Tired of sharing your favorite water with hordes of pleasure boaters and other anglers? After-hours fishing for largemouths and smallmouths could be the answer.
The problem was simple. Jerry Westling of Troutville and I wanted to go fishing on the New River the next day, but we didn't want to have to cope with the masses of pleasure boaters that a sultry August day always brings to the western Virginia stream. Adding to our discontent was the fact that we had decided to put in below McCoy Falls, an access point that, from my experience, attracts more people to the New than any other put-in on the waterway.
The solution was simple - after we debated matters for a while. We would arise at 3:30 a.m., drive to the New from our Botetourt County homes, leave one vehicle at the Eggleston take-out and park the other at McCoy Falls. Westling and I would be on the water an hour before sunrise, which would give us plenty of time to fish the water below this Class III-IV rapid and be gone before the first of the tubers and their ilk arrived.
On my second cast of the morning, I caught a feisty 2-pound smallmouth that couldn't resist the bubbling sound of a prop bait slithering across the surface. I didn't see the smallmouth smash the lure, but I certainly heard the commotion, and I struck back when I felt the bass on. A few minutes later, Westling received a similar emphatic strike, and over the next 60 minutes, we paddled back and forth on the river below the rapid, employing topwaters to catch smallmouths that were holding along the water willow beds.
Ah, night-fishing. It is truly a marvelous experience for the Old Dominion angler who is willing to arise early or stay up late during the muggy month of August. Here are my choices for four dog-day, nighttime destinations.
THE NEW RIVER The first thing that must be said about any pre-dawn or after-sunset visit to the New is that from beginning to end, this river contains more whitewater than any other stream in the Commonwealth. On the New, I strongly recommend that anglers avoid running from point A to point B in the dark. To do so would be utterly dangerous.
Nine put-ins exist on the New below Claytor Lake to Glen Lyn, which is the last put-in for the Virginia section of the New. All nine of these access points have the potential to produce bass, and, unfortunately, all nine of these trips harbor rapids that can be very dangerous to navigate at night. My advice for after-hour's action on the New, then, is to do like Westling and I did that August outing at McCoy Falls. Begin your day on the New an hour or so before sunrise, stay in the vicinity of the put-in until dawn and then travel downstream to the take-out, thus avoiding the worst of the crowds and very likely experiencing some superb morning sport.
Photo by Matt Williams
The first of the nine trips is Claytor Dam to Peppers Ferry (11 miles). This junket claims only one Class II rapid as well as a sole Class I and some riffles, making it the gentlest of all the trips below Claytor. Given the length of this float, anglers with boats that are equipped with motors often prefer it. They can motor upstream and down from the put-in and take out there when the late-morning sun starts to beat down.
Peppers Ferry to Whitethorne (8.5 miles) features the Class II-III Arsenal Rapids and its notorious river left dropoff. A Class I to II rapid also characterizes this float as well as a number of riffles. The Peppers Ferry Bridge area is a popular destination for after-hours mossyback fans.
Whitethorne to McCoy Falls (7 miles) offers plenty of flat water and numerous riffles. This float also hosts one of the most intense rapids in the state: McCoy Falls. The river left side is particularly treacherous, with a substantial drop over a ledge. Boulders also stud the bottom below the falls. I once tried to run the left side; the result was an overturned boat and a lost rod and tackle box.
However, the New flows very gently below the Whitethorne put-in. Some three miles of flat water exist, interspersed with some very mild riffles. That section also offers a riprapped bank, downed trees and aquatic vegetation: primarily elodea and curlyleaf pondweed.
McCoy Falls to Eggleston (2.5 miles) is a great after-work float during the week. Expect the McCoy Falls area to be covered with tubers and sun worshipers even then. But a half-mile or so downstream, you should leave most of them behind. I recommend putting in around 5 p.m. and arriving at the Eggleston take-out at dark.
Most of the time when I put in below McCoy Falls, I like to do so before dawn and continue on past Eggleston to the Pembroke take-out. This makes for a dandy 8.5-mile float. From Eggleston to Pembroke lie one very strong Class II, two milder Class IIs and several Class Is, and riffles. This is yet another New River trip that would be foolhardy to take in the dark but is a great one to take if you want to put in about an hour before sunrise.
If you live in the Blacksburg or Roanoke/Salem area, the Pembroke-to-Ripplemead (two miles) jaunt is a marvelous evening float. A tricky Class II looms just below the put-in, but for the rest of the trip, all you will encounter are easy Class Is/riffles. Water willow beds, undercut banks and fantastic scenery characterize this float. The topwater action can be superb on August evenings.
Ripplemead to Bluff City (7.5 miles) proffers the most whitewater of any New River float in North Carolina or Virginia. I recommend that you be a kayaker, rafter or an expert canoeist in order to attempt this trek. Over the years, goodness knows how many canoeists I have seen overturn on this rapid-filled float.
Clendennin Shoals is the most intense of the rapids. This long Class III can wreak havoc on a canoe in broad daylight, let alone at night. Numerous Class IIs and Is also punctuate the Ripplemead float. Still, if you are a highly qualified boater, this trip offers outstanding smallmouth action. I would not plan an evening trip, though, because if you miscalculated your time, you could be attempting to negotiate rapids in the dark. I once had to run the Class II at twilight at the end of this float - not a pleasant experience.
The Bluff City-to-Rich Creek (5.5 miles) getaway is yet another New River trip that I like to take during the early-morning period. This trip only contains a sole Class I and some riffles, provided you avail yourself of the river left take-out above Narrows Falls. This is a strong Class III-IV that some whitewater fans consider to be more intense than McCoy Falls.
Rich Creek to Glen Lyn (5 miles) is the final trip on the New that lies entirely within the Old Dominion. Downstream from Glen Lyn, some 7 miles of the river course
through Virginia, but there is no take-out until you are deep within West Virginia. Unfortunately, the two states do not have a reciprocal license agreement.
From Rich Creek to Glen Lyn, three easy Class Is dot the river as well as numerous riffles. This is a very underrated float that features plenty of smallmouths in the 12- to 15-inch range. Both the early-morning and late-evening periods can be outstanding.
PHILPOTT LAKE Philpott Lake near Martinsville boasts healthy populations of both largemouths and smallmouths. This 2,800-acre impoundment has long been known as a nighttime fishing destination, Westling notes.
"Philpott can be dangerous to fish at night if you don't know your way around it," he said. "I recommend putting in around 6 p.m., getting your bearings and taking advantage of the evening bite. There is not a lot of development at the lake, and it sits sort of in a bowl. With that high skyline and lack of shoreline lights, expect to be fishing in near total darkness.
"What I have done at Philpott is use GPS to mark nighttime fishing spots when I find them. Then I have returned to the lake in the daytime to examine those spots, so I can more easily visualize them at night. Doing this is especially helpful when I fish the creek channels at night, which is one of the best places to find smallmouths and largemouths in late summer. One tip, though: Don't stay long at the mouth of the tributaries. The best night-fishing usually takes place well back in the creeks."
Some of the more productive after-hours tributaries are Goblintown and Bowens creeks and Salthouse Branch. Many anglers like to run up the Smith River, which is the main arm of the impoundment.
Once inside the tributaries, Westling gravitates toward coves, specifically those with dropoffs along the shoreline. Rocks and woody debris on such structures make for ideal fishing. A number of the banks feature riprap, and these two can draw bass, which probe the rocks while searching for crayfish. For topwater action, the Troutville angler selects 4-inch soft-plastic jerkbaits, 3/8-ounce buzzbaits and various prop baits and chuggers.
If the bass appear to be deep, Westling relies on 4- to 8-inch plastic worms in such hues as black, shad or moccasin. He attaches them to a 3/8-ounce slider head, which he paints the same color as the worm he's using. Even though Westling is fishing at night, he still prefers to utilize relatively heavy line for his worm-fishing, opting for 10-pound-test. Philpott is such a rocky lake, he explains, that lighter line is prone to excessive abrasion. The angler adds that soft-plastic baits have one drawback at this Piedmont impoundment.
"Philpott has a lot of walleyes, and they are very active at night," said Westling. "And the later in the night that it is, the more aggressive these fish seem to become. If you start missing a lot of strikes and your soft-plastic baits are being bitten in two, chances are pretty good that you are dealing with a concentration of walleyes. Either change baits or move on, unless you want to take home some walleyes to eat."
Finally, Westling adds that if muddy water from summer downpours muddies your favorite river or lake, head for Philpott. The impoundment has a very heavily wooded watershed, and the lake's water rarely becomes discolored during the summer and early fall.
LAKE MOOMAW My favorite lake to fish on summertime nights is Moomaw, a 2,530-acre impoundment in Alleghany and Bath counties. For years, Bill Uzzell of Covington has hosted me on after-hours excursions to this upland impoundment, which lies near the Covington/Clifton Forge area.
Uzzell's standard game plan is to put on around 6 p.m. at the Fortney Branch access point, which is very close to the Covington area. Uzzell likes to be on the water some two to three hours before sunset in order for him to gauge activity levels of the fish, which hopefully will give him insight on a post-sunset game plan.
On Uzzell's and my last trip, for example, we headed up the Jackson River arm immediately after launching. From Gathright Dam, some 12 miles of the lake extends up this tributary, and aquatic vegetation can be quite profuse by August. Uzzell and I spent an hour or so tossing buzzbaits and hard-plastic jerkbaits to largemouths that were holding on the outside edges of the grassbeds. This is a popular late-evening pattern.
As the sun began to set, we began working our way down the Jackson River and into the main lake. Once there, we picked up some bass that rose to chugger-style topwaters. Although we did not voyage up the Big Lick Creek arm of the impoundment, we have done so many times in the past because this tributary also is known as a great evening and after-dark hotspot.
Once darkness falls, Uzzell, who has been fishing the lake for some 20 years, targets rocky shorelines and points, both of which the highland impoundment possesses in abundance. The Covington sportsman is a big believer in equipping his boat with black lights and spooling his reels with fluorescent line. The black lights cause the line to glow, which is a major help in detecting strikes when Uzzell is plying his favorite nocturnal bait, the jig-and-pig. He tosses this lure up against the shoreline and hops it slowly all the way back to the boat. A key to success is for the angler to make sure the lure maintains contact with the bottom.
SMITH MOUNTAIN LAKE Dan Campbell of Troutville believes Smith Mountain features one of the state's best after-hours fisheries for largemouths and smallmouths.
"My standard game plan is to put in before dusk and fish boat docks in the Roanoke River arm," said Campbell. "Plastic worms and spinnerbaits are great baits for that type of cover late in the evening. Once the sun sets, I move to rocky points. The Roanoke River arm has a lot of these types of points, and many of them top out in 15 to 20 feet of water, which is ideal in August.
"On many mid- to late-summer trips, a really strong topwater bite takes place at dark on those points. I like to work hard-plastic jerkbaits down and across those points. If the topwater bite dies, then I go to Texas-rigged spider jigs."
Interestingly, Campbell believes that on many outings the black bass reveal a definite rhythm to their feeding behavior. The Troutville angler says that from 10 to 11 p.m. he often sees the bass forgo feeding on the surface and fin toward deeper environs. He then opts for Carolina-rigged soft-plastic baits such as lizards and craw worms and uses them to explore humps, brushpiles and boat docks.
Sometimes, a fishing lull occurs around midnight, but then the best feeding period of the night can take place.
"I don't know what it is about Smith Mountain, but between 1 and 3 a.m., I often experience incredible fishing both on top and below the surface," said Campbell. "In fact, if that feeding period doesn't take place, I often go home because fishing the rest of the night can be poor. If
the fish are still active at 3 a.m., though, I will keep fishing until after dawn."
A summary of safety tips for river fishing:
1. Be intimately familiar with a certain section of a river before floating it in low light conditions.
2. For morning trips, stay in the vicinity of the put-in until first light occurs.
3, Never float from Point A to Point B in the dark.
4. Always wear a lifejacket and tell someone which float you are taking and what time you expect to arrive home.
5. Bring along a cell phone.
6. Organize your rods and tackle, cut off worn line and change baits before sunset. Doing so helps you avoid having to fumble about so much for knives and fishhooks.
7. Never go fishing alone after dark. Note: These last four tips apply to lake fishermen as well.
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