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Rough & Tumble Smallies in the Gauley

West Virginia's Gauley River offers whitewater thrills, chills and smallmouth bass.

Rough & Tumble Smallies in the Gauley
Photo by Larry D. Larsen

Are you looking for some rough and tumble smallmouth action? There are several rivers in the Eastern U.S. that will provide non-stop action; however, one of the most beautiful, exciting and productive is the boulder-strewn Gauley River in West Virginia.

The Gauley is one of my favorite places to get away from the mundane as there is never a dull moment there. While on the Gauley your raft will bump some boulders amidst crashing rapids and whitewater drops.

Periodically, your guide will advise you to hang on and attend to your rods. On a recent trip, my guide did just that as our raft scraped a giant rock, turned sideways in the current and washed off the rock into a drop of three feet.

We lunged forward as the bow hit the standing wave and I looked up to see a wall of water coming toward me. Drenched, I turned away from a second drop into another wet whitewater wave.

"Quick, cast behind that rock there," my guide yelled. I released my white-knuckle grip on the raft’s seat frame and picked up one of my rods. I safely fired off a cast to the eddy behind the rock as my guide turned the boat beneath the big rapid. The eddies below the most prominent rapids are the smallmouths’ hangout. A 14-incher came out of his hangout and smashed my grub-and-jig. He put up a good fight against my lightweight spinning tackle.

Accurate casts to small pockets that hold bass is important for success on the Gauley. (Photo by Larry D. Larsen)

About two minutes later while tossing the crankbait on my second rod, I set the hooks into a 15-inch battler as the raft careened off a large boulder and slammed into a vertical rock wall. When my guide’s paddle temporarily hung in a rock crevice, we went into a spin and took a standing wave over the transom. My guide soon regained control and pulled the raft into a side eddy behind a large, current-blocking boulder. Five small eddy pools were reachable from our tucked-in position.

Of those five, I either had a strike or fish in all but one.

The Wild and Intense Gauley Character

The smallmouth-laden river runs through the Gauley River National Recreation Area in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia and is known as being “wild and wonderful.” It is, particularly if you are a fisherman.

The Gauley River can basically be divided into four sections.The first 10 miles below the Summersville Dam is the upper section and the most isolated. There is not even a railroad track present, with only four wheel drive vehicles being capable of accessing it.

The upper section of very intense whitewater has the coldest water because it’s coming directly out the bottom of the dam and has minimal tributaries. At mile six, a major stream, called the Meadow River, enters the Gauley, and that tributary brings in warmer waters. You are on the edge in the upper section, so you spend a lot of time running aggressive whitewater and less time fishing.

Section two encompasses the area from mile 11 near Mason Branch to Koontz’s Bend, which is located at about mile 17. This 6-mile section of river is probably the most easily fished; there is less whitewater than in any of the other sections. Here, you spend less time worrying about whitewater and more time fishing.

The third section encompasses mile 17 at Koontz’s Bend to mile 25 at a town called Swiss. That section has the second-most whitewater and some guides feel that it offers the best smallmouth fishing because it has the least angling pressure. The fourth section from mile 26 downstream to about mile 35 at its confluence with the New River is very flat with minimal Class I and II whitewater. However, it’s the section where some of the biggest walleye and musky are caught.


The only potential problem in planning a trip to the Gauley River is that the water flows are a little bit unpredictable and volatile. The levels are constantly changing, sometimes making it difficult to fish, but the nearby New River is a substitute that is always fishable. It is important to hire an experienced guide on these West Virginia waters and all whitewater rivers.

While on the Gauley good casting is rewarded, as hitting the prime eddies and tiny pools behind the boulders is a must. A small spinning outfit will suffice for most anglers.

The first three sections of free-flowing river pass through perhaps the most scenic gorge in the Appalachians. They contain several Class V rapids, making it one of the most adventurous whitewater raft fishing rivers in the eastern U. S. Fortunately for me, on my recent trip the river was very low and most Class V rapids were IIIs or IVs (which still may get anglers a little wet). My guide was able to adeptly control the rafts’ descent down the river through the gorge and valley to miss most of the really wet spots, but he just couldn’t work us around a few of them.

The river’s character changed from crashing rapids to emerald-green pools behind house-size boulders to slower-moving runs, but the fishing didn’t. Smallmouth bass were everywhere in the extremely low water (resulting from a dam release upstream at only 1,000 cfs). The only distraction to our catch-and-release action was the outstanding scenery. We rounded one bend and spied a beaver swimming across the river. In the warmer months, you’ll see lots of whitewater rafts but fortunately they don’t affect the fishing, particularly if you hit the water early.

Luring the Smallies Out of their Haunts

The most productive lures for the smallies hiding out in the boulders are 1/4-ounce Blakemore Swim-N-Runner spin jigs with soft plastic tails and small billed-crankbaits, like the new 2 1/4-inch Berkley Frittside.

A small black Heddon Tiny Torpedo often is effective early in the morning. Other top lures on the Gauley are the new 3 1/2-inch Dartspin Weedless Swimbait by A Band of Anglers lure company and an old standby, the 4-inch YUM Dingers fished Wacky-style. Toss them on the downstream side of every rock or boulder large enough to block direct currents on a 2-pound smallmouth.

Many sections of the Gauley contain relatively lightly fished water that produces scrappy river smallmouth. (Photo by Larry D. Larsen)

My largest smallie that day was a 17-incher that fell for a jointed crankbait. A few other smallies were 15 inches and many were smaller. But they were fun on spinning outfits with 6- and 8-pound test Trik Fish Fluorocarbon line. The Upper Section of the Gauley in the Class V and V-plus waters is where you have the greatest chance of catching some really big trout and walleye. I didn’t catch any of the big walleye that linger in a few of the Gauley pools that day, but I still have fond memories of one I caught on that river several years before. It weighed 10 pounds.

A friend in one of the other rafts that day had a 3-foot long musky on, but it cut the light line on its third run. There are rainbow trout (and a few huge brown trout up to 15 pounds) in the Gauley’s upper section of cold water, and while I wasn’t able to fool any on this trip, I have caught them before on small inline spinners, tiny minnow baits and Road Runner spin jigs.

I’ve whitewater rafted the Gauley and its class IV and V waters a few times and I’ve fished it from a raft several times. I have always caught smallies. My usual boat tally (for two anglers) is between 50 and 100 for the day. It’s not hard to figure out where the smaller fish are. Water over one-foot deep is all that’s required for their habitat.

The larger smallmouth bass are usually behind the most prominent boulders and in the deeper pools where forage would wash into their hangouts near the eddies.

On this trip, the water was right and the fishing couldn’t have been better, no matter where you tossed your favorite bait. I finished the day on the river of boulders with slightly damp clothes and plenty of fond memories that constant action offered.

Gauley River Contact Information

For more information on fishing the beautiful Gauley River in West Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains, contact Adventures on the Gorge at (855) 379-8738, visit their website at, or email

The full-service resort complex built on the Canyon Rim and Mill Creek campuses and has dozens of 1-, 2-, 3-, and 4-bedroom cabins right on and just off the Gorge. Adventures On The Gorge has several restaurants including one of the state’s most renown, Smokey’s Cast Iron Skillet, several bars and great conference facilities and swimming pools.

One of the largest adventure companies in the U.S., they offer half-day, full-day and multi-day float fishing trips on fishing-frame-mounted whitewater rafts and over 30 trip/activity packages and more adventures (on water, around water, on trails, up rocks and on the mountain) than most any other resort. They also offer all kinds of Special Offers and Promotions during the year. If you get tired of catching smallies, you’ll never lack for something else exciting to do here.

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