Looking for a family vacation that includes some fishing this summer? We have some ideas for you - trips you can take right here in Virginia.
By Bruce Ingram
June is the month when the free fishing weekend takes place, when school lets out, when summer begins, and when many families take vacations. All these factors combine to make this month an ideal time for family members to enjoy time together on nearby Virginia rivers and lakes. Here are four where-to-go options around the state for angling-oriented families.
WESTERN VIRGINIA: THE UPPER JAMESLast summer, my son Mark and I enjoyed a voyage down the upper James with Steve Forbes and his daughter Whitney of Fincastle. Although Mark and I have floated the James a number of times in tandem, it was the initial river outing of any kind for Steve and Whitney, and both of them landed their first smallmouth bass. Indeed, two wonderful memories for me from the trip will always be recalling how wide a grin Steve had when he landed his "introductory" smallie and how Whitney called out to let me know that she had brought her first bass aboard.
"I was excited about catching my first smallmouth bass," said Whitney. "Going down the rapids and riffles was fun because I liked the challenge of maneuvering around the rocks. I also enjoyed having lunch on the river because stopping gave me a chance to enjoy the beautiful scenery."
The four of us floated in the Springwood area, and from that tiny Botetourt County hamlet downstream, a number of quality excursions exist. The Springwood to Buchanan junket (4 miles) is an ideal one for novice paddlers and/or families. No rapids exist on the entire trip, and only two riffles dot the James, so even beginning canoeists should be able to navigate this section.
Several scenic rock bluffs dot the river-right side during the first half of the trip, making good backgrounds for family photo opportunities. And the last half of the float is characterized by a long riffle heavily populated by aggressive smallmouths. Indeed, for much of this float, the bass action can be nonstop. The put-in is on river right at the Route 630 bridge and the take-out is on river right just above the Route 11 bridge in Buchanan.
Steve Forbes and his daughter, Whitney, admire a smallmouth caught near Springwood on the James river last summer. Both Steve and Whitney caught their first smallmouths on this family-friendly stretch of river. Photo by Bruce Ingram
Another enticing family outing is from Buchanan to Arcadia (6 miles). If you don't own a boat, you can enjoy bank-fishing along the river-right shoreline in downtown Buchanan. This is a popular destination for individuals who like to wet a line for smallmouths and panfish as well as those who like to do battle after dark with flathead catfish.
Several rapids punctuate the Buchanan float, the most challenging of which is the Class II Quarry Rapid about a mile into the float. This rapid occurs when the river takes its first bend to the right, and it lies to the right of center. You can avoid the worst part of this rolling Class II by negotiating it on its left side. Above and below Quarry Rapid is some excellent rock cover, and the same holds true for a long river-left bend downstream.
Another enticing part about this float is some ruins of the Kanawha Canal that occur after the aforementioned river-left bend. These ruins also lie at the head of a Class I to II rapid. After that rapid, you will only encounter riffles and a Class I that comes into view near where Jennings Creek enters the James. The take-out is at the Route 614 bridge, just off Interstate 81 near the community of Arcadia.
Yet another worthwhile family float trip is Arcadia to Alpine (4 miles). The first mile of this float is characterized by a long river-left bend that sports outstanding rock cover throughout. A Class I rapid, an eddy, and an island signal the end of this bend; take the left route past the island where a Class II rapid will send you along your way. The rest of the float will bring more outstanding smallmouth bass cover, as Class I rapids, riffles, rocky bottoms and shaded shoreline areas occur with regularity. The take-out is on river left, near an abandoned building on Route 608/622. The access point is hard above a Class I rapid.
CENTRAL AND EASTERN VIRGINIA: THE LOWER JAMES Mike Ostrander, who operates the James River Fishing School, guides on the lower James below Richmond for blue catfish, crappie, white perch, striped bass, shad and herring - depending on the time of year. He employs a 24-foot pontoon boat, which is ideal for family outings up to six people.
"I like to put in at Henricus Park, about 15 miles downstream from Richmond, and make the easy run upriver to see the city and fish," said Ostrander. "Families seem to enjoy viewing the historical areas from the river and my talks about Civil War battles and ships that once dominated the area. Wildlife viewing in the lower James is also outstanding.
On the upper James, in the city of Richmond (the fall line between the upper and lower river occurs at Richmond), Ostrander offers a raft fishing trip for big flatheads that is quite suitable for family fishing trips. First, the trip is an easy, peaceful one that provides people the chance to see bald eagles, river otters, Canada geese, ducks, deer, osprey, hawks and turtles. Ostrander says that they see bald eagles on nearly every trip between mid-April and the end of June. And the fishing for flatheads can be outstanding.
"Every person on every trip has caught at least a 10-pound fish, except a 5-year-old named Johnny, the youngest client I have had," Ostrander said.
Ostrander adds that even the youthful Johnny managed to land three flatheads, each of which weighed about 3 pounds - the smallest the guide has seen - that were the perfect size for the tyke. Johnny's dad and brother, meanwhile, both reeled in 15- to 20-pound fish. The guide adds that flats grow quite large: 30-pound-plus fish are possible and 13-pounders are average.
Ostrander relates that the James River Park System within Richmond offers a number of parking spaces along the south shore of the waterway. Every parking area has very easy access to the river, and bank fishing opportunities exist. Smallmouth bass, sunfish and flatheads are commonly caught above the fall line, especially in the Pony Pasture area.
The guide adds that the lower river also offers several boat ramps for easy access. Ancarrow's Landing (which is also part of the park system) is located near Interstate 95 in downtown. On this section, fishing is best in the spring when striped bass, white perch, herring and shad are running. Additional access can also be found 15 miles downriver from Richmond in the form o
f Osborne Landing on the north side of the tidal river and Dutch Gap Boat Landing on the southern shore. Catfish sport near these landings is especially productive throughout the warm weather period.
Ostrander emphasizes that boat traffic can be heavy near both landings as both barge and pleasure craft ply the lower James. However, plenty of coves and cuts can be found, so anglers can escape the crowds, especially during the week.
For guided fishing trips with Mike Ostrander, contact him at the James River Fishing School, (804) 938-2350), or on-line at www.jamesriverfishing.com. For more information on the James River Park, dial (804) 646-8911.
NORTHERN VIRGINIA: THE SOUTH FORK OF THE SHENANDOAH One of my wife Elaine's and my favorite places to fish is the South Fork of the Shenandoah in the Front Royal area. Last July, we paddled a section of the South Fork that we have never taken before, a four-miler from Front Royal to Riverton. One of the reasons we had never undertaken that float is because the now closed Avtex Fibers plant, also known as Viscose, resides along much of the river right shoreline of the float. Before the state ordered Avtex shut down in 1990, it held the dubious honor of being Virginia's worst polluting industry, releasing in 1987, for example, over 54 million pounds of highly hazardous chemicals. Fish caught from this section should not be consumed because of PCBs once released from Avtex.
Don Roberts, who operates the Front Royal Canoe Company, told me that fishermen and paddlers rarely ask to take the Front Royal to Riverton float because of the infamous past. However, Roberts notes that the smallmouth bass population has rebounded and that local anglers are catching great numbers of fish from the river. Lightly fished water in the heart of an area where Elaine and I were staying appealed to both of us. And we found Roberts' assessment to be correct as we caught a number of bronzebacks, some of which were good sized. And except for the remains of Avtex, the scenery was surprisingly rural.
At Front Royal, the put-in is a concrete ramp on river right. The access point is on Route 681 (Criser Road) via Route 340. At the put-in, you will see a gauging station and a charming old wood barn on river left and soon will float under a powerline. Small riffles and rock-lined pools characterize the first two miles, and the smallmouth bass are very abundant.
The South Fork then makes a river-left bend, and for the next half-mile, we found the fishing fantastic. The smallmouths engaged in a strong topwater bite, and we landed fish up to 14 inches in length. Throughout this section, sycamores line both banks, and the community of Riverton can be viewed on river left. Some deep-water, rock-filled pools also occur. The next major feature is where the Route 340/522 bridge crosses the river, after this landmark come three small islands that lie in a line.
You will then paddle under two railroad bridges and reach the confluence of the South Fork and the North Fork of the Shenandoah as they commingle to form the Main Stem. At the confluence, make a hard left turn and paddle upstream through a long, slow pool on the North Fork. A 15-minute paddle will bring you to the Riverton take-out on river left. The access point is located just below a low water dam. Interestingly, the Front Royal float gives anglers the opportunity to canoe three rivers in one outing - although they will only be on the Main Stem for a few seconds.
Several other area floats also exist that I can recommend, among them Bentonville to Karo (8 miles) and Karo to Front Royal (6 miles). For information on planning a sojourn in Front Royal, contact the Front Royal-Warren County Visitors Center, (800) 338-2576, or visit www.frontroyalchamber.com.
This area is rich in history. Elaine and I, for example, found the story behind Belle Boyd, a Civil War spy, fascinating as well as how Front Royal received its name. The folks at the visitor center are very friendly and willingly help you map out where to go.
We stayed at a delightful B&B, the Tanglewood (888-635-1411). Front Royal is also known for its good dining, among the best bets are the China Jade Restaurant (540-635-9161), J's Gourmet (540-636-9293) and Villa Giuseppe's Italian Restaurant (540-636-8999). For canoe rental and current fishing and stream conditions, contact the Front Royal Canoe Company at (800) 270-8808, or visit www.frontroyalcanoe.com. Fishing with the kids is nice, but quality outings with your spouse are wonderful ways for couples to reconnect too. Elaine and I try to schedule several "just us" combination float trips and stays at Virginia bed and breakfasts every summer, and we always come back rejuvenated.
STATEWIDE: PANFISH ON VIRGINIA'S LAKES Bud LaRoche, a regional fisheries manager for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) says that the state-owned lakes are appealing destinations for families. Of these impoundments, 30 lakes feature acreage of 30 or more, and eight are mini-impoundments of fewer than 30 acres. All together, they total over 3,300 acres.
"These lakes are scattered across Virginia and are within an easy drive for many families," says LaRoche. "Panfish are a major species in many of the lakes and typically are very catchable.
In the western part of Virginia, expect to find bluegills as the predominant sunfish. In the Piedmont, many lakes have both bluegills and redear sunfish (also known as shellcrackers). And in Tidewater, bluegills, fliers and warmouths are commonly found. Black crappie are also available in many of these lakes around the state.
"One of the department's goals was to make many of our lakes more family oriented. Creating hiking and biking trails and places for picnic areas have been projects we have wanted to do. But the state's budget crunch has kept us from doing things we would have liked to have done," LaRoche said.
It would be unfair to the resource for me to highlight these small lakes here, especially given their small size, and the fact that really, you can catch fish from any of them. LaRoche advises parents to log on to the Web site of the VDGIF (www.vdgif.state.va.us) and use the information presented there to pinpoint the public lake or impoundment nearest home.
The biologist also suggests that fishing families consider journeying to any number of the state's major impoundments to angle for panfish.
"Our larger lakes such as Buggs Island, Smith Mountain and Claytor all feature good bluegill populations," said LaRoche. "One of the reasons I mentioned those three lakes is that they all have state parks on their shores. State parks typically offer docks or piers to fish from and also have good bank access.
"A family without a boat can come to the state parks at these three major lakes and fish from a dock or the bank without fear of trespassing on
private land. And chances are also good that the kids will be able to take home a mess of panfish for supper."
Some state-owned lakes and major impoundments have handicapped accessible piers. The aforementioned Web site can supply information in this area as well. VDGIF fisheries biologist Vic Dicenzo says that besides these three major lakes and their state parks, there are also many small state park lakes scattered across the Commonwealth. Parks typically offer very diverse facilities such as camping, playgrounds, swimming and picnic areas. Log on to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation's Web site (www.dcr.state.va.us) or call (804) 786-1712. My family and I have stayed at Old Dominion state parks from Hungry Mother in far western Virginia to First Landing on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay and have never had anything but a marvelous experience.
Dicenzo gives these tips for families visiting VDGIF lakes, state park impoundments or ponds, or the state's major bodies of water.
"For individuals wanting to catch a mess of bluegills or other panfish to eat, I would recommend that they visit these lakes anytime from May to August when fishing is prime," he says. "If fishing from a boat, find spawning beds or fish in and near aquatic vegetation. If fishing from the shore, look for brushpiles especially. Use live bait such as crickets and worms."
Come June, planning a fishing trek with the kids and/or the spouse is a delightful way to spend time together. And the Old Dominion certainly offers a great deal for us to enjoy.
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