Not only is the Smith River the Old Dominion’s oldest and best tailwater trout fishery, but it can also support the claim of being the best wild brown trout stream east of the Mississippi. Upon first glance, however, it is hard to conceive of this river as a truly world-class trout stream.
Much of its course is through a suburban-to-urban environment, it is quite frankly filled with litter, and it flows only sluggishly through the lowlands of Franklin and Henry Counties in south-central Virginia.
Yet the icy waters released through Philpott Dam create ideal trout conditions for 25 miles downstream to the town of Martinsville. Along this stretch, brown trout have been thriving and reproducing for more than two decades. In fact, the VDGIF estimates that the Smith River comprises fully 60 percent of all the water in Virginia that contains naturally reproducing brown trout.
Recognition of the Smith as a haven for big bruiser brown trout came first in the summer of 1974, when the Virginia state record for the species was broken three different times on this tailwater. At the end of that summer the mark stood at 14 pounds, 6 ounces. After a 5-year pause, the Smith yielded a new record fish to Bill Nease of Martinsville, who landed an 18-pound, 11-ounce brown. Just to prove his catch was no fluke, within 2 months he had also caught a 17-pound, 12-ounce brown. Since those halcyon days, the Smith has continued to produce large numbers of brown trout weighing 10 pounds or more.
One unfortunate footnote concerning the Virginia brown trout record is that Nease’s catch is now described as the”historical record” for the species. Several years ago the VDGIF revamped its record book because of some older, questionable records. Though there was no controversy connected with the Nease fish, it got swept into the historical category anyway.
Although the Smith was originally stocked with large numbers of brook and rainbow trout, the plantings soon switched over to predominantly rainbows. Still, it was the browns that proved most at home in the river. Almost immediately they began spawning throughout the tailwater. Today there is some indication that the rainbows may also be spawning here, but the Smith is firmly established as a blue-ribbon brown trout stream.
While the Smith produces lots of browns of trophy size, it no longer gives up fish in the 14- to 18-pound range as it did in the 1970s. Several factors are suspected of contributing to this decline in monster fish. Early on in the operation of the powerhouse at Philpott Dam, large numbers of alewives were sucked through the turbines to float helplessly downstream. The brown trout gorged themselves on these drifting baitfish. Then, in the 1980s, the alewives for unknown reasons quit coming through the dam.
During the mid-1980s a couple of major floods struck the Smith, and these are thought to have washed some fish downstream. Finally, there can be no doubt that the increased fishing pressure and the high level of expertise among spin-fishers have also dented the big-fish population in recent years.
Knowing that the Smith River tailwater contains quality trout, however, does not make the fishing easy. The Smith is a fairly wide stream, often spreading to 100 feet or more even during low water. Its course is a continuous string of riffles and pools, often so calm that they look as though there is no water movement at all. Almost all of the water is wadable, for even many of the deeper pools are edged by shallow, gravel shelves.
The long flat stretches of water make the fishing difficult. Under these conditions the trout are easy to spook. Even wading can be an ordeal because any waves you create travel far ahead of you to send the fish scurrying for cover.
When fishing the Smith, the rule of thumb is to cast to the middle of the stream for the freshly stocked trout, but to work the deeper holes along the shore — particularly those shaded by vegetation — for the larger fish. Do not overlook visible holding areas around logs, rocks, or even large items of trash, such as auto tires. They will often have a trout or two hiding close against them. On low water, flies need to be extremely small and spinners need to be fished very slowly to keep from spooking the trout.
There is a 3-mile stretch of the Smith downstream from Towne Creek (the VDGIF uses this spelling, but some maps use Town) to the CR 666 crossing at the village of Bassett that is open to fishing under special regulations. Through here only single-hooked artificial lures are allowed and the creel limit is two fish per day of a minimum size of 16 inches. This quality trout area receives no stockings. On the rest of the river, general Virginia trout regulations and creel limits apply. Since 1995 the entire Smith River has been open to year-round fishing.
When the turbines begin to run at the Philpott Dam powerhouse, the Smith River is transformed. The pastoral pools change suddenly to raging torrents. This is not a stream to wade during high water. Near the dam, a 3-foot wall of water will sweep down the river after the warning siren at the dam sounds. When power generation starts, keep above the high-water mark even when bank-fishing. It is, however, possible to leapfrog ahead of the rising water and get in more fishing before the surge gets downstream. The rising water takes an hour to get to Towne Creek, two hours to North Bassett, three hours to South Bassett, and 5 hours to reach the village of Koehler.
These periods of rising and high water are the times to fool the really lunker-sized trout on this tailwater. Casting Rapala-type minnow lures and bait-fishing with spring lizards or night crawlers are popular ways to target the big trout, particularly just below the dam. This action continues when the river level is falling. It generally takes the flow about 1.5 hours to get back down to ideal low-water fishing levels.
Once the river is back at low levels, it is again the domain of fly-casters. The hatches on the Smith River are so massive in May and June that they have become legendary in the state. Kicking off with the appearance of eastern sulfur duns in the late-spring afternoons, other insects soon appear, including light Cahills, Hendricksons, caddis flies, and olive midges. In each case, however, the Smith’s brown trout are noted for being finicky about what they eat. They will target the predominant insect to the exclusion of any of different size and color. And the size is often quite small, requiring hooks in the 16 to 20 range. About the only fly noted for attracting much surface action when no active rises are visible is the Blue-Winged Olive in sizes 16 to 26.
Later in the year, beginning in September and October, terrestrial insects become important trout attractors on the Smith. The best imitations then are beetles and ants. Cinnamon or black ant flies in sizes ranging down to 26 are deadly on the browns and rainbows.
There is access to both shores of the Smith at the foot of Philpott Dam. On the southern side of the river, a recreation area contains a parking lot and the Smith River Trail, which runs downstream for a half-mile. It is possible to walk along the trail and spot the fish in the clear water at nongeneration times.
To reach this access, take CR 904 (Philpott Dam Road) for .75 mile north off VA 57 (Fairy Stone Park Highway). Next, turn right onto CR 905 (Dam Spillway Road) and proceed .75 mile to the parking area.
On the northern shore of the river, a half-mile of land is open to the public. Parking, canoe launches, and rest rooms are provided here. To reach this park, take CR 727 (Stoneybrook Drive) west from the CR 674 bridge over the Smith. At 2.25 miles the road changes from pavement to gravel. The last half-mile of road is on power-company land, but before this point there are some roadside turnouts and access to the water along CR 727. After this point there are a number of bridges across the river down to Martinsville. Most of these offer limited parking and river access. The most accessible are on CR 674 at the crossroads of Philpott; in the town of Bassett at the VA 57 and CR 673 (Bullock Drive) bridges; and at the T.B. Stanley Highway Bridge (VA 57A and US 220).
Additionally, just upstream of the town of Fieldale, CR 682 (River Road) parallels the southwestern side of the river and has a number of roadside turnouts providing access to the water.
For information on water-release schedules at Philpott Dam, call the Corps of Engineers’ 24-hour recorded message line at 540-629-2432.