• Kate McGowan

The Potomac River - An All-You-Can-Eat Buffet?

"Are there really fish in there?"

It's a question we field from young visitors to the park fairly often, and the answer, of course, is yes. There is a lot of fish in the Potomac River! But the question itself reveals a truth about the river—many folks living in the area today live right along the water but know little about what lives inside of it, and fishing in the Potomac is not the major food source it once was. While the seafood culture lives on, many in the area may be unfamiliar with the intricate ways seafood has shaped the history of this region.

An L-Shaped fishing pier on the Potomac River. Several men have fishing poles, camp chairs and coolers set up.
Fishing at Piscataway Park

Long before Europeans arrived in the Chesapeake region, the Potomac River was a vibrant ecosystem that was at the center of the lives of the indigenous communities that live around it. While Europeans relied heavily on horses, the indigenous peoples of the Eastern Woodlands made use of the extensive network of navigable rivers and creeks to travel by canoe. The Potomac River was the equivalent of a superhighway, only unlike a modern highway, the Potomac River teemed with life. Perch, herring, shad, oyster, crab and even eel were abundant in the river and its tributaries, and the Piscataway, who still call this area home, made their homes close to, but not fully on the river to utilize its many resources. Many indigenous peoples of North America built fishing weirs, V-shaped underwater dams spanning the width of the river, to capitalize on the seasonal migration of species such as shad and eel. These structures, made out of piles of stones, would channel migrating fish to a narrow point in the river, where they could be easily caught in baskets.

“The shad and herring will start running up the river. The weirs were put across there to catch them, so that would pretty much start the summer seasonal round. You don’t see people out, going out for the herring, like you used to. When I was a kid, soon as spring came around, you see guys going up and down the road with these big chicken wire nets on top of their cars, that were made from wood limbs, and they’d stretched chicken wire over, and they’d go down especially in Piscataway Creek. And they would dip those, and they would come up with barrels and barrels of fish. They started salting them, rather than smoking them, and storing them that way. I guess the salt was a lot easier than smoking.”

- Rico Newman, Piscataway Conoy Tribe and Accokeek Foundation Board member