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The Shenandoah's Comeback Bass Fishery

The Shenandoah's Comeback Bass Fishery

The Shenandoah River system suffered serious fish kills earlier this decade -- but is the watershed making a comeback? (April 2010)

Craig Fields of Montross with a 15 1/2-inch smallmouth that he caught on the Alma to White House float trip last year.
Photo by Bruce Ingram.

For most of the past few decades, the South Fork of the Shenandoah arguably was not only the best "numbers" smallmouth river in the region, it also produced quality fish in the 12- to 18-inch range. In its pools and backwaters, anglers could catch largemouths as well. Indeed, the river was a popular destination for anglers living throughout the Mid-Atlantic; at access points one would often spot cars with license plates from Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and even Delaware.

But from the early to mid part of the first decade of the new century, fish kills rocked this northern Virginia waterway and the fishing rapidly deteriorated. This past Sept. 12, I fished the South Fork and attended Jeff Kelble's second annual Shenandoah RiverKeeper affair at the Low Water Bridge Campground in Bentonville. My goal was to experience this revitalized fishery and to talk to anglers who regularly fish here. First, though, I contacted Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) biologist Steve Reeser for his input.


Reeser believes the fish kills in 2009 were similar or perhaps even smaller than those in 2008. "With the excellent spawning success from 2004 through 2007, it has been very difficult to see any 'measurable' impacts to the smallmouth bass population. This past spring, we received more reports of dead fish and fish with lesions from the North Fork of the Shenandoah River than the South Fork."


The problems, Reeser points out, were largely confined to the upper South Fork again in 2009, with few problems being reported on the Main Stem of the Shenandoah River. "This is consistent with what DGIF observed while electrofishing on the river last spring," he said. "The DGIF received numerous excellent fishing reports from anglers in 2009."

Last year, the DGIF worked with several researchers from the USGS Fish Health Lab in Leetown, West Virginia, and continued to do so throughout the rest of this year and into 2010 in an attempt to better understand the root causes of these fish kills.


Reeser said, "Smallmouth bass populations were strong from good spawns, but we could see a drop in catch rates in 2010 and 2011 from poor spawns in 2008 and 2009."


Here are some overall points that Reeser made.

First, bass-fishing trends for both the South Fork and Main Stem are similar. Electrofishing catch rates of smallmouths greater than 16 inches were the highest since 2004.

Second, spawning success was excellent from 2004 through 2007, with 2004 and 2007 being outstanding years.

Third, from a 2008 angler creel survey data on the South Fork of the Shenandoah, the angler catch rate for smallmouths shows an average of 4.14 fish per hour. On the Main Stem, the rate is 2.04 smallies per hour. Reeser emphasizes that these rates are outstanding.

Fourth, anglers practiced almost 100 percent catch-and-release for smallmouths in the Shenandoah during the 2008 survey that ran from April through September.

Jeff Kelble of Boyce is the Shenandoah RiverKeeper and he is optimistic about the future of the Shenandoah Watershed.

For most of the past few decades, the South Fork of the Shenandoah arguably was not only the best "numbers" smallmouth river in the region, it also produced quality fish in the 12- to 18-inch range. In its pools and backwaters, anglers could catch largemouths as well. Indeed, the river was a popular destination for anglers living throughout the Mid-Atlantic; at access points one would often spot cars with license plates from Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and even Delaware.

But from the early to mid part of the first decade of the new century, fish kills rocked this northern Virginia waterway and the fishing rapidly deteriorated. This past Sept. 12, I fished the South Fork and attended Jeff Kelble's second annual Shenandoah RiverKeeper affair at the Low Water Bridge Campground in Bentonville. My goal was to experience this revitalized fishery and to talk to anglers who regularly fish here. First, though, I contacted Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) biologist Steve Reeser for his input.

Reeser believes the fish kills in 2009 were similar or perhaps even smaller than those in 2008. "With the excellent spawning success from 2004 through 2007, it has been very difficult to see any 'measurable' impacts to the smallmouth bass population. This past spring, we received more reports of dead fish and fish with lesions from the North Fork of the Shenandoah River than the South Fork."

The problems, Reeser points out, were largely confined to the upper South Fork again in 2009, with few problems being reported on the Main Stem of the Shenandoah River. "This is consistent with what DGIF observed while electrofishing on the river last spring," he said. "The DGIF received numerous excellent fishing reports from anglers in 2009."

Last year, the DGIF worked with several researchers from the USGS Fish Health Lab in Leetown, West Virginia, and continued to do so throughout the rest of this year and into 2010 in an attempt to better understand the root causes of these fish kills.

Reeser said, "Smallmouth bass populations were strong from good spawns, but we could see a drop in catch rates in 2010 and 2011 from poor spawns in 2008 and 2009."

Here are some overall points that Reeser made.

First, bass-fishing trends for both the South Fork and Main Stem are similar. Electrofishing catch rates of smallmouths greater than 16 inches were the highest since 2004.

Second, spawning success was excellent from 2004 through 2007, with 2004 and 2007 being outstanding years.

Third, from a 2008 angler creel survey data on the South Fork of the Shenandoah, the angler catch rate for smallmouths shows an average of 4.14 fish per hour. On the Main Stem, the rate is 2.04 smallies per hour. Reeser emphasizes that these rates are outstanding.

Fourth, anglers practiced almost 100 percent catch-and-release for smallmouths in the Shenandoah during the 2008 survey that ran from April through September.

Jeff Kelble of Boyce is the Shenandoah RiverKeeper and he is optimistic about the futur

e of the Shenandoah Watershed.

Brian Trow, who along with his brother Colby operates Mossy Creek Fly Fishing in Harrisonburg, praises the labor of Jeff Kelble in being a watchdog for the Shenandoah Watershed and relates that he himself is one of the guides who have returned to the river.

"Colby and I quit guiding on the South Fork in April of 2005 after having fished it for years," he told me. "In the spring of 2008, we returned to the river to check out our old favorite eddies and holes and were blown away with how much the bass had returned in both numbers and size. There are a good many large smallmouths that survived the fish kills -- bass in the 18- and 19-inch size range. We observed the healed sores and lesions on their sides.

"What is so hopeful about the future is that there are so many smallmouths that have been spawned since the kills and because of the lack of competition, those fish have grown like crazy. An untold story is that the Shenandoah has become one of the best places in Virginia to catch double-digit largemouths. Largemouth fishermen talk about taking their bass boats and going to places like Buggs Island and Anna to go after 10-pounders. Well, there are people on the South Fork in canoes and kayaks that are catching largemouths that size right now.

"I don't want people to feel that the Shenandoah doesn't have any problems anymore -- it does and fishermen should remain vigilant, especially in the spring, which is when the kills have taken place. But we all should be encouraged about the fishery."

FLOAT TRIP ACCOUNT
Last Sept. 11, my wife, Elaine, and I drove to the South Fork and stayed at one of the rental cabins of Shenandoah River Outfitters. We arrived too late to fish the river that evening, but the next day before the Shenandoah RiverKeeper Rodeo, I floated the six miles from Alma to White House with Craig Fields of Montross. Craig is one of the most passionate fans of the Shenandoah, but like many others and myself, has stayed away from the river in recent years. In short, we were both thrilled with our day on the water.

Although the river was low, clear and choked with star grass, Craig and I began dueling with good-sized smallmouths soon after we launched. On one of the first casts of the day, I lost a good-sized bass when it slammed a crankbait right at the canoe and broke off. A few minutes later, I distinguished myself again by losing a solid 16-inch smallie that leaped twice, the second time sending a crankbait whistling through the air back at me.

By then, Craig and I had obviously realized that the bass bite was blistering. Fields caught and released in succession bass that ran 14, 15 1/2, 13 and 14 inches, and I landed a 13- and 14-incher before losing yet another quality smallmouth at the boat. But it wasn't just the fish that we caught and lost that was so encouraging. The Shenandoah was, well, the Shenandoah once again.

For example, Craig and I observed no fewer than four ospreys cruising the river, two painted turtles engaged in a tug of war over some partially digested hapless creature, and damselflies hovering over the surface and pint-sized smallmouths attempting to savage them. In every backwater we came to, largemouth bass were finning lazily about, and the Montross resident hooked and lost a good-sized largemouth in one such pool.

We also saw a few smallmouths in the 18-inch size range but were unable to convince any of them to strike. And just as encouraging, we encountered a number of smallies in the 7- to 10-inch range. Craig even remarked that the baits that he has experienced consistent success over the years before the fish kills were again producing handsomely: grubs on jigheads and soft-plastic jerkbaits such as Case Salty Sinkin Shads.

I caught quality fish by rapidly retrieving a Bomber Flat A rapidly over the star grass fields and by drifting a Case Magic Stik across openings in the vegetation. I tried using a popping bug on a fly rod in order to tempt some slow water largemouth bass to strike, but they would only merely drift up to the fly before turning and rejecting it.

Overall, our day was typical of ones that I used to experience in the 1980s and 1990s on the South Fork. Indeed, just about the only thing that was different was that we did not experience a topwater bite. But that was likely because we finished our trip by 1:30 or because a cold front had swept through the area the night before.

The Alma to White House float is trip number seven of the 15 possible excursions on the South Fork, and participants in the rodeo had spread out from Alma to Front Royal to ply the river. If you are unfamiliar with the South Fork, it is, in my opinion, the best canoeing and kayaking river for float-fishermen.

By that I mean the stream, except during extremely high water conditions, is largely lacking in major rapids. The major drop is the Class II Compton Rapid, which infrequently metamorphoses into a Class II-plus. Compton lies on the Foster's to Burners Ford junket. Some of the other trip possibilities are Bixlers Bridge to Foster's (9 miles), Burners Ford to Bentonville (7 miles), Bentonville to Karo (8 miles), Karo to Front Royal (6 miles), and Front Royal to Riverton (4 miles).

Neither I nor anyone else knows whether the fish kills are a thing of the past on the Shenandoah Watershed. But all Virginia river runners can hope that those woebegone days are behind us, and the good bassing that took place in 2009 will continue this year.

Editor's Note: Bruce Ingram is the author of the following books (cost in parentheses): The James River Guide ($17.25), The New River Guide ($18.25), Shenandoah/Rappahannock Rivers Guide ($18.25), and his latest book, Fly and Spin Fishing for River Smallmouths ($19.25). To purchase one, send a check to Ingram at 1009 Brunswick Forge Road, Troutville, VA 24175.

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