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Three Top Rivers For White-Water Smallies

Three Top Rivers For White-Water Smallies

From the well-known New River to lesser-known waters like the Gauley and Shenandoah, here's where you'll find fabulous smallmouth action right now in our state.

Guide Marty Pribil of Class VI River Runners in Lansing with a fine New River smallmouth, which was caught in the section known as "the Grand Canyon of the East."
Photo by Bruce Ingram

The article instructions that long- time editor of this magazine, Ken Freel, gave me were quite explicit. Why don't you, he suggested, tell readers about the "fabulous smallmouth action found around rapids" on some of West Virginia's major rivers. But the problem was that I had enjoyed some pretty fantastic action on the New River with guide Marty Pribil of Class VI River Runners in Lansing, on the Gauley with fellow Class VI guide Brian Hager, and on the Shenandoah while kayaking down the famous Stair Step section with River Runners in Harpers Ferry. Which river should I concentrate on?

Once again, though, Freel had a suggestion: Why not cover all three? With those directives in mind, what follows is where to find some of the best whitewater action, not only in the Mountain State, but also anywhere in the Southeast or Northeast. However, I must emphasize several very important facts about swift-water smallmouth sport in this state.

First, right now during the midsummer period is the No. 1 time of the year to go. The water is at its warmest and water levels should be favorable. I definitely do not recommend taking whitewater excursions during the cold weather months. Make no mistake, there is danger involved in coursing across or through a Class III or IV rapid. A spill during the cold weather could quickly result in hypothermia.

Second, unless you are an expert rafter or kayaker, you should not attempt to run these trips by yourself or even with friends. Every year inexperienced paddlers die on our state's streams. Contact a professional rafting company or call a convention and visitors' bureau and have the agency recommend local companies that have good reputations for safety and service.

And, third, even if you are an expert canoeist, I recommend that no canoe or johnboat be used to navigate these waters. Big water means that rafts, kayaks, dories and craft of that ilk are the boats of choice.


Of course, the New River is the first stream that West Virginia sportsmen typically think about when the subject is whitewater bassing. Certainly one of the premier swift- water sections of the New is from Thurmond to Fayetteville. This float, which covers 13 1/2 miles, features technical Class IV-V rapids, numerous Class IIIs and IIs and plenty of Class Is and riffles. At Thurmond, the put-in is on the river's left bank at Dunloup Creek. This ramp can be reached by means of county Route 25, also known as McKendree Road, via U.S. Route 19 -- a major artery for southern West Virginia and one that runs north-south. When you hear people talking about float-fishing the "Grand Canyon of the East," it is often this section of the river to which they are referring.

The first major point of reference is the Thurmond Bridge. Next come the oddly named Rocky's Riffles, a Class II rapid that offers numerous pathways. Perhaps Rocky's Riffles is not so odd a name, for this section of river is, relatively speaking, a riffle. Of course, on other state brown bass streams, the Elk River being a good example, Rocky's Riffles would certainly be one of the major, if not the major, rapids on their entire lengths.

After this Class II, the New slows its pace and creates a river-left bend that offers quite a bit of rocky cover for anglers to explore. Then, follow a straight stretch and a series of Class Is, riffles and pools for several miles. At about this point, some anglers might feel that the big-water reputation of the Thurmond trip is unjustified . . . well, think again.

For next comes, appropriately, Surprise Rapid, a 400-yard-long Class III to IV rapid that can be a real boat buster. Surprise rears up about the 4 1/2-mile point as the New forms a river-right bend. If possible, run this rapid on far river left. Also, be alert for a major wave and a precipitous plunge near the end of Surprise.

Next, it's time to catch your breath and enjoy some superlative fishing in the eddies and runs below Surprise. After drift-fishing for a while, you will arrive at the Brooklyn Pool -- a long, deep pool that is little less than a mile long. Search out the rocky bank cover, especially if you are fishing early in the morning. That's a good time to throw topwaters, such as buzzbaits and jumbo minnow-imitating plugs.

A Class II rapid, Baloney, ensues after Brooklyn Pool and as always seems the case in the Grand Canyon of the East, this size rapid contains fetching mossyback action. After Baloney, also known as Indigestion, concludes, you will soon arrive at the Sewell Pool. On my trip with Marty Pribil, our time was limited and we debarked here. The Sewell Pool access point is near the community of Cunard, and the access lies on the river's left bank about 7 1/2 miles into the junket.

For those of you who enjoy bank- fishing, the Cunard access point is a possible destination. Some anglers like to employ canoes and johnboats to tool around in Sewell Pool. Two long handrails lead down to the access point, and hauling a craft down those steps can be an exhausting exercise.

After the Sewell Pool, the New flaunts even more swift-water sections. First comes the Class III Upper Railroad Rapid, which erupts above a railroad bridge. The worst of this rapid is its center; so strive to go down the river's left side. Logically, the Lower Railroad Rapid spews forth its frothy waves next. This roller coaster Class IV should be run on far river right.

After you survive the two Railroads, unlimber your casting arm along the rocky, 300-yard-or-so-long pool that ensues. Swimmers Rapid occurs next and this drop in the streambed seems almost inconsequential, as Swimmers is "only" a Class II rapid. Then come a series of very similar in appearance rapids, known as First, Second, Third and Fourth Warm-up. All of these cookie-cutter rapids are rated as Class IIs.

Some guides speculate that the Warm-up quartet received its name because as a group they are a preparation for the Class III to IV Upper Keeney, which occurs at about the 10-mile point of the Thurmond trip as a whole. Beware of a large boulder known as Whale Rock; skirt around it to the right.

Then comes Middle Keeney, which is a churning, boat-spurning Class IV rapid with swamping waves. Once I was almost pitched out of a raft when we went deep into one of valleys of these waves. This section concludes with the aptly named Lower Keeney, known for its Class IV drop and monstrous boulders.

Following on your itinerary is the Class II to III Dudley's Dip, a big dip anywhere but on the Grand Canyon of the East. Run it center left. Another big-time rapid follows and goes by the name of Double Z, a strong Class IV. This rapid is so known because you must take a zee-like path down it. The Class III Turtle Rapid then looms and it offers a number of routes through its maelstrom. The Class II-plus Greyhound Bus Stopper concludes this section.

With only 1 1/2 miles to go on your journey, expect to encounter the Class II-plus Upper and Lower Kaymoor rapid; run to the right of center of this rapid. The Class IV to IV-plus Miller's Folly then lurches toward you and this rapid can be quite dangerous. Beware of an undercut rock at its head and the steep drop near the tail end.

Next comes the Thread and Needle areas, which are highlighted by a series of three boulders. Finally, you will spot the Fayette Station Bridge and the aptly named Fayette Station Rapid, a thumping, bumping Class IV that should be run down its center. Congratulations, soon afterward you will reach the take-out, which lies on river left off state Route 82 (Fayette Station Road).


Interestingly, the main stem of the Shenandoah is not known for being a whitewater river, nor, in reality, should it be. For the most part, the "Daughter of the Stars" meanders through farmland, riverside communities and rural reaches of the Eastern Panhandle. But the last three miles of the Shenandoah, before it commingles with the Potomac at Harpers Ferry, flaunts some of the most intense rapids in West Virginia this side of the New River.

The six-mile getaway begins at Bloomery Road below the Millville Dam in Jefferson County. A river-left put-in exists several hundred yards below the dam; the ramp is concrete and parking spaces are available. Matt Knott, who operates River Riders in Harpers Ferry, strongly suggests that the Bloomery Road float only be taken by expert canoeists or by rafters and kayakers. I have kayaked this section and prefer that method of transportation -- in this instance -- to a canoe. A possible Class IV rapid exists here and it should definitely be portaged. Rapids rated between Class I and III also characterize this section.

This junket begins in a very gentle fashion, as the first two miles consist of nothing more than the occasional riffle. But at the two-mile point, the correctly named Class I Entrance Rapid intimates what is in store. Entrance Rapid is a snap to shoot through, but then comes the very long and variable Bulls Falls, which can range from easy Class IIs to difficult Class IIIs, depending on water levels. For the rougher sections, I recommend portaging on river left.

After Bulls Falls, its sister rapid, Second Bulls Falls, parades its drops and boulders and is quickly followed by Third Hydraulic, which can swamp an open canoe. A very easy Class I rapid is next on the horizon. The fishing throughout this section from Entrance Rapid to Third Hydraulic can be fantastic, as eddies, current breaks and push water exist in numerous places. Also worthy of mention is the fact that the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park now claims both sides of the Shenandoah.

Then comes a long rock garden, which I find an absolute delight to fish. The riffles and Class Is within are particularly inviting. A Class I to II rapid is next on the agenda and yet another rock garden then commences. The Shenandoah River then resumes its stereotypical lazy pace . . . but not for long.

For soon you will have to deal with Upper Staircase, a rather mischievous rapid that can be a pussycat Class I or a lion-like Class III -- all depending on water levels. The best pathways vary according to the water levels.

The most important highway along the entire length of the South Fork and main stem of the Shenandoah, U.S. Route 340, now crosses the Main Stem and separates Upper Staircase from Lower Staircase, which has sections that vary from Class I to IV. The most intense part of Lower Staircase is the Heaven's Gate area, which contains Class III to IV rapids. Caution: Portage on river left.

Soon you will come to the confluence of the Shenandoah and the Potomac, one of the most beautiful sights in the Mountain State, as old bridge supports, a mountain and two rivers all compete to show off their respective charms. You now enter the Potomac and will finish the Bloomery Road trip with a quick one-mile streaking to the river-right take-out. In order, you will run an easy Class I, a river-wide Class II, the Class III-plus White Horse, and the Class III Washing Machine. A sign saying "Potomac Wayside," which is just off Route 340, marks the take-out.


I always find it amazing that relatively few people view the Gauley as a quality smallmouth river. That lack of understanding is, well, understandable. After all, the first 10 miles or so of the river below Summersville Dam are mostly known as a trout and walleye fishery with a fair sprinkling of muskies. Like its sister stream the New, the Gauley is a river best experienced with professional guides who are trained oarsmen. Statistically, the Gauley exhibits even more serious rapids per square mile than the New River does -- reason enough to be cautious.

Also, note that the Gauley is much more inaccessible, especially at its upper reaches, than either the New or Shenandoah. The Lower Canyon section, which basically begins about 10 miles below the Summersville Dam, extends for 14 miles to the town of Swiss. This is the heart of the smallmouth fishing on the Gauley.

On this 14-mile float, you will encounter such rapids as Backender, Junkyard, Diagonal Ledges, Heaven Help Us, Stair Step, Rollercoaster, Rattlesnake, Roostertail and Pure Screaming Hell. The Gauley also receives the nod as the West Virginia stream with the most colorful rapids. All of the preceding rapids rate at least as Class IIIs and many, depending on water levels, go beyond the Class IV ranking.


Don't tote along ultralight rods and reels, 1/16-ounce jigheads and 4-pound-test mono when you visit any of these three rivers. Ultralight outfits won't enable you to pull lures free of the numerous rocks, boulders and ledges that characterize all three waterways. And small baits and jigheads have no chance of descending far enough into the water column to reach feeding bronzebacks.

I often bring along four or five rods when I am fishing West Virginia's rivers, but I restrict myself to three when I am floating this trio. The reason why is that given the seriousness of the rapids, a rod could bounce from the boat at any time. Of the three I do bring along, one is a medium-heavy baitcaster spooled with 12-pound-test line. This rod is good for muscling fish up through the onrushing water column and for setting the hook hard through tubes, plastic worms and craw worms.

The second rod is a medium-heavy spinning rod, also spooled with 12-pound-test line. I use spinnerbaits, jumbo-sized minnow plugs and 3/8-ounce jigheads with 3- to 4-inch grubs attached. Again, you will need a medium-heavy outfit to wrestle the fish out of the swift water.

My third rod is a medium-action spinning outfit, which is utilized for tossing topwaters. Good choices include buzzbaits, prop baits and chuggers. Buzzbaits are especially good because they can be tossed across the push water that lies immediately above the many rapids.

I enjoy taking my wife, Elaine, on fishing trips where we drift through Class I rapids and scenic pools. West Virginia certainly has a number of these types of trips. But every summer I also like to go whitewater bassing and charge through Class III and above rapids and joust with the super-sized smallmouths found within. So may you.


For information on planning a trip to the New or Gauley, contact the Southern West Virginia Convention & Visitors Bureau, (800) VISIT-WV,, or call the New River CVB at (800) 927-0263. For guided trips, contact Class VI River Runners at (800) CLASSVI.

For information on planning a trip to the Shenandoah, contact the Jefferson County CVB at (800) 848-TOUR. For guided trips and boat rental, contact River Riders at (800) 326-RAFT,

Editor's Note: Bruce Ingram is the author of the following books (cost in parentheses): The New River Guide ($15) and The Shenandoah/Rappahannock Rivers Guide ($18.25) post paid. To obtain a copy, send a check to Ingram at P.O. Box 429, Fincastle, VA 24090.

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