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Upper Greenbrier River Smallmouths

This stretch of the Greenbrier River is chock-full of sturdy smallies that are more than willing to teach you a fishing lesson or two!

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By Bruce Ingram

I have floated the lower Greenbrier River many times, especially that part that courses through Greenbrier and Summers counties and eventually empties into the New River in Hinton. But how's the fishing in that part of the Greenbrier River that flows through Pocahontas County? Is the angling in the upper reaches as good as it is in the middle and lower sections?

Mike Shingleton, assistant chief of coldwater fish management for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR), gave this overview.

"There is some pretty good smallmouth bass fishing to be found in Pocahontas County," said Shingleton. "The river is not as large as it is in Greenbrier County, but some areas provide pretty good bass habitat. I suggest that anglers take a look at the stream from the Greenbrier River Trail."

Indeed, Shingleton adds that fishermen should do more than just take a look at the river from the namesake trail that runs alongside it. Wade-fishermen can find excellent access to the river from the trail. They can check out an area that looks worthwhile, fish it hard for an hour or so, then debark from the river and access the trail once again. After a short walk of 100 yards or so, anglers can then spot another promising area and fish it thoroughly as well.

Shingleton also emphasizes that the Greenbrier is best visited in the late winter and spring periods. The biologist states that the stream above Marlinton can drop to quite low levels later in the year. This is not surprising because the two major tributaries, the East Fork and West Fork of the Greenbrier, also have diminished water volume by summer.

In fact, the upper Greenbrier is often too low to float by summertime. These same low flows can provide good wade-fishing during the summer months. The biologist adds that certain locales stand out for wade-fishing either in the spring or summer. He says some areas that anglers may want to try include Seneca State Forest and Watoga State Park, as well as in the vicinity of Clover Lick, Thorny Creek and the communities of Stony Bottom and Buckeye.


I agree with Shingleton that the upper Greenbrier is often much better to float in the spring than in the summer. Back in the 1990s, during my family's visit to Watoga State Park, I decided to travel down the Greenbrier from the park. My excursion lasted only about 100 yards before I gave up and hauled the canoe back to the park. The river was simply too low to float that late June day, and I spent more time out of the canoe, dragging it along, than inside it fishing.

Gil Willis, who operates the Elk River Touring Center in Slatyfork, offers guided float trips on the Greenbrier River. Willis acknowledges that the Pocahontas section of the Greenbrier is not trophy smallmouth water. Three- and 4-pound brown bass are very rare, and fish in the 12- to 15-inch size range are good catches. Yet Willis also emphasizes that "folks do have fun on the river" and a very satisfactory number of smallmouths are there for the catching. He also lists some favorite excursions.

"Access is plentiful on the upper Greenbrier in Pocahontas County," said Willis. "Let's start with the Marlinton Bridge near the swings. The Blue Bridge in Buckeye is a popular put-in or take-out spot. The next one downstream is Seebert on either side of the bridge crossing toward Watoga State Park. The last one heading downstream is Beard. This trip is great for floating down from Seebert or for pulling out below at Droop Tunnel."

Another great aspect of all these junkets, continues Willis, is that U.S. Route 219 runs along or near the stream throughout its length in this area. This fact helps make for shorter shuttles than many river runners often have to undergo. The guide also agrees with biologist Shingleton that the Greenbrier River Trail provides wonderful access to the stream, especially for wade-fishermen. And he further suggests that anglers take float trips before late June. By that time period, many years the river is too low to conveniently float.

A popular local tactic is to put in at the above access points and then paddle upstream or down anywhere from a few hundred yards to a few miles. Then the float-fishermen merely paddle back to the original access point, angling for smallies as they go.

Gail Price, executive director for the Pocahontas County Convention and Visitors Bureau, enjoys paddling the upper Greenbrier and biking the Greenbrier River Trail. Obviously, she is a big fan of this highland jewel.

"The Pocahontas section of the Greenbrier is smaller and more narrow than the river downstream," she said. "But I would also say that this part of the river is very pristine. Not very many rivers anywhere flow through four public lands, but the upper Greenbrier does . . . the Seneca State Forest, the Calvin Price State Forest, Watoga State Park and the Monongahela National Forest. With the river flowing through all this public land, canoeists will encounter very few homes or other signs of civilization.

"I love biking the Greenbrier River Trail and from personal experience, I can say that I see a lot of fishermen riding bikes, and those bikes often have rods strapped to the handlebars. There is no vehicle access to the trail, so 'bike fishermen' can be assured of a pristine fishing experience, too," Price said.

"We have a saying in Pocahontas County that the only water that enters this county comes in as rainfall. The Greenbrier here is a headwaters stream and is extremely beautiful with major ridges on both its sides. Sometimes to see the sky, you have to look straight upward."

In early May last year, I took a canoe excursion with Cully McCurdy, who supervises the Rimel WMA, Jody Spencer, who is superintendent of the Greenbrier River Trial and Jack Horner, who operates Jack Horner's Corner in Seebert. My three hosts selected the Seebert to Beard junket, a trip that covers about 7 1/2 miles. The put-in is on river left off county Route 27 via U.S. Route 219. The take-out is at Route 31 (Denmar Road) on river right. This road also links with Route 219 via Route 20.

All four of us caught smallmouth bass and rock bass, but unfortunately, the water was so high and swift that a trip that normally would have taken seven or eight hours was over in about half that time. As readers will probably remember, low water on the Mountain State's streams was definitely not a problem last year.

Many West Virginia rivers are high and muddy throughout the early to midsummer period, and many are not floatable in May. One very good thing about the upper Greenb

rier is that because it is a headwaters stream in an undeveloped watershed, the river either clears very quickly after heavy rains or does not become overly cloudy or muddy.

As soon as McCurdy, who was my boat mate, and I would come to a likely looking area, we would only have time for a cast or two at best before the river carried us away. Cully spent much of the day trying to hold the canoe in position for me to cast while I endured a number of vain attempts to get my lures down to where the bass were holding before the current swept my offerings away. Because of the swift water, McCurdy had an extremely difficult time keeping the canoe pointed into the current correctly, while I never felt that more than five or six casts all day landed on target.

Nevertheless, I was very impressed with this trip and would gladly take it again. This excursion features three major outside bends, which are some of my favorite places to prospect for stream smallies. Class I rapids, riffles, water willow islets, undercut banks, and current breaks characterize this float.

Jack Horner likes the Marlinton to Seebert trek and describes this section as being "nice, calm, and with no rough sections" and with the right water levels, good for family floating. The put-in is at the state Route 39 bridge on river left at Marlinton. The Marlinton float is a long one, 10 miles, so floaters should make plans beforehand to leave early and stay on the river until late afternoon.

Horner says that this trek has a pleasing mixture of Class I rapids and riffles, but it has a tendency to become unfloatable by early summer, that is, in terms of from point A to point B. The Marlinton trip is best taken early in the spring, assuming that the water temperature is high enough for safe floating.

Jody Spencer informs that the Beard to Renick trip is another worthwhile one. He says that this float offers "a lot of fish to be caught," especially rock bass and midsized smallmouths. Jody adds that the smallmouths on this section usually top out at about 15 to 16 inches. The Renick take-out is on river right on Alto Road off Route 219.

Spencer also cautions that the Beard getaway features a pair of Class II rapids above Renick and near Droop Tunnel. These rapids can be dangerous during the winter and spring months, especially if winter run-off has been considerable. Consider portaging these rapids.

Spencer and Horner said one aspect that is characteristic of all these floats is that the river flows through very scenic and undeveloped countryside. Camps, cabins and homes occur very sporadically, and one often has the feeling that he is floating down a wilderness waterway. Yet, the Greenbrier River Trail is always nearby, so that if paddlers did experience difficulty, they would have a pathway back to civilization.

Spencer and Horner also made several other worthwhile comments that would be useful for readers planning a trip. First, the river above Marlinton is too shallow to easily float, even during late winter and early spring when water levels are at their highest. Second, the upper Greenbrier below Marlinton is not a good river to float in January or February. Pocahontas County is a very mountainous domain, and snow and ice are still on the ground - and the latter is still on the river - many years in March. Wait until "ice out" is over and the water temperature has sufficiently warmed before considering a canoe trip.

This second fact is in direct contrast to the marvelous wintertime fishing that exists on the middle and lower Greenbrier. On those sections of the river, a long tradition of wintertime angling from the bank exists. Indeed, the winter months on the middle and lower Greenbrier often mean that it is trophy smallmouth time. Again, that "season" does not take place on the upper river.

Third, the two men continue, don't expect to come to this river in mid to late summer and float-fish from a canoe. This point cannot be emphasized too much. Prime time on the upper Greenbrier is from early spring through the late spring/early summer period. I once had an early July float cancelled because the stream did not have enough water.

My best advice for fishing the upper Greenbrier is not to do what I have seen too many river anglers do over the years - that is, downsize their tackle and lures when they are plying smaller rivers and streams. Smallmouths are incredibly strong fighters, and if you are after the bigger fish that the upper Greenbrier has to offer, which in this case means 2- to 3-pound specimens, then there is no point in downsizing.

On my trip down the upper Greenbrier, I used the same tackle that I do on the New, South Branch of the Potomac or the middle and lower Greenbrier: a medium-heavy baitcaster spooled with 12-pound-test, a medium-heavy spinning rod spooled with 10-pound-test and a medium- action spinning outfit equipped with 10-pound monofilament. Another advantage of employing larger line is that you can catch and release a smallmouth quicker. Light line may be "sporting," but playing a fish on light tackle with undersized line causes a great deal of stress on a fish and a buildup of harmful lactic acid.

For larger smallies, try 4-inch tubes, 5-inch plastic lizards and crawfish, and 6-inch plastic worms. Jig- and-pigs are marvelous spring baits; try the 3/8-ounce size with a substantial pork or plastic chunk. Crankbaits and spinnerbaits in the 1/4-ounce size are also larger lures that work well. Later in the season, try 3-inch prop baits and 1/4-ounce buzzbaits.

The upper Greenbrier in Pocahontas County will never receive the publicity and fishing pressure that the middle and lower stretches of the river do. And as biologist Mike Shingleton and the river's local experts agreed, the bronzebacks on the upper river very rarely grow to trophy size. Nevertheless, the upper river should be very much worth visiting this spring, and it is a stream I plan on traveling to again soon.

A good first step in planning a trip to the upper Greenbrier is to contact the Pocahontas Convention and Visitors Bureau at (800) 336-7009; Local fishing information can be obtained from Jack Horner's Corner in Seebert by calling (304) 653-4515. Also available is bike rental for those anglers inclined to go afield on two wheels. Watoga State Park is a wonderful place to stay and is one my family particularly enjoys. For more information on the park as well as the Greenbrier River Trail, dial (800) CALL-WVA.

Wade-fishermen, bikers, hikers and horse enthusiasts would benefit from the publication, Greenbrier River Trail. The toll-free number listed above can supply that publication or you can access their Web site at For guided trips with Gil Willis, contact him at the Elk River Touring Center at (304) 572-3771 or (866) 572-3771; Lodging and restaurants information is also available.

My wife Elaine and I have stayed at a number of bed and breakfasts in Pocahontas County; these include The Current (304-653-4722) in Hillsboro, the Old Clark Inn (800-849-4184) in Marlinton and Naturally You (800-617-0530) in Marlinton. Our favorite places to dine include the

Elk River Touring Center, the River Place (304-799-7233) in Marlinton and The Country Roads Café (304-653-4697) in Hillsboro. Finally, the West Virginia Atlas & Gazetteer is very useful while navigating the back roads of the upper river. To purchase one, contact DeLorme at (207) 846-7000;

Editor's Note: Bruce Ingram is the author of the following river books on West Virginia (cost is in parentheses): The New River Guide ($15) and The Shenandoah/Rappahannock Rivers Guide ($18). To obtain a copy, send a check to Ingram at P.O. Box 429, Fincastle, VA 24090.

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