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Our South Branch's Accessible Smallies

Our South Branch's Accessible Smallies

For sheer numbers of bronzebacks and access to them, there's no better river in our wild and wonderful state than the mighty South Branch.

Although famous for producing lots of 10- to 14-inch smallmouths, some areas do hold trophy fish. As you can see, this 20-inch bronzeback was caught just before dark. Photo by Kevin Yokum

By Kevin Yokum

If you love to catch fish, then you're in for a treat on West Virginia's South Branch River. The South Branch of the Potomac River offers some of the finest smallmouth bass fishing in our state. This river is so good that it is not uncommon for anglers to catch up to 100 smallmouths during a full day of fishing.

One of the nicest things about the South Branch is the numerous public access points along the river. Some 18 access sites line the river from the uppermost site in the Smoke Hole area to the farthest downstream site near the mouth of the river. No other state water offers as much angler access as does the South Branch, and its gentle current makes float-fishing very popular. Furthermore, the South Branch is an easy river to navigate with few hazards or obstacles. The numerous access sites on the South Branch make it easy to customize float trips to suit particular float schedules or fishing styles.


Like most large rivers, water velocity and physical characteristics on the South Branch vary tremendously from its headwaters downstream to its mouth. From the headwaters down to the town of Petersburg, the river features a fair amount of moving water accentuated with lots of riffle areas and small pools.


Downstream another 12 miles around the town of Moorefield, the riffle-pool ratio becomes closer to 50/50 as the river attains a lower gradient and water velocity slows. Even farther downstream around the Hampshire County town of Romney, and extending all the way to its mouth, the South Branch's flow becomes even slower; its pools are much longer with short riffle areas compressed between them.

According to Gerry Lewis, District I fisheries biologist, the South Branch became the first river in the state to have catch-and-release areas for bass when two sections, one near Petersburg and another near Romney, were established in 1989. The Division of Natural Resources (DNR) has carefully monitored these areas to evaluate the effects of the no-harvest regulation on the river's sport fish. After 15 years of catch-and-release, results indicate that non-regulated areas on the South Branch have similar numbers of bass, but on average, bass within the catch-and-release areas are slightly larger.




Over the past two years, a number of small fish kills have been reported on the South Branch River. During 2002, an alarming number of incidents occurred and for the first time anglers felt that bass fishing on the South Branch was suffering. Numerous state and federal agencies investigated the fish kills, but so far the cause has remained a mystery. Last spring, bass catch rates were extremely low, but fishing improved dramatically in the summer. Everyone is hopeful that this spring the South Branch will once again showcase this river's great smallmouth fishing.


Debates rage among anglers over the issue of when is the best time to fish for smallmouth bass on the South Branch River. Some anglers prefer to fish the pre-spawn/spawn of April and May, while others like the warmer months of June and July to float-fish. The debate regarding spring or summer will probably always exist among anglers, but at any time, multitudes of smallmouth bass await anglers on the mighty South Branch.

More than 20 different float-fishing trips can be made on the South Branch River, but here are six of the best for smallmouth bass fishing.

BIG BEND TO PETERBURG (Smoke Hole)
The Smoke Hole section of the South Branch is my favorite float on the river. The scenic trip takes anglers by high rock cliffs and through a narrow canyon full of smallmouth bass and intriguing wildlife, such as bald eagles.

To say that the Smoke Hole is full of smallmouth bass may be an understatement. On one trip through the Smoke Hole, my partner and I boated and released 135 smallmouth bass in a single 10-hour day, and that number doesn't include the bass that were missed or came unhooked. Most of the smallmouths caught in this area will be in the 10- to 14-inch size range and are a blast to catch on ultralight tackle.

The habitat constantly changes during a float through the Smoke Hole section. Riffles and runs lead to short, deep pools and then back into riffles. This keeps the angler continually fishing in high-quality smallmouth water the entire trip. Areas of moving current make prime habitat for smallies, but anglers should know that large boulders and pool tailouts also hold lots of bass.

The 14-mile trip through the Smoke Hole is one of the roughest on the South Branch, and although none of its rapids are considered really hazardous, this section of the river is full of moving water. Anglers should always be accompanied by a partner when floating this remote area of the South Branch. Rafts, kayaks and sometimes canoes are the main types of craft used to navigate the Smoke Hole section of the South Branch. This float is flow dependent, meaning that there must be at least 2 feet of water at the Petersburg gauge station for an advisable float through the Smoke Hole.

WELTON PARK TO FISHER BRIDGE
This eight-mile section of the South Branch includes the upper special regulation area where all bass fishing is mandatory catch-and-release. Although this particular section receives some of the most intense fishing and boating pressure on the river, it still is one of the best in terms of providing quality smallmouth bass fishing.

Anglers using the right lures can expect to encounter 50 to 100 smallmouths a day in this section. Favorite smallmouth hangouts like riprap banks, grassbeds and deep pools are abundant throughout this area, but don't forget to fish the bridge piers in the first pool downstream of the Welton Park. These piers always hold quality-sized smallmouth bass and a few largemouths as well.

This section of the river can be floated in a kayak or even a johnboat, but it is particularly suited for a canoe. Only one small area, commonly referred to as the tackle hole (for the collection of lost fishing tackle on the river bottom), should concern anglers. Located about four miles downstream from Welton Park, the hazard forces boaters down a narrow shoot on the right side of the river. Boaters must then travel across the rapids to the opposite shore of the river in order to reach the shoot that takes them to the pool below. Anglers can cross the ledge, about a 2-foot drop, but boats can capsize if the hydraulic is not traversed at the proper angle.

SOUTH BRANCH WMA TO HARMISONS
The seven-mile float from the South Branch Wildlife Management Area (WMA), generally known as the McNeill Farm, downstream to the Harmisons access near the Trough general store, is one of the most famous sections of the South Branch River. Commonly known as the Trough, this area of the South Branch features gorgeous rock formations, abundant wildlife and terrific smallmouth bass fishing.

By putting in at the Old Fields Bridge, anglers can add an additional five miles to their float, but this section is not nearly as picturesque as the Trough. The only drawback on this section of the river is that the Trough experiences intense fishing and boating pressure.

Despite the angling pressure, bass fishing in the Trough has sustained its ability to yield stunning catches of smallmouths year after year. Anglers might connect with a trophy smallie while floating through the Trough, but the area's best contribution is the possibility of catching 75 to 100 bass per day.

As the river is squeezed into the canyon, a few areas of rough water are inevitable, but no serious whitewater will be found within the Trough. Kayaks, canoes or even johnboats are all commonly used to navigate the Trough. Smallmouth hotspots include large boulders and pool tailouts, both of which provide excellent hiding places for big bass. Smallmouths congregate in these tailouts and will aggressively strike lures while waiting for food items to be flushed downstream.

Striking canyon rocks with multicolored boulders and jagged rock ledges add to the river's ambience. As they fish, anglers can genuinely sense the remoteness of this extraordinary place. Eagles are a common sight for fishermen to see as they float through the Trough, and sightings can include close viewings when these magnificent birds plunge into the river for a fish.

STONY RUN TO ROMNEY BRIDGE
The 8.75-mile section of the South Branch from Stony Run to the Romney Bridge is a leisurely float for anglers. On this section, most of the river is surrounded by the South Branch Valley's lush green farmland, which creates a peaceful atmosphere that makes for one of the most relaxing floats on the river.

This particular section of the South Branch is loaded with smallmouths in the 8- to 12-inch range, but occasionally anglers connect with a trophy bass. High catch rates are the norm along this area of the river, particularly in the evening hours. During prime evening hours, catch rates of 12 bass per hour are not unusual.

Canoes or johnboats are the primary navigation vehicles, as long pools and short riffles comprise the physical makeup of this float. Smallmouth habitat within this section can take several forms, but weedbeds, pool tailouts and shallow shoreline areas are perennial smallmouth hotspots.

Some of the best fishing in this section constitutes using topwater offerings along shallow shoreline areas where aggressive smallmouths are feeding. Anglers should keep an eye out for scattering baitfish in shallow areas along the shoreline. A cast among such a fracas is almost guaranteed to provoke a vicious strike from a smallmouth bass.

ROMNEY BRIDGE TO BLUES BEACH BRIDGE
The South Branch River's lower catch-and-release area (all bass must be released) starts at the Romney Bridge just outside the town of Romney and runs downstream 9.5 miles to the Blues Beach Bridge. For anglers looking for a shorter float, there is a convenient take-out at Hanging Rock, which is about five miles downstream of the Romney Bridge access.

This area is one of the best locations on the South Branch for big smallmouths, and furthermore, a fair number of largemouths are also present. Anglers will find plenty of smallmouths between 13 and 15 inches within the special regulation area, although they probably wouldn't catch quite as many bass as in other sections of the river.

Even though fishing the lower special regulation area sometimes means catching fewer bass, the area's specialty is quality-sized bass and it certainly has big-bass potential. While floating through this section, I have seen several smallmouths that would easily have measured in excess of 20 inches.

Canoes and johnboats are heavily used within the lower catch-and-release area, and generally, navigation conditions deliver a leisurely float. Short riffles and long pools characterize the river's shape through the special regulation area, as water velocity has slowed due to decreasing gradient. Established bass hotspots include weedbeds, boulders and the tailouts of pools. Bass on this part of the river seem to be particularly fond of weedbeds.

MILLESONS CAMPGROUND TO MILLESONS MILL BRIDGE
This five-mile float is an excellent section of the river to catch lots of smallmouths and perhaps encounter a real trophy. Millesons Campground is not an official access site, but anglers can launch a boat at the campground's primitive launching site for a nominal fee. Anglers wishing for a longer float can add 4.5 miles by putting in farther upstream at Blues Beach Bridge. Either float ends at the Millesons Mill Bridge access site along county Route 3.

Ledges, weedbeds, cobble shoals and some excellent pools make up the fundamental smallmouth cover for this part of the river. The majority of smallmouth bass will be in the 8- to 12-inch size range, but there are trophies in this section that exceed 20 inches. A few years back, I landed and released my personal best from the South Branch, a 20-inch smallmouth that weighed about 5 pounds. The ancient warrior was extremely black, and oddly enough, it hit a buzzbait at about 1 p.m. on a bright, sunny day.

TIPS AND TACTICS
Having spent much of my early years around the South Branch, countless hours of river fishing have gone into establishing my smallmouth fishing arsenal. Each year, new lures flood the market, but on the South Branch, only four patterns are essential to consistently catch bass.

Soft-plastic jerkbaits, such as flukes or glass minnows, are very appealing to aggressive smallmouths. The fast-moving water of the Smokehole provides perfect water to fish soft-plastic jerkbaits; favorite colors include white, Arkansas shiner and watermelon.

One of the things I relish about smallmouth fishing is their willingness to hit topwater lures. Buzzbaits are my No. 1 topwater choice. Buzzbaits and soft-plastic jerkbaits are the best lures to use in the upper catch-and-release area. Fish the jerkbaits in the moving water and switch to the buzzbaits in the pool tails and along the shores.

On the South Branch, tube jigs are a big fish bait. Since larger bass frequent the deep pools more than any other location, this is the area to really work a tube jig. Tube jigs are also very effective on big bass that are nesting during spawning time. Pools within the lower catch-and-release section and the stretch of river between Stony Run and the Romney Bridge are filled with prime areas to fish tube jigs.

Crankbaits are the most widely used lures on smallmouth bass, and I would be remiss not to mention some in particular. Crayfish are an abundant food source for river smallmouths and that makes the rebel claw a natural choice for South Branch anglers.

When floating down the South Branch, I concentrate on specific areas within each riffle/pool complex. Although dependent on water flow, many times an angler must quickly choose which area to fish because they only get one cast before drifting by. My float-fishing plan is as follows: Hit the pocket water within the riffles, then fish the water adjacent to the main flow as it enters the pool. Enter the pool and shift to the shoreline, as this is where the feeding fish will be. Near the end of the pool, the tailout should be fished from one side of the river to the other. Smallmouths congregate in this tailout area, and it is the foremost area within the South Branch River to catch bass.

Fishing time is generally dependent upon one's schedule, but I prefer to fish from about 10 a.m. till dark. This time frame allows for shuttle setup and still accounts for peaking bass activity. Anglers should note that as a general rule, river smallmouths prefer slower lure offerings in the spring and faster ones as summer approaches.

Easy navigation, scenic beauty, and oh yeah, tons of feisty smallmouth bass make the South Branch River a favorite among many Mountain State sportsmen, this author included.



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