This most famous of all smallmouth streams is still going strong as the foremost place to tangle with lots of bronzebacks -- and some big ones, too!
By Bruce Ingram
The New River was running high and muddy that day. Nevertheless, Marty Pribil, a guide for Class VI River Runners in Lansing, and Chris Ellis, the wildlife marketing representative for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR), and I decided to take on this daughter of the Mississippi.
Although we did reasonably well, given the conditions, the trip became one for the ages near the end of our float, which was from Stone Cliff to Cunard. That's when Ellis, who resides in Fayetteville, drove a 3/0 hook through the outer wall of a tube bait into the upper lip of a smallmouth.
For about the first five seconds of the tussle, Chris and his boat mates did not realize just how large the bronzeback was. But about that time, the fish made a searing run toward the boat and wallowed on the surface for good measure. "At least 20," was all Chris had time to say as he tried to head off the bass from running under the raft and digging into the rocky substrate of Brooklyn Pool.
A two-minute-long burst of leaps, lunges and sudden lurches then ensued, at the end of which Ellis finally subdued the beautiful bass and brought it inside the raft. The DNR employee then measured the bass, finding that it went a tad over 21 inches - a trophy anywhere in the Southeast and a fish that anyone would be proud to have caught. After a few quick pictures, Chris eased the brown bass back into the New.
A quick flip of its tail and it was gone, but not forgotten, as is true with many bass that are caught from West Virginia's New River Gorge. Before looking at the specifics of the section of the New that this story will cover, a little geography is in order. The New River Gorge National River begins below Bluestone Dam and continues for 53 miles until Fayette Station.
Chris Ellis of Fayetteville with a 21-inch smallmouth, which he caught from the Brooklyn Pool in the New River Gorge. Photo by Bruce Ingram
The last 28 miles or so of that section is sometimes called the Lower Gorge, although some sportsmen like to define the Lower Gorge as beginning at Stone Cliff. And still others emphasize that the Lower Gorge begins farther downstream at Thurmond and continues for 13 1/2 miles to Fayette Station. We put in on river left, hard above Stone Cliff Bridge and off county Route (CR) 25 (also known as McKendree Road).
"I thought the fishing was very good during the spring of 2003 on the Lower Gorge, that is, when the river was low and clear enough to be run," said Ellis, who used to guide on the waterway. "The problem is that we had so much rain last winter and spring that the New was not fishable for much of that time period. That was bad news for last year, but good news for this spring. A lot of fish that would have been caught last year were not, because anglers were unable to access the river. I look for the bass fishing to be just excellent this spring because all those holdover bass will be even bigger."
Pribil, who has been guiding for some 20 years, agrees with Ellis. Pribil relates that he has rarely seen the New as high and as discolored as it was last spring and even into the summer. The New was in great shape for those who enjoy whitewater rafting; but for those of us who care passionately about angling for smallmouths, the New was a very frustrating stream to fish last season.
THE LOWER GORGE A number of fetching fishing locales exist on the Lower Gorge between Stone Cliff and Cunard. After you pass under the rapid at Stone Cliff Bridge, you will have to paddle through over a mile of slow water known as Thurmond Pool. Numerous deep, rocky holes lie below dropoffs in Thurmond Pool. Interestingly, Ellis avows that the next state-record smallmouth will come from Thurmond Pool. He further predicts that the bass will be caught during the wintertime or early spring when a female smallie is heavy with eggs.
The Thurmond Pool continues for two miles and ends at Thurmond Bridge. A river-left put-in exists here, as well as a gravel/sand ramp off county Route 25. Note: Fishermen who want to float the entire length of the Lower Gorge should hire professional guides or be excellent rafters themselves. This is no place for an inexperienced paddler and no place at all for a canoe or a johnboat. The exception is if you can access the river at someplace like Thurmond and then motor upstream to work a pool. Bank-fishing can also be excellent, but sportsmen will have to walk a good ways from access points to reach the best fishing spots.
After you pass under Thurmond Pool, you will encounter Rocky's Riffle, sometimes known as the Thurmond Riffle. I am always amazed at some of the colorful names on the West Virginia section of the New. Rocky's Riffle is anything but a riffle; it is a Class II rapid with some high waves that could easily swamp a canoe.
The next major feature is where Arbuckle Creek enters on river left in a bend. A Class II rapid, known appropriately enough as Arbuckle Rapid, then forms. A short distance downstream is Jump Rock Rapid, a Class I to II stretch of river. The left bank of this section of the New sports superlative smallie habitat, as rocks and boulders line the shoreline for several hundred yards.
Periodically, dropoffs occur out from the bank, as do a number of downed trees. When rocks and wood lie together on the lower New, the bassing potential is outstanding. In this area, you will also spot the famous Jump Rock, which whitewater rafters relish flinging themselves off from and into the river.
Next on the itinerary is Fire Creek Pool. Ellis likes to check out this section of the Lower Gorge because it has so much pocket water. He describes Fire Creek as offering plenty of "hit-and-run bassing" where anglers can make a quick cast or two to a cut in the shoreline and then move on.
Farther downstream lies Buzzard Bend Island, sometimes known as the Island at Buzzard Bend. In any event, Ellis maintains that the areas above, below and including the island are all excellent places to seek out smallies. As Pribil expertly moved the raft in and out of eddies below the island, Ellis and I both caught smallmouths, and the action continued downstream along the river's right shoreline. Indeed, there is so much marvelous mossyback habitat on the Lower Gorge that anglers will find it impossible to probe it all. This fact also helps explain why the fishing is so good; despite the fishing and whitewater rafting pressure that exists in the gorge, many smallmouths rarely see a lure.
A pool lies below the Island at Buzzard Bend and above the infamous Surprise Rapid. This pool features a number of what Pribil and Ellis refer to as "micro eddies," which are areas of reversing current that
will hold smallmouths - and rafts. This is yet another good place to work baits.
Surprise Rapid is a 400-yard-long or so Class III to IV rapid and comes where the New makes a river-right curve. This rapid occurs about 4 1/2 miles below Thurmond. Pribil suggests that boaters spend a goodly amount of time scouting this rapid, as it comes by its name honestly. Inexperienced - and experienced - boaters have been known to encounter difficulty here.
Ellis likes to run Surprise on river left and then fish below it. He suggests that anglers "ferry across" Surprise, especially from left to right, as most of the rapid's rocky cover lies on its left side, and this is the area individuals will want to fish first and longest. Pribil was able to deftly negotiate Surprise, and Chris and I both caught quality fish below it. Note: Beware the major wave and vertical drop at the end of Surprise.
Below Surprise lies the Brooklyn Pool; and it was there, as mentioned earlier, that Ellis caught and released his 21-inch brown bass. Boulders line much of the river's left shoreline of Brooklyn Pool, especially the first half of its one-mile or so length. The right side is also noteworthy as the water is about 6 to 10 feet deep and quite rocky. Look for aggressive smallmouths to move into areas like this in the Lower Gorge, especially during warming trends in the spring.
The next major feature is a Class II to III rapid known as Baloney or sometimes as Indigestion. Run the Baloney Rapid on river right and be sure to cast to the many runs that characterize this rapid. In the spring, expect smallies to be chasing pods of minnows in areas like these.
Sewell Pool follows and serves to let you know that you have nearly arrived at the Cunard access point. Cunard lies about 7 1/2 miles below Thurmond and is on the river's left off CR 9. The Cunard area is one of the most popular on the entire New River in West Virginia. Bank-fishermen often come here, as do canoeists, kayakers and johnboaters. Although I am often too tired on my Lower Gorge floats to do much fishing after I arrive at the Sewell Pool, Ellis says that this locale does harbor some good-sized bass. Sewell is another area that typically offers better fishing in the spring than it does in the summer.
Although Pribil, Ellis and I debarked from the raft at Cunard, obviously some outstanding fishing exists downstream. The rapids below Cunard increase in size and intensity. Indeed, this part of the Lower Gorge is strictly the domain of professional, experienced rafters. This part of the New is also the domain of some of the biggest smallmouths in the entire Mountain State.
The first major rapid is the Class III Upper Railroad that begins immediately above a railroad bridge, appropriately enough. Just as appropriately, the Lower Railroad is next on the agenda. Lower Railroad is a Class IV rapid that has a wicked reputation. It is actually easier, relatively speaking, to run in the spring when water levels are higher. This is one rapid that seems to become more severe the lower the water levels become.
Swimmers Rapid is the next named rapid; prospect for bass along the many boulders of this Class II. Then come four cookie-cutter Class II rapids, which go by the names of First, Second, Third and Fourth Warmup. Upper Keeney is a Class III to IV rapid that will have to be contended with next. Make sure that your raft does not "kiss" Whale Rock, which lies at the end of this rapid. More dastardly rapids soon pock the river; they go by the names of Middle and Lower Keeney and are just as severe as the first of the series.
The rapids do not decrease in intensity, either, as after the Class II to III French Bread Loaf rapid comes the challenging Class IV+ Double Z, some 10 1/2 miles below Thurmond. Double Z is so named because rafters will have to zigzag through it. Then ensues the Class III Turtle Rapid, followed by the Class II Greyhound Bus Stopper.
The last 1 1/2 miles of the Lower Gorge sees a succession of major rapids and more opportunities for outstanding fishing. The Class II+ Upper and Lower Kaymore have to be contended with as does Millers Folly, a Class IV to IV+. Finally, you will pass through the Class IV Fayette Station Rapid and see the New River Gorge Bridge. The take-out is a sand/gravel ramp on river left, just off CR 82 (Fayette Station Road). Not far downstream, the rapids of the Lower Gorge disappear, covered by the backwaters of Hawks Nest Lake.
HOW-TO TIPS FOR SPRING SMALLIES Chris Ellis offers the following tips for anglers who will want to visit the New River in April and May.
"Even though the New was abnormally high and muddy last spring, in normal years, fishermen will still have to deal with a certain amount of discolored water and sometimes the river will be high, too, in the spring," he said. "Because visibility will usually be less, I like baits that can stay in one place for a while and still be attractive to the fish.
"That's why one of my favorite spring lures on the New is a hard-plastic suspending stick bait. I can crank stick baits down to the level where I think the fish will be and then these baits will just hover for a while before they start to float back to the surface. If I don't get a strike when I feel the bait start to rise, I then crank the lure down again and wait for it to rise. Most hits come when the lure is just starting to move toward the surface."
Obviously, like many avid smallmouth fishermen today, Ellis is a major proponent of tubes. He also advocates the larger 4-inch tubes that are on the market, feeling that they are more appealing to larger smallies. The former guide prefers at least 3/0 hooks that are rigged Texas style, and sometimes will even opt for 4/0 hooks when tube fishing. Gone are the days, he says, when anglers looked upon tubes as ultralight finesse baits that were to be rigged with light wire hooks.
In fact, nothing about Ellis' spring lineup for the New has anything to do with finesse fishing. His third go-to bait is a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce jig, tipped with a soft-plastic crayfish trailer. The Fayetteville resident also prefers stout rods; he employs medium-heavy action spinning and baitcasting outfits and at least 10-pound-test.
Ellis explains that if an angler has a quality smallmouth on and he is about to charge down a rapid, then that is no time or place to be fighting a bass with an ultralight rod and light line. The Lower Gorge is the dominion of some truly magnificent smallmouths and this spring should find those fish willing to bite. If the weather and water levels are both "normal," the action could even be spectacular.
IF YOU GO For guided trips on the Lower Gorge, contact Class VI River Runners at (800) 252-7784. For more information on planning a trip to the New River area, contact the Southern West Virginia Convention and Visitor's Bureau at (800) VISIT-WV; www.visitwv.com or the New River Convention and Visitor's Bureau at (800) 927-0263. Another helpful source for information is the New River Gorge National River in Glen Jean at (304) 465-0508 or the Web site at: www.nps.gov/neri/home.htm. For navigating the back roads of the gorge, I recommend the West Virginia Atlas & Gazetteer, ava
ilable from DeLorme Mapping Company at (800) 227-1656.
Editor's Note: Bruce Ingram is the author of the following books (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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