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05/01 - Destination File - Shenandoah River Smallmouths

By: C.C. McCotter

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.

My destination 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 river.

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".

Freese is 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 year round.

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.

There was 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.

I planned 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.

Well, after 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.

With complete 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,

Freese tossing 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 vicariously.

The fish 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.

While many 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.

VDGIF District 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 day.

Unfortunately, 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

Front Royal 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.

"We 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," notes Reeser.

"The 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.

Shenandoah River smallmouth spawn when the water reaches the mid-50s and up into mid-60s according to Reeser.

"When 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.

Smallmouths 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.

Shenandoah River smallies also eat small minnows, sunfish and madtoms.(Remember, no more than 50 baitfish can be in possession per day by smallmouth anglers).

Well, by 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 at

The Beauty Of Jetdrives

Jet driven aluminum boats are perhaps one of the best tools a river angler can use when plying their favorite moving water. While there are a number of brands available, there are a scant few dealerships that specialize in rigging them for river running.

Randy Wagner at Mare Marine's Forty West location in Clear Spring,Maryland notes the most important thing about rigging a jet fishing rig is weight distribution. Wagner has been rigging them 18 years so he truly knows.

"The object is to get the boat to set level at rest and at idle as well as get it up on plane quickly. Uneven draft and backdraft is bad when running shallow, rocky rivers," notes Randy.

To accomplish the leveling goal, Wagner will actually custom layout the boats so the batteries and fuel tanks are forward. Why all the fuss about weight distribution for a boat that will rarely exceed 40 mph?

Anglers must realize jet outboards lose about 25-30% of their power from the powerhead to the jet drive. Jet drives work when water is drawn into an impeller house through intake grills by an impeller which is all driven directly by the engine's drive shaft. The water is then forced with high pressure through an outlet nozzle directed away from the stern of the boat. This action drives the boat forward. To obtain reverse, an outlet gate is swung down in front of the nozzle to redirect the flow. All of this requires power from the engine, thus the loss of actual horsepower.

There is also the need for level operation due to the many hazardous rocks, ledges, logs and other obstructions commonly encountered when river running.

Jet boat hull material should be at least .100 gauge aluminum. You can go to an even higher gauge if you want the toughest boat available. 100% aluminum in the hull, stringers and deck is preferred in the rigs, because wood does eventually rot. Six degree-V or less is preferred with a wide running surface of at least 42 inches. 48-56-inches is the preferred width, notes Wagner.

There are inboard and outboard versions of jet boats. Mare Marine and Forty West (301-582-2628) sell Ranger, Fisher, Express and Tracker jet boats all powered by Mercury jet drives. The Tracker rigs are inboard versions. Another rig worth checking is the extra-tough Rhino Boat built with .125 gauge aluminum sold by James River Jets. (804-286-4004)

The most popular rig at Forty West is either a 16 or 17 foot version of the Xpress available in six different models (console or stick-steering) powered by Mercury 60/40, hp or 90-65 hp. Stick steering offers the ability to put the angler's weight forward, allowing the angler to do everything from the front of the boat (trolling motor operation, boat handling, fishing, etc.) and the enhanced visibility of seeing obstructions. Wagner's river running jets boats are equipped with an X-49 Lowrance depth finder with temperature probe. Probably the most important tool on the rig, he says, is a high-thrust 24-V trolling motor by MotorGuide - specifically the 82-lb Tour Edition.

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