Fishing the Charles River

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 Charles River extends 80 miles from Hopkington, MA to Boston Harbor
The Charles River provides many opportunities for Boston anglers to catch crappie. yellow perch, white catfish, carp and the occasional striped bass.

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

Walls along the Cambridge side of the river provide deep water, shade and structure for Charles River largemouths.
Walls along the Cambridge side of the river provide deep water, shade and structure for Charles River largemouths.

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.

The author enjoys taking clients out to fish the Charles and catch good numbers of largemouth bass right in the city of Boston. Note the shorelines lined with overhanging trees, brush and other structure.
The author enjoys taking clients out to fish the Charles and catch good numbers of largemouth bass right in the city of Boston. Note the shorelines lined with overhanging trees, brush and other structure.

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?

On the edge of Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood, the Charles River Esplanade’s picturesque arched footbridges cross the Storrow Drive lagoons. These shallow lagoons hold surprising numbers of bass and crappie.
On the edge of Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood, the Charles River Esplanade’s picturesque arched footbridges cross the Storrow Drive lagoons. These shallow lagoons hold surprising numbers of bass and crappie.

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.

49 on “Fishing the Charles River

  1. Drew

    Great article! I’ve been enjoying a lot of Charles River fishing this season, catching a lot of largemouths and crappies. What is your opinion on eating your catch out of the Charles? Safe? Not safe? Seems to be a lot of mixed opinions out there, but I would sure love to take home some of these perch and have a fry!

    1. James

      Drew I would love to take the fish home as well. But everywhere I fish on the Charles I see these signs that say we can’t eat the fish???? I rather be really safe then sorry.

    1. Kevin Blinkoff

      Yes there are – Mostly above the Watertown Dam, particularly through Waltham/Newton.

      1. Alex

        The report of large pike, and any pike in the Charles is not true. There used to be plenty in the lakes region, however they have all but died off. There may be one or two swimming around, but as far as a reproducing population, there isn’t one. Take it from someone who spent the past 3-4 years fishing the Charles almost every day in the summer, and on the weekends during the spring and fall

      2. Andy h

        There may or may not be northern pike, but I know for a fact that there are chain pickerel in Newton/Wellesley.

      3. James

        I have to say I just don’t agree. I love west of the Charles and a buddy of mine catch a lot of pike. It is a bit crazy at points.

      4. Minda

        Hey. I’m a new here in USA.and I’m looking were I can go fishing like bass or pike fish?thanks for answers.

      5. Michael

        I’ve been fishing the Charles in Wellesley for just a few days and I’ve already caught a pike. I’ve mainly been using various lures and have had little success aside from a few small fish including the pike. I was wondering what you guys use to catch fish like bass, trout, and carp, and also what time of day would be best to fish at. Thanks.

  2. david souza

    look’n for a good spot to fish for carp on the charles best day is 1to 3 carp thanks my son loves the fight , carp are a great sport fish…….thanks

  3. Newhobby

    I was wondering, do you need a permit to fish in the Charles, or just a permit to get caught fishing? 🙂

    1. Drew

      You need a permit to fish anywhere. Buy one for eff’s sake, they cost $20 for a year. Do you also take home 6 inchers and and ten times the limit each time out? Geesh

      1. Drew is Poo poo

        some people are poor students who just want to fish and throwback for fun… harmless question shouldn’t evoke such a pissy response. Might be that time of month again…

  4. Nick G

    Great Article, moved to Waltham right on the Charles about 2 years ago and have loved fishing above the Watertown Dam, am definitely going to heed this advice and head below the damn this spring/summer! Thank you for sharing your knowledge!

  5. Jon d

    I live by the moody street bridge in Waltham what’s the best kind of bait to catch fish in that area?

  6. Mark

    Your article was very helpful. I’m fishinh a tournament on the charles Oct. 5, how much will this info differ now from those seasonal patterns? Should I still be fishing the same spots the same way or should I switch things up? Any info will help and be greatly appreciated. Thanks!



    1. Thomas robinson

      Woerd street in Waltham state ramp good parking in back the old watch
      Factory I have a 18 ft tracker with a fourth launch there all the time

      1. Joe

        If there was anyway possible, I would love to get out fishing with you! I’m here for an internship and am itching to bass fish.

      2. Rick

        Did you get get a chance to fish? I hit the River this Past Monday and caught a couple of largies right behind the Watch Factory Apartments by the bridge heading east towards Nova.

        I am here for another few weeks. So if you looking to get out let me know. I fish mainly from a kayak but will shore fish as well.

  8. RyGuy

    Would love to hear more about best spots for white and channel catfish. And trout. Also wondering if anyone has any good winter tips/spots along the Charles they can share. I just moved to newton and can literally look at the river right out my window!

  9. Tom

    Can you fish the Charles on a fly rod? If so, any good spots folks know of? Thanks!

      1. keano

        where in newton can you flyfish ? any particular pattern?

  10. John

    I have fished the Charles many years ago go many a carp over 20 pounds by the duck feeding spot and Marriot in newton. Have caught large white catfish there. One article of fish that was not mentioned was striped bass. I used to catch them on both sides of the locks in Charlestown North end bridge. unknown if they are still there. A friend of mine caught them up behind the Science museum

    1. James

      I caught some big striped bass over by the science museum last summer. I can’t wait to hit that spot again.

  11. Al

    I’m new to the area and have been looking to fish the Charles. Any suggestions to access. Where is the best place to park and head in to some of these spots?

  12. Joe

    I am working an internship in Boston for the summer and am looking to freshwater fishing the Charles. If anyone would be interested in helping me out, and taking me out from a boat or shore that would be a blessing! Contact me at!

  13. Shemica

    Me and my husband want to fish at the Charles river. We wondering the best place to catch striped bass

  14. Kevin L

    I haven’t fished for striper in the Charles, but I can say with certainty that if you time it right they’re definitely there. I worked on the 13th floor of a building right on the corner of the Longfellow bridge and Memorial drive in 2015. In the spring when shad run up the river you can see the striper feeding clear as day. The best spot I could see from this vantage point would have been on the west side of the Longfellow bridge, I the center where a channel may have been dredged. I can’t remember the exact dates for this, but the CRWA documents migrations in the Charles pretty well.

  15. blake

    I live in Waltham and do very good fishing for largemouth one 6 pounder in big cove full of thick lily pads. Watermelon seed red flake rubber worm or candy flake have been my go to. I have a question I’m new to this area. Under a bring in Waltham I have been catching what I swear to be smallmouth… There more brown than green. Is there smallmouth in the Charles?? And where can I catch pike in Waltham ?? And any tips on fishing the Charles I’m new to area

    1. Bill

      Yes there are smallies in the Charles. My buddy and I caught a few under the wooden walkway along the storrow side at the BU Bridge this past August.

  16. Steve

    Walking over the Western Ave bridge tonight, a worm hatch was going on, bass and carp were slurping the worms off the surface.

  17. John Goodrich

    You can’t eat fish out of the Charles or ANY fresh water source because of the high levels of methyl mercury which damages your brains.
    All eastern states get the mercury dumped into their rivers and ponds from the fossil fueled power plants in the midwest and once settled in, the mercury turns into toxic methyl mercury that moves up the food chain and concentrates in fish that eat other fish which piles up in the predator.
    Plenty of info on methyl mercury online. Do yourselves a favor and read a bunch of it.

  18. Andy Mensing

    I live on Route 16 about a 7-minute walk from the Charles.
    Can anyone give me guidance as to lures, best times of day etc.
    Though I’m a devout Surfcasting Striper fisherman, fishing right
    here in the neighborhood beats waiting for the weekend.

  19. Nope

    Given the biotechs are allowed to.flush biowaste into the river, and sometimes they flush more than the allowed amount, you couldn’t pay me to eat something from the Charles.

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