Virginia’s Greatest Comeback: The Shenandoah River

by Chris McCotter

By Lonnie Conner

Once a hidden gem of the Shenandoah and Page Valley, the Shenandoah River has become quite popular among the array of users, including anglers, now that a sustained period of recovery is upon us. We’ll examine all parts of this storied river in this article and pay particular attention to fishing. Let’s start with a geography lesson to better understand the flow of this ancient river system. 

  The Shenandoah River is made up of two separate branches that come together in Front Royal, Virginia. The North Fork flows approximately 116 miles from Shenandoah Mountain in the northern part of Rockingham County all the way through the Shenandoah Valley to Front Royal.  The South Fork, runs approximately 98 miles, beginning at Port Republic in the southern part of Rockingham County, and flows through Page Valley and meets the North Fork in Front Royal turning the river into the main stem. The main stem runs approximately 57 miles and flows from Front Royal to West Virginia, meeting the Potomac River. 

   The Shenandoah is one of 48 rivers that flow north and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year whether for angling or just wanting to see and observe wildlife in their natural environment. Seeing the resurgent bald eagles as well as other wildlife makes it well worth the trip. The two rivers flow along the Blue Ridge and Massanutten mountains collecting more water from many tributaries until they reach their confluence in Front Royal, where they become one and flow to the Potomac River. 

   The Shenandoah River’s bottom composition consists of bedrock or ledges, cobblestone, and even some gravel. I believe this type of bottom makes a river rich in food sources, current breaks and spawning areas for fish and other aquatic species. 

  There are six dams and several low water bridges located on the North Fork, which you can possibly portage around as well as six public access points. This branch has an average depth of two feet but has deeper pools that can be as deep as 15 feet.  The average depth of the South Fork is three feet but make no mistake there are some deep pools as much as 30 feet. There are three low-head hydropower dams on the South Fork, and 20 public access points. 

   Both branches will have spots of grass during the summer on the bottom known as (Panicum virgatum) a long-bladed grass that flows with the current waving at you as you pass by it. This grass gives aquatic life the cover, current breaks and food sources they require. Other grass such as the water willow grass which grows along some of the edges of the river are good hiding ambush spots when the river flows into it. Of course, you will always have the typical laydowns in the river when the floods come and wash them down river until they reach their final resting place where they become cover, ambush points and a current break. 

   The Shenandoah hosts an abundance of fish species including American eel, white sucker, northern hog sucker, common carp, crappie, yellow bullhead, fallfish, redbreast sunfish, bluegill, walleye as well as channel catfish. It is best known for its largemouth bass, muskellunge, and most of all, its boisterous smallmouth bass. The smallmouth as well as the muskellunge are quickly becoming the quarry for many anglers from all parts of the country that come to try their hand at catching their personal best brown bass as well as a 35-to-50-inch musky using a variety of techniques fly fishing and using light tackle.

  The North Fork of the Shenandoah River is narrower and shallower, suited for river tubers, kayakers, rafts and small Jon boats. Smallmouth bass are present in good numbers. The South Fork is suited for kayakers, rafts, tubers, Jon boats and it has certain sections that will accept regular size fiberglass and aluminum bass boats. Smallmouth bass abound in this branch of the river. The main stem of the Shenandoah has more deep, slow moving sections and dams and you will find more largemouth and crappie here in addition to more typical river fish and a new, expanding population of flathead catfish.

   Walleye can be found in the Shenandoah River from Warren Dam in Front Royal downstream beyond the Virginia/West Virginia State line.   Although they are not as numerous in the Shenandoah as they are in other rivers they are increasing in number and can reach lengths exceeding 25 inches.  

  In the spring of 2014 VDWR began an annual stocking program of walleye fry in the Shenandoah River to supplement the natural population and increase the number of walleye present for anglers to target.  

   It has been determined that a majority of the river’s walleye stage for spawning within the 10 mile reach below the Warren Dam. Biologists have sampled fish up to 29 inches and 10 pounds. After the spawn, the fish redistribute downstream and slink back into the deeper pools. 

  Muskie do not naturall reproduce so DWR stocks fish annually into all three sections of the river.

  The Shenandoah River has always intrigued me and my desire to know the river has taken me on many journeys. I’m not really wanting to say my age, but I’m old, and that has given me the opportunity to have fished close to 75% of the Shenandoah, and I have had some amazing experiences over the years. 

   I was introduced to the river at age five by my mother, but I remember my grandparents sitting on the bank catching sunfish and bluegill with a cane pole and nylon line. 

  I started seriously fishing the river in 1985, and I have memories of catching 150 plus smallmouth bass in a day floating the river along with many smallmouths in the four-to-five-pound range with a six-pound giant on occasions. I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy those days with many friends, but the river has not always been that way. 

  DuPont’s textile operations were dumping thousands of pounds of mercury into the river from 1929 to 1950. During that time the state had declared a health advisory on the amount of consumption of fish in a 100-mile stretch of the river. In 2005 there was a fish kill on the Shenandoah along a 100-mile stretch wiping out 80% of the redbreast sunfish and smallmouth bass population due to a bacterial fungus causing lesions. 

  Unfortunately, I was a witness to the second disaster, and it was heartbreaking to see the number of fish I saw dead and floating as well as catching them with the lesions. It was a devastating blow to the river and there was no way to fix it but let it recover on its own, which took years. 

  There were many projects that helped, like cleaning up river and farmers helping by fencing cattle away from the river. A lot of things must happen for a fishery to recover. One is to have a good spawn every year, which does not always happen, and another is having good weather that allows proper rainfall and temperatures to keep the river system healthy and flowing. Still water can sometimes be bad especially when extreme heat can cause bacteria and E. coli. Flowing water creates oxygen which is good for aquatic life. 

  There are a lot of variables that must take place and it’s taken years, but in the last five years I’ve seen the Shenandoah River come alive with so many people enjoying the beauty and seeing anglers with some amazing fish catches. I have seen many smallmouth citations being caught as well giant muskellunge. The Shenandoah is quickly becoming known for 50-plus smallmouth days on a float trip with citations in the mix. 

  Though not as well-known as the infamous Susquehanna River or as large, the Shenandoah River can produce some of the same quality of fish. The smaller Shenandoah packs a punch as it meanders along beautiful mountain scenery and offers revitalized fishing opportunities. The ‘Doah has come back in a big way. I hope that you can enjoy it the way I have for so many years. Make sure you map out your trips and get all the information you can and enjoy the beautiful Shenandoah River.

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