Shenandoah River Rodeo
By C.C. McCotter
Many of you might remember the annual Shenandoah Riverkeeper update that appeared in our June River Special Issue. In it, Riverkeeper Jeff Kelble noted some good news about a rejuvenated river and smallmouth fishery. He also invited you to join him for the annual Shenandoah River Rodeo.
Well, as part of my new dedication to making memories, (read getting out of this office!) I traveled to the Low Water Bridge Campground near Bentonville on the Shenandoah River to celebrate this noteworthy conservation effort with other concerned river folks.
As some you know, the event was put together by Kelble. I've known Jeff for over 15 years but don't get to see him much these days. He's a fellow guide (smallmouth) and a good one. Unfortunately, when the Shenandoah River bass fishery collapsed about six years back, his guide service business and B&B on the river suffered.
But Kelble didn't just take it. No, he organized his friends and colleagues and formed the Shenandoah Riverkeeper program and worked passionately and intensely to find out what was wrong with this beautiful river and brown bass that once were so plentiful.
Now, a number of years later, some of the causes of the river's decline have been addressed and it appears the smallmouth (and other fish) are recovering. The Rodeo is a way to get a bunch of river lovers and anglers together to recognize Jeff's message and efforts as well as just enjoy the river.
It really is a Who’s Who of river guides and other outdoor folks, too. I saw New River guides Britt Stoudenmire and John Tipton, Potomac River guide Mark Kovach, James River guide L.E. Rhodes, writer Bruce Ingram and many, many more river rats I just didn't get to say "hello" to, but you can see this was an event that drew the gliteratti.
The Low Water Bridge Campground is about a mile off Rt. 340 and you do have to cross a bridge about two feet above the river's surface to reach it – a thrill in itself for some. I tent camped with my eight-year-old son, Mitch, my brother and his seven-year-old son.
As part of the ticket, we received an incredible catered meal of BBQ'd pork, chicken, burgers, baked beans, corn, coleslaw, potato salad, macaroni salad cake and cold draft beer (for hydration purposes only).
Thankfully the air temperature in the valley was only 88 at the highest and the river was flowing clear with enough water to feature “float” not a drag trips.
Jeff had Uncle Henry’s Favorites for the event, and this group offered absolutely one of the finest performances of country bluegrass and folk music I've heard. There was a bull fiddle, mandolin, banjo and guitar with great singing and the even the Virginia Reel - one of my favorite dances dating from colonial times.
In between sets, Jeff said a few words recognizing those that have helped along the way this year, and then it was on to some funny awards and door prizes for the children. His passion for the job was still evident after all these years. One look into his sparkling eyes told me he longs for days of guiding on a totally recovered Shenandoah and less time on the computer and wrangling.
Prior to the formal get-together and meal, my little crew set up camp and then hit the river (right in front of the site) donning snorkel and mask. We spent the next two hours exploring the clear, warm water, turning over rocks and swimming in the waving eel grass beds.
We were thrilled to find crawdads of all sizes, hellgrammites, and crazy looking mad Toms all tucked under the river stones. There were juvenile smallies, river sunfish, minnows, snails and all kinds of nymphs in that river. We were all eight-years-olds again.
After our underwater explorations, we arranged to do a four-mile float down to the Andy Guest State Park. Mitch and I paddled our 148 Old Town Guide canoe. Uncle Doug and Brandon were in the "Dirty Banana" an Emotion CoMotion kayak.
All told we caught 21 smallmouths from six to 13 inches and another dozen or so river sunfish, mostly on spinners and four-inch green stickbaits. Mitch had a fine smallie all by himself that broke his fishing pole! That fish nearly jumped into the canoe before the rod snapped and we hand lined it over the gunwale.
The official Rodeo float trip began at a put-in near Hazard Mile. This three-mile stretch played host to a bunch of great smallmouth anglers and guides and Kelble has a little “tournament” for those that like to keep track of fish. Stoudenmire’s team far out-distanced any others, but the emphasis wasn’t really on who caught the most, just to sample what the river now has to offer.
After some hard years, it appears there are good numbers of 10-13” smallmouth in this stretch and plenty of food for them to reach larger sizes soon. This was according the guides and anglers I spoke to during dinner.
On our little float I saw countless two-inch, 2010 class smallmouth, so something good is happening on the ‘Doah for all these juveniles to have made it. I’d say in two to three years time, if all goes well, this river might be producing 20 fish over 15” for anglers per day.
After the float it was time for Jeff's gig. By the time we looked at our watches next, it was after 10 pm and we were bushed. I woke up at dawn to birdsong after falling asleep to croaking bullfrogs.
"10 out of 10" was the ranking the boys gave this quick trip. I don't think any of us wanted to go home. I can highly recommend the Low Water Bridge Campground (the www.lowwaterbridgecampground.com) and a visit to this section of Shenandoah River. If you want to know more about Jeff Kelble and the Riverkeeper, go to www.shenandoahriverkeeper.org. Another fine livery business at the Low Water Bridge is Downriver Canoe Co. Visit them at www.downriver.com.
Until next time, remember to cherish, protect and conserve the outdoors while sharing it with others.