The South Fork of the New River may well be the best smallmouth stream in the Tar Heel State. Here's a step-by-step guide to some floats you can take this summer.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
By Bruce Ingram
Tucked away in the far northwestern corner of North Carolina is the South Fork of the New River. The South Fork of the New only flows through two Tar Heel State counties, Ashe and Alleghany. But in the course of the river's run, it is able to make quite an impression on the state's bronzeback anglers, one of who is Kin Hodges, District 7 fisheries biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (WRC).
Hodges reports that the WRC was able to collect data from this upland river in 2003, something that has been very difficult the past three or four years because of the prolonged drought and low-water conditions. Indeed, quite the opposite of low water was the norm last year because the South Fork was often high and muddy during the spring and summer months.
"We sampled five sites along the South Fork, and things looked pretty similar to what they had in previous years," Hodges said. "One difference was that we didn't pick up our usual two or three smallies in the 20-inch range like we did in previous years. The biggest fish we got this time were in the 18-inch range. As in the previous surveys, the bulk of our catchable-size smallies were in the 8-to 10-inch range with fair numbers between 10 and 12 inches as well. We collected fish from 12 to 18 inches at some of the sites we sampled, but not all of them."
Hodges notes that the WRC also collected a number of rock bass with the biggest specimens around 8 inches. The last time an angler creel survey was done was from 1998 to 1999. In both years, harvest of rock bass and smallmouth bass was negligible. One disturbing aspect of the 2003 survey involved the smallmouth year-class from last spring.
"One big difference (from previous surveys) was that we didn't collect any young-of-the-year fish from the 2003 spawning season," Hodges continued. "Given the unusual high flows we had all summer, that wasn't too surprising. It has been well documented that in years where flows are elevated during the spawning season, year-class production is poor or non-existent."
Smallmouth fisheries, whether they be at lakes or rivers, are typically able to withstand poor year-classes from time to time. A fishery may suffer, though, if several consecutive poor spawns occur. Hodges concludes that the surveys did not garner any muskies in 2003, although they did corral more flathead catfish than usual. Most of the ones captured were small, with the biggest being around 5 pounds. Occasionally, Hodges said, he receives reports of larger ones being caught from some of the river's deeper holes.
Jed Farrington, who operates Zaloo's Canoes in Jefferson, offers this overview of the fishing last year.
"The smallmouth fishing was excellent in 2003, that is, when the water wasn't murky," he said. "For example, a gentleman from Greensboro came twice last summer and both times lost count of the number of bass he caught, and many of those fish were in the 1- to 2 1/2-pound range - all of which he released. Fish that size are what is available from the river. I occasionally hear of 5-pound fish being caught, but fish that large are rare on the South Fork - as they are everywhere."
POSSIBLE FLOAT TRIPS For the past several years, I have been taking several different float trips down the South Fork of the New River. My goal is to eventually paddle the entire length of the river from where it begins to be canoeable to where it unites with the North Fork of the New to form the Main Stem of the New just south of the Virginia line.
One of the junkets I took last summer was from the Elk Shoals Methodist Campground to the N.C. 88 bridge (8 1/2 miles), which I paddled with Travis Lambert, a 23-year-old Christmas tree farmer from Jefferson.
"The Elk Shoals float has long been known for its good fishing," Farrington said. "Every year, a Florida couple takes this trip every day for four days, and they have caught as many as 70 fish from it. One of the good things about this section is that wade-fishermen can access the river from the put-in and find two good fishing holes just downstream. In the spring, trout have been caught from near the put-in, but that is rare, though."
Farrington says that the first 2 1/2 miles of the float down to the state Route 1159 Boggs Road bridge contains three low-water bridges. The first one is at the campground itself, the second is two miles downstream at a private bridge, and the third is downstream from there in the form of the Boggs Road bridge. All of these structures must be portaged. The last six or so miles of the trip offer unobstructed paddling.
The canoe livery operator adds that the Elk Shoals float possesses nothing more than Class I rapids and riffles under normal level conditions. Horizontal ledges also characterize this section.
The put-in at Elk Shoals Methodist Camp is just downstream on river right from the low-water bridge. You will have to haul your craft down a fairly steep, dirt bank. Ledges and water willow beds characterize the first mile of this section, and Lambert and I both caught smallies there.
The next major feature is the aforementioned private low-water bridge, which Travis and I portaged. (Farrington recommends that all bridges on this float be portaged on river right.)
A tendency among many float-fishermen is to risk paddling under low-water bridges, and I admit that I am often tempted to do so myself. But from my years of floating and the difficulty and the danger of trying to drift under a bridge without becoming wedged, I suggest that readers take Farrington's advice to portage.
Downstream from there, you will see a church and a point on river right. Soon, you will come to an alternative take-out, the Boggs Road bridge.
The river then begins a long, straight stretch with the occasional riffle before making a river-left bend followed by a river-right curve. Both of these bends offer excellent smallmouth potential, as the banks are heavily wooded for the most part and the bottom is quite rocky. Riffles also occur at regular intervals.
The next major feature is a Class I rapid that comes right before a river-left bluff in a river-left bend. The view here is spectacular, and Travis and I stopped to shoot some photos. Fishing potential in this bend is just as spectacular, and we both caught smallies in this area. Next comes a river-right bend, and then you will course through a long, straight stretch. Riffles, pockets of shoreline bass habi
tat and some gorgeous rhododendron copses characterize much of this section. Zaloo's Canoes on river right will be the next recognizable landmark. The canoe livery is just above the N.C. 88 bridge.
On that same visit, Lambert and I also took the Gentry Road bridge to the U.S. 221 bridge (7.5 miles) trek. Farrington describes this as another favorite excursion of his clients.
"The Gentry Road float has mostly Class I rapids, good bass cover, and plenty of rocks and ledges," he said. "Bank- and wade-fishermen can take advantage of the fact that Fulton Reeves Road runs along river right during much of the first couple miles of the float. This part of the river is out in the boondocks, so those fishermen won't see a lot of pressure.
Another aspect of this stretch of river that he likes is that part of the New River State Park lies along the river. This part offers 12 campsites, and the section of the river that flows through the park has some great fishing. Plenty of ledges and small Class Is are what people should expect to find.
"The trip as a whole is very rural and is about as close to wilderness as you will find on the South Fork," Lambert noted.
The put-in is on river left at the Gentry Road bridge. You will have to haul your canoe down a fairly steep bank to access the river. The first mile of the float contains nothing more than riffles, fairly shallow water, river-right riffles and the odd shoreline pocket. At about the one-mile point, and for the next two miles, Fulton Reeves Road will parallel much of the river-right shoreline, as Farrington mentioned earlier.
At the three-mile point, you will have to portage a low-water bridge on river left. A Class I rapid comes before the portage and offers some quality fishing. After you leave behind the portage, you will come to another Class I rapid. This rapid occurs before a river-right bend, which is followed soon after by a river-left curve. In this same area, you will also spot a house with a red roof and another Class I rapid/riffle.
Travis and I both caught smallmouths from this section, but not of the size and number that we had hoped. As was often true last summer, the South Fork was running high and heavily stained that day, and we never did quite figure out where or on what the smallies were feeding.
Partway through the river-left bend, the New River State Park land begins; this occurs at between the four- and five-mile points of the Gentry junket. The bend continues for approximately two miles, and, as Farrington emphasizes, the smallmouth habitat is outstanding. Look for the bass to be hunkered around the numerous deep-water ledges, current breaks, streamside laydowns and deeper riffles with rock-laden bottoms.
After you leave behind the state park land, you only have a half-mile or so left in the trip. Although the smallmouth habitat continues to be good, it in no way compares to that which exists in the two bends or when the river is flowing through the state park property. Budget your time so that you do most of your fishing in those two areas.
In this last section, you will note Cranberry Creek entering on river right. You will also see a powerline that crosses the river, and fields replace heavily wooded shorelines. With the more open shoreline, there is less bass habitat in this section. The river-left take-out is easily spotted, as the U.S. 221 bridge makes for a handy landmark. The access point is just downstream from the bridge.
Numerous other trip possibilities exist. Above the Elk Shoals Methodist Campground, float-fishermen can paddle from the N.C. 163 bridge to the campground (5.5 miles). Two summers ago, I took the excursion from the N.C. 88 bridge at Zaloo's to Wagoner Road Access (5.0 miles). This trip offers Class I and II rapids and excellent deep-water ledge and rock habitat. That summer, I also negotiated a trip similar in smallmouth potential, the Wagoner Road Access to SR 1595 Gentry Road bridge (5.5 miles).
This summer, Lord willing and if the creeks don't rise like they did in 2003, I want to experience another fine float: U.S. 221 bridge to Kings Creek Road (7.5 miles).
Another possibility is the SR 1560 bridge to Alleghany County Access (5.0 miles) getaway. I have taken this latter junket, and it offers some of the best smallmouth habitat on the New River system. Be careful while floating through a tricky Class II rapid on this section, as several Class I rapids also dot the river and deep-water ledges are scattered throughout. Also, the SR 1560 bridge trip will give you the distinct pleasure of watching the North and South forks commingle to form the Main Stem of the New.
After the two forks unite, you will be on the Main Stem for about four miles before the Alleghany County access point.
HOW-TO TIPS Before a cold front, heavy rains, and I arrived simultaneously in Alleghany County, Travis Lambert experienced a phenomenal weekend of smallmouth fishing on the South Fork, corralling several smallmouths in the 18- to 20-inch range and catching and releasing a number of other good-sized fish as well. Interestingly, Travis prefers a bait that is, well, literally a bait.
"My best bait for river smallmouths is a long, whole night crawler that I thread on a size 1 hook," he told me. "Rock bass and little smallmouths will, of course, sometimes bother me with their hitting a worm. But I have also found that really big bass will hit a crawler when they won't strike anything else."
Lambert free-lines worms, letting them sink slowly to the bottom on their own accord. He periodically lifts this bait from the bottom, and then lets the creature drift slowly back to the substrate. This tactic is much like many anglers traditionally fish a soft-plastic worm or tube, except that in the truest sense, Lambert's tactic is the more traditional method.
The South Fork of the New is my favorite place to fish in the Tar Heel State. After years of having too little rain - and last summer having too much - perhaps this summer we can look forward to "normal" conditions on the South Fork and outstanding sport.
IF YOU GO For guided trips, canoe rental, current water levels and fishing conditions, contact Zaloo's Canoes in Jefferson at (336) 246-3066 or (800) 535-4027. For information on planning a trip to the area, contact the North Carolina High Country Host Visitor Center in Boone at (800) 438-7500 or the Alleghany County Chamber of Commerce in Sparta at (800) 372-5473. Long-rodders can check out effective patterns on the New River system at Whitetop Laurel Fly Shop in West Jefferson at (888) WHITETOP or www.whitetop.com. Owner Lowell Shipe also offers guided fishing trips for smallmouths and trout.
A number of quality bed and breakfasts exist near the river and are great places for anglers and their spouses to stay. Some possibilities include Buffalo Tavern Bed & Breakfast in West Jefferson, (877) 615-9678; the Doughton-Hall B&B in Laurel Springs, (336) 359-2341 and the Burgiss Farm B&B in Laurel Springs. (800) 233-
1505. Among recommended places to dine are Bluff's Lodge & Restaurant near Laurel Springs on the Blue Ridge Parkway, (336) 372-4499 and The Senator's House in Sparta, (336) 372-7500. I recommend a new publication that just came out in 2003, The New River Atlas. Obviously, most of the atlas is on the Main Stem, but part of the South Fork is covered as well, and the maps are very detailed. The book is published by the Virginia Canal and Navigation Society and is available from VC&NS Sales, 4066 Turnpike Road, Lexington, VA 24450; or call (540) 463-6777.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Bruce Ingram is the author of The New River Guide, which covers fishing on the entire New River in North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia. To purchase a copy, contact Ecopress at (800) 326-9272. For signed, dedicated copies, send $15 to the author at P.O. Box 429, Fincastle, VA 24090.
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