by Greg Miner
Ask anyone what they think of fishing the Charles River, and they’re not likely to describe a thriving fishery loaded with baitfish, structure, habitat and various species of game fish. Instead, what comes to mind for most is the reputation the river rightfully earned in the middle and latter parts of the twentieth century as an industrially polluted waterway. Unfortunately, this common misconception discourages many anglers from exploring the outstanding fishing possibilities that exist right in the urban heart of Boston.
The good news is that because Charles River fishing has remained under the radar, it is a largely untapped resource for fishermen of all kinds. Fishing pressure is very light, and there are areas of the river that produce quality fish of all kinds. No matter the size of your boat, from kayak to cruiser, there is a section of the river you can explore.
The Charles River is a part of everyday life for hundreds of thousands of metro Boston inhabitants. Stretching a total of 80 miles, it begins in Hopkinton, Massachusetts and winds its way through 23 communities on its way to Boston Harbor. Dropping about 350 feet in its lazy journey to the sea, the slow-moving river steeps like tea through the abundant wetlands along its path. For this reason, to many it still appears to be the polluted or “dirty” waterway it once was, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Thanks in large part to various legislative measures and the efforts of private citizens banding together to protect the watershed, the Charles River is now one of the cleanest urban waterways in America.
The Charles River Basin, the section of the river between the Watertown Dam and Boston Harbor, is almost entirely a work of human design. Major construction began with the damming of the river’s mouth at what is today’s Boston Museum of Science. The new dam, completed in 1910, eliminated the existing mud flats and stabilized the water level from Boston to Watertown, turning the stinking tidal estuary into the Charles River Basin of today.
The river’s resurgence began in the early 1960s, and the creation of the Charles River Watershed Association in 1975 marked the integration of private citizens’ help in the cleanup effort. Today, the Charles River has been restored to a level of cleanliness once thought unattainable—wildlife is abundant along its wooded banks and fish thrive in its waters.
The Charles River Basin
The Charles River basin offers one of the world’s largest public sailing programs. It is home to several rowing and yacht clubs, is the setting for a world-class rowing regatta (the Head of the Charles) and provides excellent fishing opportunities. Starting at the Watertown Dam, the Basin is a 476-acre section of the Charles that is dotted with pilings and docks, is crossed by nearly a dozen bridges, and reaches depths of 30 feet in places. Endless shorelines full of submerged timber, rocks, and all other forms of cover and structure create numerous opportunities for anglers to pursue quality fish, especially largemouth bass.
The surrounding area is heavily developed. Much of the Basin is bordered by the MIT campus and Cambridge neighborhoods on one side and by the famous Beacon Hill and Back Bay neighborhoods on the other side. The basin’s shorelines have been preserved as a greenbelt, and most days are lined with walkers, joggers, rollerbladers and bicyclists. These shorelines also provide numerous opportunities for landing bass, crappies, carp, catfish and more.
Watertown to Brighton
In the area downriver from the Watertown Dam, the Charles looks like many areas familiar to those of us from the western suburbs. Trees and overhanging bushes line a relatively narrow section of the river that features beautifully maintained shorelines. The area leading up to the Brighton community boat launch contains downed timber in the water as well as rocky sections and other forms of cover. Focus on this shoreline structure as you begin to approach the bigger water of the Charles’ lower basin. Along this stretch, anglers will have good luck with soft-plastic baits. Try your favorite styles and colors, as this stretch has produced many nice bass in the 2- to 5-pound range for both my charter customers and me. Flip your favorite baits into and around downed wood or dance weightless soft-plastics near the edges of lily pad beds.
In the morning and evening, topwater baits account for a lot of action from largemouth bass. The quieter, sheltered shorelines, which are littered with downed timber, rocks and overhanging cover, have provided many nice bass on topwater plugs. Try your favorite shallow-diving crankbaits as well as spinnerbaits. Bright colors (such as chartreuse) consistently produce nice fish; spinnerbaits are especially productive in and around downed timber and will also work well along the walls and riprap of the lower basin.
Brighton to the BU Bridge
As you head downriver from the area around the Brighton community rowing center, you will find that fishing on the Charles continues to feel less urban and more secluded. Many of the same features characterizing the river up to this point continue with the addition of manmade bridges beginning to cross overhead. First to cross the river is the North Beacon Street Bridge. Not grand in size, it marks the beginning of changes to the river that will give fishermen more opportunities to try different tactics. Most of the river leading up to this point is relatively shallow, with a fairly constant depth of about 4 to 8 feet. The bridges, which tend to offer deeper water, often hold fish. They can be excellent places to try weighted soft-plastics and a whole host of other tactics such as shaky heads and deeper-diving crankbaits.
Once you reach the Elliot Street Bridge near the Cambridge Boathouse and Mount Auburn Hospital, you will begin to see changes in both the size of the river and its water depth. This section provides consistently nice bass, and as a freshwater fishing guide, I have seen many quality largemouth come out of this area. On one trip, two of my clients each caught two 2- to 3-pound bass on our first drift through the bridge—they were shocked by the quality of the fishing on the Charles River. The area does tend to get congested by rowers and renters from Charles River Canoe and Kayak, which sits only a short distance upriver from this bridge. With a little patience, everyone can enjoy the river and whatever activities they are taking part in.
As you progress beyond Elliot Street and glide closer to downtown Boston, the river takes on a much different feel as it widens, deepens, and begins to be closed in upon on both sides by taller and more tightly packed buildings. Numerous boathouses and wooden docks line the river and tend to produce quality fish. The first of these that has provided excellent fishing is the BU Boathouse, directly in the shadow of the BU Bridge. The area is made up of a complex network of bridge pilings from railways as well as cement footings that tend to hold baitfish. On one of my charters, we spent two hours at this crossroads and each fisherman caught several quality bass up to 5 pounds while fishing Carolina-rigged worms and working a crankbait through the footings. This particular area offers fishing with an audience, as many runners and bikers passing by on the low-hanging footbridge are eager to know what you are catching. Onlookers and sailors are always excited to know there is an abundance of healthy fish to be had in this part of the river.
Similarities in fishing patterns and techniques exist at each individual bridge along the Charles, yet each one holds its own secrets and opportunities. In the wider waters of the Lower Basin, the bridge pilings represent major static pieces of structure, which tend to appeal to fish as they provide ambush points for feeding. Also, deeper water combined with constant shade from the sun creates a cooler environment for fish in the heat of the summer when water temperatures can be in excess of 80 degrees. Many of my charters are spent targeting bridge pilings specifically for these reasons, and with this section of river being so wide open, most other boats can travel around you, making it a bit easier to stay in one location. When targeting the river’s many bridges and pilings, anglers can have good luck using jigs. Dark colors such as black and blue tend to work well, and adding a soft-plastic trailer will increase bites. Mimicking the crayfish that are abundant in the Charles River is another productive way to catch largemouth. Soft plastics such as creature baits and soft-plastic ribbontail worms or grubs on a weighted hook also tend to produce well.
Massachusetts Avenue Bridge to the Museum of Science
The next major landmark on the journey to the Museum is the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge, where you will enter the bigger water of the Lower Basin. Dotted with sailboats as far as the eye can see, the size of this section of the Charles is impressive. Endless crowds of people lying in the sun and enjoying the beauty of the Lower Basin surround you as you begin to get closer to the Museum. Here, underwater features become the main areas for anglers to target. When the summer sun has driven the fish into deeper water, anglers can take advantage of the Basin’s numerous underwater holes, humps, and ledges where water depths can rapidly change by as much as 30 feet. Running deep-diving crankbaits, lipless crankbaits and spoons over these holes has worked extremely well for my customers and me. These locations are perfect for fishing heavier jigs because getting the bait to the correct depth is paramount.
If you are not equipped with depth-finding electronics, you can benefit from looking at a map to locate some of the deeper holes. This is a good way to locate suspended fish, especially when the water temperatures start to rise. No experienced angler would deny the importance of having an assortment of viable fishing targets on the same body of water, considering how quickly the bite can change from hour to hour, day to day, or week to week; in the lower basin that is just what you’ll get.
Storrow Drive Lagoons and the Esplanade
One of my favorite places to go when I have a fishing charter is the area right near the Esplanade. Imagine the beauty and excitement of meandering through the Storrow Drive Lagoons, catching quality largemouth bass in the backdrop of the Hatch Shell. Enjoy the look on people’s faces when they see you holding up your fish as you slowly drift under the picturesque arched footbridges that cross the lagoon. I have seen many nice fish caught in this area, and it never fails to surprise anglers because the water here is quite shallow. I have had clients catch a 4-pound bass under one of these narrow bridges and then a huge crappie on the very next cast. Diversity has returned to the river—you will occasionally see giant carp slowly roaming these sunny narrow waterways, which always seems to beg the question, what else is out there?
Questions and pictures from walkers and joggers alike are all part of the fun when you’re fishing in the heart of Boston. Many people are surprised by the quality of fish that can be found in such a bustling city fishery. If you are willing to give it a try, you will be too.
As you make your way out of the lagoons and back to the main river, good fishing can be found along the riprap of the southern shoreline as well as the rock walls lining the edges of the river. Riprap spreading from the base of these walls down into the water appeals to several species of fish and can offer exciting action for shore fishermen. Enjoy the sights and sounds of the Lower Basin as you hold out a nice largemouth bass for onlookers enjoying a ride on the Duck Boats, or get out the camera and smile as you hold your catch in the shadow of the Museum of Science.
The Charles River has become a resource that more people are enjoying every year. Canoe and kayak rentals are at an all-time high, paddleboarders and paddleboats can be seen at any time, and of course sailors and rowers consistently dot the river. Thanks to the incredible efforts made by both public and private groups, the Charles River has again become one of Boston’s most storied landmarks. If you have always wanted to try fishing on the Charles and don’t have a boat or the gear, look into hiring a fishing guide who can pick you up at one of several spots along the river and take you where the action is. For those who prefer fishing from shore, there are miles of shoreline to choose from along the banks of the Charles. Whether you live in Boston or are coming for a visit, grab your fishing gear, your camera, and enjoy your time on the water.