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Destination File: Middle Rappahannock River - By: C.C. McCotter - Aug. 2004

Were there actually fish in this muddy, moving water with little or no underwater weedbeds? I was soon to find out. Amid the ebbing flow I watched as little schools of tiny fish darted through the shallows off a point. From time to time another, larger fish would burst forth from under these hapless juveniles and scatter them, often onto the bank....


On a typical hot and muggy early July day W2 visited the tidal Rappahannock River. This is a river with an upper section steeped in Civil War history where opposing armies camped on wooded hillsides and fought over the few accessible fords. This is a river that flows through rural Virginia, the City of Fredericksburg and then, in its lower stretches, on past tidal towns best known for crabs and the watermen that pursue them.

It is the middle section that is most often overlooked by anglers. Only a few tight-lipped locals know how good the Rapp can be for bass fishing. Forty fish days are not uncommon when conditions are right. Access is limited, but good ramps exist. Perhaps this is what keeps the river so unknown.
The section W2 fished recently is best known for those fiesty river largemouth bass. From the Five Dollar Hole down to Port Royal Landing, the river teems with plenty of other fish throughout the summer, but tidal bass are what most anglers pursue.

Though it has puzzled some of the best anglers over recent years with inconsistent catches, "The Rapp" continues to draw dedicated and curious anglers seeking an alternative to more popular and neighboring fisheries like the Potomac and Lake Anna.

To fish the Rappahannock is easy. You just need a boat and a ramp. To know and understand it takes a little more time and research. From its humble beginnings as a spring near Chester Gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the river flows some 184 miles southeast into the lower Chesapeake Bay. The watershed runs from between the Potomac-Shenandoah Rivers in the north of Virginia and between the York and James River basins in eastern Virginia. From Fredericksburg on down, the Rapp is brackish, and influenced by tides.
The tidal section is often stained, characterized by acres of shallow mud flats and logs, and it has very few navigable creeks until you near and get below the Route 301 crossing. Vegetation is mostly on the banks in the form of marsh grass and some lily pads. There is very little fishable submerged aquatic vegetation and never has been according to records.

Our host for this Destination File was Bruce Lee; an easily recognizable name that often has Rappahannock River in the same sentence. Lee is an angler, a hunter and accomplished tournament angler that has more citations, trophies and awards to his name that anyone I've ever met. What I found most amazing, is that he is approachable and extremely humble.

Lee is a lifelong river angler and now a riverside resident and businessman. The 54-year-old angler is the owner of Port Royal Fish House located at the Route 301 Bridge crossing. His son Mike, also an avid and accomplished river angler, runs the place.

As we launched Bruce's '03 Sanderson Marine Gambler around 10 a.m. into the river from his ramp near the Five Dollar Hole, Lee told me "his" river had not fared well since the drought of 2001.

"It really hit the lily pads hard. Areas where guys would normally catch 30 fish a day, produced just a few for them as recently as last year," he told me. Green Bay was one of these historically good lily pad flats that has suffered in recent times.

Lee's guess was that the river had experienced serious saltwater intrusion from a lack of rain and flow during '01. The resulting salination blighted many plants that require fresher water. He also guessed the salty water might have impeded spring spawns for fish like largemouth bass and crappie.

"There were still some creeks in the lower river that had decent freshwater flows and the fish were o.k., but generally the fishing got tough on the river," my host told me as he fired up his Mercury 225 hp EFI outboard. Major sources of freshwater in the lower Rappahannock include Catpoint and Occupacia Creeks.

From the start of our trip, it was obvious Lee knows the river -- well. The Gambler often travelled at speeds exceeding 70 mph. Hydraulic tabs on the bottom of the transom and a hydraulic jack plate allowed Lee to get out of the hole and on plane in less than two feet of water throughout our visit. He can run with this setup in less than a foot. Needless to say, these are good attributes when running the shallow flats and creeks of the Rappahannock.

Soon after leaving his dock, Lee put some heat to the outboard and trimmed up for a ride that took us all the way down to Port Royal Landing. We had scheduled the trip to take place during favorable tides. This meant we were to "run the tide" from Port Royal back to Lee's ramp as it began to ebb. A two-hour window would be prime time.

"Running the tide is the way I fish. It's not that difficult once you try it and on this river, it's very important," Lee advised me.

When we did stop to fish after an incredible Gambler ride, we did so at a lily pad field at the mouth of Roy's Run just below the 301 bridge. Lee said he just wanted to check the area. The tide was just beginning to move, and the pads looked good, but the fish were not in. Bruce was pitching a Texas-rigged Berkley Power Pulse Worm (pumpkin chart. and red shad) quickly to the pad edges.

Our next stop was at the Maryland side of the 301 Bridge where some old pilings acted as a current break as well as an attractor for floating logs. This spot looked fantastic, but offered no action either.

Lee again fired up the Merc for a short run to a nearby wood-filled flat. He noted the particular log he was fishing had produced 10 fish at times. After about 10 casts with the worm we were off again.

Like most veteran anglers, Lee knows hitting a bunch of spots with precise presentations during the right tide is the best way to fish a river.

The Gambler next stopped and the Minn Kota went down at the mouth of a small creek, just up from Goldenvale Creek. Here, like many parts of the river, brush had lodged on the second drop. The Garmin 260 read two feet dropping into 10 feet. We used the worms and crankbaits, but still only hauled water.
Lee didn't seem rattled and promised we'd catch fish as he again navigated back up river to a spot known as the Cypress Hole. Here, several cypress trees grew on the bank and their roots, or knees, reached down into the river. These trees were unusual because there are very few on the Rapp.

"I'm calling this one," said Lee with a smile, predicting success while choosing his presentation.

Using a Wiggle Wart crankbait, Lee fired a cast to the bank and sure enough connected with our first Rapp fish -- a solid 13" largemouth that engulfed the little orange/brown crankbait. After a photo and release, my guide fired another cast and caught fish #2 from the same spot. This fish was just slightly smaller, but with the river attitude I would grow to admire. My host's ability to "call his fish" was impressive, too. It was like spider-sense.

With prime time approaching, Lee said we had to move. He had a lot of spots we needed to get to. We next stopped at white plastic barrel marking an irrigation pump. Under the barrel, wooden supports anchored the intake in the muddy bottom.

"I'm calling one here, too," the Master Angler proclaimed.
Lee graciously insisted I cast first with my worm. I was using a Bud's Tingler on a ABU Garcia D Series reel and Fenwick Eagle GT 6'6" rod. My first few probing pitches were off target, and Lee gently reminded me river fish want precision. They don't want to move much to get a meal, but hit the right spot and they will hammer your stuff!

I must have made the right cast, because the Tingler never hit bottom and the line came toward me. I set the hook on a 14" bass and instantly became a Rapp River bass club member.

With these successes Lee began to really "feel it" and at just about every spot we visited for the next three hours, we caught fish -- honest, he even called a few more fish. We hit approximately 25 holes, fishing fast and precisely.
The pattern was clearly to fish wood on the drop or at the mouth of one of the dozens of shallow tidal creeks draining into the main river. Lee has sweetened a number of these areas up with brushpiles. He told me this pattern would hold through September.

A small crankbait (Bandit 200), the Berkley Power Pulse Worm, Bud's Tingler and later a 1/4-oz. Tiger Shad spinnerbait were our lures. At one large creek mouth about a quarter mile below his ramp, Lee and I caught bunches of largemouths, white and yellow perch, a crappie and even a smallmouth!
I probably lost the two biggest fish of the trip. One took a worm after repeated casts to an unseen, but certainly felt, shallow brush pile along a drop. I just couldn't get the hook set properly and the fish pulled off as it raced toward the boat. The next fish bull-dogged the Bandit on another shallow brushpile and dropped off as I was lifting it over the side of the Gambler. Each fish was about three pounds.

Lee actually landed two fat 15" bass to top our catches. The smallmouth he caught was about 11". Our tally for the day's fishing was 23 largemouth bass and a bunch of other species. Most came near the end of the trip, between 2-3 p.m, and they came in bunches.

It appeared there were plenty of 11-13" bass in the river; the result of a year class that wasn't affected as much by the drought. Larger fish are the ones that suffer the most from saltwater intrusion is what we guessed and that is why catching one over two pounds is tricky these days. That should change, though.
"In a few years, if things keep going the way they are, this river is going to be great," said my host at day's end.

Trip Details
To fish the section of the Rapp the author and Bruce Lee did, launching at Port Royal Landing is a good idea. 804-742-5666. Not only is there a ramp, but Mike stocks river lures, catfish supplies and bait, food, drinks, seasonally fresh seafood (great prices on crabs) and rents boats, canoes and kayaks. There will be bass and catfish tournaments out of Port Royal Fish House this summer and fall. See the W2 Calendar of Events for dates. Be sure and consult tide tables for your day at www.woodsandwatersmagazine.com . You will also want a GMCO Pro Series map of the Rappahannock, available at the W2 site or on page 9. Ken's Fishing & Hunting in Fredericksburg is the best tackle shop in the area, stocking all the lures mentioned in the article. 540-898-1011.


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