Lower Greenbrier River Smallies

Fabulous smallmouth action is at hand on the lower Greenbrier, from Fort Spring to Alderson and beyond. Let's explore this outstanding scenic waterway. (April 2006)

For me, one of the most pleasurable ways to enjoy the outdoors in late spring and early summer is to float-fish the lower Greenbrier River for smallmouth bass. This is prime time on this southern West Virginia waterway, one of the longest rivers in the United States that hasn't been dammed. And so it was that my wife, Elaine, and I met Dan Hudson, a part-time guide for the Greenbrier River Company in Ronceverte, at the livery's office.

There, the three of us met with Virgil Hanshaw, the long-time operator of the livery. The problem, and it was a good one to have, was to choose from among the many fine trips possible on the lower Greenbrier. The trip I have taken the most on the Greenbrier, Caldwell to Ronceverte (six miles), was certainly an option, as was another favorite of mine, the Ronceverte to Fort Spring run (8.5 miles). On a recent visit, Elaine and I had taken Fort Spring to Alderson (six miles), and we were eager to take that float again. Plus, there were four other possible float trips in the mix.

Finally, Virgil convinced the three of us to venture forth on the Fort Spring to Alderson junket, shortening the trip a bit by putting in at the Greenbrier River Company's campground. Hanshaw's choice turned out to be a good one, as we dueled with several dozen smallmouths including some keeper-sized fish. Before examining the particulars of that float, as well as reviewing the other possibilities, here is an overview of the river.

A BIOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE

West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) biologist Mark Scott works out of the Beckley office. He offers this overview of the Greenbrier.

"The smallmouth fishing on the river was a little slow in 2005, probably because of low recruitment caused by poor spawning success," Scott said. "The high flows in 2002 and 2003 appeared to have affected the spawn. We are seeing those effects now in the fishery because those fish would now be 10 to 12 inches, which is the size most folks catch. On a positive note, the spawn appears to have been fairly successful in 2004 and should have been really good in 2005, so look for excellent fishing in the next few years.

"The Greenbrier River is smaller than the New River but has plenty of great habitat. Since the Greenbrier is a smaller river than the New, anglers can easily cast to either shore when floating. Prime spots are above and below shoal areas, weedbed edges, and rock bars."

Scott said that smallmouths are the major game fish in the river, but anglers do occasionally target flathead and channel catfish. Both exist in fishable populations, but there are probably more flatheads in the river than channel catfish. Other than that, rock bass would be next in line in abundance the biologist guesses.

Regarding trips, Scott raved about the possibilities.

"Again, there are no bad trips on the Greenbrier River," he proclaimed. "A good trip is in our special regulation area from Caldwell to Ronceverte. It's a nice half-day float in the section with a 12- to 20-inch slot. We have several access sites along the river and anglers can just about find any length trip they desire. I would suggest the magazine's readers check out the Web site www.wvdnr. gov to find the specifics on the sites. Click on Main Page under Fishing."

The slot limit on the Caldwell to Ronceverte float requires that all black bass from 12 to 20 inches be returned to the water at once. A daily creel limit of one black bass over 20 inches is in effect. Black bass less than 12 inches may be kept as part of the daily creel limit of six.

Virgil Hanshaw told me that his three favorite floats on the Greenbrier are Caldwell to Ronceverte, Ronceverte to Fort Spring, and Fort Spring to Alderson. The reason, he said, is that as an entity, these 20.5 miles of river offer a dazzling variety of angling experiences. Long, deep pools, riffles and Class I rapids, eddies and current breaks all exist in good numbers, but there are also a few Class II rapids to spice up a float trip.

A good example of a major rapid, Hanshaw continued, is the Class II Big Rattlesnake, which looms on the Fort Spring to Alderson junket. Big Rattlesnake can metamorphose into a Class III at times, especially during the spring or at any other kind of high-water condition. The Fort Spring float sports swifter water than the other two getaways do.

Also, as a whole, the Fort Spring getaway flaunts 10 rapids, two of which are technical and require maneuvering. Big Rattlesnake is certainly an example of a technical rapid, as canoeists will have to make several quick midcourse adjustments in order to avoid slamming a boulder. Hanshaw urges paddlers to scout all of these rapids and to consider portaging.

The Caldwell to Ronceverte trek, Hanshaw continued, has the aforementioned slot limit to its credit. The outfitter wholeheartedly supports the DNR's decision to place a slot limit on this section, saying doing so was good for the smallmouth fishery. Another particular characteristic of this float is the existence of manmade islands. These islets were created in the middle of the river and provide valuable fish habitat. This float is known for producing 14- to 18-inch smallies.

Five rapids dot the Caldwell junket, all of which are Class Is and typically offer little difficulty. The exception, of course, would be during high-water conditions -- which on any river can play havoc with the normal degree of difficulty of rapids. The major rapid during high water is the Whitcomb, which can become a Class II. This rapid occurs at the C&O Railroad bridge.

When you near the Ronceverte take-out, which is at the town's Ronceverte Island Park, you must pass through a channel on far river left. This is because of the existence of a rock dam. The take-out lies on river right about one-fourth mile down from the dam.

Hanshaw's other choice is Ronceverte to Fort Spring, which he likes for its relative isolation. The Greenbrier as a whole is certainly not a wilderness stream, but this float takes place fairly far away from roads, which gives it a more tranquil air. Hanshaw said that old railroad crossings, stone pillars and shoreline caves also characterize this section. The well-known trout stream Second Creek flows into the Greenbrier here, too. And a real oddity exists as well.

"Old Windy Mouth Cave lies just 600 feet downstream from Second Creek's entrance on river left," continued the outfitter. "Cold air pours out of the cave, and some kind of draft, a vacuum, is created, and the wind there seems to blow all the time.

"This float has no

rapids over Class IIs; the Bankers Rock area has some of the more challenging water."

The Ronceverte float flaunts nine rapids, all of which are Class Is and IIs under normal water level conditions. In intensity, both Virgil and I would rate this float as being somewhere between the Caldwell and Fort Springs ones.

OTHER GOOD BETS

The Alderson to Pence Springs (8.5 miles) excursion does not receive the acclaim, as do the three upstream floats detailed above. Nevertheless, Hanshaw believes the trip is very much worth taking. The operator stated that this section only contains a few rapids, all of which are Class Is. He added that this is a very good float for novice paddlers and for families. Long, flat pools characterize this section, and minor rapids sandwich these holes. The take-out is at the Lowell Bridge at Pence Springs; this access point is on river right.

Virgil Hanshaw also likes the Pence Springs to the bridge at Talcott (4.5 miles) junket. This relatively short float is an ideal one for anglers who don't want to spend an entire day on the water. The Pence Springs excursion is very similar to the Alderson one in that both lack major rapids and contain mostly slow-moving pools with the occasional riffle. The scenery for this section is only fair, as numerous private camps and cabins dot the shorelines. The take-out is on river right at the bridge in Talcott.

Hanshaw recommends that float- fishermen do not take the next trip, Talcott to Barger Springs (4.5 miles). Two major rapids loom on this excursion, Bacon Falls and Linsey Slide. Bacon Falls comes by its name honestly as it is a dangerous Class IV drop, and Linsey Slide is not to be trifled with as well. The DNR recommends that paddlers portage both of these rapids.

The final float on the lower Greenbrier is Barger Springs to Willow Wood Bridge (six miles). Riffles, Class I rapids and water willow beds characterize this float, which ends not far from where the Greenbrier enters the New River at Hinton. The next take-out point would be on the New River itself on river left above Brooks Falls.

TRIP ACCOUNT

As noted earlier, Elaine, Dan Hudson and I ventured forth last June on the Fort Spring to Alderson excursion. Anglers can put in off Fort Spring Pike at a series of river-right roadside pull-offs. Of course, my group put in at the Greenbrier River Company's access point. For the first mile or so, the river flows very mildly and in a fairly straight fashion. Look for the best fishing to occur along the heavily wooded shorelines and downstream from water willow beds.

Of note is that this float, like all of the ones on the Greenbrier River, typically features very clear water, especially after the spring rains subside. Dan Hudson told me that the water may be so translucent that anglers can often view fish many feet below the surface. This past summer, for example, Hudson said that he observed a marauding school of catfish foraging across the bottom. He also witnessed walleyes doing the same thing. Anglers may want to consider clear or green line when fishing this stretch of river.

The first major feature of the Fort Springs float is a large island. Take the right passageway around this island. You will also note that state Route 63 runs along the river's right bank. Cabins also occasionally dot this shoreline, but the river-left bank is heavily wooded. If that bank lies in the shade, then that is the area to target.

In fact, several times during our float, I cast a Rapala Skitter Pop along that shoreline and had smallies between 12 and 16 inches smash the topwater. Any shady bank offers the potential for similar hookups, specifically if that shore contains rock and wood cover, especially the former.

Below the island, the Greenbrier flows fairly straight once again with the occasional riffle or Class I occurring. The river then makes a very slight river-left curve and then a minor curve to the right. This section features a number of underwater boulders and ledges. Here deep-water structure fishermen who are adept at working diving crankbaits can do well. Bump these baits across the rocks along the bottom, especially those boulders that occur near dropoffs along the main channel. Class I rapids and riffles also occur here.

Next comes the whitewater section that the Fort Springs float is famous for. A massive boulder known as the Anvil Boulder heralds the beginning of this section. Not far downstream, you will encounter a Class II rapid. This rapid is a mere warm up for what awaits you downstream.

Close to the Greenbrier and Monroe county line, you will espy a boulder that looks like a huge loaf of bread. And in that colorful West Virginia tradition of place names, the boulder is called Bread Loaf Rock. Just downstream from this feature lies Telly's Dome, so named because it looks much like the baldpate of the late actor Telly Savalas. And the infamous Big Rattlesnake Rapid lies immediately below.

Both Hudson and Hanshaw recommend that paddlers go to the right of Bread Loaf and watch for Telly's Dome, also known as Telly's Rock. Caution: Avoid hitting Telly's Dome, as doing so can cause a craft to capsize. Go far to the left of this midriver obstacle. However, this is easier said than done because the current forces a boat straight at the boulder. Portaging is possible on either side of the river.

On our floats through here, Elaine and I have always made it safely through this section, but we also, to be honest, always seem to flirt with danger as we seem to just barely miss Telly's Dome.

Superlative fishing lies downstream, as riffles, boulders and water willow beds exist in great abundance. In fact, at one such area, I stopped to wade-fish and caught a half dozen smallies in about 15 casts. None of these bass were overly large, but, as biologist Scott noted earlier, they are the result of recent spawns. These fish will be moving into the 12- to 15-inch size range in a few years.

After Big Rattlesnake Rapid, another very challenging drop in the streambed looms. This drop is in the form of a dogleg Class II rapid that in some respects is more difficult to run than Big Rattlesnake. Elaine and I like to look over this rapid before running it, and portaging on river right is always an option. Like Big Rattlesnake, this rapid can easily metamorphose into a Class III during April and May high-water periods.

The next major features are a pair of Class I rapids that offer little challenge after the major rapids that you have just passed through. Then come a series of riffles that lead to the Alderson Park take-out on river right. I have never done well in the last mile or so of this float, as this section receives considerable fishing pressure. Many anglers like to use trolling or other motors to run upstream from the access point.

That river-right access point is a very nice one, as it is a canoe slide. A blue water slide lies in this area and is a good marker. Parking spaces are available in the lot behind the access point.

Yes, the late spring and early summer period is prime time on the lower Greenbrier River. And the small

mouth action should be quite good this year.

IF YOU GO

For lodging near the Greenbrier River, I have stayed at the following and can recommend them: General Lewis Inn, (800) 628-4454 or (304) 645-2600; Lynn's Inn B&B, (800) 304-2003 or (304) 645-2003; Old Stone Manse B&B, (304) 645-2749; James Wylie House, (800) 870-1613 or (304) 536-9444.

For trip planning information, contact the Greenbrier County Convention and Visitors' Bureau, (800) 833-2068 or (304) 645-1000. For boat rental and current stream conditions, contact the Greenbrier River Company and Campground, (800) 775-2203 or (304) 445-2203.

Editor's Note: Bruce Ingram is the author of the following books (cost in parentheses): 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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