March 01, 2023
By Larry Larsen
From the launch ramp beneath Kanawha Falls, the scenery could not have been more spectacular. Guide Bobby Bower motored his jet boat past an old hydroelectric-power facility toward a series of several dozen mid-size waterfalls spanning the quarter-mile-wide Kanawha River. The bank-to-bank rock outcropping is a natural block to fish movement upstream, so the fish can pile up there at times, according to the West Virginia native.
"Cast to that foam line over there," Bower suggested. I pitched my crawdad-resembling Big O crankbait to the edge of the foam. The narrow foam ribbon defined an eddy between two broad falls. The bait splashed down, and the current swept it toward our boat as I reeled it back, slowly but on a taut line.
"A little farther back where the foam lies against the boulder there," advised the guide.
I complied and had an immediate hookup. The 2-pound smallmouth bass headed skyward through the bubbles. I quickly landed and released it. My wife, Rosie, connected with a smallie a few minutes later as we worked the eddies below most of the lower falls. Bobby maneuvered his jet boat around the boulder-strewn area, putting us in prime positions to toss our baits to the edges of the flow beneath the thundering threads of the Kanawha. We caught several more bass, plus a small walleye, taking time out to photograph the magnificent scenery.
The water above the falls is West Virginia's famous New River. It takes on the name Kanawha just after the New's confluence with the smaller Gauley River near Hawks Nest State Park at Ansted and the Gauley Bridge. The park's 270 acres encompass the Hawks Nest impoundment on the New River, operated by West Virginia's Department of Natural Resources.
A low wing dam above Kanawha Falls and its rapids diverts some of the water through the power facility's turbines on the north side of the river in the little town of Glen Ferris. Built in 1899, the plant on the shoulder of U.S. Route 60 is still operational. From the falls, the Kanawha River flows northwest through Charleston and into the Ohio River at Henderson.
The fishing above and below Kanawha Falls can be as amazing as the scenery. The smaller waterfalls stretch from about 30 to 100 feet in width and form a stairstep arrangement over craggy boulders. Most falls offer a vertical drop of 6 to 12 feet, and the river's total drop is around 20 feet.
Bower has been guiding anglers from both jet boats and whitewater rafts on the New and Kanawha rivers for more than 34 years. He opened New River Jet Boats (newriverjetboats.com) in 1993 and Pro River Outfitters (profishwv.com) in 2007.
"We mainly run a jet boat on Hawks Nest Lake, the New River area at Gauley Bridge, and below Kanawha Falls and on downstream," he explained. "Downstream, the Kanawha shoreline is more industrial and commercial. There are cabins, houses and farming communities. We also utilize the jet boats for shorter evening fishing trips. The nice thing about a jet boat is you can get out when the weather is less than perfect pretty much all year long."
Bower's fishing boat is an 18-foot G3 powered by a 60-horsepower jet drive. It easily glides through shallow, moderate rapids and provides more comfort for anglers who are used to fishing from typical bass boats. (He also has two larger boats sporting Hamilton jet drives that are used for family and group tours.) Where Bower and his guides fish on any given day is determined by water level, clarity and flow parameters early each morning. They check flow-release schedules and water conditions online at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Whitewater Conditions Huntington District.
Bower's clients often catch big numbers of smallmouths and some sizeable ones measuring 25 inches long and weighing 7 pounds or more. He once fought a 30-inch smallie on his 5-weight fly rod that put on a spectacular tarpon-like aerial display before getting off. Bower noted that fish could have been a state record. He has seen walleyes up to 20 inches on a regular basis during the warmer months, and the largest walleye pulled into his boat in the past year measured 24 inches.
Pro River Outfitters often uses inflatable 14-foot fishing rafts in heavy whitewater sections of the New River between April and October. The guides frequent the New from Sandstone Falls, just above the Interstate 64 bridge and Sandstone Visitors Center, downstream through the New River Gorge. Extremely rocky rapids and fast currents abound throughout much of the 3,000-foot-wide gorge, and the wild waters teem with fish.
The thundering roar from Class IV and V rapids through the canyon get the adrenaline going as you scope out small pockets of calmer water between large boulders. The guide adeptly controls your ride through white-capped waves. These waters are for serious anglers with good casting skills. The fun starts when you hook a 2-pound smallmouth just before entering a tumbling Class IV rapid. You heave the smallie into the boat, drop your rod, secure the lifejacket and hang on!
Your guide searches for the safest approach and does everything he can to position the raft for the descent as the rapids seemingly suck your raft toward the huge waves. The raft is tossed about by the choppy waves and hydraulics, which provide the equivalent of a mechanical bull ride on high. The force of the river tests your grip on the raft straps and seat bracket. Your arm and shoulder muscles will get a short workout, and you may get wet. Fortunately, there are only a few drenching rapids on the New that a good guide can't find a way around.
Ideal lures for the rowdy conditions are those that are easy to accurately cast, such as soft plastic flukes, grubs, tube jigs and swimbaits in light brown, tan or white hues. Road Runner 1/4- and 3/8-ounce Salt Runners and Classic Runners with a willow blade and soft plastic tail are favorites of mine. They are easy to toss and control, as is a 1/4-ounce jig with a 4 1/2-inch Hyperlastic Dartspin from A Band of Anglers. Small-billed crankbaits such Cotton Cordell's Big O in crayfish or perch pattern, as well as spinnerbaits, may also be effective.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, miners, lumberjacks, mountain men and moonshiners were scattered throughout what is now called the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. Steam-powered trains chugged along the waterways, and vehicles climbed switchbacks in and out of the canyons. Today, anglers, hikers, rock climbers and zipliners enjoy the New River Gorge, and armadas of whitewater rafters travel down the river's tumultuous rapids.
Most anglers on a guided fishing trip down the New River Gorge will see and hear lots of whitewater rafters. On my first trip 30 years ago through the beautiful gorge with pioneer raft operator and avid angler Dave Arnold, we had several dozen whitewater rafts paddle feverishly past us. I still caught 50 smallmouths that morning during an abbreviated trip. Fortunately, the noise from hundreds of whitewater enthusiasts doesn't scare the fish.
Since then, I've fished the New River more than a dozen times, almost always catching 40 to 50 smallmouths. I have been fortunate to fish with Arnold several times. He estimates that all the area's fishing outfitters combined catch and release around 30,000 smallmouth bass in a year in the Gorge. That's based on a conservative average day of 20 to 30 fish per person. Fortunately, there is very little mortality.
Arnold has been in the rafting industry since 1974, when he taught whitewater kayaking to rookie guides. He quickly moved to guiding whitewater expeditions and started his successful Class VI River Runners company in 1977. Thirty years later, he joined with three other New River rafting companies to form Adventures on the Gorge resort.
While the best fishing on the New River takes place between May and November, it is productive for smallmouth bass throughout most of the year. The New has consistently fishable water levels and it, along with tributary Greenbrier River, produce many of the larger smallmouths caught in the state.
The New yields quite a few smallies between 5 and 7 pounds. I've caught several around 4 pounds and dozens from 15 to 20 inches in length. I have also experienced tough days, but even when strikes have slowed, the ever-changing, beautiful scenery captures your attention.
Knowing the New
The North Fork of the New River meanders northward from its quiet beginnings in North Carolina, growing in volume and velocity to become world-class whitewater. The South Fork of the New River stretches from its headwaters at a spring near Blowing Rock, N.C., and the Eastern Continental Divide. It then flows northward along the northwestern face of the Blue Ridge Mountains through northwestern North Carolina.
The South Fork joins the North Fork in Ashe County, N.C., to form the New River. It continues running north through Virginia, into Claytor Lake, a hydroelectric-power reservoir, and into Bluestone Lake in the Mountain Lakes Region of West Virginia.
"The New is an artificially controlled natural river," Arnold pointed out. "The Claytor hydroelectric plant puts out a pulse flow, so when that flow gets to Bluestone Lake, it re-regulates the river into a more natural flow."
The New River Gorge National Park and Preserve land starts just downstream from Bluestone Dam and above its confluence with the free-flowing Greenbrier River. That gorge corridor twists through a series of more than 20 rapids that drop some 200 feet over 53 miles. It eventually flows into Hawks Nest Lake, which is the official end of the park and preserve. The majority of New River rafting and fishing trips take place starting about 30 miles downstream from the town of Prince. This most-active section extends to the New River Gorge Bridge, the Western Hemisphere's longest single-arch steel span, at Fayette Station.
Due to the large number of access points along the rugged gorge terrain, there are about 10 different fishable sections of the New downstream from Bluestone Dam. Over the years, I've fished most sections including the Lower New River from Cunard to Fayette Station. That is where the most aggressive Class IV and V whitewater exists, according to Arnold.
"This section is exciting, but it should be fished only during low to medium water levels," he warned. "Only fish it with a professional guide or one with lots of fishing expertise in Class IV and V whitewater. The angler and raft have to be constantly positioned for a near-perfect bait presentation adjacent the rocks and fallen trees."
From Hawks Nest Lake, the New flows 8 miles through "the Dries" and on to the confluence with the Gauley River. That area is fishable and has some great whitewater during high water levels. With new access in the past couple of years, it has yet to be fished much. Be assured a fishing trip on the New and Kanawha rivers will live up to West Virginia's "wild and wonderful" slogan. After a float through the Gorge, whitewater smallmouth anglers may want to add "wet" to that description, too.
Gorge section becomes 63rd national park.
West Virginia's New River, previously designated as a national river, is now part of the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. The designation was signed into law by President Trump in late 2020 and includes nearly 73,000 acres. It is America's newest national park.
For more than 10 million years, the tumbling whitewater cut its way through the sedimentary sandstone, forest seeps and rugged wetlands of the Appalachian Mountains, creating a spectacular canyon. The New River is one of the oldest rivers in North America. The Gorge portion within the National Park and Preserve includes more than 53 miles of fish-laden waters twisting and cascading between 500- to 1,000-foot-high cliff walls. Along the rim are many open ledges, a range of foot trails and craggy outcroppings that offer sightseers, hikers, climbers, repellers and campers exciting views.
Below, among the rushing, boulder-strewn rapids, are opportunities to catch smallmouth bass, rainbow trout and endemic walleyes. There are numerous federal, state and private access points to put in boats along the river. The park's fishing and license regulations follow those of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (wvdnr.gov).
Accommodations near the great fishing and other recreational opportunities in the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve can be found in Fayetteville, Beckley and Glade Springs. Fayetteville sits at the northern end of the park just 2 miles from the iconic New River Gorge Bridge. Nearby is the Canyon Rim Visitor Center and Bridge Overlook, and 20 minutes away is Hawks Nest State Park and New River Jet Boats.
Fayetteville is also within 5 minutes of Adventures on the Gorge (adventuresonthegorge.com), an outdoor adventure resort. Adventures on the Gorge (AOTG) offers more than 100 cabins with hotel-style amenities, a handful of bunkhouse cabins and several rustic cabins, in addition to tent "glamping," RV campsites and vacation homes. The resort also has multiple dining options for all tastes. On many days, AOTG has around 800 "park and play" guests at its headquarters heading off to experience one of 50 different activities.
AOTG offers aerial, land and lake adventures, plus scenic outlook tours. Whitewater activities include rafting, fishing and kayaking. The largest outfitter in the Southeast, AOTG during the warm-weather season will generally take 40,000 people down the different sections of the New and Gauley rivers. Fortunately, the rivers are not crowded with anglers, and the rafters using the adrenaline whitewater routes through the big hydraulics seldom bother fish or those in pursuit of them.
Glade Springs Resort (gladesprings.com) in the small town of Daniels is a nice alternative at the southern end of the park. It has 200 guest rooms and suites, plus stand-alone villas and lodges. The beautiful resort has several lakes, a golf course, myriad activities and deer running all around its 4,100 acres of hilly woodlands. The town of Beckley lies about 23 miles south of the bridge, and it has a variety of lodging.
Don't overlook the nearby Gauley River.
While the New River is fishable more days each year than the Gauley River, the latter can sometimes be a good backup plan. The Gauley is an option for those days when the flow rate of the New in the Gorge is too high or when the water is too discolored for optimal fishing.
Unlike the north-flowing New River, the Gauley's smaller watershed drops out of Lake Summersville and flows from east to west. The lower Gauley section generally offers more fishable days per year than the upper. The river, which has a national recreation area designation, is one of the best whitewater fishing destinations in the country. It yields a variety of sportfish, including smallmouths to 7 pounds, walleyes to 17 pounds and muskies to 40 inches. You can also catch rainbow, brown and golden trout up to a pound or two, according to Dave Arnold, co-founder of Adventures on the Gorge.
"You never know what will come out of the water," he says. "Only 60 to 70 percent of your catch will be smallmouth. The smallmouth action doesn't heat up until water temperature is in the 50s. That normally occurs in June."
The water levels and flow on the Gauley fluctuate greatly due to runoff and may limit access at times during the summer. The fierce river can be very dangerous at most high-water levels, and an experienced guide is highly recommended.
The Gauley can be divided into four sections. The first 10 miles is the isolated upper Gauley section where the coldest water comes out of the bottom of the Summersville Dam. It offers the greatest chance of catching trout and walleyes. It also has the most intense whitewater, up to Class V. At mile six, a major tributary, the Meadow River, brings in warmer water.
Section two encompasses the lower Gauley from Mason's Branch down to Koontz's Bend. This 7-mile section of river is the most easily fished, and smallmouths are the primary quarry. The third section from Koontz's Bend 8 miles downstream to the town of Swiss has the second-most whitewater. This is the section where I caught my largest West Virginia walleye, a beautiful 10 1/2-pounder, on a crankbait. The final section in the lower Gauley is relatively flat to where it flows into the New River at the Gauley Bridge.
West Virginia Walleye
A unique strain is native to the New River.
In the early 2000s, the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) discovered that the New River had a unique genetic strain of walleye, quite different than the walleye found in the Great Lakes and other common fisheries. The theory is that because the New River flows north, glaciers caused the walleyes in the New River to be isolated and develop different genetics.
West Virginia's Division of Natural Resources began working with the Virginia DWR to develop a program to reintroduce the native strain of walleye back into the New River, according to Mark Scott, assistant chief of fish management. Since then, West Virginia has passed special regulations for areas that hold the native walleye to protect the females and build the population.
"There's no real way to tell a New River walleye from any other walleye except by using genetics," says Scott. "But we have found that their eggs are about twice as large as other walleye and the fry are very aggressive feeders. Anglers are catching some real trophy walleyes every year that are double digits in weight. The Kanawha River leads all waters with 53 percent of the trophy citations issued by us."
The prime time to catch the largest walleyes is during the early spring when they run up the rivers to spawn. On the New River, they run upstream toward Sandstone Falls. West Virginia, however, has made the spawning area there "no harvest" or catch-and-release for all walleyes to protect them when they are most vulnerable to angling, notes Scott.
"We have been stocking the native strain since the mid-2000s, primarily in rivers around the state," he explains. "We've seen a lot of success with anglers now targeting walleye on many rivers in West Virginia, and we currently have a genetic project going on with West Virginia University to look at the walleye genetics in all waters statewide. That should tell us where our stocking programs have been most successful."