Carolina's Best River Smallmouth Fishing

Perhaps the premier smallmouth river fishery in North Carolina is the main stem of the New River as it winds back and forth between the Tar Heel State and Virginia. (June 2006)

River sections that meander back and forth between, or form the border between, two states seem -- from my experience -- to either attract a great deal of fishing pressure or relatively little. An example of the former would have to be the Potomac River, which forms the line between Maryland and West Virginia and later the Free State and Virginia. An example of the latter would be the upper New as it winds its way back and forth between the Old Dominion and North Carolina.

I rarely encounter very many anglers on the 33-mile section of the New from the confluence of the North and South Forks of the New to Baywood. Every summer, I try to experience at least one of the four floats that constitute this section. Last August, for example, I fished from Independence to Baywood with guides Mike Smith and Captain Forest Pressnell. Before reviewing that float and examining the other three possible trips, let's take a look at the upper New from a biologist's perspective.

FISHERY OVERVIEW

Kevin Hining, a fisheries biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC), is in charge of monitoring the upper New along with fellow biologist Kin Hodges. Hining relates that the NCWRC recently sampled the river in the area of the Alleghany Access site.

"The majority of smallmouth bass we captured were between 210 and 300 mm (8 to 12 inches)," Hining said. "We only captured two fish greater than 12 inches in size. This is down from our previous sample collected in 2003. This may be a function of missing older year-classes that are needed in order to produce fish greater than 12 inches. We have been surprised to see that a 10- to 12-inch smallmouth may be 5 to 6 years old. So growth is fairly slow in the upper portion of the river.

"On a good note, we found lots of 1-year-old-plus age fish, indicating that spawning was successful in 2004. We didn't see many age zero fish, so the 2005 year-class appears to have been poor. These fish may not have recruited to our gear, so it's possible they were there and we just couldn't capture them. We'll know this year when we sample again."

He also added that biologists did capture a muskie at this site. It was a young/small one, only 17 inches long. However, it's rare that they encounter muskies while sampling the upper sections of the New. The sampling also captured a couple of flathead catfish, both about 32 inches. More typical were the large number of rock bass, most in the 6- to 8-inch size range, and a few redbreast sunfish, that the sampling caught.

Currently, notes Hining, the NCWRC doesn't have any management changes planned on the main stem of the New. The biologist said that staff is in the early stages of collecting data on the New, as is the case with the other smallmouth rivers in the state. This is just the second sample involving age and growth information.

"Probably the most interesting information we have obtained is the slow growth rates that we see in the upper river," Hining said. "I would suspect that the quality of fish is much better farther downstream where the river re-enters North Carolina from Virginia."

The missing year-classes on the New are not restricted to North Carolina. Indeed, not only the New River, but also a number of other smallmouth rivers in the Southeast experienced the same poor spawns during the first years of the 21st century. And many of these same waterways, as was the case of the upper New, enjoyed very good spawns in 2004 -- which bodes well for the future.

SUMMERTIME PATTERNS

Mike Smith, who operates Greasy Creek Outfitters in Willis, Virginia, relates that he has developed several effective summertime patterns on the upper New.

"My favorite summertime pattern involves buzzbaits," said Smith, who is also a college English professor. "I always start clients off with one to see if the smallies are interested -- sometimes they will stay hot on the buzzer all day long, especially during rainy conditions. I use big buzzbaits of 1/2-ounce when the water is up and dingy, and smaller ones of 1/4-ounce when the New is low and clear. I think color matters, so I tie on black on rainy days, white on clear, chartreuse if the water is stained."

More important than color, however, is size, which definitely matters. The reason many anglers only entice sub-10-inch mossybacks with buzzbaits is because they only employ ultralight baits. Simply stated, 1/8-ounce buzzbaits will not attract quality fish like larger buzzers do; or just as bad, the ultralight models will draw only the smaller fish. An angler will spend too much time unhooking 8-inch fish instead of fishing for that one big bite per hour that a buzzer can produce. Smith notes that the second biggest smallie caught on one of his upper New guided trips in 2005 came on a buzzbait -- a trophy 22 3/4-incher. Interestingly, the biggest, a 23-incher, came on a fly rod.

"Next, I will try a Case Magic Stik -- a great soft-plastic jerkbait for clear water when the fish are lethargic -- just dead-stick it along the banks during the dog days," Smith said. "Magic Stiks or Yamamoto Senkos are good summer baits when the water is low and clear and fish are spooky. When dead-sticked, jerkbaits are very unobtrusive and fish do not have to work hard for them when they supposedly 'shut down' during the dog days of summer."

Last August on our trip, Captain Forest Pressnell showed me an effective way to rig a soft-plastic jerkbait. His wide-gap size 2/0 to 4/0 hooks had weights attached to their shanks. Thus, an angler could Texas-rig the jerkbaits so that the weight was, in effect, internal. This rigging method prevents a bullet sinker from sliding up and down the line and perhaps making a solid hookset more difficult to accomplish. After catching several smallmouths on the Independence to Baywood trip with Forest's technique, I will be using it from now on.

"For my third pattern, I'll try a big topwater plug like a Storm Chug Bug in the frog color," Smith continued. "The Chug Bug is a big meal for a big fish. Any big topwater plug, whether a Heddon Zara Spook, Rebel Pop-R or Chug Bug is a great summer pattern for big upper New smallmouths. I will keep a topwater tied on to throw periodically throughout the day -- especially if it is hot and the fish seem lethargic. These baits present such an easy meal for a big fish that they can't pass it up. As you know, they want to maximize their energy expenditure and topwaters will work even during the midday period under these conditions."

I, too, am a believer in full-sized topwater baits for summertime New River bass. For example, on our float, according to my fishing records, the temperature that day rose to the mid- to upper

80s -- mild in the flatlands of Carolina but positively sultry in the western mountains. Around noon, I tied on a chugger and soon afterward was rewarded with a keeper-sized smallmouth. The fish was cruising an eddy that lay in partial shade.

Mike Smith's fourth pattern involves hard-plastic jerkbaits with one of his favorites being a 4-inch Ugly Duckling with a green back and white sides. This jerkbait features a very wide, wildly wiggling wobble that looks like a minnow or a chub about to expire but still able to swim a little. This is another lure, continued the guide, which can turn on lethargic summertime smallies.

POSSIBLE TRIPS

Confluence To Mouth Of Wilson

The most recent time I took the Confluence to Mouth of Wilson (five miles) trip was in 2004, when biologist Kevin Hining and I floated it. Hining likes this junket because it contains a number of Class Is and riffles, plus numerous ledges and eddies.

Two possible put-ins exist for the Confluence float. Anglers who wish to access the river where the North and South Forks of the New commingle near the communities of Crumpler and Piney Creek can put in at several community access points off East Weaver's Ford Road (Route 1549) in Alleghany County. The drawback of doing so is that fishermen will have to slide their crafts down a dirt bank. After doing so, they may wish to paddle a short distance up the North Fork and fish it a while before continuing downstream. In fact, accessing the river here will put one in the waters of the North Fork, just before they unite with the South Fork.

The other option is to put in at a river-right concrete ramp off Kings Creek Road (Route 1308). Doing so will mean that float-fishermen will have to drift down the last two miles of the South Fork of the New -- but that's not an undesirable thing at all. This section does have one fairly challenging Class II, the New River Forge Rapid. Caution: This rapid can be very taxing in high water, so consider portaging it on river left.

Once anglers arrive at the confluence, they should experience little difficulty, as the next five miles of the New are very mild. The Mouth of Wilson river-left take-out is near the intersection of routes 58 and 93, next to the Route 93 bridge.

Mouth Of Wilson To Bridle Creek (Six Miles)

The Mouth of Wilson float is one that my wife, Elaine, and I enjoy. The river-right put-in is below Fields Dam. Anglers can, of course, begin this float at the Route 93 bridge, but then they would have to paddle through the one-mile-long backwaters of this dam. That's why I recommend accessing the river below Fields Dam, also known as Woolen Dam.

The Mouth of Wilson excursion is a very scenic one, as most of the time the New meanders through rural countryside in Virginia and North Carolina. Several features characterize this float.

The first is the entrance of Fox Creek, not far below Fields Dam. Fox Creek is the only major tributary of the New on this section. The second major feature is a large island; take the right passageway for ease of floating.

And the third point of interest is the Class I-II Bridle Creek Rapid that pops up at the end of the float. Scoot down the left side and you will avoid the roughest water and also arrive at the Bridle Creek take-out on river left. The access point is just before the Route 601 bridge.

Bridle Creek To Independence (10 Miles)

The Bridle Creek to Independence float is another one that Elaine and I enjoy taking, as the fishery and scenery are quite fetching. However, float-fishermen should know that this float contains some white water. Caution: The Class III Penitentiary Falls can be a real boat buster, as some major boulders and ledges litter the stream bottom. On one float during the 1990s, my canoe collided with one of those boulders and the craft capsized. No one was hurt, but gear was lost. You might want to portage Penitentiary on river right; I wish I had that day.

Another rapid of note is the Class II Molly Osborne Shoals. This is a very technical rapid in high water, as Molly can metamorphose into a Class III then. I recommend portaging Molly Osborne Shoals on its river-right side. This rapid lies just upstream from Penitentiary Falls.

Another named rapid on the Bridge Creek affair is the Class II Big Island Falls, which occurs below Penitentiary. Most New River rapids that have the word "falls" as part of their name are at least Class IIIs and very daunting to run. Big Island Falls is one of the very few exceptions to this rule. Take the center right channel through Big Island.

Before and after these three major rapids, float-fishermen will only encounter Class Is and riffles. All of these rapids have the potential to produce nice smallmouths in the push water above and eddies and runs below. The Bridle Creek excursion makes for a long day on the New, as it easily can take eight to 11 hours to fish properly. But the excellent fishing is well worth the effort. The take-out is on Route 700 via Route 21. This access point is located directly across the river from the New River Canoe and Campground.

Independence To Baywood (12 Miles)

Although the Independence to Baywood float is comparable to the Bridle Creek one in length, bucolic scenery, and a full day is required to cover it, that's where the similarities end. The Bridle Creek junket includes numerous rapids, but the Independence one possesses a sole rapid -- a Class I-II that dots the upper New at the mile seven point. This is a fairly easy rapid to run and it only poses problems during high water conditions. Then this rapid can be portaged on river right.

The Independence getaway is an ideal one for novice and intermediate canoeists. Just enough riffles exist to make paddling pleasurable, although some long, deep holes do occur from time to time. Besides the aforementioned rapid, another point of reference is where the Little River empties into the New at about the mile nine point. The Baywood take-out is on river right just past the Route 58/221 bridge.

The positive effects of the solid 2004 spawn should begin to become more apparent to fishermen this summer. The upper New has traditionally been North Carolina's best smallmouth river, although poor spawns during the early years of this century have dimmed the river's luster just a bit.

IF YOU GO

Mike Smith can be contacted at www.greasycreekoutfitters.com or by calling (540) 789-7811 for a guided trip. For canoe rental and stream conditions, contact Zaloo's Canoes in Jefferson at (336) 246-3066 or (800) 535-4027, www.zaloos.com. Lodging is available at the Buffalo Tavern B&B in West Jefferson, (877) 615-9678, www.buffalotavern.com; Burgiss Farm B&B in Laurel Springs, (800) 233-1505, www.grapestompers.com; and Doughton-Hall Bed & Breakfast in Laurel Springs, (336) 359-2341, or bandb@doughtonhall.com. Elaine and I have stayed at all of these establishments and can recommend them.

A good source for trip planning inform

ation is the Alleghany County Chamber of Commerce in Sparta, (336) 372-5473 or (800) 372-5473, www.sparta-nc.com. Another possible destination for sportsmen and women is the New River State Park in Jefferson, (336) 982-2587, www.ncsparks.net/neri.html. For more information on conservation activities on the New River System, contact the National Committee for the New River in West Jefferson at (336) 246-4871, www.ncnr.org. Virginia and North Carolina have a reciprocal license agreement on this section of the New, so a Virginia license is not required.

(Editor's Note: Bruce Ingram is the author of the following books: The James River Guide ($15), The New River Guide ($15), and The Shenandoah/Rappahannock Rivers Guide ($18.25). To obtain a copy, send a check to Ingram at P.O. Box 429, Fincastle, VA 24090.)

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