The winter months are a fine time to catch the Greenbrier's bruising bronzebacks. Here are several top stretches of this famous river to consider. (February 2009)
The Greenbrier River is known for many things. Perhaps the stream's greatest claim to fame is it is reputed to be the longest river in the United States that's hasn't been dammed. For those outdoorsmen who love scenic vistas along with their fishing, the Greenbrier certainly fills the bill in any season.
Many people cherish the river as a marvelous place to float-fish for smallmouth bass. My favorite time to do so is from the middle of spring to early summer when water levels are most conducive to canoeing. After all, the Greenbrier can become quite low later in the summer, specifically if rain amounts have not been sufficient.
The Greenbrier is also known as one of the many waterways that begin in Pocahontas County, where both the stream's East and West forks receive regular trout stockings from the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR). And the main stem itself also is a stocked trout stream for part of its journey through Pocahontas. Those three arms of the river even attract avid trout fishermen at this time of year when the state's highlands can be quite frigid.
However, there is another coldwater fishery that is oft overlooked on this West Virginia jewel, and that, specifically, is the river's wintertime smallmouth bass fishing. Indeed, the bronzeback fishery is definitely on the upsurge, emphasized DNR biologist Mark Scott.
"The Greenbrier has experienced good to excellent smallmouth spawns from 2006 through 2008," Scott said. "I received good reports from the river in 2008, and I expect the bass fishing to be even better in 2009. In fact, with those quality spawns, the fishing should continue to become better and better in the years beyond 2009."
Virgil Hanshaw, the long-time operator of the Greenbrier River Company in Ronceverte, agrees that the river's smallie fishery is a highly esteemed one.
"The Greenbrier was the Greenbrier in 2008," Hanshaw said. "By that I mean the smallmouth fishing was good, just like it usually is every year. I think that's one of the best things about the river, its consistency. Some years, the bass may be a little bigger or more numerous, and some years, a little smaller or not as numerous; but for years, the fishing has been consistently good to excellent. I think that's why so many people return to the river year after year."
Three approaches exist for wintertime fishing on this waterway. Anglers can choose to float the river in various kinds of craft (such as canoes, kayaks, johnboats, and rafts -- and each has its virtues at this time of year). Or, they can choose to wade or fish from the bank. If they choose the latter two options, some ethical and safety issues come into play.
"The Greenbrier has numerous public access points, so there are all kinds of spots where people can make their way to the river," Scott said. "What people should be very careful not to do is trespass on private land. There are a lot of camps and cabins along the river, and many of those places are posted. Many are not. Regardless, fishermen should always ask for permission to access the river.
Even for the posted lands, a lot of landowners are very nice and will let folks come down to the river and fish. Again, just be sure to ask, and you'll be surprised at how cooperative the landowners are."
As Scott stated, the Greenbrier does feature numerous access points throughout its length. From upstream to down, those access points are at Renick, Anthony Bridge, Caldwell, Ronceverte, Fort Spring, Alderson, Pence Springs, Talcott Bridge, Barger Springs and Willow Wood Bridge. The last access point is just a few miles above where the Greenbrier flows into the New River at Hinton.
Both in the winter and in other seasons, I have bank-fished and wade- fished from a number of these access points. If you plan to wade the river, Mark Scott offers some sound advice.
"I strongly encourage people to consider wearing a lifejacket," emphasizes the biologist. "Any flowing water, at any season, can have an undercurrent that could prove dangerous."
Of course, any river, including the Greenbrier, must be treated with respect, particularly during the wintertime. If an individual slips and falls now, he may experience extreme shock to his nervous system as the cold water strongly and negatively impacts (perhaps slams would be a better word) a submerged body.
Scott also maintains that anglers should always keep their lifejackets on if they plan to float the river now, and I strongly agree. I have written about this incident before, but it bears repeating. A decade or so ago, a friend and I were float-fishing a river in very early spring. The water and air temperature were both around 50 degrees.
Of course, any river, including the Greenbrier, must be treated with respect, particularly during the wintertime.
To slow his canoe down so that he could more thoroughly work the best sites, my buddy began dragging an anchor. The anchor began to hang along the bottom, causing the craft to periodically lurch violently. I begged my friend to bring in his anchor, but he refused. A few minutes later, the anchor lodged on a rock, and the two of us were promptly propelled from the boat.
When the 50-degree water hit my chest, I felt as if I had been punched in the chest and experienced great difficulty breathing. Both my friend and I struggled to swim the 20 yards to the bank, and when we arrived, we were exhausted.
Consider this fact. In the Greenbrier during February, the water temperature will likely range from the middle to upper 30s to the middle 40s. If I was barely able to swim a short distance in 50-degree water, how many anglers could swim a long distance in, say, 35-degree water? I know that I could not swim very far under those conditions.
Earlier I mentioned the four standard options for floating the Greenbrier: canoes, kayaks, johnboats and rafts. Few people float the river from point A to point B at this time of year, but for those who are thinking of doing so, the river contains several sections that could prove especially dangerous, especially if you are afloat in a johnboat or canoe.
Virgil Hanshaw emphasizes that the Fort Spring to Alderson (six miles) and Talcott Bridge to Barger Springs (4.5 miles) trips both flaunt major rapids and both should be avoided at this time o
f year. Johnboats are simply not constructed to handle rough water and Class III rapids. And a canoe is not a good craft to be in during the winter when the water levels are high (as they can be now) and a major rapid looms.
At any time of year, anglers in johnboats should, in my opinion, avoid the Talcott Bridge and Fort Springs floats. Only canoeists with intermediate or excellent skills should undertake the Fort Spring getaway during the warm-weather period. If I sound overly cautious, so be it. I have had one brush with death on a river and don't wish to have another one. I wouldn't want to hear about it happening to someone else, either.
Johnboats are excellent craft if two anglers want to put in at one of the access points listed above without attempting to run any rapids. Motoring upstream and down from the launch point to a rapid is certainly a viable game plan. Canoes, likewise, can be used for that purpose. In the winter, rafts and kayaks are better options (especially the former craft) for going from point A to point B.
Dan Hudson, who guides for the Greenbrier River Company, believes that anglers should be able to catch wintertime smallies from the bank at any number of places. Hudson said that he likes to go to the river after he leaves work and then fish a few hours before dark. The guide, who has caught numerous 3- and 4-pound bronzebacks from the Greenbrier during all four seasons, said that "hole sitting" is often a more effective tactic now, rather than wading or floating from one access point to another.
One of Hudson's major baits during not only the winter but also throughout the year is the jig-and- pig, with the "pig" part being a plastic trailer. He also relies heavily on mid- size (3 inches or so) soft-plastic crayfish imitations. If the smallies are more active, he will opt for crankbaits and 3-inch grubs on a jighead.
Of course, many wintertime Greenbrier anglers will opt for perhaps the most effective bait, live or artificial, a 3- to 6-inch minnow, chub, or other baitfish. Working baitfish in a likely pool is often not a quick way to catch good-sized smallmouths, but it is an extremely effective approach.
Hudson emphasizes that wintertime smallmouths are often not very active. At best, they sometimes will enter into what could be called a neutral mode when the fish can be tempted into engulfing a stationary minnow or slowly retrieved live bait. The type of pool that an angler chooses to fish is often very important.
Dan Hudson prefers pools that offer the following characteristics: 6 to 10 feet of water, wood or rock cover (preferably both), with very little current entering the hole. Ideally, a warmwater spring is dribbling in from the bank or bubbling up from the substrate. Find a locale such as this, and you might not want to move about for several hours.
Another reason why such a pool is worth a long sojourn is that wintertime smallmouths on the Greenbrier and other rivers tend to group by size now. A pool might be filled with numerous 2- to 3-pound mossybacks or even a group of 3-pound-plus fish. Often, if anglers can entice one fish, they may end up catching a number of others in the same size range.
Unfortunately, the reverse is also often true. If the fish are in an inactive state, a wintertime angler can spend many fruitless hours without his bait or lure even receiving a look. During the winter on such rivers as the Greenbrier and New, I have experienced days when the bass fishing was red-hot, catching a number of smallmouth bass. However, on more than a few occasions, I have been unable to catch a single bass or even receive a strike. Most outings, though, fall between these two extremes, and Dan Hudson agrees with that statement.
GREAT SPRING TRIPS
Last June, I floated the Greenbrier from the Greenbrier River Campground to Alderson (five miles) with Dan Hudson in my boat and David Cole of Lewisburg and Anthony Hipps of Lexington, North Carolina, in a second canoe. Cole delights in springtime excursions.
"The Greenbrier is an extremely beautiful river," said Cole, a vocational teacher in Raleigh County. "That combination of beauty, the mountains and the flowing water, is something that really draws me. On many sections, there aren't a lot of cabins, especially in the upper part of the river. If you go fishing during the week, you may have the river pretty much to yourself."
Cole said the extreme upper river from Denmar to Renick is very underrated as a spring fishery and this stretch receives very little fishing pressure. This is an extremely long section of 17 miles and one where access is often very difficult. County routes 7 and 31 run close to the river in several places. In the spring, I have floated even higher upstream from Denmar, going from Watoga State Park to Seebert (2€‚1/2 miles) where my group caught plenty of smallmouths, although not very big ones.
Cole added that the Renick to Anthony Bridge junket, though a long one of 10 miles, is a "great April and May float," and he has caught numerous quality fish in the spring in this section. However, the teacher instructed that he has done very poorly on this getaway during the summer, primarily because of the low, clear water.
I must add that the section that Cole and I described often is afflicted by low-water conditions even by early June. One also has the chance of catching a trout or two during the spring. The downside of that is the angling maxim that in stream sections where both trout and smallmouths can be caught, neither species reaches its full growth potential. And this axiom seems to hold true on the upper Greenbrier as well.
Cole said that later in the spring, two other excursions become real favorites of his: the Caldwell to Ronceverte (six miles) and Fort Spring to Alderson (8.5 miles). These are two of my preferred trips as well, as both boast plenty of Class I rapids, numerous eddies and current breaks, and rock-laden riffles.
Cole is an avid long-rodder and maintains that effective spring patterns include size 8 to 10 Clouser minnows and Woolly Buggers, along with size 4 to 6 streamers. Cole prefers to concentrate on deeper pools, rocky banks and mid-river dropoffs. Later in the season, as the water temperature rises to the upper 60s, he will employ various kinds of size 4 poppers and toss them to heavily shaded banks, current breaks and slick water above and below rapids.
On our five-mile trip from the Greenbrier River Campground to Alderson, Cole and Hipps took full advantage of the surface bite. Both individuals caught large numbers of smallmouths on poppers. Hudson and I decided to go deep and worked soft- plastic baits and jig-and-pigs along the substrate. We caught far fewer smallies, but Dan did land the best size fish of the day, although none of them approached 2 pounds. The biggest problem we all had was spooking the fish in the Greenbrier's legendarily clear water. Cole said the extreme upper river from Denmar to Renick is very underrated as a spring fishery and this stretch receives very little fishing pressure. The Greenbrier River Campground junket is a good example of a float that is best taken when the water temperature has warmed. One of the most intense rapids on the entire river is one that f
eatures what Dan Hudson calls "Telly's Dome," for the huge boulder looks somewhat like the noggin of the late Telly Savalas. A Class II to III rapid forms in this area and can make for a hazardous passage when the water is high in the spring. On our trip, though, this rapid was a very doable Class II, and we easily avoided it.
The Greenbrier River is one of West Virginia's premier winter, spring and early summer stream smallmouth fisheries. The stream is well worth your time this year.
IF YOU GO
Fishing the Greenbrier Valley: An Angler's Guide, by Mike Smith, online at www.upress.virginia.edu or www.greasycreekoutfitters.com
For guided trips and canoe rentals: Greenbrier River Campground, visit online at www.greenbrierriver.com, or call (800) 775-2203.
For detailed maps, consider the New River Atlas, which contains numerous maps of the Greenbrier River: Virginia Canal & Navigation Society, www.vacanals.org.
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, contact Ingram at P.O. Box 429, Fincastle, VA 24090.