As I crested a
ridge on Route 522 near the Rapidan
River, the close forested hills parted
to reveal an amazing array of Blue
Ridge mountains, some 40 miles distant.
I was instantly uplifted by the inviting
vista. The countryside was marked
by 1,000 shades of spring green, and
I felt like the miles were flying
by. It was a great day to be fishing.
was the middle Shenandoah River, where
myself, guide Tim Freese and fellow
outdoor writer David Hart would try
our luck for the brawny brown bass
that grow hearty in the swift waters
of this fertile northern Virginia
It had been
years since I had last visited the
Shenandoah, though I had fished with
Freese before. I hoped the river would
be as good as company as I had found
Freese in the past. I met the "Smallmouth
Specialist" at his Leesburg home
on a warm, clear Saturday morning
where we hopped into his truck and
towed his Tracker Jet rig to Lockes
Landing near Berryville, Virginia.
Trying to fish out of the Anna Point
Boat Sales ProCraft Pro 205 on this
shallow, rocky river would have been,
let's say - "expensive".
entering his ninth season guiding
on area rivers like the Shenandoah
and Potomac and he knows smallmouth.
In fact his entire guide service is
built upon putting his clients on
these bruisers of freshwater bass.
Using both jet and raft craft, Freese
can fish his beloved rivers just about
When we turned
the last corner and headed down to
the river bank that day, the first
thing I heard Tim say with a concerned
sigh was, "Hmmmm. Looks like
she's running a little brown."
We had hoped
recent heavy rains would have dissipated
by now, however, we would have to
content with a strong current and
about three inches of visibility.
After a quick
gear check, Freese expertly launched
his rig and powered up the jet drive
with a growl. Glancing at the Eagle
GPS/depth finder on Freese's console
revealed the water temperature was
around 61 degrees.
plenty of good fishing nearby, so
after a minute or two of rigging and
a quick burst to reach an island point
in the middle of river, we were casting
for smallies. For this trip I had
brought two Classic Lightning rods
with ABU Garcia Center Drag reels
spooled with green, eight-pound Spider
Super Mono, a 4600 ABU Garcia baitcaster
with a Signature Series Lightning
rod and my SpiderCast Mitchell rod
and baitcaster combo, both spooled
with 10-pound Trilene Big Game to
present my offerings to the bass.
to use one of the hottest baits for
bass anywhere, right now -- a Bud's
Hellgramite, as well as the new 1/4-ounce
Finesse Tiger Shad spinnerbait. I
was smart enough to listen to my guide
however, when he made suggestions.
Since the river was running a bit
high and muddy, Freese did not think
the Hellgramite was the best choice.
We began instead with the spinnerbaits.
an hour of presenting not only spinnerbaits
but just about every other bait known
to fool smallmouths, we were still
fishless. What made the skunking worse
was that Tim's best spot was occupied
by another angler in a jet drive that
happily informed us he had landed
a 3-10 fish on his very first cast!
At 11 o'clock
we rode back to the launch ramp and
picked up Hart, "fresh"
from an opening day turkey hunt, for
the rest of the day's fishing. Tim
took us to some more spots around
the island's lower point where the
two splits of the river forged again.
Here we cast to many fishy looking
rocks and roots along the bank, but
the strong current and muddy water
continued to stymie our efforts.
faith in his originally occupied spot,
Freese jetted us back up river to
the area. Here, the high water had
surged through a break in the island
and created a slack water eddy behind
a gravel bar just below. The water
slowly curled clockwise along the
bank where it once again gained momentum
with the main river current -- creating
an ideal river fish haunt. With me
throwing the Hellgramite,
a small crankbait and Hart throwing
a four-inch tube, the fish shouldn't
have a chance we thought. Within five
casts we had our answer. Hart leaned
back hard into a strong fish that
fell for his tube. I must admit to
have been a bit jealous, as the fish
did not come to the net easily and
David did bask in his success. I was
thankful, too that I could actually
experience the river's bounty, albeit
was a solid two-and-a-half pounder
taping almost 18 inches. It was deep
brown with no apparent pattern except
plenty of gravel-like camouflage.
anglers might associate the Shenandoah
with an over-abundance of small fish,
the only fish we saw that day were
over 17.5 inches. Interestingly, as
we netted Hart's fish, the other angler
we met earlier motored over to us
to display another beautiful fish
that was surely a citation.
Fisheries Biologist Steve Reeser notes
he and his biologists/technicians
are working hard to produce bigger
smallmouths on the Shenandoah River
system. Current regulations for main
stem Shenandoah River smallmouth call
for a 11-14" slot limit. Everything
in slot must be released. Just upstream
from Warren Dam down to Route 1750
bridge (Berry's Ferry), however, the
VDGIF has instituted a 14-20"
slot limit that allows anglers to
harvest one fish over 20" per
there is a fish advisory for PCP contamination
around the Lockes Landing area of
the Shenandoah. In fact, the Virginia
Department of Health does not advise
anglers to eat any fish caught from
the Shenandoah from below
down to the confluence with the Potomac.
Regardless of the advisory, Reeser
says, "the philosophy behind
both slot limits was to protect fish
in the slot range and harvest those
smaller." By reducing overall
numbers, Reeser expected growth rate
to increase and eventually we will
see more fish over 14 inches.
are not seeing this happen with the
11-14" slot limit, yet. One of
the main reasons is that (according
to 97 creel survey data) almost 98%
of smallmouths are released by anglers,"
14-20" slot is an "experiment"
that will determine if this is a better
regulation to produce bigger fish,
says the state fish scientist. Despite
even tight adherence to regulations,
Reeser says smallmouth populations
are driven overall by environmental
factors and river conditions like
floods and droughts.
River smallmouth spawn when the water
reaches the mid-50s and up into mid-60s
according to Reeser.
we have stable flow condition in the
late spring and early summer when
the fry are emerging we have a good
year class. It's when we have a flood
in May, June or July that we could
have an entire year class wiped out."
A lot of
the current 17-inch plus fish are
from a strong 1993 year class,"
Reeser says. "When we see we
have very successful spawns that produce
a strong year class of fish, we can
track them over the years. Knowing
we have a strong year class we can
predict when anglers will catch bigger
fish. Fish 14-16" are usually
from six to eight years old. If we
had a strong year class this spring,
we could expect in six to eight years,
good numbers of fish in the 16-18"
range," Reeser explains.
over six pounds have been caught from
the Shenandoah last year and this
year should be another good one predicts
the state biologist. The River also
has an excellent population of largemouth
bass, with a 50/50 ratio in many pools.
Down below Front Royal, Reeser has
sampled some green bass over eight
pounds! Game Commission food habit
studies indicate river smallmouths
are very opportunistic and eat about
anything. Insect larvae like dobson
fly, damsel fly and dragon fly nymphs
are popular. Crawdads are more of
a fall and winter staple.
River smallies also eat small minnows,
sunfish and madtoms.(Remember, no
more than 50 baitfish can be in possession
per day by smallmouth anglers).
3:30 in the afternoon that day, Hart
noted his 4:30 wake-up for the turkey
hunt was catching up with him. I was
also tired from a busy week. Freese
still wanted to fish and was already
planning for his next day's efforts
that would probably see lower, clearer
water and better fishing. The consensus
had us head back to the ramp.
I do not
always judge my fishing trips by the
amount of fish I have caught. The
day I spent on the Shenandoah with
Hart and Freese was memorable not
for fish, but for the fun of fishing
with other devotees of the sport.
We talked of many things both about
fishing and not. Sometimes we just
fished in silence, marvelling at the
beauty of blooming bluebells lining
the river banks, a flowing waterfall,
a little brown water snake, the dry
brown back of a muskrat.
I think rivers
awaken many things that lie dormant
in even the most urbanized visitor.
Catching a smallmouth is just a part
of the total experience.
How To Get
There: From the D.C. Metro area head
west on Route 7 toward Berryville.
After crossing the river continue
approximately four miles to left on
Rt. 608. Make a quick left on Parshall
Lane and continue down to the river.
Turn right onto 621. Here you will
see the entrance to Watermelon Park/Campground
on your left. Continue for 1/2 mi.
to Lockes Landing or pull into Watermelon
Park for a great riverside camping.
Call Watermelon at 540/955-4803. For
Bud's Hellgramites see his website