Three Great Floats for South Fork of the Shenandoah Smallmouths
September 30, 2010
From below Shenandoah Dam to the community of Alma, river smallmouth addicts can experience 17 miles of some of the finest brown bass action in the Old Dominion.
From below the dam in the town of Shenandoah to the bridge at Alma, Virginia river runners can enjoy three floats and 17 miles of superb smallmouth sport on the South Fork. Here is an in-depth examination of each of those float trips, covering mile by mile what readers can expect in terms of fishing, rapids, topography and access points.
SHENANDOAH TO GROVE HILL (EIGHT MILES) The put-in for the Shenandoah-to-Grove Hill excursion is on river right, just downstream from Shenandoah Dam. This put-in, a dirt ramp, is off Route 1017 (Long Avenue) via Route 602 (Maryland Avenue) and Route 340. Turn left off Route 1017 at a cream-colored building and drive down a gravel path to the river. Parking is very limited. Readers should also note that this trip marks the beginning of the 14- to 20-inch slot limit that continues downstream to Luray Dam. No black bass within the slot may be creeled; a five-bass limit is in effect.
Last July, my wife, Elaine, and I took the Shenandoah getaway, along with Terry Pleskonko and his son Tyson from Mount Sidney. Upon launching, and before we headed downstream, we paddled upstream to take advantage of the good fishing presented by the tailrace below the Shenandoah Dam. The tailrace is also a popular fishing hole for bank-fishermen and wade-fishermen. If you wade wet, please be sure to put on a lifejacket, as there are swift currents in the area.
At the launch site, an island splits the South Fork. Most of the water flows to the left of the island, but a tricky Class II rapid is also to the left. Logs and other debris lie on the left side of the rapid, and a series of ledges create challenges as well; portage on the right side of the rapid, next to the island. Some float-fishermen may want to drag their crafts through part of the passageway down the right side of the island.
Below the island, be prepared for some superb scenery and fishing. A bluff marks the river-left bank, and that heavily wooded shoreline provides a pleasing panorama. As you travel downstream, you will note an in-flow, a concrete block and some river-right bluffs. A powerline also crosses the river, and a long, deep pool forms. This is an excellent area to angle for catfish, but bass fishermen will want to make time.
Just before the 1-mile point, you will come to Schuler Island. Take the right passageway. Shortly afterwards, you will encounter another island; take the left passageway. Next you will see two sets of powerlines as the river begins a 2-mile-long horseshoe bend. This bend has very shallow water of only a few feet, and a forest blankets much of the river-left shoreline. Halfway through the bend, you will encounter an island; follow the right-hand pathway. Another powerline and a river-left silo will tell you that you are nearing the end of the bend and are approaching the 3-mile mark of the Shenandoah getaway.
Photo by Michael Skinner
Next comes another island; scoot down the left side. Several hundred yards later, you will arrive at a much larger island. The best route is around the right side, as an easy Class I rapid is there. The next major feature is a riffle, followed shortly after by a powerline, which together mark the halfway point.
I have covered the first four miles of the Shenandoah float rather quickly. The fishing in this section is good, although not spectacular. But the next two miles would certainly qualify as being outstanding; that's because a prototypical outside bend begins there.
Many if not most river anglers know of the scintillating smallmouth action that a classic outside bend can provide, and this river left one is first-class in every regard. Deep water, rocky shorelines, overhanging trees and undercut banks characterize this one. On our trip, I landed a 19 1/2-inch smallmouth from this bend, and the Pleskonkos likewise dueled with nice smallies.
Adding to this bend's appeal is that the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest dominates the mountainous left bank. Even during the heat of a summer day, you can expect to find actively feeding bass as they take advantage of the shadows cast by the terrain. One Class I rapid exists at about the midway point where three islands cleave the stream; take the middle passageway for the most water. Consider budgeting several hours for this section; the fishing can be that compelling.
A powerline marks the approximate end of the outside bend, and soon you will spot fields on river left and homes along the right shoreline. Next comes the Kite's Ford area, which is characterized, for the most part, by shallow riffles and runs. This is a good area to catch numbers of small bass, but hiding places are scarce for larger fish. The exception to the shallow-water habitat of Kite's Ford is a Class I-II rapid that features a sharp drop on far river right. I recommend running this rapid on far river left where a very easy chute exists. Yet another powerline then crosses the river, as does Route 340. You will also be able to hear traffic sounds coming from Route 650, which runs along river right and leads to the take-out.
The smallmouth fishing is very uninspiring over the last mile of this float. Scattered water willow beds and riffles occur, but the water is too thin to hold quality brown bass. At the beginning of this mile, a Class I rapid appears to the right of one islet, but several passageways exist here, or you can paddle down the shallow left side. Soon you will come to the Grove Hill Landing on river right. The ramp is gravel, as is the parking area; ample space exists for you to leave a vehicle.
GROVE HILL TO NEWPORT (SIX MILES) The Grove Hill-to-Newport junket is a real Jekyll and Hyde-type float. Some outstanding fishing holes do exist there, but other stretches have limited appeal. Massanutten Dam interrupts the trip at about the 4-mile point, necessitating an approximate 20-minute portage on river right.
Because of the dam and subsequent portage, I recommend that float-fishermen not take this trip from point A to point B, as in from Grove Hill to Newport. What I would suggest is that fishermen with different goals and modes of travel undertake different sections of the Grove Hill float. For example, if you do not own or have access to a canoe or other craft and if you enjoy wet wading, the first few miles of the Grove Hill float will be to your liking. The same holds true if you own a craft with a trolling or other motor and like to float downstream for a mile or two and then motor back to the put-in.
The water is very shallow, except for some dropoffs, and the South Fork brims with 10- to 15-inch smallmouths. Route 650 parallels the strea
m on river right for the first two miles, offering access. There are places where you can merely walk down over a bank and enter the river. However, there are other places where you will have to cross private land. Be sure to ask permission when the latter situation is the case. Access is not possible from river left because the bank is mostly wooded and all private land.
Soon after launching from Grove Hill, you will pass under a powerline and through several shallow riffles. By early summer, elodea, star grass, curlyleaf pondweed and Eurasian milfoil all grow in great profusion, so topwater enthusiasts of both the spinning and fly-fishing variety will likely experience success. The exception would be if spring precipitation has been light and the water has become very shallow. Then, the river could become choked with the vegetation.
For the next two miles, you will encounter several other riffles. On a trip I took last July with Terry Pleskonko, we both used topwater props and poppers to entice smallies, although none were over 15 inches. We avoided using crankbaits because of the vegetation.
At about the 2-mile point, a bluff appears on river left and a powerline crosses the river. A deep pool forms, and for the next two miles, Massanutten Dam, also known as the Newport Dam and Hydro Plant, backs up water. This is where boaters with trolling motors will want to return to Grove Hill. However, Pleskonko and I were in a canoe, and we wanted to search for George Washington's initials.
Local lore has it that the first President carved his initials on Acheron Rocks, a series of stunningly beautiful bluffs that dominate the river-right shoreline three miles below Grove Hill. Pleskonko and I paddled over to the rocks and searched quite a while for the letters "G.W." Alas, all we found was "Ron loves Kim" spray-painted at the base of one bluff.
Another half-mile of paddling will take you to a private ramp owned by Dam Acres Campground, which lies on river right. You may not use this ramp unless you have paid a fee to the campground. Actually, you can have a shorter portage if you paddle approximately 50 yards farther and take out just above the red buoys, which signify that the easily visible Massanutten Dam is hard by. A trail leading up from the bank is the state-designated portage path. You will have to haul your boat up a bank, along a track and then down another bank below the dam. If you had rather not take the first four miles of this float, you can access the river by means of Route 617 (Dam Acres Road) via Route 650.
Devoted smallmouth bass fans will relish the last two miles of the Grove Hill excursion. Pleskonko loves to fish below dams, and we spent nearly an hour exploring the eddies and current breaks immediately below Massanutten. (Note: Jagged concrete slabs and exposed metal rods from a previous dam are present here. They could present a navigation or wading hazard for anglers who are not wary.)
Below the dam, a bluff adds beauty to the river-right shoreline, and riffles, ledges and boulders downstream create great cover for smallmouths. A half-mile downstream, you will come to the remains of Newport Mill, a combined sawmill and gristmill on river left. These remains have caused a tricky Class II rapid to form. The rapid includes a 6-foot-drop and a hydraulic at its base. An island lies to the left of the rapid. Do not go to the left of the island to avoid the rapid; the pathway is very shallow, and the remains from the mill clog the channel. Instead, I recommend hauling your boat down the right side of the island. Shortly afterwards, you will arrive at the river-left take-out, a steep dirt ramp, at Newport. Parking is available in a dirt/gravel lot.
NEWPORT TO ALMA (THREE MILES) The Newport-to-Alma getaway is a dandy afternoon float, or it can be an all-day affair if you are the type of individual who likes to fish very slowly. So much prime bass cover exists that you could easily linger around the best places for eight or more hours. You also might want to consider launching below Massanutten Dam and adding the last two miles of the Grove Hill float to this one. Run-and-gun anglers especially might like that option.
Soon after launching, you will notice Pyramid Rocks on river left and the many submerged rocks lying just under the surface. Here begins the ideal smallmouth habitat, and it continues for the next three miles. Also of note is that not only are the smallmouths numerous and of good size, but some very fine largemouth bass are to be had. Pleskonko caught three bucketmouths on our Newport float last July. All of those bass weighed between 2 and 3 pounds.
After you leave Pyramid Rocks behind, the next major feature is Columbian Falls at the 1-mile point. This section endures for approximately 1/5 mile and provides marvelous fishing. Both shorelines are heavily wooded, and water willow-covered islets dot the South Fork at regular intervals. Riffles occur at the beginning of the falls and continue frequently throughout until an easy Class I rapid announces the end of Columbian Falls.
To me, one of the most interesting aspects of any float down the South Fork is the terminology for the rapids. On the New River, for example, if a rapid has "falls" after its name, then you can just about be absolutely sure that a major rapid looms. McCoy Falls and Narrows Falls are good examples of Class III-plus rapids on the New. On the South Fork of the Shenandoah, though, the name "falls" after a rapid may or may not indicate a drop of major significance in the stream bottom. In any event, both Pleskonko and I corralled nice smallies in this area last July.
The fishing remains excellent after Columbian Falls concludes. A series of deep-water ledges dot the bottom for less than a half-mile until Silver Falls begins at about the 2-mile point. Silver Falls is another example of a pussycat of a rapid; it is nothing more than a riffle during the summer. Also of note is the braided channel that begins here and continues for most of the rest of the trip. Braided channels, sections where the stream fractures into a number of runs, almost always offer great fishing, and the same holds true here. The riffles that occur throughout this channel typically harbor active fish.
At one particularly good-looking channel and riffle combination, Pleskonko and I beached the canoe and spent an hour wade-fishing. We caught a number of bass as the fish surged out from current breaks to attack our grubs, buzzbaits and topwaters. Some of these riffles can metamorphose into Class I rapids during high water, but for the most part - and for most of the summer - they are quite easy to run.
With about a half-mile left in the Newport float, you will be able to spot the Route 340 Business Bridge at Alma. Don't be in a rush to complete this section: It offers a number of good fishing areas, especially underwater boulders and ledges. Some wade-fishermen like to pick their way upstream from the bridge, as do ambitious canoeists that only have an hour or two to wet a line.
At the Route 340 Business Bridge, a dirt/gravel ramp is present on river right under the structure. Parking spaces are abundant in the gravel lot. You'll also find some wade-fishing a short way downstream. The 17 miles of the South Fork from Shenando
ah to Alma offer a great deal to those of us whose favorite way to spend the summer is floating the state's best smallmouth rivers.
IF YOU GO An extremely handy publication for navigating the South Fork of the Shenandoah is The Shenandoah River Atlas, available from the Virginia Canals & Navigation Society, VCNS Sales, Route 2, Box 254, Lexington, VA 24450; call (540) 463-6777. Another useful publication is The Virginia Atlas & Gazetteer, available from DeLorme at (207) 846-7050. I employ both publications every time I plan a visit to the South Fork.
Editor's Note: Bruce Ingram is the author of two books on float-fishing in Virginia: the James River Guide: Fishing and Floating on Virginia's Finest; and The New River Guide. Both are available from Ecopress (800/326-9272). Signed copies can be ordered directly from the author at P.O. Box 429, Fincastle, VA 24090. Cost for the latter is $15.00 per book.
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