List of Common Potomac River Fish Species [Updated]
Known as the “Nation’s River,” the Potomac River is the fourth largest river on the East Coast of the United States, which spans about 405 miles long. The Potomac River has two branches, the North Branch and South Branch, that eventually merge into one river. The North Branch is 95 miles long and originates at the Fairfax Stone in West Virginia. The South Branch is 130 miles long and originates near Hightown in Virginia. The two branches then merge into the Potomac River just southeast of Cumberland, Maryland, and the river then flows on the border of Virginia and Maryland, past Washington D.C., and dumps into the Chesapeake Bay.
Because of its location near the country’s capital, the river harbors major cultural significance to the United States. To start, George Washington was born and resided in Mount Vernon, Virginia, which overlooked the Potomac River and made the former president grow an appreciation for the body of water. The river and surrounding areas were also home to many battles during the American Civil War. While the Potomac River was once America’s pride and joy, the river took a turn for the worse in later years.
Potomac River Pollution & Conservation Efforts
Once the development of America was underway, the Potomac River was coined “a national disgrace” in 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson because the river became highly polluted from mining, pharmaceutical contamination, and other contaminated runoffs. Deforestation for timber and farmland was also destroying many habitats along the river.
Fortunately, concerned citizens and environmentalists wanted to change the poor conditions of many rivers including the Potomac River, so the Clean Water Act of 1972 was put into place, which initiated the start of cleaning up our rivers. Since then, there have been several efforts to help minimize contamination and protect the wildlife in the Potomac River.
Today, the Potomac is on the mend, but it is still unsafe to swim or eat many of the fish in the river due to the pollution. Despite this, people from all over still love to visit the Potomac River for hiking, kayaking, and paddling. Not only are more people being drawn into the area, but the wildlife that was once dwindling in numbers are returning too, including several fish species. Below are the most common fish species found in the Potomac River today.
List of Fish Species in the Potomac River
1) Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus)
Bluegills live throughout the Potomac River where waters are very slow and slightly warmer. Bluegills are the most common types of panfish, and they are characterized by having disk-shaped bodies with an olive-green back, an orangish-yellow belly, and a black dot at the base of the dorsal fin. These fish get their name from the bluish hue surrounding the gill covers.
Bluegills average around 7.5 inches in length, and weigh around half a pound as adults. These fish have very little mouths, so they will only eat smaller prey such as zooplankton, insects, worms, and snails. Bluegills are a main source of food for many larger fish such as largemouth bass, so they have adapted to be maneuverable. For instance, this species can make very quick stops by spreading out their pectoral fins.
2) Pumpkinseed (Lepomis gibbosus)
Pumpkinseed sunfish can be found in the lower Potomac River in areas where the water is clear, warm, and has lots of vegetation to hide in. This species has a disc-shaped body that is speckled with olive green, blue, orange, and yellow, and they have orange and blue waves running across their faces.
These fish grow to be about 5 – 8 inches long and weigh around 8 – 12 ounces. These fish are active during the day and will feed on insects, larvae, mollusks, snails, crustaceans, leeches, small fish, and detritus. At night, pumpkinseeds will rest near the bottom of the river or in vegetation, so they will not be spotted by predators.
3) Green sunfish (Lepomis cyanellus)
Green sunfish can be found in the lower Potomac River where water is slower, but they are adaptable to many different water conditions. This species has a wider body compared to other sunfish, and these bodies are blue-green in color with black dots and white bellies. They also have darker vertical bands across their bodies and a dark spot on their dorsal fin.
Green sunfish are not a desirable sport fish because they are relatively small, ranging from about 3 – 7 inches long and weighing less than a pound. These fish are very aggressive and will outcompete native fish species for food such as crayfish, fish eggs, insects, and smaller fishes.
4) Longear sunfish (Lepomis megalotis)
Longear sunfish inhabit the lower Potomac River where waters are very clear and there is plenty of vegetation. This species closely resembles other panfish, but they have a few distinguishing characteristics. One is that their orangey-red bodies are covered in light blue spots. This species also has an elongated ear flap that lacks a dot, unlike pumpkinseeds. Longear sunfish also have a blue streak on the top of their mouths that other panfish do not have.
These fish average about 5 – 8 inches long and weigh around six ounces. Unlike many other sunfishes, longear sunfish like to feed near the surface of the water on aquatic insects, microcrustaceans, fish eggs, and juvenile fishes.
5) Redbreast sunfish (Lepomis auritus)
Redbreast sunfish can be found throughout most of the Potomac River in waters with sandy or rocky bottoms and aquatic vegetation. These fish have blue-green backs and sides, and yellow or rust-colored bellies. Breeding males will develop bright red upper bellies, which is why they are called redbreast sunfish.
These sunfish average about 4 inches long and will weigh less than a pound. Redbreast sunfish are opportunistic feeders and will prey on many different smaller food items including juvenile insects and larvae.
6) American shad (Alosa sapidissima)
American shad are an anadromous species that lives in the Atlantic Ocean for much of their lives, but they will migrate into the Potomac River to spawn. These fish have streamlined bodies with greenish-blue backs, silvery sides, and a white belly. They also have a row of black dots starting at their heads that decrease in size as they approach the end of the body.
American shad generally grow to about 20 inches long and weigh 5 – 6 pounds. Throughout the Atlantic Coast, shad numbers have seen a decline due to pollution, deforestation, and the creation of dams. Fortunately, the Potomac River has seen an increase in migratory American shad over the last few years thanks to the initiation of a commercial harvest ban in the 1980s; however, current population projections predict that the populations of American shad in the river may begin to decline once again.
7) Black crappie (Pomoxis nigromaculatus)
Black crappies are often found in the tidal Potomac River in areas where the water is cool, clear, and deep. Black crappies have compressed bodies but are generally a darker green on the back with dark mottling on the silvery sides. They also have 7 – 8 spines on their dorsal fins, which distinguishes them from white crappies, who have 5 – 6 spines.
This species exhibits sexual dimorphism, so the males tend to be larger and darker than the females. Black crappies typically grow to about 8 – 12 inches and weigh 0.25 – 1 pounds. This species is generally nocturnal, so they will hunt during the night for small fishes, crustaceans, and insects.
8) White crappie (Pomoxis annularis)
White crappies can also be found in the tidal Potomac River, and they do well in very slow-moving and turbid waters. White crappies have compressed bodies that are silvery-olive on the back and silvery-white towards the belly. These fish have dark vertical bands along the sides of their bodies, and their gill covers have spines.
Males look slightly different than females during breeding season because males will develop a dark throat. White crappies average about 9 – 10 inches long and are around 2 pounds as adults. These fish generally eat smaller fishes like minnows or shad, but they will also eat insects such as mayflies.
9) Walleye (Sander vitreus)
Walleye can be found in the upper Potomac River starting in Cumberland, Maryland down to Washington D.C. in waters that are slower moving and cooler. Walleye get their name from their big, glassy pupils, and their eyes look like this due to a reflective layer on the inner eye called the tapetum lucidum, which helps walleye see prey in times of low visibility.
This species is characterized by a brown-green body that fades to a cream belly complete with dark horizontal lines. Walleye average about 11 pounds and can grow up to 30 inches, which makes them a highly desirable sport fish. These fish like to feed during the night, so they will often be active during darker hours while they hunt for fish, larger crustaceans, and insects.
10) Channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus)
Channel catfish are found throughout the upper Potomac River in Maryland near woody drift piles and other covered areas in deeper waters. Like all catfish, the channel catfish does not have scales and has barbels on the upper and lower jaw; however, the channel catfish can be distinguished by its deeply forked tail, silvery body, and overbite.
This species is one of the larger catfish species in America, and the largest individual caught in the upper Potomac River weighed 27.92 pounds! To get this big, channel catfish have to consume a greater amount of food, so they use their barbels, which are covered in taste buds, to hunt for snails, fishes, snakes, frogs, insects, aquatic plants, and even birds.
11) White catfish (Ameiurus catus)
White catfish can be found in the lower Potomac River in areas where the water is slow and the bottoms are muddy. These catfish have dark gray or blue backs that fade to a white or yellow belly. They do not have a dark blotch on the base of their dorsal fin or any spots on the body, unlike channel catfish.
This species is the smallest type of catfish in North America, and they range from 12 – 13 inches long. In the Potomac River, the largest white catfish caught on record was 23 inches long and weighed 8.27 pounds. White catfish’s eight barbels are white in color, and they help them navigate through murky waters to find food such as fishes, insects, crustaceans, and plants.
12) Blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus)
Blue catfish like to inhabit deeper holes surrounded by rocks in the tidal Potomac River, but this species is actually not native to the Potomac River. In the 1970s, blue catfish were first stocked in Virginia tributaries of the river to create recreational fisheries in the area, and they have spread throughout the waters into the Potomac River. These fish have a blueish-gray back that fades to a white belly, and they possess no spots.
Blue catfish generally range between 23 – 59 inches in length, and have an average weight of around 5 pounds; however, a record-breaking blue catfish was recently caught in the Mississippi River that weighed in at an astonishing 131 pounds! Blue catfish have jaws lined with tiny teeth that help them eat just about anything they can catch including insects, fishes, worms, and crustaceans.
13) Largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides)
Largemouth bass are found throughout most of the Potomac River in areas with slower-moving water and coverings. Largemouth bass get their name from their mouth, which extends past the eye, unlike smallmouths. Largemouth bass have olive-green bodies with dark mottling along the back and speckles along the sides.
This species has an average length of 13 inches and will generally weigh less than 5 pounds, although the largest largemouth ever recorded was 22 pounds and 4 ounces. Largemouths are carnivores that primarily feed on crayfish but will also eat other fishes and insects. These fish are energetic and strong hunters, so anglers love to fish for them in the Potomac River.
14) Smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolomieu)
Smallmouth bass can be found throughout the Potomac River around structures like logs or debris in the water where the water currents break. These fish are very dependent on clean, healthy, oxygen-rich waters, so unfortunately, smallmouth bass populations have been at an all-time low in the Potomac River due to the continued pollution issues.
Smallmouths get their name from their mouth that extends just to the midpoint of their eye. These fish are an olive-green color with vertical bands on the side of the body, and these bands tend to fade with age. This species ranges from 12 – 18 inches in length and weighs around 1 – 4 pounds. Smallmouth bass are ferocious hunters and will eat crayfish, insects, and other fishes.
15) Striped bass (Morone saxatilis)
Striped bass are the state fish of Maryland, and they can be found mainly near the mouth of the Potomac River in waters that are cool, clear, and deep. Striped bass have bodies that are laterally compressed with green or blue backs and silver iridescent sides. These fish also have 6 – 9 black stripes that run horizontally across the body. Striped bass are a larger fish that can grow to about 2 – 3 feet in length and weigh between 10 – 30 pounds.
This species is generally piscivorous and will hunt for other fishes at night. Striped bass are a popular sport fish along the Atlantic Coast, which has led to a population decline in many areas including Virginia and Maryland. Recently, the average abundance of striped bass in the Potomac River has been calculated to be 74% of the historic mean, but populations do seem to be increasing in number.
16) White perch (Morone americana)
Despite their name, white perch are actually members of the bass family that can be found in tidal waters of the Potomac River. White perch have silvery or green-gray deep bodies with white bellies, and the base of their fins tend to be reddish in color.
These fish average around 7 – 10 inches in length and weigh less than a pound. This species also has a projected jaw with small, pointed teeth that helps them eat other fishes, eggs, larvae, insects, crustaceans, and detritus. Currently, white perch populations are doing extremely well in the Potomac River with abundance exceeding the historic mean.
17) Yellow perch (Perca flavescens)
Yellow perch are one of the most common types of perch, and they are found throughout Potomac River watersheds in brackish waters and near reservoirs. This species is known for its golden yellow to greenish body covered in 6 – 8 dark vertical bars. These fish have yellow or green eyes and orange-red tinted fins.
Yellow perch generally grow to about 7 – 10 inches long and weigh around a pound, although this species is prone to having stunted growth in areas where food is limited. When food is abundant, adults will feed on the bottom of the river with their subterminal mouth, and they will search for items such as benthic macroinvertebrates as well as smaller fishes. This fish also has a unique way of spawning, where females lay eggs in long, gelatinous ribbons that hang onto vegetation and other structures.
18) Muskellunge (Esox masquinongy)
Muskellunge, more commonly known as muskies, can be found in the lower Potomac River in areas where the water is very clear and slow-moving. These fish come in three subspecies that have slightly different patterning and native ranges, but they will all have darker green or brownish backs that fade to light green sides and a whitish belly.
Muskies are the largest of the pike family, and they can reach about 30 – 40 inches long and 10 – 20 pounds on average, although they can reach up to 70 pounds in certain waters. These fish have jaws lined with long, sharp teeth, and the roof of their mouths are covered in smaller curved teeth. They also have excellent vision both during the day and at night. With these factors combined, muskies make for top predators that eat a number of larger fish species.
2 thoughts on “List of Fish Species in the Potomac River 2023 [Updated]”
What about bull head and spoonbill catfish. Dace,herring & mud shad,blowfish & toad fish.chain pickeral,carp & grass carp.Caught em all hardhead & bluefish too.
I caught 2 Snakeheads in the Patomac near Waugh Point last year. Both weighed about 4 lbs.