Destination File: Chowan River

by Chris McCotter

   When you think of the region’s top river fisheries the ones that come to mind are the Chickahominy River, the James River, the Potomac River, right? These are the big three, but they also receive incredible amounts of fishing pressure due to their proximity to major population centers. So where are the next “hotspots”, those not as known, somewhat out-of-the-way fisheries quietly being enjoyed by tight-lipped pioneering anglers?

   Well, it’s our job to bring you new and awesome places to fish and hunt with the Destination File and this month we are going to start to encourage you to visit northeastern North Carolina and get to know the rivers there. 

  This time we’ll cover the Chowan. This river originates near the Virginia border and flows through the northeastern region of North Carolina for 50+ miles before emptying into Albemarle Sound near Edenton. 

  The river was first named in 1584 and is identified as one of the three oldest surviving place names in the United States. For more than 200 years, the Chowan served as the dominant transportation corridor linking plantations and farms to the port of Edenton, the first permanent English settlement in North Carolina. 

  The Chowan River was used primarily as a highway for trading during colonial times, and settlers were able to obtain an abundance of fish from it as well. During the Civil War, Union Ships would sail down this river to attack Confederate posts.

 Important natural resources in the basin include wetlands, anadromous fish spawning areas and Merchant’s Millpond State Park. Large, awe-inspiring swamps of tupelo—gum and cypress trees fringe much of the shore and extend far inland. These swamps, rich in wildlife, regulate and purify water flowing from land. Wetlands habitats in the basin provide flood control and safeguard wildlife habitat and water quality.

  For centuries, the Chowan River provided food and a source for travel for the native Algonquin tribes and the earliest settlers. By 1831, the first steamships in America plied the river, dispatching passengers and freight for almost a hundred years. Today, the river continues to be a source of food, economy and recreation.

  The width of the river varies from approximately 1/5 of a mile in the upper reaches to almost two miles at its mouth. Virtually the entire river is flanked by cypress swamps, which provide good fish habitat. The water is brackish to fresh, and tides are mostly wind driven.
   North Carolina biologists say some of the finest freshwater fishing in the state can be found in the Chowan River. Largemouth bass are the most sought-after freshwater sport fish in the river, and bass tournaments are often held throughout the river at many of the access areas. The Jon Boat Elite Series and Bass Bandits of Virginia are two circuits that focus on the Chowan.

   During the spring, anglers typically fish shallow using plastic worms, topwater frogs, buzzbaits and other artificial lures along the shoreline; while in summer months, largemouth bass may be enticed with jigs presented in deep water around the numerous log jams in the river.

   The river also provides good fishing for sunfish during the spring spawning period, which is April through May. Tributaries to the Chowan, such as Sarem Creek, Bennett’s Creek and Wiccacon River, are good bream fishing streams. These same waters also produce good catches of black crappie during spring months and white perch during the summer. 

  We spoke with two anglers that have extensive history fishing the Chowan for this piece. Steven “Noah” Peters is a 24-year-old resident of Gates County, North Carlina. He’s been fishing the Cho’ for about eight years. He currently fishes out of a tricked-out Jon boat (16’ Weldbuilt) with a 9.9 hp outboard and usually launches from Shoup’s Landing in Eure, NC on the upper end of the river.

   Brad Webb is the tournament director for the Jon Boat Elite Series trail. The 39-year-old from the Hampton area has fished the Chowan for 24 years. He currently fishes from an 18’ Hydrosport and also launches from Shoup’s Landing.

  Here’s what each had to say about fishing this fairly unknown river.

   “I first started fishing the Chowan because it was easily accessible being only 10 minutes from my home. There was always “dock talk” about how good of an area it was to fish, and I decided to check it out for myself. I would rank the Chowan in my top five of one of the best local rivers in the area based on the quality of fish it produces and the diversity of structure.”

  “Back in the late 90s and early 2000’s this fishery was hurt bad by hurricanes and the resulting fish kills. But the last eight to 10 years it has made an amazing comeback, and now, in my opinion, is one of the top fisheries in Carolina and Virginia,” Webb added. 

    Both Peters and Webb agree that anglers can fish the Chowan with just about any boat, from a kayak to a 20’ center.

  You really could fish the Chowan out of any boat. It’s pretty much players’ preference out on this body of water! This is what makes the Chowan so unique, in my opinion,” Peters told W2.

  “A smaller Jon boat up to a normal bass boat rig would be just fine,” noted Webb.

  Both anglers also agree that the Chowan is the rare fishery that sonar is really not necessary.

   “Sonar isn’t needed at all to catch fish but could be helpful in the early spring and late summer for brush piles off the bank. But a new fisherman would have plenty of action fishing the lily pad banks and cypress filled main river and creeks,” Webb said.

  “I do not think it’s necessary to have sonar out on this body of water; however, it can be extremely helpful for finding offshore structure. I definitely think you can catch good quality fish without the help of sonar, as I have done so myself!” said Peters.

  So, when is the best time of year to try the Chowan if you only had one visit?

 “I think the best time to fish the Chowan River would be late summer into early fall. The bigger fish are moving back into the shallow area of water and getting ready for winter! The springtime can always produce some nice giants as well as they are getting ready to spawn. You can’t go wrong fishing this body of water,” said Peters.

 Webb had a minor difference of opinion: “From now ‘til June is absolutely the best time to fish the Chowan.”

   So how and where does a first-time visitor fish this 35-mile long cypress and lily pad-filled bass factory? We asked both our experts that, too.

  “The best advice I can give you before fishing the Chowan is to look for isolated cypress trees with good water on them, as this is typically where the good fish will be hiding. I recommend using a buzzbait, creature style flipping bait, spinnerbait, and a vibrating jig. Those would all work perfectly in the springtime. If you’re looking for a good store to shop in for these items, check out Fishing Pro Tech out in Toano, Virginia,” said Peters, who last year caught two eight-plus pound bass from this river.

  “Anglers will have great luck this spring with your typical shallow water lures like spinnerbaits, topwater, squarebills and soft plastics. All of this fished in the many creeks which have pads, cypress and beaver huts will produce memorable catches,” noted Webb, who has had multiple 22-pound plus limits from the Chowan fishing tournaments.

  Public access points are few and far between. As noted Shoup’s Landing is a popular option located just off Rt. 13 about 15 miles south of the Virginia/North Carlina border. Heading down river, there’s a launch ramp at Tunis on the west side of the river. Then there’s the Gatesville launch back on the east side.  Up in the Wiccacon River there the Harrellsville launch. Choanoke Shores has a ramp. Canon’s Ferry (has a ramp and there’s another public launch, the Edenhouse off Rt. 17 just north of Edenton near the mouth of the river roughly 35 miles south of Shoup’s. The first and last ramps are the best for 20’ bass boats.

   Lodging in the area is tricky. For an upcoming Bucket List visit this summer, W2 will rent the riverside cabin offered by A&J Outfitters featured in our Destination section on page 34. Contact James Jones at 252.356.4585.

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