White Water and Summer Bass
By Bruce Ingram
When you drift through West Virginia’s New River Gorge, high canyon walls and verdant mountains—along with the splendid isolation— might remind you of dramatic river landscapes in the West. Sometimes you share this wild place with whitewater rafters, but come evening, you and your guide may have the river to yourselves. ALL PHOTOS BY BRUCE INGRAM
Mention West Virginia’s New River Gorge and memories come flooding back to me: crisp autumn mornings chasing turkeys in the precipitous mountains that envelop the river, and spring mornings calling to gobblers in the early hours; fly fishing for wild trout come afternoon in the highland rills that cascade into the New; and, oh, the nights camping out in a place often called the Grand Canyon of the East. Nowhere else have I witnessed skies as ebony and stars and constellation as luminescent. No worries about light pollution here.
But as marvelous as all these wonders are, they pale just a little when matched against the thrill of summer fly fishing for the river’s big bronzebacks. Yes, numerous places around the country flaunt jumbo smallmouth. However, how many of them feature a wilderness setting and perilous rapids, not to mention the opportunity for multiday guided raft trips replete with gourmet camp meals?Lay of the Land
No universally agreed-upon definition exists on what constitutes the upper and lower gorge. But some say the lower section consists of McCreery to Thurmond (15 miles) and Thurmond to the Fayette Station public access (13.5 miles), as this is the heart of the white-water bass fishery
The author caught this fine smallmouth on a cicada pattern. The bass
measured just a hair under 20 inches, demonstrating the fecundity of the
New River Gorge. This fishery has earned its reputation as a trophy fishery,
and in addition to 20-inch-plus bass, has loads of 14- to 18-inch fish.
David Arnold, who cofounded Class VI River Runners in 1977, explains, “From Hinton to Cunard, long pools are broken up by Class I through III rapids. This all changes from Cunard and the 6 or so miles down to Fayette Station. The river starts to have more large rocks, the drop increases dramatically, and some rapids have Class IV and V ratings. There is more raft traffic here, but the scenery, remote fishing, and the experience of fishing in big white water make this section interesting. Cunard to Fayette Station is my favorite section if water is at normal summer levels.
The New River through the gorge is demanding of floaters, especially from Cunard to Fayette Station. Arnold advises, “Match your river-running equipment and abilities with the section you float. Professional outfitters are highly recommended, especially on the Cunard–to–Fayette Station section.”
The McCreery-to-Thurmond excursion flaunts such Class III through IV rapids as Ledges, Slide, and Silo. From Thurmond to Fayette Station, Class IV to V rapids pock the river, as do a good number of Class II and III breaks. The Class III/IV Surprise Rapid highlights the first leg of this getaway, and the rapids increase after you reach Cunard at about the 7.5-mile mark.
Before reaching the Fayette Station take-out, you’ll charge through such rapids as the Class III Upper Railroad, the Class IV Lower Railroad, the Class III/IV Lower Keeney, the Class IV-plus Double Z, and the Class IV-plus Miller’s Folly. Right before the takeout, you must survive the Class IV Fayette Station Rapid. Rapids such as these make the lower gorge a place where only professional rafters (trained in first aid and white-water rescue) should be in charge of a boat. I can’t emphasize enough that this is no do-it-yourself-type trip.
“The Thurmond–to–Fayette Station float is a classic white-water trip and is best experienced as an overnighter,” Arnold says. “First-time visitors sometimes have trouble at the beginning. Some folks have a hard time just standing up in the raft while they’re floating through rapids and trying to cast. But eventually, most people get into a groove and do really well.”
Guide Britt Stoudenmire, who operates the New River Outdoor Company, ties unique patterns to imitate annual cicadas, such as this colorful specimen. Dead-drifting cicada patterns through shaded bankside pockets during midday is a deadly tactic during summer.
Brad Scott, a guide for ACE Adventure Resorts, agrees with Arnold about the special nature of the lower gorge and rates Cunard to Fayette Station as one of his two favorite junkets on the river. “Cunard to Fayette Station is one of the more unique and challenging angling experiences in the area, requiring a greater skill set from the watercraft operator and lower water levels to navigate,” he says. “When the water levels start dipping below 4,500 cubic feet per second, the fishing in this section starts to open up and rewards for the capable angler can be plentiful.”
Summer is the best time to experience the gorge. Scott, who has enjoyed numerous epic days there, says, “The longtime standard of a good fishing trip in the gorge has always been a 100-fish day, and while those days have been fewer in recent years, locating the holding spots for good quantities of smallmouth bass can often give anglers a glimpse of how a 100-fish day would be possible.
“Throwing articulated or action-enhanced streamer patterns in the entrances of rapids and shoals can often create numerous follows or even a small feeding frenzy at times,” he continues. “I’ve had first-time fly-fishing guests in awe as each cast enticed numerous fish to chase and fight over the fly, with one guest in particular landing 20 fish in roughly 25 casts. No matter what the size of the fish, that’s fun fishing.”
Another great float is Glade Creek to McCreery (8 miles). The two most thrilling (or chilling) rapids on this section are both Class III: Grassy Shoals and Quinnimont. But after a summer thunderstorm or other high-water event, they both can easily metamorphose into a Class IV. Boulders and 5-foot-tall waves characterize Grassy Shoals. The aspect that has always bothered me the most about Quinnimont is that I can hear its roar long before it comes into view. Boulders pock most of this drop.
Scott likes to divide the Glade Creek trip in half. “Glade Creek to Grandview Sandbar is a classic half-day (or less) float that has lots of smallmouths and can be fished at a variety of [water] levels,” he says. “It’s also technically a more approachable section of river for less-experienced oarsmen.”
Britt Stoudenmire, who operates the New River Outdoor Company, adds that the 5-mile run from Meadow Creek to Glade Creek is excellent. “The Meadow Creek float has lots of diverse smallmouth habitat, plus a good mix of current and depth,” he says. “Big eddies below rapids hold lots of fish, and there’s lots of good rocky bank cover and main channel drop-offs to fish. I especially like those banks for bug fishing. Be careful when going through Rocky Rapids, a strong Class III. The river necks down there and flows really swiftly.”
The New River was too high to fish early last summer, plus the coronavirus pandemic made it difficult for me to schedule a trip with an outfitter until late July, when I met guides Britt Stoudenmire and Ethan Stone in Hinton just after sunrise to take the 7-miler to Brooks Falls. Stoudenmire and I have fished many times over the past 15 years, as he is one of the premier guides in the region.
“The New doesn’t fish like other rivers do in the summer,” he says. “If you put in early enough in the morning, you’ll get a brief surface bite just like you’d expect. But then the top-water bite just dies, and the fishing as a whole really slows for several hours. You can pick up some fish if you go deep with weighted streamers and crawfish patterns and sink-tip lines, but you’re left with the feeling that you should be doing better because you’re floating through really great bass habitat.
“Then, sometime in late morning, just when you think the good fishing is about over until late afternoon or maybe the evening, the smallmouths turn on. It doesn’t make any sense, but it happens all the time like that. The water is getting warmer and warmer, the sun is beating down, and the bass start hitting on the surface. Maybe it’s because of damselfly and dragonfly hatches. Maybe it’s because the dissolved oxygen levels in the water improve. I don’t really know.”
I’ve fished the New River for some 40 years and agree with Stoudenmire. On many summer days, my biggest smallies came to hand between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. In fact, if the guide had not had to drive his family to Ohio that day, we wouldn’t have launched until after 10 a.m. and would have fished until dark.
Before we began, I told Stoudenmire that I wanted him to fish as much as I did, so he instructed Stone to spend the day on the oars. We expected success with big cicada patterns. Several years ago, my personal best New River smallmouth on a cicada pattern was a fish of just under 20 inches. Predictably, the bronzeback hit in the middle of the day on a fly dead-drifted along a shaded, boulder-laden bank below a Class III rapid. Also predictably, Stoudenmire told me a few casts before the hookup that the bite would soon turn on, given the rising air and water temperatures.
He ties two types of cicada patterns. One mimics the annual species, which has green eyes, an emerald green body, and black and white hues on its belly. The other matches the periodic cicada, which has a black body with ominouslooking orange eyes straight out of a science fiction story. When the cicada bite is on, I don’t think matching the hatch matters, because both species could be plummeting into the water.
Sure enough, the day started just as Stoudenmire, Stone, and I would have predicted. Right after we began, I had a nice bronzeback blow up on my cicada pattern but miss the hook. Stoudenmire also missed several fish. It was if the smallies couldn’t quite commit to making full-blown strikes. Then, an hour after we launched, the fish just stopped hitting— as we have come to expect.
During the lull, we discussed the fishery. “Hinton to Brooks Falls is one of my favorite floats on the West Virginia New,” Stoudenmire said. “It has a lot of well-oxygenated water, lots of water-willow-covered islands and islets, plenty of midriver drop-offs, and lots of great bank cover with rocks and downed sycamores.
“The Hinton float is also the mildest float in the gorge and the first one below Bluestone Dam. Tug Creek Rapid runs well over a hundred yards and has Class II and III rapids in it. By West Virginia New River standards, that’s a mild rapid.”
The guide added that if clients want a long day on the water, he continues another 4 miles below the Brooks Falls access point to the Sandstone Falls access point. The Brooks Falls junket, which is another of Stoudenmire’s favorite excursions and sports true trophy smallmouth potential, is known for its many Class I and II ledges and the Brooks Island area, which boasts outstanding rock and wood cover along its shoreline. A long Class I rock garden above Brooks Island is another quality fishing area. Don’t even think about running Sandstone Falls, urges Stoudenmire. This is not a rapid but a true waterfall that is not floatable in any season or at any water level.
Several small bass struck our cicada imitations around 9 a.m., and then we endured about three hours of bass doldrums. Only the occasional small fish rose, and I suffered the indignity of a 5-inch sunfish impaling itself on a fly. Around noon, I decided to take a water temperature reading: the temp had risen from 82 degrees, when we put in, to 84. The air temperature had climbed to 92 degrees. I shared that info with the two guides, and they agreed that things were going to start to become interesting.
Indeed they did. During the next 90 minutes, until we reached the Brooks Falls access point, Stoudenmire caught four fine smallmouth. In fact, if his wife and daughter had not arrived when they did, my trio would have happily floated the 4 more miles down to Sandstone Falls in blistering 95-degree heat. We probably missed out on the best surface action of
Virginia-based veteran outdoors writer Bruce Ingram is the author of numerous books, including New River Guide, James River Guide, and The Shenandoah and Rappahannock Rivers Guide.