Around Dorchester, it’s hard to tell where land ends and water begins. In this low-lying county, the brackish waters of the Chesapeake Bay meet freshwater flowing from no fewer than seven river systems and countless creeks. The water ranges from salty to fresh, resulting in a great variety of habitat for waterfowl, furbearers, crabs, and fish. The changing seasons add even more diversity and interest for cyclists, hikers, paddlers, birders, anglers, hunters, and those who tour by car. Here in Dorchester, natural resources are as inextricably interwoven with human history as its lands are with its waters, from the native Nanticoke people Captain John Smith encountered in 1608 to the renowned Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman and the generations of watermen and their vibrant waterside communities such as Cambridge, Hoopers Island, and Vienna.
Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to spend serious time on these waters in vessels ranging from canoes and an outboard skiff to a friend’s 58-foot trawler yacht. Each has its value here. Come aboard for a quick tour with me; then start plotting your own Dorchester adventures. We’ll travel from North to South. Of course, covering Dorchester’s waters in a couple of thousand words is absolutely like trying to pour a gallon of water into a pint pot. We can only skim the surface here.
1 – Choptank River
The Eastern Shore’s longest river forms Dorchester’s boundary with Talbot County, from Sharps Island Light at its broad mouth to the town of Secretary and three pastoral upstream tributaries—the Warwick River, Cabin Creek, and Hunting Creek. The transition from the salty Bay water to more brackish water offers a range of habitat for fish and crabs, enhanced by shallow, marshy points, deep flats, and channel shoulders enriched by oyster reefs and strong currents, as the river’s large watershed delivers fresh water to meet the tides. Anglers will find plenty to interest them, from casting flies and topwater plugs to rockﬁ sh (striped bass) and speckled trout in the shallows around Cooks Point to trolling and jigging the deeper waters for rockfish, bluefish, Spanish mackerel, and sometimes even black and red drum. Bottom fishing with bait, especially around the Clint Waters Memorial Reef in the river’s mouth and the Bill Burton Fishing Pier at Cambridge will turn up spot, croakers, catﬁ sh, white perch, and the occasional black drum.
2 – Little Choptank River/Taylors Island
The Little Choptank is a beautiful but much shorter river, featuring restored oyster reefs and creeks begging to be explored. They include Brooks, Hudson, Phillips, Beckwith, and Gary creeks on the North side, creating the Neck District of long peninsulas. On the South side, Slaughters Creek opens to the East side of historic Taylors Island, leading down into the Broads, Slaughter Creek Narrows, and the Taylors Island Wildlife Management Area, a vast complex of marshes and sloughs that connect, by intricate channels, to the head of the Honga River. The Broads offer an exploring challenge to experienced paddlers and skiff skippers launching at Slaughters Creek or Beaverdam Creek, who can imagine how difficult it was to navigate this area before the advent of GPS. To the East of Slaughters Creek lie Madison Bay and Fishing Creek. The whole Little Choptank complex is well worth exploring, especially by light tackle anglers attuned to its reefs and marsh points.
3 – Dorchester Bayshore
From James Island down to Lower Hoopers Island, Dorchester’s Chesapeake shore is slowly sinking and eroding as winter’s Northwest winds blow across the open Bay and gnaw at the edges. Years ago, an elderly farmer from one of the oldest families on Taylors Island told me that he used to drive a Model T Ford down a shoreline road to play baseball against Hoopers Islanders, but the Bay claimed that road half-a-century ago. The deep, 50- to 75-foot waters of the ancestral Susquehanna channel swing within a couple of miles of shore, with rough shell bottoms on the shallower shoulders. Further inshore are the inlets where Punch Island Creek enters at the lower end of Taylors Island and along the Hoopers Island chain. They offer many of the same angling opportunities as the lower Choptank, but with the proviso that these waters are exposed, currents are strong, and there are only a couple of harbors. The historic Hoopers Island Light and the rough bottom around it offer a range of fish for jigging and bottom fishing with bait.
Behind the Hoopers Island chain lies the broad Honga River, flanked by watermen’s communities, marshes, and wild islands leading to the head of Tangier Sound. Look at a chart and you’ll see a narrow channel with sharp turns, shell bottoms, and deep holes that attract spot, croakers, and occasional drum, along with marsh banks and drains where rockﬁsh and speckled trout feed. The inlet and bridge pilings between Fishing Creek and Upper Hoopers Island can be a hot spot for rockﬁsh, especially on moving water early and late in the day.
To the South lie Hoopers Strait, Bishops Head, and Bloodsworth Island, with more powerful currents, low marshes, and broad open waters. This sparsely populated “big sky” country is beautiful, rich in wildlife, and seriously ﬁshy, with multiple launch points, but it requires prudent boat operation at all times. Bloodsworth Island is especially tempting, but it is a U.S. Naval Reservation, with unexploded ordnance in its marshes and dangerous sunken obstructions in the shallow waters around it. Please keep a careful distance away.
5 – Fishing Bay/Elliotts Island
Fishing Bay lies between the lower Dorchester mainland and Elliotts Island. It’s broad and shallow, receiving the outﬂows of the Blackwater/Little Blackwater and Transquaking/Chicamacomico river systems. Flanking it are pristine marshes and pine hammocks of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and Maryland’s 29,000-acre Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area. It’s a magnet for waterfowl hunters, paddlers, and birders.
6 – Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
The natural heart of Dorchester County is the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge—28,000 acres of brackish marshes, pine hammocks, and hardwoods, one of the Chesapeake’s epicenters for bald eagles as well as beautiful, formerly endangered Delmarva fox squirrels, wintering migratory waterfowl, and a host of other birds. There’s a visitor center with bird-viewing opportunities, a wildlife drive, and several short hiking trails—fws.gov/refuge/blackwater and mdbirdingguide.com/blackwater.
7 – Blackwater/Little Blackwater River System
The Blackwater Refuge offers three water trails for paddlers. Two of them are simple, up-and-back trips of 7.6 and 8.0 miles. There is much to be said for this format. There’s no time-consuming shuttle to set up, and it’s easy to shorten the trip if necessary, or to slow down and ﬁsh. Moreover, there’s more than enough marsh, wildlife, and birds to be worth seeing twice. The Orange Trail up Coles Creek from Shorters Wharf offers salt marsh vegetation, white perch, and channel catﬁsh. The Green Trail upstream from the Route 335 Bridge is fresh water and has recently become known for the invasive but feisty and tasty Northern Snakehead ﬁsh. The Purple Trail is a one-way run straight through the Refuge’s tidal waters between Route 335 and Shorters Wharf. It’s closed between September 30 and April 1 to avoid bothering bald eagles nesting in the pine hammocks.
8 – Transquaking/Chicamacomico River System
This may be the most overlooked fresh/brackish water stream complex in the Chesapeake watershed. It’s full of wetlands, wooded swamps, water birds, and ﬁsh. It actually boasts its own small but native genetic stock of rockﬁsh that spawn in April and May. Fishing for them is closed then, but there are plenty of other species, including yellow perch, crappie, white perch, pickerel, largemouth bass, catﬁ sh and, yes, snakeheads. For paddlers, two easy itineraries in fresh water are down-and-back from the upper Transquaking access on Drawbridge Road and New Bridge on the upper Chicamacomico. The Bestpitch landing on the lower Transquaking offers a loop past broad, brackish marshes and two large hammocks made possible by The Canal, a cut through the base of a large meander in the river. The upper Transquaking and New Bridge ramps also offer explorers in small outboard skiffs a circumnavigation of some 30 miles, running from fresh water through the transition to brackish, down to the point where these two river systems meet, just above Bestpitch, and back up to fresh again. For really adventurous skiff crews, there’s nothing wrong with adding a side trip down the lower Transquaking to Fishing Bay and back.
9 – Nanticoke River & Marshyhope Creek
Courtesy Maryland Tourism
The Eastern Shore’s second-longest river includes an important part of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, centered in the historic river town of Vienna, the “Gateway to the Nanticoke.” Within Dorchester’s section of the river, the channel makes the transition from the salty waters of Tangier Sound and the East side of the vast Elliotts Island marsh to the tidal fresh wild rice marshes of lovely Marshyhope Creek, the northwest branch of the Nanticoke, which played an important role in Harriet Tubman’s portion of the Underground Railroad. Vienna itself offers access, the Emperor’s Landing waterfront park, and other amenities. The park is part of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Watertrails Network.
For paddlers, a great up-and-back option is Chicone Creek, just upstream of the Route 50 Bridge, which winds for several miles through tidal fresh marsh and wooded swamp conserved by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Be aware that the Nanticoke has powerful currents and is still very much a working river, with tugs pushing barges upstream with fuel oil to the port of Seaford, Delaware, and downriver with sand and gravel. For more adventurous paddlers and skiff crews, continue a mile upriver from Vienna, turn left into the Marshyhope, and explore upstream for ten miles past the villages of Brookview and Eldorado toward Federalsburg, which lies just over the Dorchester line in Caroline County. There is no better waterway in the whole Chesapeake to contemplate the ways that natural resources have driven centuries of human history than this part of the Nanticoke River system.
John Page Williams has explored and written about the Chesapeake Bay for more than five decades including 38 years as a Chesapeake Bay Magazine columnist, and in his books, Chesapeake Almanac – Following the Bay through the Seasons, Exploring the Chesapeake in Small Boats, and Chesapeake: Exploring the Water Trail of Captain John Smith. In 2013 he was proclaimed to be an official Admiral of the Bay by Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley.