and the unique forest and woodland communities found on the mountain.

A wide-angle view of a mountains during autumn.

Photo Credit: Virginia Outdoors Foundation

Since 2002, Bull Run has been owned and managed by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF) which was established to promote the preservation of open-space lands and to encourage private gifts of money, securities, land or other property to preserve the natural, scenic, historic, scientific, open-space and recreational areas of the Commonwealth. They protect 850,000 acres across Virginia.

In an effort to balance public use with the preservation of the natural ecosystem, the northern section has restricted access, and the southern section is only open to the public Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. The public can access the area by way of 7-miles of hiking trails, public programming, and volunteer opportunities. Grab a trail map to find the hikes that lead to picturesque views of the Blue Ridge mountains. A few simple rules apply during your visit: please stay on the designated trails, no dogs are allowed, and practice Leave No Trace principles. They also host school-aged children, university students, and researchers. There is an active stream restoration and monitoring program on site.

Cultural history is an important part of the VOF program. The area is part of the ancestral land of the Manahoac Indigenous people who practiced prescribed burning to create a wildlife habitat conducive for hunting. However, according to notes by the explorer John Smith, they did not burn the hills along Bull Run and throughout the Blue Ridge mountains. The VOF protects many regionally important cultural history sites on the land. Staff provide guided hikes with titles such as Black and African American History of the Preserve and a spooky Cemetery Night Hike. Volunteers are a vital part of the program, so if this sounds interesting, contact them to find out more.

Another organization along the mountain is the Bull Run Mountains Conservancy which protects the Bull Run Mountains through education, research, and stewardship. They provide education, research, and volunteer opportunities throughout the year. Halloween Safari is an annual event in October which is a not-as-spooky-as-it-sounds nighttime hike followed by a bonfire and live music.

Contact these organizations to learn more about the recreation, education, and volunteer opportunities in the area.

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ICPRB 4th Quarter Business Meeting August 31, 2021

The Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB) will hold its quarterly business meeting virtually on August 31, 2021.

The Section for Cooperative Water Supply Operations on the Potomac (CO-OP) will begin at 8:30 a.m. and will feature an update on efforts to increase supplemental storage for the metropolitan area water supply.

The ICPRB meeting will begin at 9:45 a.m. Commissioners will get an update on the Land Prioritization Project, which assists planners in targeting land conservation efforts that can benefit drinking water source quality and ongoing enhancements to spill modeling to protect drinking water and water quality from contamination. The commissioners also will receive a report on ICPRB’s evolving Justice, Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion policy.

Members of the public who wish to view the proceedings should send a request through our Contact Us page no later than close-of-business on August 26. You will be sent a link to the meeting.