Maryland’s Gunpowder River: More remote than you realize

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View of The Gunpowder River Tailwater. Courtesy of Forsaken Fotos.

As you can see from the photo, The Gunpowder River is a tailwater fishery that flows through a scenic, wooded gorge. The stream offers anglers clear, cold water, hungry wild trout, and a true sense of remoteness.

Remoteness?!?! Only minutes from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and an hour from the DC beltway??

Yes!! You don’t have to fly to Denver, drive a few hours into the mountains, then hike up a steep Rocky Mountain trail in order to find that serenity and remoteness. You can find it right here in Baltimore County on The Gunpowder River!

Let me ask you this: If everyone from the big cities on the East Coast travels out West in search of a perfect fly fishing experience, what happens? The answer is simple! Colorado and Montana become crowded with hoards of excited anglers and burly guides jockeying to be the first in line at the boat ramp, while my little streams in Maryland are left behind for me to enjoy in relative solitude. And, The Gunpowder River, with it’s relatively small trout, difficult fishing, and without a road paralleling the stream, it is especially peaceful, providing the peace and solitude we’re looking for.

So, yes, you can find a rather remote fly fishing experience 30 minutes from downtown Baltimore. Just drive up I-83 and soon you’ll be surrounded by rolling hills, horse farms, pretty little creeks holding tiny native bookies, and the bigger Gunpowder River with a ton of wild brown trout per mile, boasting as much as 250 lbs of trout per acre.

The river can be broken into 3 major sections: the headwaters above Prettyboy Reservoir; the Upper Gunpowder between Prettyboy & Loch Raven reservoirs, which is the popular tailwater trout fishery and which has its own upper, middle and lower stretches; and the last section of The Gunpowder – the Lower Gunpowder below Loch Raven Reservoir – a warm water fishery that soon empties into the bay not far from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

Beginning near the MD / PA line not too far from Hanover, PA, the headwaters of The Gunpowder meander through the rolling Maryland countryside before entering the public land surrounding Prettyboy Reservoir. Here, the river picks up some speed as it carves its way through Hemlock Gorge – a steep, rocky gorge through a dense hemlock forest. Although wild and beautiful, these headwaters hold few if any trout. There are some small brook trout streams feeding the Gunpowder up here, and people have caught some brookies in the headwaters, but I haven’t – only chubs and sunfish. It looks like trout water with nice riffles, rapids and pools, but it just doesn’t stay cool enough to support a healthy population of trout.

Hemlock Gorge – Headwaters of The Gunpowder River

The trout fishing really begins below the headwaters at the base of Prettyboy Dam where cold, nutrient rich water is released from the bottom of the dam and creates the upper Gunpowder River – about 17 miles of productive trout water.

The 1st stretch of the Upper Gunpowder is the 7 miles of catch & release water from Prettyboy Dam to Blue Mount Road. Here the river flows fast and provides a beautiful, natural setting.

A typical scene on the upper section close to Prettyboy Dam

With no road paralleling the river here, this upper, stretch of the Upper Gunpowder flows through a wooded gorge where solitude is relatively easy to find; fishing is catch & release here and must be done with flies or artificial lures. Most anglers on this stretch are fly fishermen casting tiny dries and nymphs but larger offerings work very well and small spinners also do the trick. This section sees the most angling pressure, and arguably has the highest numbers of wild trout.

The middle stretch of the upper river from Blue Mount Rd. down to just past Corbett Rd., a distance of just over 4 miles, is under state-wide wild trout regulations (2 trout per day with no size or tackle restrictions). This middle stretch sees the least fishing pressure but is the most popular with paddlers and tubers during the hot Maryland summers.

Float fishing the middle stretch of the Upper Gunpowder River

The lower, final stretch of the upper Gunpowder is the 6 miles from Corbett Rd. down to Phoenix Road. This stretch is stocked in the fall and spring as a put & take fishery, and crowds of bait slingers can be found harvesting stockies during the weeks following the scheduled stocking. But wild brown trout also exist throughout the entire length of the put & take stretch, big ones too! You’ll find higher numbers of wild fish closer to the dam, but if you’re after brown trout over 14″, you’d better head to the put & take section and bring some big streamers, especially ones that mimic crayfish!

The CK Clawdad. This creation from Chuck Kraft is my favorite crayfish imitation!

Shortly after Phoenix road, The Gunpowder slows considerably and flows into Loch Raven Reservoir. Although this concludes what is known as the Upper Gunpowder, the Lower Gunpowder continues after Loch Raven Reservoir for another 14 miles before emptying into the Chesapeake Bay. The Lower Gunpowder receives annual stockings of trout in its upstream section, but this is not a tailwater fishery like the Upper Gunpowder near Monkton, MD where clean cool water rushes from the bottom of Pettyboy Dam.

Stocked rainbows taken from The Lower Gunpowder River

Instead, the Lower Gunpowder below Loch Raven Reservior depends on precipitation and water spilling over Loch Raven Dam for decent flows. Just about every type of warm-water fish inhabits the lower section, and snakeheads are becoming prevalent from the bay all the way up to the Loch Raven Dam.

Northern Snakehead taken from the Lower Gunpowder River

As fun it is to chase these toothy monsters, I’m a trout guy, so I like to focus on the cool, clean water of the Upper Gunpowder. An interesting feature of the Upper Gunpowder is the Torrey C. Brown NCRR hiker/biker trail, which follows the stream along the put & take section and all the way upstream through the 2 trout per day section. The trail veers away from The Gunpowder before the catch & release section at Blue Mont Road and follows Little Falls and Beetree Run into Pennsylvania. This well-maintained trial makes it very easy to access the lower sections of the Upper Gunpowder. Still, most people focus on the far upper, catch & release stretch near Prettyboy Dam.

It’s in this upper catch & release stretch of the Upper Gunpowder where you can really get a sense of wild remoteness. Access here is a bit more difficult and gets more difficult the closer you approach the dam where you need to hike rugged, rocky trails to access the stream. The river in the upper stretch runs through a picturesque gorge with mature hemlocks, wild ferns, giant deciduous trees, and moss covered boulders. And, the wild trout are prolific! Just not large.

Another beautiful scene from the catch & release section

Almost all the trout you’ll catch in the upper catch & release section will be wild browns ranging from 4″ – 10″. I’ve run into a few native brookies over the years, and you never know when you’ll catch a rainbow. Every year I catch at least 1 rainbow above the stocked section and months after or before the stocking. The state has tried to establish a reproducing population of rainbow trout, but the rainbows seem to struggle finding their preferred spawning grounds. Still, there is some reproduction of rainbow trout, and some rainbows from the put & take stretch swim miles upstream into the C & R water. So, there definitely are some ‘bows in The Gunpowder – both wild and stocked!

A typical wild brown trout from the catch & release section falls for a jiggy bug

The term “large trout” is relative, and a large wild trout on The Gunpowder is anything over 12 inches. There are a ton of trout between 4″ – 8″, more than I’ve ever seen on any other stream, especially in the upper reaches of the Upper Gunpowder. And, on the Gunpowder I consider anything over 8″ to be nice and anything over 12″ to be big. I’ve only landed 3 Gunpowder trout over 16″, and I have fished the stream A LOT over the past 27 years! So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that this stream does not give up it’s rewards easily! When that guy in the parking lot tells you, “I did alright – got a few around 14 inches,” Don’t get jealous; he’s full of shit!

In this new age of fly fishing, big burly streamers are the trend. And these monstrous creations are not just reserved for bass and musky. It’s not uncommon to see guys chucking 6″ long articulated streamers on relatively small trout streams like The Gunpowder. The guys at Greatfeathers Fly Shop in Sparks, MD have been specializing in hunting trophy fish for a few years now; they’ve been tying up some big, nasty flashy streamers and landing some fat 15+ inch wild browns. The trophy fish are in there; there’s not many, but they’re there! And, it takes a meaty offering to lure them out of the log jams and undercut banks. In the upper, C&R stretch the stream is small enough that you can usually wade down the middle of the river casting big streamers to the banks. Downstream from there, from Blue Mont Road to Phoenix Road, you’re much better off float fishing the river. There are no rapids to be concerned about on the Upper Gunpowder, so just about any watercraft will suffice. But, nothing beats a Watermaster kick boat. This is a small, whitewater grade raft with an open floor so you can maneuver and position yourself using your legs with fins instead of having to use a paddle or oars. This means you can use your hands to fish and use your legs to manauever yourself down the river. The boat packs into a backpack, so I usually hike up the trail with the boat packed on my back then float fish back to the car. I can navigate the entire Upper Gunpowder without ever putting down my rod and picking up the oars!

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The Gunpowder has a few decent hatches, such as a few small caddis flies, sulphur and Hendrickson mayflies, tricos, blue winged olives, tiny midges, and a few stoneflies, but none of the hatches are very prolific. There are a number of theories as to why the river supports so many smaller trout but rarely produces trout over 14″, and the lack of insect activity is top on many anglers’ list. Inconsistent water releases from Prettyboy Dam and trout genetics are also to blame.

Many anglers share the sentiment that a slot limit would benefit this stream greatly by increasing the average size of adult trout. If fishermen were allowed to keep a fish or two measuring 7″-10″, the larger adults would be left alone to grow even bigger, reproduce, and spread their “big fish” genes. And, the smaller juveniles would get to grow, hopefully reaching 10+” ASAP before they end up in a frying pan! The surviving trout would have less competition for food, so they could eat more and get even bigger. Many Maryland anglers have been suggesting this for years, but no one seems to hear our cries!

Clinger Mayfly Nymph & Caddis Pupa from The Gunpowder River

Despite the less than stellar bug activity, there is a decent sulphur hatch, which attracts a number of visiting anglers every day of the week from early May or the end of April through most of June. Ironically, most people who travel to fish the sulphur hatch leave before it really gets underway, which is right at dusk – around 8:30. As these guys pack up and head back home for dinner, the pools they leave behind come alive with hungry trout competing for little yellow mayflies. If you’re patient and don’t burn yourself out fishing nymphs throughout the afternoon, you can easily have a pool to yourself as dusk settles in and the trout begin to feed on a variety of sulphur duns and spinners.

Even during the sulphur hatch when anglers from all over the region visit the stream, I always seem able to escape the crowds and achieve a sense of solitude. It’s easy – just head to the productive water below the pressured catch & release section and walk a short distance from the parking area. You might see another fly guy walk past you on the trail or see another fly rod pushing through the air upstream from you, but you’ll have no problem finding your own solitude and your own productive stretch of water.

Standard dries and nymphs imitating the different stages of the Sulphur hatch will work, but by far my most productive fly during the Gunpowder’s sulphuric hatch is a Biot body sulphur soft hackle with some UV shrimp pink ice dub in the collar and partridge hackle.

Sulphur soft hackle – dead drift it, swing it, pulse it, or drag it!

The Gunpowder is considered a pressured, technical fishery, which means that fly selection, and especially presentation, can be crucial for success. Despite this reputation, many trout are caught during the Sulphur hatch simply by letting this yellow soft-hackle drag behind you downstream in the current. Just let it swing downstream and wait as it drags in the current. I’ve even caught fish letting my parachute dry fly dangle and drag downstream. I have no idea why this works on what is often described as a technical stream, but it works.

At times, figuring out the right sulphur imitation can be tricky. Before emerging, these bugs ride in the surface film still in the nymphal stage for long periods before hatching and riding the surface as duns. Parachute patterns and floating nymphs often are the tickets to success. This emerging sulphur Klinkhamer pattern sometimes is necessary to break the code and land some trout:

Emerging Sulphur Klinkhamer

If you turn over rocks, you’ll find some big bugs, too – surprisingly large stoneflies, craneflies, dragonflies, damsels, hellgrammites, and lots of crayfish – especially downstream from Blue Mont Road. The brown and black winter stoneflies provide decent action on warm winter days, but, like many hatches, the winter stoneflies aren’t what they used to be. Still, on warm February days, you can find wild browns chasing winter stoneflies fluttering on the surface.

The most overlooked bugs, in my opinion, are the craneflies.

It didn’t take me long to find these small cranefly larvae.

These plump, juicy larvae can be found in large numbers and can be the size of my pinky finger – a big easy meal for a hungry trout. The adults often hatch at night, so many anglers have no idea craneflies are there. But they are definitely present in high numbers, and trout definitely eat them!

Cranefly Larva Imitation.

Most of the crowds on The Gunpowder arrive during summer, not to fish, but to float. The river is a popular tubing destination, and downstream from the C & R stretch below Blue Mont Rd is an intense summer tube hatch, which can be annoying. Of course the tube hatch is often accompanied by a bikini hatch, which is… let’s just say, less annoying!

Fortunately, the fish seem pretty accustomed to the boat traffic. I’ve caught many fish before, during, and after a rowdy caravan of tubers float through. Generally, I stop fishing when a floatilla of tubers barge through, not because I find them annoying but because I don’t want a bunch of yahoos seeing me land a fat fish then coming back with a bucket of bait to wipe the fish out. Not likely, but you never know.

Just remember, tubers have just as much of a right to enjoy the river as you do. If you want to avoid them during the summer, head upstream in the catch & release water where tubers don’t have easy access to the stream. Also, it’s much easier for you to move out of the way than it is for a tuber; they’re pretty much helpless without a paddle and essentially at the mercy of the current.

Tubers on the Gunpowder – no complaints here!

Besides the float tube traffic in the summer and the increase in angling pressure during the Sulphur hatch, I find fishing The Gunpowder to be a remote, wild, and serene experience. Of course the fishing isn’t easy. Even with a ton of little wild brown trout per mile, you really need to work for your fish, and I can’t remember any “easy” days on The Gunpowder. But, that’s why I love the stream.

The Gunpowder isn’t for the angler who needs to pose with a trophy trout in order to feel successful. It’s not for the angler who needs to hear his reel scream as a monster trout peels off line. The Gunpowder is for the truly serious fly fisherman who enjoys the challenge, the science, and the focus necessary to crack the code and is gracious to be rewarded by small, colorful, wild brown trout in a wild, remote setting.