In September, bass anglers will do better if they go with the flow. For smallmouth enthusiasts, that means the New River. For largemouth fans, that means the Tidal James.
Travis Dixon of Christiansburg holds an outstanding smallmouth taken on the New River last September. The fish was caught on the Peppers Ferry Bridge float. Photo by Bruce Ingram
By Bruce Ingram
The game plan that September day was for Travis Dixon of Christiansburg and myself to put in at the Peppers Ferry Bridge on the New River around 10:30 and float down to the Whitethorne take-out by dark. Our theory was that the smallmouth bass action would be best late in the evening. We also wanted to meet fans of the Riversmallies.com website at sundown, as that group had arranged for one of their rodeos to be held on the New and to camp out near Whitethorne.
But the brown bass had other plans and were not content to begin biting when low light conditions arrived. Soon after Travis and I launched, I lost a 15-incher, and then, a few minutes later, an 18-inch specimen. Just when I thought my incompetence could not become more obvious, I lost my biggest bronzeback of the year, a fish that Travis and I estimated to run between 22 and 23 inches. The bass smashed a prop bait, and for some three minutes, executed a series of jumps and searing dives. The fourth jump was my undoing, however, as on that leap the bass managed to finally dislodge the topwater.
Severely depressed, I decided to keep heaving the surface lure, and, to my delight, the fish continued to savage it. I ended up landing several smallmouths in the 18- to 20-inch range, plus a number between 12 and 15 inches. And Travis, too, experienced good fortune. And when we arrived at the Riversmallies Rodeo site, we learned that all along the New, anglers had dueled with 18- to 22-inch bass.
Yes, September bass fishing can be outstanding in the Old Dominion, if you know where to go. For me, that generally means journeying to upland rivers like the New for smallmouths or to lowland tidal waterways like the lower James.
THE NEW BELOW CLAYTOR LAKE DAM
Travis Dixon offers these tips on how to fish the New below Claytor Lake Dam during the late summer/early fall period.
He said, "I take into consideration the weather and water color, temperature, and levels. When the water level is low like it was last September, I look for the fish to be up in the shallows taking advantage of the baitfish, crawdads, and insects that have moved to new cover because of the water level dropping. In that situation, wood and chunk rock can be very productive places to fish.
"There will still be fish along midriver ledges, by far my favorite New River structure because there are always smallmouths holding somewhere along the ledges or in between them."
Dixon favors rather large lures during the September period. Both the baitfish and crawfish are at their peak sizes of the year, he explains, and to match those prey species, he uses 6-inch soft jerkbaits, 4- to 5-inch topwaters, and 3/8-ounce crankbaits, for example.
"I like to make those larger lures act wounded - easy targets for big fish to turn to in order to expend as little energy as possible and capture the biggest meal they can find in one bite," said Dixon. "I think the smallmouths prefer big, slow-moving baits to a fast-moving medium or small lure. If the bass spent all day chasing small baits, they would expend more energy than they would have replenished, and that's not a good situation. In short, on the New use little baits in the spring and progressively try larger ones until late fall."
Three floats on the New below Claytor are especially close to the Blacksburg and Roanoke/Salem areas. Claytor Lake Dam to Peppers Ferry Bridge (11 miles) has only one Class II and a single Class I, making it one of the more tranquil floats on the stream. The river right put-in is off Route 605 below the dam; the take-out is on river left at the Peppers Ferry (Route 114) Bridge.
The junket Dixon and I took last fall, Peppers Ferry Bridge to Whitethorne (8 miles) offers more challenging rapids, specifically the Class II-III Arsenal Rapids. Be sure to run this rapid on far river right. A Class I-II lies about the Arsenal Rapid. The river right take-out is off Route 623 (Whitethorne Road).
I despise taking the Whitethorne to McCoy Falls float (7 miles) on summer weekends because of the hordes of pleasure boaters in tubes. But by September, the tubers have disappeared. Float-fishermen can avoid the only major rapid on this trip by taking out on river right above the Class III-IV McCoy Falls. The take-out is nothing more than a series of roadside pull-offs off Route 625.
THE TIDAL JAMES
The Tidal James in the Richmond area can usually be counted on to hold active largemouths even during the late summer/early fall period. But that's not the only September hot spot on this waterway, says Roger Jones, a Richmonder who operates Hook, Line, and Sinker Guide Service.
"September is a very good time to fish the tidal James," Jones said. "From Richmond down to Jamestown, people can find quality places to fish. Whereas the water on our lakes at that time is hot and stagnant, the water on the James will be cooler and well oxygenated. And it's not just the James that will offer quality fishing. Many of the river's tributaries also hold good concentrations of bass."
Among the creeks that Jones prefers are Herring, Powells, Flowerdew, Wards and Chippokes, and, for larger tributaries, the guide likes the Chickahominy and Appomattox rivers. Indeed, he believes that these tributaries often offer as high quality bassing as does the main river.
"And not only will the main tributaries produce, but also, so will their tributaries," said Jones. "For example, one of my favorite game plans is to run up the no-name creeks that empty into the larger creeks. I like to motor up those creeks as far as I can. Any little ditch or gut that drains into a creek will hold bass."
The guide relates that anglers should not come to this tidal waterway expecting to corral bruiser bucketmouths. But what the James does offer is numerous 1- to 2-pound bass with a smattering of 5- and 6-pounders. He also emphasizes that anglers will not have to experiment with a great many techniques in order to develop a successful pattern come September.
"Another great thing about the river is that the same patterns that worked in early May are still in force throughout September," he said.
For example, the best places on the main river to fish at both those times are docks, duck blinds, jetties, win
g dams, and old wrecks and sunken wood. The main river doesn't have a lot of grass, so vegetation is not much of a factor.
"In the tributaries, fishermen will find more vegetation, primarily lily pads. And they will also need to look for duck blinds and sunken logs," he said.
Regarding lures, Jones once again says simplicity is the theme. He relies primarily on just four categories of baits: crankbaits, tandem willowleaf spinnerbaits with gold and silver blades, various topwaters, and soft plastic jerkbaits. The spinnerbaits can be especially productive, as their size and color tend to match that of the shad, yellow perch, and bluegills that dwell in the waterway.
Jones concludes by giving this warning about fishing the waterway.
"I recommend that the first time people visit the tidal James they go with someone who knows the river well - not necessarily a guide, of course, but a veteran fisherman that knows his way around," the Richmonder says. "The way the tide runs in and out and all the changes that take place in the makeup of the main channels of the rivers and creeks can easily cause someone to become stranded or damage a boat."
IF YOU GO
For information on planning a trip to the lower James, contact the Richmond Visitors Center (804-783-7450 or 888-RICHMOND; www.visitrichmond.com). The area offers a number of family-friendly attractions such as the Science Museum of Virginia (804-864-1400), the Children's Museum (804-474-2667), the Canal Walk (804-649-2800), and Maymont (804-358-7166), a 100-acre historical park. For guided trips with Roger Jones, contact him at 800-597-1708, www.hooklineandsinkerguides.com.
For canoe rental and current stream conditions on the lower New, contact Canoe the New Outfitters (540-921-7438; www.Icanoethenew.com). For guided trips, contact Cap'n Jack West (423-926-8539; firstname.lastname@example.org).
(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 Shenandoah/Rappahannock Rivers Guide ($18.25). To obtain a copy, send a check to Ingram at P.O. Box 429, Fincastle, VA 24090.
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