August 07, 2020
I have a particular affinity for the New River, having floated it from where its North and South Forks commingle in North Carolina, throughout its Virginia journey, along its entire West Virginia stretch and onto where the stream forms the backwaters of Hawks Nest Lake.
Smallmouth action along the New is good just about anywhere you choose to launch a boat. However, the best bronzeback float trips are from Claytor Lake Dam to Glen Lyn, Va., and throughout the New River Gorge in West Virginia. Here, the mighty river offers spectacular scenery and promises a new adventure around every bend.
THE VIRGINIA STRETCH
Guide Britt Stoudenmire and his wife operate The New River Outdoor Company (icanoethenew.com) in Pembroke, Va. Stoudenmire concentrates his efforts on the various floats from Claytor Lake Dam to Glen Lyn.
"Compared to the New above Claytor, the river below the dam has bigger rapids, more smallmouth holding areas and less silt—so more consistent spawns," he says. "The result is the lower New has more bass—and bigger ones, too—simply because of that habitat. Those 10 floats each have something to recommend them, and all are unique in their own way."
For example, Stoudenmire says trips from the dam to Whitethorne feature less intense rapids, more pools, an abundance of vegetation and numerous eddies. This section is the easiest to float, although numerous Class I and II rapids exist, which can be problematic for beginner to intermediate paddlers. However, even on this relatively mild section of the New, dangerous Class III rapids exist, such as the Arsenal Rapid.
From Whitethorne to Pembroke, the river changes drastically, with more and larger rapids and deep-water ledges occurring more frequently. At Parrott and Eggleston, wave trains and riffle areas are more common. This section contains some pools, but they are far less common than in the previous section. This portion of the river also hosts the extremely dangerous Class III–IV McCoy Falls.
Stoudenmire says another tricky rapid in this section is the Class II-III Price’s Falls on the Eggleston-to-Pembroke junket (6 miles). Price’s Falls is easier and safer to float when the river is high, but the end of the drop becomes a Class III during lower water conditions. The jagged rock bottom can do serious damage to a craft.
The third section is from Pembroke to above Narrows Falls. Ledges become even more common, and the current’s pace increases. Here, according to Stoudenmire, the smallies begin relating to the current more consistently.
Other interesting habitat features are the deep-water troughs among the ledges. More Class I and II rapids exist, and several Class III drops can prove challenging. Stoudenmire emphasizes that two of the most dangerous ones are Pembroke Falls below its namesake access point and Clendennin Shoals on the Ripplemead-to-Bluff City excursion (7 1/2 miles).
This stretch has Class I, II and III rapids and probably causes more canoeists and kayakers to capsize than any other trip on Virginia’s lower New. But because of those major rapids, this trip also endures less fishing pressure than many of the milder runs upstream.
The last section is from below Narrows Falls to Glen Lyn. Narrows Falls is an extremely dangerous Class-IV-or-better drop that has been the site of numerous drownings. Under no circumstances should you attempt to run this portion of the river.
There’s a put-in below the rapid, and after Narrows Falls the New slows its pace considerably. Riprap along Route 460 is an important habitat feature and numerous water willow-covered islets exist, along with riffles and Class I rapids. It is as if the river is gathering itself before charging into West Virginia where the most intense rapids exist.
When selecting summertime lures, Stoudenmire’s go-to topwater bait is the Rebel Pop-R. During cicada season in late July and August, lots of fly fishermen hit the river to throw bug imitations and poppers. For subsurface action, Stoudenmire recommends Zoom flukes and tube baits.
For those seeking outstanding smallmouth action and scenery, the Virginia stretch of the New is tough to beat. However, the West Virginia portion of the New offers plenty of excitement, too.
THE WEST VIRGINIA STRETCH
Roger Wilson, the CEO of Adventures on the Gorge (adventuresonthegorge.com) in Fayette County, West Virginia, has floated the New River for some 40 years.
"One of the special things about float fishing the New during the summer is the water flow is substantial. It never becomes too low to float, as many other rivers do," he says. "Here, the smallmouths are never pressured thanks to of the river’s size and water volume. That is why there are so many 4- and 5-pound smallies.
"Another great thing about fishing the West Virginia section is that the deeper into the New River Gorge you float, the better the fishing and the bigger the smallmouths," Wilson continues. "The heavily wooded shorelines, the mountains and the Class III, IV, and IV-plus rapids make the Gorge a special place. This is true wilderness trophy fishing."
While the New River Gorge is a great place to fish, it certainly isn’t a place for novice or intermediate paddlers. Navigation of the New through this stretch is best left to seasoned, professional guides who routinely run it in rafts and dories.
The New River Gorge National River runs 53 miles from just below Hinton and Bluestone Lake Dam to Fayette Station and the backwaters of Hawks Nest Lake. Wilson divides this part of the river into three sections: Sandstone Falls to Prince, Prince to Thurmond and Thurmond to Fayette Station, which is often called the Lower Gorge. Not only do the bass seem to grow bigger the farther downstream you float, as Wilson says, but the rapids increase in intensity as well.
For example, from below Sandstone Falls, which is a true falls that can’t be run, to Glade Creek (10 miles), rapids top out at Class III with a large number of I and II drops. Below Glade Creek, the first of the Class III-IV drops occur. From Thurmond to Fayette Station (13 1/2 miles), technical Class IV-V rapids pock the New, and Class IIIs seem to be everywhere at times.
"Running from Thurmond to Fayette Station is a very special experience," says Wilson. "An ideal way to take this float is to have a gear boat and two guide-manned rafts with fishermen. The group of anglers spends two days and one night in the Lower Gorge with the guides, concentrating on trophy smallmouths. The gear boat carries the camping gear and food supplies, including a gourmet dinner with steaks, chicken or salmon."
For the West Virginia New as a whole, Wilson says that anglers should work the push water right above major rapids and probe the eddies, ledges and rocky pools below the rapids. He says lure choice is fairly simple.
"Tie on buzzbaits, Arbogast Jitterbugs and Heddon Tiny Torpedoes to fish the pocket water, push water and eddies," he says. "Work Rapala Original Minnows and tube baits on jig heads in the rocky pools. Four-inch grubs on jig heads work just about anywhere."
For Tommy Cundiff, who operates River Monster Guide Service (rivermonsterguideservice.com) in Virginia and West Virginia, the most essential piece of gear for a New River float isn’t a certain lure, rod or reel. It’s a lifejacket. People drown while fishing the New River almost every year, says Cundiff, and almost without exception, the common denominator is a lack of a personal floatation device.
Once, while fishing close to Arsenal Rapid, I told two fishermen in another boat that they might want to put on their life jackets as the rapids were approaching quickly. I know that they didn’t heed my warning, as I read in the local paper the next day that they overturned and drowned while running that rapid. Without a question, the best way to fish the New is with a professional guide.
Aside from a PFD, here’s a list of other equipment to be sure to have along for both day trips and overnight floats.
- Sun protection: Sunscreen, sleeved shirts, wide-brimmed hats and a quality pair of sunglasses.
- Quality Pliers: For safely removing today’s surgical-grade hooks, cutting braided line and repairing equipment.
- Water Thermometer: A key to summertime lure selection for the New River is knowing the water temperature.
- Lighting: A good headlamp will save you more anguish than just about anything else when camping alongside the river.
- Sleeping Bag/Ground Pad: A quality ground pad and sleeping bag will keep you well rested and able to focus on important things like catching fish.
- Cooler: A good cooler is essential for keeping food and beverages cold and fresh for the duration of your trip.
- Camp Axe: For chopping firewood and preparing a campsite.
- Rain Fly: Can be deployed quickly as an emergency shelter or simply as a precautionary measure to provide a dry sanctuary.
Editor’s Note: Bruce Ingram is the author of The New River Guide. To purchase a copy, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.