Virginia Fly Fishing

Virginia’s trout fishing is better than you might think. Even though the trout waters of Old Dominion are close to major metropolitan areas like Baltimore and Washington, D.C. (which means that these 2,800 miles of streams get a lot of angling pressure), the state’s fisheries are in better shape now than they have been in a decade.

Trout can be found in the western part of the state, in the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountain ranges, in the George Washington and Thomas Jefferson National Forests, and in Shenandoah National Park.

The beautiful, rugged scenery of the Appalachian Mountains, rich with flora and dense pine and oak forests, will delight anglers. Most Virginia streams don’t enjoy prolific hatches, but matching the hatch is a must on many rivers.

Virginia boasts a diversity of trout streams ranging from freestone mountain creeks to limestone streams to spring creeks to tailwaters. Trout fishermen can fish the Virginia small streams that rush down mountainsides, cascading over mossy rocks and plunging into dark green pools teeming with brook, rainbow and brown trout.

Fishermen won’t catch trophy trout in these waters — but the trout fishing in the beautiful mountain country, casting to trout under streamside laurel and rhododendron, walking along the Appalachian Trail — makes for a complete wilderness fishing experience.

Embattled Habitat

For decades, the native brook trout have been losing habitat, retreating to the highest elevations. Virginia trout streams face a number of obstacles, not the least of which is acid rain. Despite efforts at amelioration, more and more streams and their trout have been affected by increased acidity.

Native brookies have long been threatened by overharvest, mining and logging, increased sedimentation, high water temperatures, loss of riparian habitat, channelization, and pressure for food and cover from competing trout.

But the times, they are a-changin’.

Even though many Virginia trout streams require stocking with hatchery trout, more than 2,300 miles of water are designated wild trout streams, a number the state wants to increase. Increased catch-and-release regulations, other protective restrictions, and the accompanying preservation attitude have helped many of the native brook trout hold their own.

And by the way, choosing only five top trout waters meant I had to leave out some excellent streams. For the inevitable naysayers, I know that the Rose, North Fork Moorman’s and the Dan offer top-notch trouting.

Smallmouth Bass

There are smallmouth in almost all of Virginia’s moving waters but the New, James, Roanoke, Rappahannock, and Shenandoah rivers are among the best smallmouth fisheries in the country.

A skilled, persistent fly fisher could catch smallmouth bass 12 months a year on any of these rivers, but the best action takes place April through October. May through September is the most dependable time to catch a lot of bass.

Anglers who want to catch big smallmouths-15 inches to 20 inches or more-should fish in April. That’s when the biggest females aggressively defend their spawning areas on shallow flats. However, spring rain can muddy rivers and the unstable weather typical of that season sometimes makes fishing unpredictable for visiting anglers.

The low, clear water in July, August, and September concentrates the fish in shady areas and deep holes below shelves and riffles. The fish range from dumb as a rock, smacking anything that remotely resembles food, to as finicky as spring-creek trout. Each day is different.

Top Rivers & Streams for Trout & Smallmouth Bass

Whitetop Laurel

Whitetop Laurel is a prime example of an Appalachian mountain stream, tucked away in the Thomas Jefferson National Forest. Many believe that Whitetop Laurel, one of the state’s largest trout streams, is also the best all-around stream in ol’ Virginny.

This productive stream is fishable all season long, and holds primarily wild trout, rainbows mostly, with some nice, hard-to-catch browns hiding around the rocks and deep in its pools.

The wild trout are chunky, colorful and feisty. These wild trout range in size from”fit-in-the-palm-of-your-hand” to “better-hold-it-with-two-hands” (6 to 14 inches) with some in the 16- to 20-inch range.

Whitetop Laurel is a mountainous freestone stream, running quick down its steep grade. The river has good access but to reach much of the river requires a decent bit of walking. Anglers will find pool after pool and riffle after riffle, connected in places with chutes and glides.

The gravel bottom makes wading a cinch. The banks are lined with moss, the river often covered with a green canopy of limbs and vegetation. The pools on Whitetop Laurel are often long and clear, requiring stealthy approaches, long leaders and perfect presentations.

Riffles, Pools & Chutes

In between pools, among the rocks littering the river, the riffles and chutes churn white, hiding 10- to 12-inch wild trout. With all the rocks, drop pools, and small targets, short tight casts are required. If it rains, the river easily goes spate and may not clear till the next day.

Whitetop enjoys healthy, if sporadic, mayfly hatches with the Green Drake and Sulfur Dun hatches in early spring being especially notable. If you can match the hatch during the hatches, you can experience a dry-fly braggin’ rights day. But in most of the pools and riffles, barring a major hatch, anglers need only present drag-free artificials like a Royal Wulff or an Adams.

Whitetop Laurel has an artificials-only section (three and a half miles) and another special regulations section, so be sure to check regulations before fishing. Even though the road follows much of the river from Damascus to Konnarock, you never even hear the trucks and cars when you’re on the river.

Much of the upper river is in wilderness, reachable only by hiking. The Virginia Creeper Trail over a mountain and into Taylor’s Valley is a good hike/backpacking trip for wild trout fishing. This upper section of Whitetop Laurel (also known as Little Whitetop Laurel) has plenty of pools, tight cover and lots of smaller wild trout.

Species:

The brown and rainbow trout in Whitetop Laurel aren’t huge, even by eastern standards. Trout run about as long as your shoe with the occasional denizen of the deepest pool running about a foot and a half.
Gear: Since the Whitetop Laurel has so many tight spots, given its canopy and drop pools, you’ll want to stick with a shorter rod. A 7-foot, 3-weight would be perfect.

Flies:

Attractor dry-fly patterns and basic mayfly and caddis dries will do the trick here. Stick with high-riding Adams Parachute, Elk Hair Caddis, Patriot, Royal Wulff in sizes 12 to 18. Generic attractor nymphs can get down to holding trout in the pools and deeper water. Terrestrials (beetles, ants and hoppers) always work well in late summer. The key is not pattern but keeping your line off the water and providing a good presentation.

Smith River

The Smith River is a 20-mile tailwater below Philpott Lake, known across the nation for its trophy brown trout fishing in its wide waters. But the Smith doesn’t hold the monster browns it once did (can you believe 15-pound browns in Virginia?) and this isn’t a wilderness stream since much of it flows past urban areas.

But the Smith River still holds a healthy wild eproducing brown trout population with many reaching the 10-pound mark. Even with the increased fishing pressure and the inevitable ebb and flow conditions any quality trout stream undergoes, the Smith has held up amazingly well.

The Smith is flat and wide. When you look at the slow-moving current, it looks like there is no current at all. The depth of the water is the same across its 100-foot width. So where to wade, where to cast?

The configuration of the Smith is pool and riffle, over and over and over. Most anglers will cast to the middle of the stream and hope.

Try instead to concentrate on any edges, like the ones at the riffles. Fish the pools slowly and methodically from tail to head; fish along any bankside structure such as gravel bars; the big slabs of rock in the middle of the river or the ledges they provide; overhanging trees and rhododendron, submerged logs, even shade.

Wade Carefully, Cast Delicately

The pools are tranquil and the fish spook easily. What? Did you think you could catch 10-pound browns without working for them? It’s doubtful you’ll catch a lunker. Even if you match the hatch, find the fish, and provide them with a perfect presentation, you’ll probably catch fat 16-inch browns and healthy 12-inch rainbows. Those big boys are only caught every now and again.

With the diversity of insect hatches, some of which are legendary, you’ll need to tie a lot of different patterns in all sizes. The Sulfur Dun, March Brown and Hendrickson hatches are of note. Some locals like to toss a black ant or other terrestrial for a change of pace.

Don’t wade when the generators are running. The river becomes torrential and dangerous. No need for chest waders but if you try to fish when the water is up, you’ll be swimming.

The Smith River has great access and that means heavy fishing pressure. These are educated fish so wade carefully and cast delicately. Consider fishing in the lower sections below the trophy section to get away from the crowds and to reach less wary trout.

Species:

Predominantly browns, some of them sizable, but also rainbow trout. These are a mix of wild and stocked trout.

Gear:

Big stream, big rod. I wouldn’t use less than a 5-weight and would recommend a 6-weight rod. You can get by with hip waders or lightweight chest waders.

Flies:

Fill your fly box; the hatches are varied and prolific on the Smith. Elk Hair Caddis (#12#18), March Brown, Sulphur (#14#18), Blue Winged Olive (#18#24), Mosquito (#16#22), Patriot (#10#16), Light Cahill, Adams, Hendrickson, Sulphur (#16#18), Midges (#18#24), Crayfish (#2#10), Muddler Minnow (#2#10), Woolly Buggers (#2#10), Stonefly nymphs, Beetles, Hoppers, ants, Pheasant Tail, Prince Nymph, Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ear.

Jackson River

The Allegheny Highlands of northwestern Virginia are lightly populated, thickly forested, and home to the 1-million-acre George Washington National Forest and some of the better trout streams in the state, including the large limestone tailwater, the Jackson River.

The Jackson River is a wide river, fishable by boat (the preferred method in the tailwater section), stocked with rainbow and brown trout, many of which hold over through the winter and grow to bragging sizes.

Like many of the limestone streams in the state, springs feeding this river keep it cool, filled and fishable throughout the hot summer days. The best section of the Jackson to fish is the 13-mile stretch of the Gaithright Wildlife Management Area.

The Jackson River has become a worthy trout producer in its middle 20-mile section below Gaithright Dam because over the last few years, coldwater flows have been regulated. But — and this is a big but — access has become an issue the last few years.

And access to the tailwater section, which runs through mostly private property, is under constant review of public access for anglers. All that means is that if the tailwater sections are difficult to access (an ongoing battle between anglers and landowners for 30 years), anglers will have to try their luck in the underrated upper freestone stretches.

Big Water, Small Flies

The river below the dam is big water, in places 100 feet across. Like most tailwaters, the featureless, slow-moving water provides few obvious targets for the fly rodder. Long pool after long pool are separated by ample pocket water and riffles. The long still-water sections requires long leaders, sight casting, and plenty of patience.

But if you cast and mend well, you can have incredible success with small flies dropped onto a long, flat glide to a rising trout. You’ll probably run into anglers who tell stories of catching 2030 fat browns and rainbows, some better measured in pounds than inches. But with all the pressure on the Jackson, you will find these to be exceptions to the rule.

The river is heavily stocked, but regulations prevent creeling any trout, so the Jackson has the potential to become one of the better streams in the East. The potential is good for naturally reproducing populations of trout. The river has hatches of mayfly and caddis, and fly fishermen can have luck with both dries, nymphs and sculpin patterns.

Almost all the water is wadeable with hip waders or lightweight chest waders, but most anglers will float the tailwater section. Keep your eye out for marked property and make sure to check the regulations book for updated rules. Landowners are serious and if you want to avoid trespassing and/or a shotgun encounter, be aware.

Species:
Brown and rainbow trout, both wild and stocked, live in this wide limestone stream. Your catch will normally measure in the foot-long range but you might tie into some of the big fish 16 to 20 inches long. The biggest browns lurk under overhanging banks and in the deepest holes.

Gear:
An 8½ foot, five-weight rod is the ideal stick to wave at these big browns, but you can wield a 4- or 6-weight as well. If you plan to spinfish, you can upgrade from the usual ultralight gear and use your smallmouth bass rig. Wear chest or hip waders with felt soles.

Flies:
Elk Hair Caddis (#12#18), March Brown, Dark Hendrickson, Blue Winged Olive, Patriot (#10#16), Sulphur (#16#18), Midges (#18#24), Black Fly Larvae (#18#20), Crayfish (#2#10), Muddler Minnow (#2#10), Woolly Buggers (#2#10), Helgrammites (#2#6), stonefly nymphs, Beetles, Hoppers, ants, Pheasant Tail, Prince Nymph, Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ear.

Mossy Creek

Located in Augusta County, Mossy Creek is Virginia’s premiere brown trout fishery. Ranging from 8-20 feet across, Mossy is a small limestone stream with slow moving and flat water. Known for its heavy vegetation and excellent but difficult year round fishing, Mossy Creek requires a private landowners’ pass that can be obtained free. Mossy Creek is a nice spring creek that flows north through the Shenandoah Valley and offers world-class fishing for huge brown trout.

Mossy Creek, and nearby Smith Creek, carve their way through some of the most scenic country in the state and offer trout-fishing opportunities second to none. Mennonite farmers, still clinging to their centuries-old customs, own much of the land that these streams flow through and keep a tight grip on access. Some sections are leased by clubs and guides, but a three-mile piece of Mossy is open to the public through a cooperative effort between the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) and landowners. One-and-a-half miles of Smith Creek are open to the public under a similar agreement.

Both streams are stocked annually with fingerling brown trout, but a private fish farm on the upper reaches of Smith Creek sometimes unintentionally adds good-sized rainbows to the mix in that water. On those sections off-limits to the public, clubs and guides stock a mix of browns and rainbows. Don’t be fooled, however. These fish revert to their wild, wary ways soon after they grow accustomed to their new surroundings, and become extremely difficult to catch.

“You can catch fish out of Smith just about all year, but it does slow down in the winter. It has some freestone stream influence,” notes Billy Kingsley, owner of Harrisonburg, Virginia’s Blue Ridge Angler. “Mossy Creek remains good even in the coldest parts of winter. That’s why I think it’s better than Smith. It’s a true spring creek and stays at a constant temperature nearly all year.”

Water temperatures in Mossy fluctuate only about four to six degrees throughout the year. Expect it to range between 52 and 58 degrees. In some sections, aquatic vegetation remains green and vibrant in the harshest part of winter.

Kingsley also prefers Mossy because it is more fertile than Smith, which lies on the other side of the Valley. In other words, of the two, Mossy is Kingsley’s favorite. And thanks to tighter regulations, an angler has a good chance of doing battle with some monster brown trout in Mossy Creek. Five-pounders are common in the sections not open to the public, and biologists, as well as a few anglers, have landed fish up to seven pounds in the public stretch.

Smith Creek, on the other hand, receives less pressure than its sister stream. Kingsley will seek refuge there if crowds become a factor on the public sections of Mossy.

In those private areas open to the public on both streams, anglers are restricted to fly fishing tackle and single-hook, artificial lures only. The limit in Mossy is one fish per day over 20 inches; in Smith Creek, anglers may creel two fish per day over 16 inches. Most anglers, however, release all fish. Clubs and guides who lease parts of Mossy generally restrict their clients or members to fly fishing tackle and enforce a no-kill policy.

Like any spring creek, the summertime vegetation can cause the best angler to chew his fingernails down to the nubs and pull his hair out by the roots. Both shoreline grass and aquatic vegetation are thick. Of course, that’s exactly what makes Mossy Creek so good. The fish have plenty of places to hide and insects are never in short supply. Watercress and elodea make up the bulk of the wet salad. Tall shoreline grass, weeds and crops planted near the water’s edge add to the mix and sometimes make casting a challenge.

Livestock used to be a problem all along its course, but concerned anglers, VDGIF workers and landowners have erected exclusion fences. Now, cows are kept away from the streambanks.

Read more about fishing Mossy Creek.
Fly Patterns
Like fish in most other spring creeks, the trout in Mossy Creek are extremely fussy eaters. If it isn’t a near-perfect replica of the insect of the hour, they probably won’t touch it. Hatches are sometimes phenomenal, and the variety is staggering, but a few key patterns, used at the right times, will do the trick.

In early spring (mid-March through April), size 18 blue-winged olive hatches are in steady supply and trout will rise even on the coldest days. Typically, hatches begin in the afternoon, but can occur throughout the day during warmer periods.

“Actually, we have blue-winged olive hatches just about all year long,”noted Kingsley. “They are at their peak in early spring, however.”

Sulphur hatches come on strong in April, with late afternoons and evenings the peak times. Spinner falls occur right before dark and dry-fly fishing is absolutely superb. Skilled anglers can catch one fish right after another during times of high fish activity.

Try size 16 Compara-duns and sulphur duns, and as April fades into May, switch to size 18s. In mid-May, trico hatches begin and at times can blur your vision and cause difficult breathing.

“I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve sucked in a trico or gotten them stuck in my eyes,” said Kingsley. “There are clouds of them up and down the river on calm mornings.”

The hatches are short-lived, though. Be there from about 7:00 to 11:00 A.M. and use either a size-22 or -24 trico. Fortunately, they continue throughout the summer months and into autumn.

As summer approaches, terrestrial action picks up. Thick shoreline grass and weeds produce an abundant supply of crickets, hoppers and beetles. Like any stream, this type of fishing is best on breezy days when insects are knocked into the water. A wide variety of patterns, including Japanese beetles, will work.

The trico hatch continues into mid-October and blue-winged olives make another appearance in October and November.

As the grass dies off and winter takes a firm grip on the region, switch to minnow- and crawfish-imitating patterns in sizes 4 through 8 and concentrate on undercut banks. That’s where the big browns like to hold and ambush passing prey. Zonkers and sculpin patterns also work well during the winter months.

Fishing Access
Anyone can fish the sections of Mossy and Smith Creek that are open to the public, but since they run through private land, anglers must have a written permission slip. They are available from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries’ office in Verona. Send a request, along with a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Fisheries Division, P. O. Box 996, Verona, VA 24482. Simply ask for permission for both creeks, if you desire to fish them both.

Private sections of both streams are open only to those with landowner permission, which is practically impossible to get. The better areas are leased to guides or clubs.

More info about fishing Mossy Creek.

Rapidan River

You may hear from Virginia fly shops that Shenandoah National Park is crowded. It is. But Shenandoah National Park is a must for all anglers fishing Virginia’s trout streams.

Despite the fact the park has the most traffic of any national park, solitary fishing is easy enough with a hike of a mile or two (well, sometimes considerably farther), and a topographic map is needed to reach many of the streams.

The park sees lots of campers and hikers, but there are over 40 freestone streams to choose from to seek refuge from the visitors. Most of the streams tend to be indistinguishable from one another, but there are a few that are more distinctive. Most of the park’s streams are catch-and-release only with the change in regulations a few years back.

The Rapidan River is possibly the best of the park’s waters and certainly one of its most scenic, easily its best known. It’s an easy hike to the upper Rapidan (the road to the upper section is terrible), and the lower section can be reached by automobile. Special regulations apply to this boulder-strewn stream, but out of the park, there are no restrictions.

The Rapidan does see its fair share of mayfly hatches in the spring, but terrestrials work on the pocket water and pools most of the season, especially in late summer. I like ant patterns in the heat of summer and early fall. Flies should be bouncy and visible to both the angler and the small (6- to 12-inch) native brook trout found in every stream.

Brookie Bonanza

The streams rush down steep gradients, rarely slowing down long enough for the small trout to become picky about the next meal. Attractor flies like the Royal Wulff, Adams, and a local favorite, the Mr. Rapidan, are frequent producers.

Terrestrials are the best flies to imitate when summer heat draws the streams low. Ants, beetles, jassids and grasshoppers are a few of the best to use on these narrow, brushy streams. Light rods and light leaders are necessary to work through the dense foliage.

The Rapidan is still recovering from the floods five years ago that damaged habitat in the lower stretches. The river is a gallimaufry of pocket water, pools, riffles, chutes, glides and runs, all of them holding trout.

The Rapidan is one of the most scenic rivers east of the Mississippi. Leave the nymphs at home. Bring a box loaded with bright attractor flies. And a camera to capture the brilliance of the native trout.

Species:
Wild brook trout. Remember to immediately return all these fish to the water and only use artificial flies or lures with single, barbless hooks.

Gear:
Fly rodders should stick with short, light rods, 6= to 7= feet for 2- to 4-weight line. Stick with the lightest tippet you feel comfortable using. I recommend 6X. Wade wet or use lightweight hippers.

Flies:
Attractor dries, small caddis, mayfly imitations and terrestrials are the most effective patterns for the Rapidan and all other all waters in Shenandoah National Park. The most famous is the Mr. Rapidan, developed by local legend Harry Murray. Another successful pattern is the red, white and blue attractor dry fly called the Patriot. Stick with patterns that, while small, have high visibility and float well. If you want to nymph (and I can’t imagine why), small generic mayfly and caddis patterns work well.

Back Creek

Undoubtedly the least known of the tailwater trout fisheries in Virginia is Back Creek in Bath County. Located in the Allegheny highlands of the Old Dominion’s west-central portion, Back Creek flows from north to south through a scenic valley less than 10 miles east of the West Virginia border.

The history of the Back Creek tailwater is a short one. The headwaters have always been good trout water, but the lower section did not come into its own until the Virginia Power Company created the Bath County Pump Storage Station reservoir and power station on the creek in the mid-1980s. At that time the company also created a recreation area below the dam, as well as making extensive modifications to the stream itself. As a result, the creek has more holding water for trout in its tailwater portion than existed before the work began.

For several years after the creek below the reservoir dam was opened to fishing, it was stocked only with fingerling trout. The idea was to create a trophy brown trout fishery, so the regulations mandated single-hooked artificial lures only and a daily creel limit of two trout, which had to be at least 16 inches long. Fishing was permitted on the creek year-round. These rules were in effect from the Beaver Run Bridge on County Road (CR) 600 (Big Back Creek Road) just below the dam, downstream for 1.5 miles to the Haul Road Bridge (the next bridge downstream, also on CR 600).

Unfortunately, the water coming through the 60-foot-high dam was too warm in the summer for the trout to carry over in large numbers. As a result, in the fall of 1992 Back Creek was changed to a delayed-harvest stream. Under this management scheme the portion of the tailwater below the dam is heavily stocked with catchable-sized trout in the fall, winter, and spring. From October 1 until May 15 each year, fishing is permitted under catch-and-release regulations, with only single-hooked artificial lures allowed. From May 16 to September 30 the stream reverts to general trout regulations, using the state creel limit and allowing any type of bait or lures. The resulting fishery has proved to be a popular one that provides quality angling experiences to a large number of fishers each year.

From its beginning at the foot of the dam, Back Creek’s tailwater is never more than a medium- to large-sized mountain stream. It averages no more than 25 feet wide along all of its trout water. Even during releases from the powerhouse, it is still possible to wade portions of Back Creek. When the water is low, virtually the entire run provides good wade- and fly-fishing. Most of the trout encountered are freshly stocked rainbows, but some fish do carry over, so it is possible to take a larger brown or rainbow.

Once below the lower CR 600 bridge at the end of the Virginia Power Company’s property, Back Creek is open to fishing as”designated trout water.” This is the Old Dominion fisheries managers’ way of identifying stocked trout water. Back Creek receives plantings of mature rainbow trout through here in the spring and again during the fall. No trout are stocked during the summer, when water temperatures sometimes soar above the tolerance level of the fish. There are some holdover browns that attain respectable size through here, however.

In the spring, Back Creek is noted for the mayfly hatches to which it plays host. Quill Gordons and March browns are reported to be important. More often, fly-casters use attractor patterns in sizes 14 to 16. Royal Wulffs and Adams patterns are good for this fishing. Through the open, meadowlike areas of the Virginia Power Company’s land, grasshopper imitations work well in the late spring. For fishers wanting to challenge the brown trout in Back Creek, in-line spinners, spinner-fly combinations, or — for the fly-caster — minnow-mimicking streamers are appropriate.

Access to the Back Creek tailwater begins at the Beaver Run Bridge below the dam. No angling is allowed upstream of this bridge to the tailrace. There is no parking allowed at this point either, but just downstream is the entrance to the Virginia Power Company Recreation Area. Besides offering parking (for a small fee), the recreation area has a campground, playgrounds, picnic pavilions, and two warm-water lakes (the smaller of which has a swimming area).

At the second bridge on CR 600, at the lower end of the Virginia Power Company land, there is a parking area beside the old bridge (which is no longer in use). This is an ideal spot to begin a day of wading upstream.

The next eight miles down Back Creek along CR 600 and VA 39 are on private property and are not open to public fishing. The creek here is not large enough for float-fishing, so this portion is off-limits. From the VA 39 bridge, located to the southwest of the crossroads of Mountain Grove, the creek flows for 1.25 miles along VA 39 through US Forest Service land. Through here there are a number of roadside turnouts, a water-gauging station, and the forest service’s Blowing Springs Campground. Below the campground, a foot trail along the shore leads down into the Back Creek Gorge portion of the tailwater. By this point, Back Creek is becoming marginal trout water.

To find Back Creek, take VA 39 west from its junction with US 220 near the village of Warm Springs. Continue past the Blowing Springs Campground to the intersection with CR 600, then turn right (north) to reach the delayed-harvest portion of the stream and the Virginia Power Company Recreation Area.

Rappahannock

Rivers that qualify as wild and scenic are rare in the mid-Atlantic, but the Rappahannock is the closest thing to it in Virginia. Access is limited to a few areas, and one section has 25 miles untouched by roads, development, or dams. That may not seem like much to Western anglers or someone used to the deep wilds of the North, but here in the heavily populated mid-Atlantic region, such places are uncommon.

In the 1960s, the city of Fredericksburg purchased hundreds of acres along the riverbank up to and above the confluence of the Rapidan River in anticipation of constructing a reservoir for its growing population. It never happened. The city kept the land and it’s open to camping, making this a perfect river for a one- or two-night float. Because of its lack of access, the Rappahannock gets far less fishing pressure than Virginia’s other smallmouth rivers and it’s loaded with quality bass.

Ledges, riffles, flat pools, deep pockets, and fallen trees on the Rappahannock offer an abundance of productive habitat. Hellgrammites, crayfish, minnows, sculpins, mad toms, aquatic insects, and occasionally terrestrial insects are all part of a smallmouth bass’s diet here and throughout Virginia. Flies that imitate these food items are usually good choices.

A good one-day float is on the upper section near Remington. Route 29 to Kelly’s Ford is only four miles, but that gives you plenty of time to thoroughly work the many riffles and pockets. The last half of this section is the best, and it’s not out of the question to fish this stretch once and then do it again the same day.

New River

The New River is among the oldest rivers in the world and one of the few rivers on this continent that flow north (the Shenandoah is another). The habitat on the New River is phenomenal, the scenery is stunning, and the bass grow to epic proportions.

The state record smallmouth (8 pounds, 2 ounces) came from this river and bass almost as big are caught every year. A typical “big” New River bass measures 17 or 18 inches long, and there are many of them. Like old bass anywhere, the biggest smallmouths in the New are tough to catch, particularly when the river runs clear.

The New River in western Virginia has trophy smallmouth bass and spectacular scenery.

The New can be divided into two sections-above Claytor Lake and below it. The lower section winds through rolling farmland and steep, wooded mountains. It also carves through towering rock palisades in a few places, creating a canyonlike appearance. The upper river courses mostly through farmland and foothills. Both the upper and lower sections have excellent fishing, but for a shot at the biggest bass of your life, take a 7-weight, some 4- to 6-inch flies, and head to the water below the lake.

One of my favorite sections is on the lower New between Ripplemead and Pearisburg. Ledges, riffles, deep pools, and a great bottom composition make it prime water. The scenery takes up the slack on days when the bass clam up. The area around Fries on the upper New is also exceptional. Much of the river near this town consists of stairstep ledges and deep pockets between each ledge.

Regular bass patterns work in the New, but if you want big bass, it pays to throw huge flies. Don’t be surprised to set the hook on a solid strike only to come back with a sliced tippet. The New is stocked with muskellunge and lots of these needle-toothed critters lurk in the slack water behind islands and fallen trees. The state record, a 45-pounder, came from the New. So did the state-record walleye. It’s a productive river.

James River

Which is Virginia’s best smallmouth river, the James or the New? It depends on who you ask, of course, but you could make solid arguments for either river. Both rivers produce high numbers of smallmouths and are excellent for large bass. I like the James better because it is shallower and that makes it easier to put a fly in front of the fish.

The James has about 200 miles of smallmouth water, starting where the Jackson and Cowpasture rivers merge near Clifton Forge. Aside from a half-dozen dams and the still water behind them, the river is superb smallmouth habitat all the way to Richmond.

The numerous public accesses along the river range from hand-carry canoe launches to paved boat ramps. Most are spaced to provide full-day floats, although longer and shorter sections are available.

My two favorite areas include the sections around Buchanan and Glasgow-where there is a special- regulations area-and the middle reaches near Scottsville. The special-regulation area was established in 2001 and runs from Route 220 to Route 614, which includes water above and below Interstate 81. Anglers may keep five fish outside the 14- to 22-inch slot limit, but only one over 22 inches.

Roanoke / Staunton

What you call this southern Virginia river depends on where you live. To some, it’s the Staunton; others call it the Roanoke. Even the DeLorme Atlas and Gazetteer, the bible of wandering fly anglers everywhere, includes both names adjacent to the winding blue line that is the Roanoke (Staunton) River.

The Staunton is one of Virginia’s best-kept smallmouth secrets, perhaps because until about 10 years ago, it didn’t have much of a smallmouth fishery. Appalachian Power, owner of the hydroelectric dam on Leesville Lake (upriver from the prime smallmouth water), used to release water randomly throughout the spring. Drastic fluctuations in river levels made it difficult for smallmouth to reproduce successfully.

That changed when the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) and local conservation and fishing groups asked the power company to improve the flow regime. Appalachian Power obliged and the bass fishery exploded. According to biologist Scott Smith, smallmouths in this river are larger on average than those in the James. An excellent 11-mile float starts at Long Island and ends at the small town of Brookneal. There are countless riffles, ledges, and islands in this stretch.

The Staunton tends to run murky. That’s good and bad. Dirty water allows you to get closer to the pockets of good water without spooking bigger bass, which tend to flee at the slightest unnatural sight or sound. However, the fish have a harder time seeing your fly. Although the river is shallow in most places, surface bugs are often not a viable option.

The Staunton also has a resident population of shad, which are excellent forage for smallmouth bass. Large shad patterns such as Clousers and Deceivers are especially effective on this river. White, white/chartreuse, white/blue, and silver are all good colors.

In April, May, and June the Staunton gets an excellent run of striped bass from Kerr Reservoir, so don’t be surprised to have the rod yanked from your hands by a 10-pound striper. An excellent walleye run takes place in March and resident walleye remain in the river all year.

South Fork of the Shenandoah River

Because it’s only about an hour’s drive from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., the Shenandoah is Virginia’s most popular smallmouth river. It’s actually three rivers: the North Fork, the South Fork, and after they join near Front Royal, the main stem.

simple map of shenandoah river location
shenandoah location

The Shenandoah River and its two major tributaries, the North Fork and South Fork, flows northwards through the scenic and historic Shenandoah Valley and meets the Potomac River at Harpers Ferry in West Virginia. Of the two forks, the South Fork is the largest, in both length and volume of water.

The South Fork is born at the confluence of the South River and the North River (see April, 2000 issue) in the town of Port Republic, 15 miles west of Harrisonburg and Interstate #81. It is 45 miles, as the crow flies, from its start at Port Republic to Front Royal (about an hour west of the D.C. beltway) where the two forks meet and become the Shenandoah River. The river loops and zigzags its way up the Valley, and if it were straightened out, would easily stretch 2 to 3 times the distance.

For the early settlers, most travel was via the River and although the traveler was heading north, he was going downstream. To this day, local people still refer to a place north of them as “down” . When speaking of traveling south they will say they are going, for example, “up” to Florida. This can be a little confusing to a visitor asking directions.

The Valley is rich in limestone deposits; its many limestone creeks and springs contribute to the fertility of the River. Moss covered rocks and weed-beds harbor a variety of aquatic insects, crayfish and baitfish.

The slick rocks and rugged ledges, most with deep fissures, run at angles across the current and can make for tricky wading. This is big water, 150’ to 250’ wide, with a strong current. During periods of high flow wading is not advised.

The South Fork is loaded with smallmouth bass, and a day on the river could net an angler 100 fish or more. On a good day like this, one will find that the bass are mostly smaller fish, 8″ to 9″ being average. Although enough 12″ to 14″ fish are available to keep it interesting and fish in the 3 to 5 pound range are there to challenge the pro, saucer -sized redbreast sunfish, bluegills and rock bass offer great sport for the flyrodder. Huge catfish and carp are taken regularly by bank fishermen, fishing bait.

Along its course, the South Fork flows in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains which bound the Valley on the East. Cold, highly oxygenated streams and runs tumble their way down the mountain and increase the River’s flow. These streams, most of them originating in the Shenandoah National Park, are home to populations of wild brook trout.

There are times when some of the larger “natives” migrate to the fertile waters of the South Fork. These fish are enigmatic and not many river fishermen know of their existence. But they are there.

Fishing for smallmouths begins in March as the water temperature reaches the mid-fifties. This is the pre-spawn period and the fish, though still sluggish in the cold water, do begin to feed. Larger streamers, Wooley Buggers, etc., fished slow and deep are most productive at this time.

As the water temperature nears and reaches sixty degrees the urge to procreate overrides the need for food, and fishing drops off for a few weeks. By mid-April the smallmouth are back on track and bulking up on crayfish, large nymphs and minnows. A few of the top producing subsurface fly patterns are, Shenk’s White Minnow, Murray’s Hellgrammite and the Golden Retriever. Streamers and sculpin imitations are also effective, as are stonefly and other nymphs in large sizes.

Through late spring and summer most of the action is found in riffles. Larger dry flys, Wulff patterns and grasshoppers pay off during the warm weather as well as popping bugs. Fish these near weed beds, especially in the evening. Wet wading the river is the order of the day in the summer.

It is a relief, both from the heat and from those sophisticated brown trout in the nearby spring creeks that keep getting snootier as the season progresses. Later, in the fall as the water temperatures drop, fishing larger streamer patterns around structure in deeper water will pay off.

It can be difficult finding a place to access the River. In Virginia it is illegal to trespass even if the land is not posted. Most landowners, however, will give permission if properly approached. The most effective way to fish the river is by canoe or rubber raft, drifting from spot to spot, then wading to fish. A johnboat or other motorized craft may be used at the few impoundments along the South Fork. But these craft are not practicable throughout the rest of the river because of the numerous shallows, ledges and rapids.

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has constructed 16 boat landings along the length of the South Fork. A pamphlet, Shenandoah River Float Trips, is available from the VDGIF regional office in Verona (540-248-9360). This informative printing gives the location of these launch sites and describes the water and fishing opportunities between them.

In addition to these, the U.S. Forest Service has canoe launching sites on some of the Forest lands bordering the River. Overnight camping on National Forest land is permitted. Contact the Lee Ranger district in Edinburg (540-984-4101) for locations and details. Do not camp on private property along the river without permission of the landowner.

Shenandoah National Forest Freestone Streams

A number of streams in the Shenandoah National Forest offer excellent winter, spring, and fall fishing. The summer months tend to dry up a number of the streams, however a hike further into the National Forest will usually produce good fishing in the summer months. Hip waders are recommended. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries maintains a habitat restoration and trout stocking program (visit the site for National Park information and Trout Stocking information).

Resources & Articles

36 Great Fishing Trips in Virginia
https://www.gameandfishmag.com/editorial/fishing_va_aa025304a/193586

A Winter Smorgasbord of Virginia Bassing
Power pools on the James and Shenandoah, certain sections of the New below Claytor, the tidal Chickahominy and old favorite Buggs Island are some of the top Virginia wintertime bass spots.
www.gameandfishmag.com/editorial/fishing_bass-fishing_va_aa015305a/191501

Smallmouth Action On The New River
The New River below Claytor Lake Dam offers some of the best smallmouth action in the entire state. And spring is certainly prime time.
https://www.gameandfishmag.com/editorial/fishing_bass-fishing_va_0505_01/194432

Mossy Creek Info
https://mossycreekflyfishing.com/pages/mossy-creek

Virginia Dept of Game &Inland Fisheries Trout Maps
https://dwr.virginia.gov/fishing/trout/

Murrays Fly Shop
PO Box 156, 121 Main St. Edinburg, VA 22824 540-984-4212
www.murraysflyshop.com

Anglers Lane
P O Box 1265, Lynchburg, Virginia 24551-5265 434-385-0200
www.anglerslane.com

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