The New River below Claytor Lake Dam offers some of the best smallmouth action in the entire state. And spring is certainly prime time.
Terry Pleskonko of Mount Sidney caught this citation smallmouth on the McCoy Falls to Eggleston float.
Photo by Bruce Ingram
I might not have noticed the run last July had I not decided to beach my red canoe on a gravel bar and snack on several apples. But there it was: some 10 yards out from the bar, about a yard wide, the runstretched on for approximately 30 yards -- its slick surface gleaming in the mid-day sun and its rock-laden bottom giving promise that smallmouths lurked below.
I cast a Case Salty Minnow to the head of the run and allowed the soft plastic jerkbait to drift lazily downstream. As the lure reached the mid point of the slick, I saw a nice smallmouth charge upward from the bottom and maul the bogus minnow. Quickly setting the hook, I was dismayed when a few seconds later, the smallie charged into the air, separating the bait from its jaw.
On the next cast, I dueled with a keeper-size brown bass from the run, and two casts later -- both of which resulted in solid hits -- I caught then released a fat 15-inch smallmouth. That run, which lies on the New below Claytor Lake Dam, is one of many reasons why I enjoy float fishing this waterway so much. A large quantity of quality smallmouth habitat exists on the lower river, whether it is in the form of runs, humps, current breaks, deep-water ledges or submerged rock cover of all shapes and sizes.
The only current drawback to planning a trip to the New is that this Western Virginia waterway, like all of Virginia's upland rivers, has endured some poor spawns during this new century, says John Copeland, a Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) biologist from the Blacksburg office.
"In recent years, the spawning results on the New have been similar to the spawns on the James and other rivers," said Copeland. "That is, not good."
Still, continues the biologist, the New remains a superior smallmouth stream, although anglers may not encounter the numbers and size of fish that they did previously -- and won't until the river experiences several good reproductive years and the smallies have had a chance to grow.
Dealing With The Lower New Come May
In May, the New River can be like the proverbial girl with a curl -- when she was good, she was very, very good, but when she was bad, she was horrid. The New is a "thinking man's river," in that extensive planning is often required before an angler can do well. Britt Stoudenmire, who operates Canoe the New Outfitters and Guide Service in Pearisburg, offers these tips.
"Fishing the New River below Claytor Lake in May can be an exciting time of year to catch big citation-size smallmouth," he said. "In the first part of May, the water tends to be cooler, slightly stained and higher, and the fish are still in their pre-spawn patterns. My go-to lure is a 4-inch Case tube in a natural color because it is very versatile and can be used to mimic a variety of different natural baits. I work it very slowly across the bottom in ledges, pools, current breaks, and on current lines. The fish are still lethargic with water temperatures in the 55-60 degree range. The key to effectively fishing a tube is to work it slowly and to find areas with very little current.
"As the month progresses, the smallmouths will spawn, and fishing is usually quite difficult for a week or so because the fish are not focused on feeding. As the water begins to clear and warm the latter part of May, the fish become much more active as they move into their post-spawn patterns. I really like using fall baits such as 4-inch Case Magic Stiks or Yamamoto Senkos in a variety of natural colors. I typically dead drift these baits through riffles and eddies. Fall baits can be very effective because the smallmouth can shift abruptly from feeding on the bottom to feeding looking upwards. Baits that fall slowly above the bass can be very effective."
Stoudenmire adds that typically, smallmouth fishing in May can be very slow and much patience is required to catch citation-quality fish. Numbers of fish are typically caught in the summer months, but the spring produces more citation smallmouths (that is, fish topping 20 inches and/or five pounds) than any other time of year on the New below Claytor. Stoudenmire urges anglers to catch, photograph and release these trophy bronzebacks, as anglers do not need to turn in a dead fish in order to receive a citation from the VDGIF. He also includes this cautionary advice.
"The New River below Claytor Lake holds numerous Class II and several Class III rapids," warned the outfitter. "Typically, the water is higher in early spring and the water and air temperature can vary over 25 degrees. Protection against hypothermia and excellent paddling skills are prerequisite to running the New during the early spring."
On the lower New, Britt Stoudenmire advises that all float fishing trips stop when the river is at 5,000 cubic feet per second and 3.5 feet at the Radford gauge. He also watches the Glen Lyn gauge very carefully and suggests that anglers not go out if the gauge there registers 7,500 cfs. Last spring and summer, there were many times when the river was running at several thousand cfs more at both gauges.
Stoudenmire adds that Claytor Dam releases are very important as well, as it can take 10-12 hours for that water to travel 30 miles downstream to Pearisburg. The outfitter suggests that fishermen also peruse the AEP website. He checks that site every morning before trips to see how much water is being released. The AEP site keeps semi-current data of the releases from Claytor Dam.
"In addition to the levels, much caution is needed when paddling on a big rise of water as the river will tend to push you towards its banks," continued Stoudenmire. "River clarity is also definitely important. We do not put people on a muddy river, no exceptions, because it is very hard to negotiate the normal river hazards because you cannot see them. And finally, if you do not feel comfortable paddling a higher-than-normal river such as the New in May, then wait for the summer."
The Old Dominion has several rivers that include intense, highly demanding stretches of rapids: the Maury River through the Goshen Pass and the James at the fall line in Richmond come quickly to mind. But, in my opinion, no river boasts so many potentially dangerous rapids, especially in the high water of spring, throughout so much of its length, as does the New River. Again, pre-trip planning is advised, as is calling a canoe livery beforehand and checking the U.S.G.S site.
Sam Rorrer, who guides for New River Fishing, takes an analytical approach to working the
New below Claytor.
"I divide the water column into four, sometimes three sections: upper, high middle, low mid and bottom," he said. "Look for bedrock ledges that create a hardpan lift, that is, places where the current no longer runs smooth along the bottom, but is forced toward the surface, creating a disturbance.
"The aggressive fish will be more easily caught, and this is the method I use to catch fish year round. Start on the surface with a Case Salty Sinkin' Shad in white pearl or hologram, then work the high middle column with a Case Magic Stik in pearl hologram, green pumpkin, natural or watermelon gold. The lower mid layer of the water column can be worked with a Yamamoto grub on a darter jig head. Tubes in a smoke/red flake or a green with purple flake are excellent bottom bouncing lures."
Rorrer, who hails from Patrick Springs, suggests that tubes be rigged with 2/0 hooks and internal weights from 1/16 to 1/4-ounce, depending on the current. Those choices are based on relatively clear liquid.
"With muddy situations or off color water, I tend to use noisy, wide wobbling crankbaits or large Colorado blade spinnerbaits, like those made by Butch Neal of Abingdon," said Rorrer. "A lot of anglers favor white spinnerbaits as search tools, and white buzzbaits as adrenaline baits, both for the smallmouths as well as for the smallmouth angler. Regardless of the spinnerbaits you choose, fish them slow and deep."
Frank Cox offers another approach for luring May smallies.
"I have several favorite rigs that I use with Case Hellgrammites," said Cox. "The first one is to put a hellgrammite on a 1/4-ounce Charlie Brewer slider head. This is a very snag free rig that works well around rocks, which the New has in abundance. The second one is a Carolina rig with a 1/16-ounce bullet weight attached a foot or so up the line."
The third, continues Cox, is to position the fake hellgrammite on a jighead and swim the getup through the water column. Anglers may also choose to impale this soft plastic bait on a light wire hook and free spool the offering downstream, as if they were working a live hellgrammite.
Marty Shaffner, who operates the High Country Flyshop, maintains that May means jumbo smallmouths for fly fishermen as well.
"The New River below Claytor Lake in my opinion is the greatest smallmouth fishery I've ever fished," he proclaimed. "The New is a moody river that sometimes makes you work hard for success but her rewards can be great. May is a month of transition as far as weather is concerned in the Blue Ridge Mountains, so be prepared for anything in both water and weather conditions. The fish are also transitioning in May. According to the water temps and other factors you could be fishing pre-spawn, spawning or post- spawn fish, so be versatile in your fishing techniques. Although my clients and I do a lot of spin fishing, I love to fly fish if conditions are favorable.
"Fly fishing in May can vary from great to down right tough as heck depending on water conditions. Since the river is dam controlled, you may face multiple water conditions during a day on the New. Be prepared with both a floating line and a sinking or sink tip line. I prefer a sinking shooting head for my sinking line. I like big flies so I use a fast action 8 weight rod and a quality reel with a good disc drag.
"As far as leaders, I like an 8 to 9 foot leader with the floating line and a 3 to 6 foot leader with the sinking line so your fly stays closer to the bottom. If using a sinking line, don't over weight your flies or you'll lose more than you'll keep. The New eats flies and lures. Being hung-up on rock ledges all day is frustrating but there's a fine line between getting down to where the fish are and losing every fly/lure you have."
Shaffner likes to use the same flies and techniques that imitate what the spin fishermen are having success with. If they are using flukes, he has his longrod clients try Clouser minnows, if the former is tossing tube jigs or jig and pigs, then the latter should employ flies like claw daddies or rubber-legged woolly buggers.
Shaffner emphasizes that anglers shouldn't overlook fishing woolly buggers, large nymphs, hellgrammite patterns and even streamers. Dead drift if all else fails.
For topwater action, fly box staples for the guide are poppers, Sneaky Petes and foam sliders in black, yellow and chartreuse. Clouser minnows in green chartreuse over yellow are great for the mid water column, as are sculpin, madtom, hellgrammite and crawfish patterns. For bottom bouncing, the guide opts for weighted streamers.
This past summer, I found out something about the lower New that I was unaware of: the islands on this section of the river are privately owned. Many times I have seen people camping or having a shore lunch on the river, and these individuals are, in fact, trespassing. VDGIF game warden Lee Wensell told me that if fishermen have an island in mind for recreational purposes, they will need to research it through the county commissioner of revenue in order to obtain permission from a landowner.
Nine possible trips exist on the lower New, and a tenth (Glen Lyn to Shanklins Ferry) begins in the Commonwealth and ends in West Virginia. Many of these floats contain rapids that could cause problems during the often high water of May. Here's a rundown of how float fishermen can avoid or run safely these rapids.
Claytor Lake Dam to Peppers Ferry Bridge (11 miles).
One Class II exists and it occurs near the end of this excursion. Run this rapid down its center.
Peppers Ferry Bridge to Whitethorne (8 1/2 miles).
The infamous Arsenal Rapid is the one to beware, and it looms on the first half of the float. Do not run this Class III on river left, as a major drop exists there, or in its middle. Scoot down the Arsenal Rapid on far river right.
Whitethorne to McCoy Falls (7 miles).
The Class III-IV McCoy Falls rears up at the end of this junket. Take out on river right above this rapid. Under no circumstances, should you run this rapid on river left.
McCoy Falls to Eggleston (2 1/2 miles).
Two Class IIs dot this getaway. The first is at the one-mile point; run this rapid on far river left. The second rapid offers many possible routes.
Eggleston to Pembroke (6 miles).
Three Class IIs exist. The first two offer numerous pathways. The third, however, can morph into a Class III at high water conditions. Portage around it on river right.
Pembroke to Ripplemead. (2 miles).
A Class II lies near the beginning. Skirt it on river right.
Ripplemead to Bluff City (7 1/2 miles).
I do not recommend taking this float in the spring. Seven major rapids exist, including the treacherous Class III Clendennin Shoals.
Bluff City to Rich Creek (5
Take out at the Camp Success ramp above the Class III to IV Narrows Falls. Under no circumstances at any time of the year, should float fishermen try to run Narrows Falls.
If You Go
The USGS Website is
waterdata.usgs.gov/va. The AEP Web site is
aep.com/environmental. For guided trips with Britt Stoudenmire, contact him at Canoe the New Outfitters (phone is 540-921-7438; Web address is
www.icanoethenew.com). For guided trips with Sam Rorrer, contact him at 540-382-3216 or www.new-river-fishing.com. For the same with Marty Shaffner, contact him at 336-957-5055 or 957-4630, or
Editor's Note: Bruce Ingram is the author of the following books (cost in parentheses): The James River Guide ($15.00), The New River Guide ($15.00), and The Shenan-doah/Rappahannock Rivers Guide ($18.25). To obtain a copy, send a check to Ingram at P.O. Box 429, Fincastle, VA 24090.