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Fishing Virginia's Best Trout Rivers

Fishing Virginia's Best Trout Rivers

Our state hosts many classic mountain trout streams, as well as marvelous lake fishing -- but some of the best trout fishing in Virginia takes place in river fisheries. (April 2008)

Elaine Ingram took this nice trout from the Jackson River below Gathright Dam.
Photo by Bruce Ingram.

With a succession of fish kills slamming the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers and their tributaries since 2002, when I learned that some positive news exists for the watershed, I understandably wanted to check it out. Colby Trow, who along with his brother, Brian, operates Mossy Creek Outfitters in Harrisonburg, had invited me to experience the comeback of the South River, a major tributary of the South Fork of the Shenandoah.

"The problems began in the 1950s when DuPont buried mercury waste byproducts in the ground," Trow said. "A lot of the Shenandoah Valley has karst topography, so whenever rains would come, the mercury leached into the ground water. Mercury problems were experienced all the way from Waynesboro where the plant was to Front Royal on the South Fork.

"But mercury wasn't the only problem. The South River would turn red with dye from the textile plants in Waynesboro. And throughout where the river runs through the town, the buffer zones were removed."

Mercury is an insidious compound, settling in the substrate. Aquatic insects accumulate it in their systems and so eventually do predator species, such as trout and smallmouth bass. The higher up the food chain a fish is, the greater the concentration of mercury in its body. For example, a 10-year-old game fish will have more mercury in its system than a 2-year-old one will.

Even today, a fish consumption advisory exists on the South River because of that long ago disposal of mercury. Children and pregnant women should be especially concerned about consuming fish from a stream under such an advisory.

Today, continued Trow, DuPont has spent a great deal of money in cleaning up the river. Dominion Power helped build an access park for anglers, and the buffer zones have been restored in many places. The South River, given a second chance, already had many positives. The South is a freestone valley floor stream that has a number of springs feeding it, some even in downtown Waynesboro.


These springs help to cool the river; Trow speculates that if the river were just a few degrees cooler the trout would naturally reproduce. And numerous tributaries of the South River are either stocked trout streams themselves or are native brook trout waters in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest.

J-hooks have also been constructed along the South River. J-hooks reroute the current away from a bank where it is eroding, and thus direct the flow toward the main channel, deepening the channel and providing cover for trout.

"Now, the South River is a very good place to trout fish," confirmed Trow. "Local industry has done a lot of work to clean up this stretch of river."

The river offers a delayed harvest section from the Second Street Bridge in Waynesboro upstream 2.4 miles to the base of Rife Loth Dam. From Oct. 1 through May 31, only artificial lures may be used and all fish must be released unharmed. From June 1 through Sept. 30, general trout regulations are in effect. A trout license is required from Oct. 1 through June 15. Catchable-sized trout are stocked in fall, winter and spring.

Upstream near Ridgeview Park, the South River is a Category A stream, which means that it is stocked once in October, once in either November or December, once in January or February, twice in both March and April, and once in May.

And so it was that I joined Colby Trow and in-house guide Curt Brisco for an outing on the South River in downtown Waynesboro last March. Not long after we arrived, Brisco landed a nice trout -- right in the shadow of an industrial complex. Brisco said that a super spring setup is a size 2 to 12 streamer with a size 8 to 18 nymph attractor attached.

"If the river is running full, I'll go with a large streamer or nymph," Brisco said. "On the other hand, a lot of flyfishermen like to visit the South River when it is low. Then the trout concentrate in seams, riffles, pockets, current breaks and deep pools and stay away from slack water and silted spots next to the bank. That's when fishermen can take advantage of the many insect hatches that take place."

Trow and Brisco relate that a strong trico hatch (size 18 to 24 dry) takes place on mid- to late-May mornings, as does a sporadic cranefly hatch (size 12 to 14 wet). Sulfurs (size 12 to 14 dry) occur in late April in the evening. Later in the season, try size 16 and 18 patterns.

Interestingly, Colby Trow said that some anglers like to canoe the South Fork below Waynesboro, drifting through the communities of Crimora, Harriston and Grottoes. This is an approximately 15-mile stretch where fishermen can duel with rainbows, browns, smallmouths and rock bass.

"The South River has become an economic goldmine for Waynesboro," Trow emphasized. "The river really proves what a clean stream can do for a town. There's an annual fly-fishing festival in April, which draws a lot of people to the area, and the South River is really the first trout stream people come to when they live in eastern Virginia and are traveling west."

I might add that the fish kills in the South Fork, North Fork and Main Stem of the Shenandoah have been documented to have cost the Shenandoah Valley millions of dollars in tourism revenue. Conversely, clean water is good for the fish, fishermen and the economy. For guided trips, contact Mossy Creek Fly Fishing by calling (866) 667-9275, or go to

SMITH RIVERThe Smith River in the Martinsville/Bassett area enjoyed a sterling past in the 1970s, a noticeable slump in the 1990s, and with any luck is poised for a comeback in this century. In the 1950s, the U.S. Corps of Engineers built Philpott Dam on the river, by accident creating a tailrace trout fishery that became nationally known in the 1970s. Behemoth browns, many of which topped 10 pounds, began thrilling anglers from across the country.

One of the reasons for the decline was the scouring effect of water released from the dam. Periodically, Philpott sends forth huge volumes of water, and those surges removed habitat immediately below and near the dam. They also resulted in silt deposits and bank erosion far downstream. Both the bedrock upstream and the silted bottoms downstream do not harbor much minnow and insect life


Virginia's Smith River chapter of Trout Unlimited (SRTU) has been working hard to improve the situation on the Piedmont waterway. Al Kittredge, vice president of the chapter, lists these steps.

€¢ Convinced the Corps of Engineers (COE) to return to weekly generation schedule announcements. About three years ago, the COE decided there was an opportunity to make more money through power generation if it waited until the last minute to decide when peak power was required on the electric power grid. This short notice generation announcement did not allow fishermen to plan a visit to the fishery.

JACKSON RIVERAs is true with the Smith River, the Jackson River, in the northwestern part of the state, has experienced a somewhat checkered past. After Lake Moomaw was impounded over 25 years ago, the VDGIF released trout below Gathright Dam and the fish immediately took to their new homes. Indeed, the lower Jackson soon developed a reputation as a budding tailrace fishery of perhaps national importance. On one outing during that early period, my wife, Elaine, and I experienced the best float-fishing for trout that we have ever had in the Old Dominion.

However, some landowners along the lower river claimed that because of a legal concept called King's Grants from the 1700s, that they owned the stream bottom. Thus, fishermen caught wading in certain sections of the stream would be guilty of trespassing. I am not going to attempt to sort out all the legalities (A history of the King's Grants decision alone would cover volumes). But here are five things readers should know.

First, the lower Jackson River features an outstanding population of reproducing wild browns and rainbows. Second, a 12-inch minimum size limit and four-fish-per-angler per-day creel limit have been imposed on all trout caught from below Gathright to the Westvaco Dam in Covington. Third, do not wade-fish except at certain designated access points. Next, do not leave your craft and debark upon the bank except at the designated access points.

And, last, know where those designated access points exist. The public areas provide access to 18 miles of legally navigable water to Covington and are located in Alleghany County. They are as follows.

1. Below Gathright Dam off State Route (SR) 605.

2. Johnson Springs, off SR 687.

3. Falling Springs off SR 721.

4. Indian Draft, located off SR 687.

5. Petticoat Junction, off SR 687.

Tom Brown, fishing manager of the Orvis retail store in Roanoke, is exceptionally enthusiastic about the Jackson below Moomaw.

"The lower Jackson is my favorite trout water in Virginia, and I fish that section as often as I can," he said. "The Jackson offers river fishermen the best chance in the state to go after a population of reproducing wild rainbows and browns. All the fish are wild because the state has not stocked there in some 10 years.

"That's not to say that the fish are pushovers. Most people are not going to see many fish over 14 inches. But there is a good population of trout over 14 inches and a number of those are between 16 and 18 inches."

Brown emphasized that a major reason for the Jackson's productivity is that it is a limestone-based waterway, rich in nutrients and insect life. Additionally, the water from Gathright Dam does not go through turbines, so shad and other baitfish can emerge from the dam in good shape.

Not surprisingly, Brown relates that a superb year-round pattern on the Jackson is a size 4-8 shad-colored streamer. Some effective April and May patterns include size 10 Gray Drakes, size 18-20 Blue-Wing Olives, size 14-16 Elk Hair Caddis, size 6-10 black Woolly Buggers, and size 6-10 Dover's Peach Flies.

"Beginning in late April last year and on through May and much of June, the Gray Drake hatches were phenomenal," Brown said. "The drakes are really big mayflies and the trout were all over them. A really good oddball pattern is a large sulfur in size 14."

Brown added that quality wade-fishing exists at the aforementioned access points. Of course, some anglers like to float from access point to access point with many of the floats being approximately three miles in length. For current fishing information and best fly patterns, contact Orvis at (540) 345-3635. For guided fishing trips and current info, contact Blane Chocklett at Blue Ridge Fly Fishers at (540) 563-1617, or

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