Photo by Bob Fala.
Oftentimes, West Virginia’s fishing base seems fixated on trout, yet smallmouth bass are undoubtedly our bread-and-butter game fish on a statewide basis. What’s more, these bronzebacks are truly a wild and self-sustaining fishery. And, with gas prices soaring, closer-to-home fisheries are becoming ever more attractive.
Retired fisheries biologist Mike Hoeft knows how good many of our state’s lesser-known smallmouth rivers and streams can be. He all but begged folks to fish one of his favorite streams: the Tug Fork River. And Tug Fork is as good as any place to start with some “sleeper streams” to wet your line. The Tug Fork is also smack-dab in the midst of the historical Hatfield-McCoy feud and an ATV trail of the same name.
I’ve seen many a gun- or bow-toting 4-wheeler fan, but what about the fishing rods? The Tug Fork heads up in the state’s southernmost McDowell County amid one of the world’s most historical coalfields. Beset by recent floods and a diminishing coal employment base, its smallmouths are as resilient as its people. You’ll find nary a “no trespassing” sign in the “open range” of the Tug Drainage. As with most of West Virginia, walking the stream channel is not a trespassing issue, as the public owns it.
Tug Fork forms the common border, first with Virginia as it flows west, then turning northward to form the state’s border with Kentucky. It is floatable in these parts. Crowds are unheard of and U.S. Route 52 and its connectors afford ample access throughout. I can still recall one line-busting encounter with a Tug Fork smallie.
SOUTH FORK OF THE SOUTH BRANCH
For another border fringe but northern waterway, there’s the smallish South Fork of the South Branch Potomac. This may be one of the fishiest rivers of all time. Not nearly as famous as its big brother, the South Branch, which is just one ridge and valley to the west, the South Fork has a dandy smallmouth fishery.
That’s not to mention the bonus value of its bluegills and fallfish or “silver trout” populations, as they’re sometimes called. The stream flows through Pendleton County. Pendleton boasts some of the most sensational mountain views you will ever lay your eyes on. Yet, the smallish river flows peacefully through quaint bottomland farms, too.
Again, be careful with your floating attempts unless you have a small kayak. Private land is much more prevalent in these parts and you should not cross posted land to get to the river, which is actually more stream-like in proportion.
There are bridge points of access at the famous mountain towns of Sugar Grove, Brandywine and Fort Seybert. From Fort Seybert, a county route parallels and crosses the river twice more en route to Moorefield. The bridge points here are as good as any to wet a line.
Maybe we just got lucky, but a bonus trout or two along with some surprisingly big smallmouths were icing on the cake on one of our recent action-packed South Fork ventures.
For yet another rocky-bottomed smallmouth waterway that receives mostly “trout angling” attention, there’s the Dry Fork (of the Cheat River). More commonly known just as Dry Fork, its headwaters are mostly a bona fide limestone karst stream for its “sinks” or cool underground flows.
However, as the river drops in elevation at its confluence with Red Creek near the town of Dry Fork, it harbors a mostly smallmouth bass fishery along with rock bass, of course. This Tucker County, Canaan Valley fringing river is again all but devoid of anglers when the trout stocking stops circa late May.
As for the other waterways, a state map by DeLorme provides some invaluable time savers. The road system for the upper reaches of Dry Fork is a complicated maze of access to the pleasant farms and camp country that grace its banks.
State Route 72 is the most prominent road paralleling the river. This route affords access between Canaan Valley and Tucker County seat of Parsons. There is decent access and some Monongahela National Forest land below Jenningston, which is mostly a bridge across the westward flowing Dry Fork. County Route 43-12 off SR 72 near Elk provides additional national forest access with great streamside views of Dry Fork.
That stretch harbors some of the bigger “pools” of the river. If you can’t catch or don’t believe the smallmouths are present, you can look down from the road and literally see the bass sunning themselves in the water. Though many a kayaker passes by, anglers are rarely seen.
The river is just too rocky and shallow for canoes or johnboats. My brother and I recently did a two-man kayak float in a stretch above Jenningston. An overnight thunderstorm had all but shattered our plans. However, it turned out to be a blessing. The slightly brown-stained but clearing waters provided enough flows to make the trip an easier float, and the downpour got the fish stirred into a feeding frenzy.
We caught and released scores of smallies during this half-day float with several shoal stops to prolong the trip and take advantage of the action. Dry Fork smallies are not giants, as the stream is a relatively high-elevation freestone water in its lower portions. However, we did land a few pound-plus fish over 12 inches long.
Many folks may not be aware of the smallmouth action, because they don’t catch them there in the winter or early spring. This is especially true for the more northern and high-elevation streams like Dry Fork. Unlike trout, smallmouths are a warmwater species that require ample sunshine before getting into gear.
On the other hand, southern anglers who fish the Little Coal River watershed and some of its trout-stocked tributaries of Pond Fork and Spruce Laurel Fork at Boone County will pick up on bass much earlier.
These waters are all traversed by the paralleling SRs 85, 17 or U.S. Route 119 above and below the “Gateway to the Coalfields” and county seat of Madison. Remarkably, Boone County is the state’s top coal producer, yet these resilient waterways still produce decent smallmouth bass fishing.
These streams may not be the best in the state, but don’t tell that to the folks who wade and float-fish the Little Coal.
There are public boat launches at the little league fields in Madison and at the county park a mile or so below with yet another at Julian, along with some unofficial launches at the U.S. Route 119 corridor and bridges downstream.
As for as tackle, the simpler the better. Ultralight spinning gear with 4- to 6-pound-test and 5- to 6-foot rods are just fine for this type of angling. A sampling of artificials from the typical crawdads, topwaters and minnow lures to ever-popular grubs in an assortment of colors will do. If the bite isn’t coming, the fish formula sprays seem to provide some incentive. The standard live baits of crawlers, crawdads and minnows would no doubt perform well, too.
That’s just a starter. We hope you get the message and call your local DNR office if still at a loss for a place to wet your line. The numbers are posted in the front of the regulations brochure. Become a two-season fisherman. When the trout action slows, start working our state’s fighting smallmouths. Pick up on a bass sleeper just when it’s about to wake up! You’ll be glad you did!