5 Hot Smallmouth Rivers
September 29, 2010
From the New to the Gauley, Kanawha and two other picks, here's where you'll encounter our state's top smallmouth action not only right now but also throughout the summer season. (May 2010)
We river runners all have our favorite Mountain State river smallmouth float trips -- those excursions that feature quality size brown bass, gorgeous scenery, and marvelous habitat. Let's take a look at some of the best ones, based on comments from a West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) biologist, interviews, and personal experiences.
The Gauley River below Summersville Dam is an underrated stream for river smallmouths. There's no question that the river is most known nationally as a whitewater rafting and kayaking destination as every year in mid-September, massive releases of water occur below the dam as part of the lake's annual drawdown. Those releases usually continue for six weeks as water levels drop 77 feet in the lake to winter pool.
To give some insight into the effect that this release has on the Gauley, water comes out of the dam at over 50 mph, more than 100 rapids pock the river 25 miles below the dam, and the river drops 668 feet along that stretch. The river also has more Class V and VI rapids than any other waterway in the East.
So it's easy to understand why anglers avoid the Gauley come late summer and throughout the autumn, but that's not an excuse for overlooking the river right now. First, the stream is incredibly scenic, as the National Park Service manages the Gauley River National Recreation Area in addition to doing the same for sections of the New, Meadow, and Bluestone rivers.
DNR biologist Mark Scott offers this overview.
"The Gauley is not as good of a smallmouth river as the New or Greenbrier, of course, but it's still a neat destination because of the rugged scenery," he says. "Below the dam, the upper river is best known for trout, muskies, and a native strain of walleyes. The middle to lower section is best for smallmouths and also has a very varied fishery with muskies and walleyes."
Because of the whitewater, float-fishermen typically put in at Gauley Bridge on U.S. Route 60 in Fayette County and paddle, or motor, upstream and down from there. Professional rafters take the Jodie to Gauley Bridge junket with the access for the former off county Route 39/1. I want to emphasize that this junket is only the domain of guides and whitewater experts.
I have taken this float a number of times and also have caught quality size smallmouths on it. But I also have always been shepherded by professionals.
Craig Miller, who operates Serenity Now Outfitters in Lewisburg, states that the Greenbrier River is his favorite brown bass destination. But whereas many anglers prefer the lower Greenbrier because of its consistent flow, bigger size, and often-larger mossybacks, Craig opts for the upper reaches.
"I do love smallmouth bass fishing on both the upper and lower Greenbrier," he says. "But if I had to list my favorite part of the Greenbrier, I would say it is the upper part above Anthony. Fishermen should understand, though, that there's a big "if" that comes with floating the upper river. There's good fishing, if there's enough water to float."
Miller emphasizes that May is often the best month to float-fish the upper stretches, as water levels are still sufficient, yet the water is warm enough for the bass to be consistently active. Keep in mind the Greenbrier is very much a mountain rill fed river, and many years those highland streams often are influenced by snow runoff well into March.
I once tried to float the upper Greenbrier in mid-June, putting in at Watoga State Park in Pocahontas County. The water was so low that my buddy and I only paddled a hundred yards or so before we realized that the "boney" bottom meant a through trip was impossible. Despite the limited time frame to float this portion of the Greenbrier, the effort to do so is well worthwhile emphasizes Miller.
"The upper river offers bald eagles, great solitude, few houses, the occasional black bear, and very few other float-fishermen, although you will likely see some bank-fishermen," he says. "Because of its smaller size, the upper section is much easier to decipher as far as the patterns go than either the lower river or the New."
Regarding those patterns, Miller maintains that some of his best fly- fishing offerings are large (often size 4) generic attractor patterns that feature dumbbell eyes, thick bodies, and bunny tail strips. Some folks call these "meat flies" as they are proven jumbo smallmouth patterns. These are subsurface patterns for the most part as the water is too cold on the upper river for a consistent topwater bite to occur.
For lures, the outfitter lists Rapala X Raps, Yo-Zuri jerkbaits, and jig-and-pigs. If a topwater bite does occur, however unlikely, Craig suggests Heddon Tiny Torpedoes.
The only float that the DNR lists for the upper river is the 10-mile junket from Renick to Anthony Bridge. Miller says informal access points exist at many of the small towns that lie along that part of the river. Possible put-ins includes Seebert, Kennison, Denmar, Beard, Rorer, in addition to the previously mentioned one at Watoga State Park.
Float-fishermen are obviously aware of the outstanding action on the lower New in its namesake gorge. But Craig Miller lists three other floats on the New that are his favorites. They are Bluestone Dam to Brooks Falls (7 miles), Brooks Falls to Sandstone Falls (4 miles), and Meadow Creek to Grandview Sandbar (10 miles). The first two floats (provided you are an experienced paddler, water levels are normal, and you do not attempt to run Brooks Falls) can be taken by non-professionals. Brooks Falls is a strong Class III, and any rapid on the New that has the word "falls" after its name flaunts severe and potentially life threatening drops.
The outfitter says the only drawback of this trio is that the Meadow Creek excursion has a very long shuttle that may take an hour or more. The patterns are similar to those on the Greenbrier, but Craig emphasizes that given the New's greater water volume and current, fl fishermen will have to opt for weighted patterns with sound choices being the CK Baitfish, Woolly Buggers, and streamers, all in sizes 2, 4, and 6. For lures, he suggests the old standby on the New, the 3-inch grub on a jighead. Expect to lose plenty of grubs to the river's omnipresent rocky snags. The Rebel crawfish is another sound choice Craig states.
It's easy to see why Miller rates this trio of floats as his favorite New River getaways. The Bluestone Dam float only has one major rapid of note, the Clas
s II Tug Creek Rapid. In a stream that is largely the domain of professional rafting guides, the Bluestone Dam excursion is the exception as it is one that a competent canoeist can undertake.
Another difference about this junket is that while most of the West Virginia New flows through very isolated mountain/valley countryside, the Bluestone Dam trip begins in downtown Hinton. The state Routes 3 and 20 bridges span the river and the sounds of highway traffic are never very far away. Still, over the years, I have caught numerous quality bass on this float, as has Craig Miller.
The Brooks Falls trip begins below the namesake rapid (just as the previous float ends above the falls). This excursion only has one major rapid, the Class II Brooks Ledge, which is another reason that Miller lists this float as among his favorites. Fly- and spin-fishermen can spend more time actually fishing instead of worrying about navigating or portaging rapids.
Another plus about this getaway is that given its short length of four miles, float-fishermen can easily take it in an afternoon after work type scenario. State Route 20 follows along much of river right and the same holds true for county Route 26 on much of river left. The result is some access potential for bank- and wade-fishermen. Be sure to ask property owners if you can access the river from their land before walking down to the river.
The Meadow Creek to Grandview Sandbar trip contains some major rapids and through paddlers should seriously consider partaking of the services of a professional outfitter. Some major rapids pock this float, among them the Class III Rocky Rapid, the Class III-IV Grassy Shoals, the Class III-IV Quinnimont Rapid, and that's not even mentioning the numerous Class IIs that characterize this float.
But as far as bassing potential goes, the Meadow Creek is by far my favorite of this trio and Miller rates it highly as well. Good numbers of 15- to 18-inch smallies thrive on this float and bigger fish are a real possibility, especially in May and June.
I have floated the upper Kanawha in a raft, putting in below Kanawha Falls and experiencing some quality smallmouth bass sport. But most of the fishing on this river is done in a bass boat below the locks at London, Marmet, and Winfield. Charleston fishing pro Jeremy Starks maintains that the best action on the Kanawha is on the main river and not within any of the tributaries. This is especially true, he says, during the pre-spawn, spawn, and post-spawn periods -- which means now of course.
Starks says he looks for shoal areas if he is targeting smallmouths, and although these areas are often silted in, slight boils on the surface can indicate their presence. If the Kanawha is muddy, as it often is this time of year, the shoal areas remain focal points, although the fish will move shallower and will often congregate in areas that are in 3 feet of water or less.
Regarding lure selection, the pro often relies on the drop-shot rig, with the main ingredients being Berkeley Professional Grade fluorocarbon line in 6-pound test. Jeremy says this line excels at giving him the ability to "feel" the bottom and will last a long time as well. Any number of soft plastic baits will work, from worms to lizards to various crayfish imitations, all on size 4 hooks.
Other solid choices for spring on the Kanawha include chartreuse spinnerbaits, Berkeley Power Worms, and tubes. Occasionally, Jeremy will rig a worm wacky-style.If the water is clear and bass activity is not occurring in the shallow shoals, the Charleston resident heads to the middle of the river and looks for areas in 12- to 15-feet of water that feature rocky bottoms. These middle river bass typically "live year-round out there" explains Starks and are susceptible to 1/2-ounce spinnerbaits -- or any bait that mimics baitfish.
SOUTH BRANCH OF THE POTOMAC
There are so many trips on the South Branch of the Potomac that I enjoy taking. Among my favorites are Fisher Bridge South to Fisher Bridge (2.5 miles), Fisher Bridge to Old Fields Bridge (4.5 miles), Old Fields Bridge to Trough Entrance (5 miles), Romney Bridge to Hanging Rock (5 miles), and Hanging Rock to Blues Beach Bridge (4.5 miles).
But if someone asked me that if I were given the proposition that for the rest of my life, I would only be allowed to take one more trip down the South Branch, which one would it be: the answer would be the Smoke Hole to Peterstown (22 miles) junket. This getaway begins at Big Bend and ends at Eagles Nest Outfitters.
The Smoke Hole excursion offers so much but mostly it proffers true wilderness fishing. Once you enter the Smoke Hole Canyon, you enter a world that looks much the same when the early settlers dwelled there. Really, the canyon has changed little since Indians were the primary inhabitants, and how many places in West Virginia and elsewhere can make that claim?
Difficult Class II and III rapids pock the South Branch, and once you enter the canyon you are committed to finishing the long run. But what a run it is. If river fishing is your passion, then you owe it to yourself to undertake one voyage.
I must add that the smallmouth fishing, although good, is not of the quality that can be found downstream. The water is colder, and the smallmouths share the river with trout, so both species don't have ideal water temperatures. The fishing, though, is satisfactory, and the splendid scenery and isolation are more than enough to make a compelling case for this junket.
In an article such as this, it's impossible to list all of the superlative places to fish for river smallmouths in the Mountain State. But, hopefully, this story increases your desire to try these and other excursions.
Jeremy Starks emphasizes that fluorocarbon line is ideal for deep- water fishing the drop shot rig.
"Fluorocarbon creates no belly, sinks well, and you can tie it to straight to the lure you want to use for drop-shotting," he explains. "Plus, there's no need to re-spool all the time. You can easily fish half a season with it.