7 River Runs from Maryland to Maine

Cut out some time to hit these seven must-fish river systems of the northeast.

Joe Cermele roe shad

Rivers are the beating pulse of the Northeast fishery, providing feeding and spawning grounds for many favorite species in both salt and fresh water. Of all the fishable rivers from Maryland’s catfish and shad-filled flows to Maine’s coldwater trout and salmon fisheries, here’s some of the roadtrip-worthy runs to put on your fishing hitlist. 

Salmon River

Altmar to Pulaski, NY
Best Run: Fall Salmon and Steelhead
Sleeper Fishery: Spring/Summer Smallmouth  

Thanks to the Altmar Hatchery, and significant wild reproduction, the Salmon River has the strongest runs of king salmon, coho salmon, and steelhead of all the Lake Ontario tributaries. 

If you can drag your attention from the striper coast during the fall migration, a trip to Pulaski will have you casting to salmon ranging from 10 to 30 pounds and steelhead as large as 15, all in a river no wider than your average Main Street. The salmon are brutes, charging downstream as soon as they feel the hook, while steelhead are loose cannons, jumping, sprinting upstream and down, and doing whatever they can to escape. 

Beginning in September, king salmon migrate up Lake Ontario tributaries like the Salmon, Oswego and Niagara rivers, along with Oak Orchard and 18 Mile Creek, providing a freshwater fall run that attracts anglers from around the Northeast.

While the salmon run peters out by late November, steelhead fishing stays strong up until May. What most fishermen don’t know is that the Salmon River hosts an excellent smallmouth bass fishery in the spring and early summer, with football-shaped smallies venturing upriver from the lake to feast on the abundant crayfish and baitfish. Fishermen can have great luck with topwaters, jigs, and even flies. 

For the latest report, contact: 

All Seasons Sports

3733 State Route 13, Pulaski, NY  

allseasonssports.com


Delaware River

Philadelphia, PA, to Trenton, NJ
Best Run: Spring Shad and Stripers
Sleeper Fishery: Channel Catfish 

The Delaware River has the strongest American shad run of any river on the East Coast.   (Note: The Columbia River has a larger run, but shad were introduced to the Columbia and other West Coast rivers in the late 1800s.) Beginning in late March as water temperatures climb to 50 degrees, American shad reach the waters around Trenton, New Jersey. They attract anglers who fish from anchored boats or the bank, casting shad darts and flutter spoons for fish that can weigh as much as 8 pounds (though shad over 6 pounds have been rare in recent years). 

Joe Cermele roe shad
Joe Cermele caught this roe shad while drifting on the Delaware River. (Photo by Jimmy Fee)

On the tails of the shad, striped bass begin running up the river in the early spring, initially feeding on herring and smaller shad, and then spawning themselves. Fishermen target river stripers with cut shad or bunker, bloodworms, and plugs and jigs around deep pools and current breaks.  In the lower parts of the river, they focus on shallow mud flats.  

Fishermen looking for a big fight from another big Delaware River species will find it in channel catfish, which can be caught in the river nearly year-round, with the biggest specimens hooked in the late spring. Fishing cut shad, worms, chicken livers, or live minnows on the bottom in deep, slower-moving pools will tempt catfish that can weigh more than 10 pounds.  

For the latest report, contact: 

Sportmaster Bait and Tackle 

6301 Ditman Street, Philadelphia, PA  

sportmasterbaitandtackle.com 


Potomac River

Washington, D.C.
Best Run: American Shad
Sleeper Fishery: Blue Catfish 

Beginning in early April and lasting until May, shad congregate in deep tidal areas like Fletcher’s Cove just outside of Washington, D.C. Hickory shad also join the run, and these smaller cousins of the American shad delight anglers with their aerial acrobatics. 

 

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Potomac River fly fishermen use heavy, sink-tip fly lines to help their streamers reach deeper pockets and current seams where American shad stage between upstream pushes, while spin fishermen use shad darts, spoons, soft-plastic jigs, and spinners to reach their quarry. 

As the surviving, spawned-out shad recover on their swim downriver, they face an increasing threat from a voracious, invasive predator. While the blue cat’s presence is bad for native species in the Potomac, it’s a good thing for anglers who want a chance to hook a 20-pound-plus fish in fresh water. Cut fish will tempt blue cats in the Potomac year-round. And, because blue cats pose a threat to stripers and shad, anglers are encouraged to keep and eat them.  They have firm, white flesh that can be fried or baked. 

For the latest report, contact: 

District Angling

2105 North Pollard Street, Arlington, VA 

districtangling.com 


Connecticut River

Holyoke, MA
Best Run: American Shad
Sleeper Fishery: Walleye 

The first dam on New England’s longest river creates a logjam of northbound American shad at Holyoke every spring. These fish reach the Holyoke Dam in late April, though May tends to be the best month for fishing. After an 87-mile journey to the pool below the dam, shad will strike at flutter spoons, shad darts, and small curly-tail jigs. 

 

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Depending on water temperature and flow levels in the river, the shad run can last well into June and sometimes into July. But, as their run winds down in the early summer, walleye fishing ramps up. The Connecticut River hosts the only naturally reproducing population of walleye in Connecticut and Massachusetts, and the best walleye fishing typically occurs during (or immediately after) the spring spawn. Walleye spawn in the same area as the shad run, just below the Holyoke Dam in Massachusetts. 

Some walleye migrate downstream after spawning, so during the late spring, they can be caught in deep pools of slow-moving water from the Holyoke Dam south.  

Patrick Barone of “Charter The Berkshires” with a nice Connecticut River walleye.

Walleye move into shallow water after dusk where they can more easily corner vulnerable prey. For this reason, many shore fishermen target walleye exclusively at night or when high water levels generate dark, roiled water. Shore and boat anglers use deep-diving crankbaits, soft-plastic paddletail jigs, lipless crankbaits, blade baits, and jigging spoons to catch them. 

For the latest report, contact: 

The Fishing Hole 

103 Main Street, South Hadley, MA  

(413) 537-9175  


Lower Niagara River

Lewiston, NY
Best Run: Winter Trout and Steelhead
Sleeper Fishery: White Bass 

The lower Niagara River, which flows north from Niagara Falls to Lake Ontario, has a year-round fishery featuring all of your favorite freshwater species and then some. The biggest draw is the salmon and trout fishery, which ramps up in the fall.  

While the salmon are large and powerful, their September-into-October run is just a blip compared to the steelhead, lake trout, and brown trout fishery that starts in November and lasts into the spring.   

Danny Jankowiak lake trout
Danny Jankowiak of Buffalo caught this lake trout from shore in the lower Niagara River.

As in other Lake Ontario tributaries, steelhead and brown trout move in to feed on salmon (and in the Niagara’s case, lake trout) eggs, but late in the winter and spring, when eggs become scarce, the trout switch over to a baitfish diet, eating smelt, emerald shiners, and other abundant prey in the river. This makes inline spinners, soft-plastic paddletails, and even jerkbaits great options. 

 

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In late March, while anglers enjoy the latter half of the steelhead run, white bass (a freshwater cousin of the striper) begin their spawning run in the lower Niagara and become a popular target until late May. They stage around shallow pools and readily eat live baits like shiners or nightcrawlers, as well as paddletails, hair jigs, spinnerbaits, inline spinners, small swimming plugs, and jerkbaits.  

For the latest report, contact: 

Primo Bait and Tackle 

3540 North Avenue, Niagara Falls, NY  

primobaitandtackle.com  


Merrimack River

Newburyport to Lawrence, MA
Best Run: Stripers
Sleeper Fishery: Pike 

When the first migratory stripers arrive at the Merrimack River the first week of May, they’re hungry and aggressive after a long journey north. Fishermen have great luck with small topwaters and soft plastics during the early run, especially herring imitators like twitchbaits or glidebaits. Current seams, deepwater pockets, and expansive pools will hold striped bass throughout the river as far upstream as the Great Stone Dam in Lawrence.

Nicky DiPhillipo
Nicky DiPhillipo used an SP Minnow to fool this 40” Merrimack River striper.

By late June, most of the stripers have dropped out of the upper Merrimack River, but some remain in areas of cool, deep water. Closer to the mouth of the Merrimack near Plum Island, anglers look for striped bass throughout the summer months by chunking and live-lining mackerel, trolling minnow plugs, jigging soft plastics, or throwing topwater plugs during low-light hours. 

 

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When the sun sets on the Merrimack striper season in October, northern pike pick up the slack. As water temperatures cool, pike begin to feed more aggressively in shallower water, with the best activity from fall to early spring. Northern pike were not always in the Merrimack, and many speculate that they entered from the Concord River—which spills into the Merrimack just below the Pawtucket Dam in Lowell—during periods of high water from heavy snow melt. Anglers targeting pike in the Merrimack employ large soft-plastic paddletails, weedless spoons, inline spinners, grub-tail swimbaits, and topwater prop baits. 

For the latest report, contact:  

Surfland Bait and Tackle 

30 Plum Island Boulevard, Newbury, MA  

surflandbt.com


Kennebec River

Maine
Best Run: Stripers
Sleeper Fishery: Winter Smelt 

While most of the striper coast patiently awaits the spring migration of striped bass from the Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware and Hudson rivers, anglers in Maine are blessed with a small spawning population of stripers in the Kennebec River that winter in the Gulf of Maine. These local bass join the migratory fish that show up in late May hot on the tails of herring. 

The mouth of the Kennebec sits just northeast of Portland, and some of the best fishing of the striper season happens here when the second, larger wave of bigger migratory stripers arrive in mid-June. With herring still abundant, anglers cast large pencil poppers and walk-the-dog-style plugs to entice topwater strikes from big bass. The topwater bite lasts until the end of the month when the bass begin to drop out of the river and disperse to seek summering grounds.  

Smelt Camp
OTW’s Andy Nabreski shows off a rainbow smelt that he caught while ice fishing on the Eastern River, a Kennebec River tributary.

When it comes to beating cabin fever around the Kennebec, the colder the winter, the better. In January and February,  rainbow smelt pile into the Kennebec’s tributaries to fatten up before spawning. Privately owned “smelt camps” rent out shacks, where anglers drop seaworm-baited Sabiki rigs to load up on these small but tasty fish.  

For the latest report, contact: 

Kittery Trading Post

301 U.S. Route One, Kittery, ME 

kitterytradingpost.com

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