The Savage River offers the best brook trout action in the Old Line State
On The Fly South
Article and feature photo by Jimmy Jacobs
The On The Fly South crew recently made a foray into southwest Maryland. What brought us to this northern edge of our coverage area were fish tales circulating around the Savage River. This stream in the upper Potomac River drainage has made the Trout Unlimited list of the Best 100 Trout Streams and is considered to be the premier brook trout fishery in the Old Line State.
The Savage rises in Finzel’s Swamp in northern Garrett County, close to the Pennsylvania border. From there it courses to the southwest to empty into Savage River Reservoir. When it emerges as a tailwater, the river turns southeast to join the North Fork of the Potomac River at the community of Bloomington.
The Savage has always had a population of native brook trout. Due to the river’s location in the Potomac drainage, those fish are Atlantic strain eastern brook trout. The factors that introduced the stream to the wider angling community as a blue-ribbon fishery began with the construction of the Savage River Reservoir in 1952. It was, however, three decades before the effect the lake construction had on the lowere river was fully realized.
The stream above the reservoir is small, difficult to reach and continues to hold the wild brookies. That portion of the stream can suffer from low water flows and heats up during hotter summers. Neither of those are problems on the tailwater below the reservoir.
In 1982 state biologists discovered the tailwater had a naturally reproducing population of the native brook trout. Additionally, the tailwater also hosts wild stream-bred brown trout. Then in 1987 wild trout management was introduced on the 4-mile stretch of the river from the reservoir dam down to the river mouth on the North Fork of the Potomac. This program was so successful that in 1991 this part of the Savage was declared a wild trophy fishery.
Those new regulations mandated that the entire 4-mile tailwater has a daily harvest limit of just two fish. The minimum size for brook trout is 12 inches, while brown trout must be 18 inched to be harvested. There is not minimum length for rainbow trout, but those fish very rarely show up in the Savage. None are stocked, but occasional stragglers may find their way up river from stockings in the North Fork of the Potomac.
The trout population in the tailwater is made up of roughly one quarter native brookies, with the rest wild brown trout. The brook trout average around 8 inches, while the browns are predominantly in the 12- to 15-inch range. Of course, bigger fish of both species also show up. The total trout population per mile is estimated to be 1000.
Additionally, the regulations call for fly fishing only on the first 1.25 miles of water from the dam down to the Allegana Bridge. That suspension footbridge carries the Allegany Trail across the stream. Downstream from the bridge to the mouth of the river, the next 2.75 miles are open to artificial-only lures with single-hooks.
Another appealing factor about the tailwater of the Savage is the reservoir is maintained for flood control and drinking water, with no hydroelectric facilities. Thus, the only major releases of water that raise the river drastically take place (barring flood conditions) on three days each year. Those are for the benefit of whitewater paddling and to clear silt from the lower river. Those releases occur on the first Saturday of June, first Sunday of July and fourth Saturday in September annually.
The rest of the time the Savage River tailwater provides trout angling options, since the water coming out of the bottom of the reservoir is from 56 to 60 degrees year-round. Access to the water is very good from paved Savage River Road that parallels the river along the entire tailwater, offering a number of turnouts for parking.
Dry fly action is best when the dam is releasing 60 to 120 cubic feet per second of water, which is the norm. Levels up to 500 cfs also are fishable.
Upon arriving at the Savage River tailwater, Polly Dean and I quickly learned that the river’s twin reputations of being difficult to wade and offering technical fishing conditions were both true.
The Savage is narrower, deeper and swifter than most tailwaters it size, being only 50 to 55 feet wide. The bottom is mostly composed of cobble stone or larger rocks, making wading many sections similar to walking on bowling balls. Add to that a high pH level, which is one reason for the good brook trout habitat, but also conducive to producing algae that makes the rocks especially slippery. This is water where you want to have a wading staff along.
As to the technical aspect of the angling, we did get a break. We ran into Ren Hodgson, who is a veteran of fishing the Savage, both on his own and with local guides. He proved to be a wealth of information about the angling.
A synopsis of his tips included the fact the trout in the Savage tailwater probably have seen every fly imaginable and every presentation as well. The best way to target them is using high-stick tactics, keeping your leader off the water as much as possible when fishing nymphs or dry flies.
Also, you don’t want to try for long drifts. The vulnerable trout here are most often found tight to the rocks that break the surface in the swifter runs. Often the slick you want to drop a dry fly on is no more that 2 to 3 feet long, offering just seconds of drift. However, if the fish is there, that is plenty of time for it to take the offering.
On the other hand, in the deep calm water you may even see the trout. Those fish, however, are likely to be very difficult to entice. Your best bet for those is during low light periods early or late in the day and during overcast conditions.
Speaking of those deep pools, our trip did provide an unusual event on one of them. Polly was casting to such a calm pool just downstream of the Alleghana Bridge, while I was about 30 yards above it probing the potholes in a set of shoals.
Suddenly we both reacted to loud creaking sounds, turning to look up the steep hillside behind us. At first, we were frozen with a bit of disbelief at the sight of a huge dead tree falling over in the direction of the river. Since there was not even a breeze blowing, it was not a sight we’d expect.
Polly was much more in danger of being in its path than I. Fortunately, the tree hit a glancing blow off the side of the bridge, tossing it away from her location. Needless to say, the event took our attention off the fishing for a while.
Over all, our day on the tailwater proved to be quite humbling. Making it even more difficult, the area was coming off a period of drought and low water. The portion of the Savage above the reservoir was reported to be so low that angling was near useless. Among the other anglers we encountered, including Ren, they mostly reported few fish. Eventually, I did fool one of the resident brookies on a Parachute Adams.
When it comes to flies, patterns the locals turn to in the summer months are Eastern Pale Evening Duns, Cinnamon Caddis and terrestrials. Earlier in the spring Light Cahills and Sulphurs are the ticket. During fall and winter Blue-Winged Olives and midge patterns are the go-to flies. Inch Worms and scud patterns are popular sub-surface offerings.
The Savage River Outfitters fly shop is located on the river, but be aware that it is not always open. The sign on the door says they are open when they are there! Fortunately, they also have a board on the door with current river conditions and hatches posted, along with which flies have been recently producing.
Bottom line is, if you want a challenge that can produce wild browns and brookies, the Savage River tailwater can deliver – if you have the technique and patience.