GOOD DAY ON THE NEW RIVER


My cousin Steve is a retired Army Colonel. His son is a sophomore at Virginia Tech and when Steve and his wife shuttle him between Northern Virginia and Blacksburg they stay with us.  Steve is a fisherman, though he fishes mainly in salt water; so I invited him for a day in the fresh waters of the New River.

There's a hot spot about 7 miles from my home. The DGIF maintains a boat ramp, and a ways downriver from it is a riffle line that's very nearly a ford, actually.  You can easily walk across the whole width of the river on it. Above this riffle is a deep pool, and below it maybe 75 yards of roiled water.  Bass love places like this: the water is oxygenated, lots of stuff comes down to them and the rocky bottom has weedbeds, open areas, and lots of hidey-holes where the sedimentary rocks of the riverbed have turned "on edge" over the eons. The pool above the riffle is about 5 feet deep with scattered boulders and weed beds in which the big fish can hide as well as a fair amount of open "cruising" water. The rocks and folds in the bottom are ideal ambush locations but they're also great places to twist an ankle or get trapped and drown. I like to wade fish this area, and always do well. A wading staff is a good idea, and a life jacket is an absolute must because there are some pretty deep holes.

We took my little boat and hit the water about 9:30, puttering downstream, stopping here and there at other promising locations, including a big chunk of "structure" that sticks out of the water. Fish lurk just downstream from it in the back eddy, and dart out to catch things floating by.  I've caught more than one 19" smallmouth in this location by bouncing the bait off the outside and letting it slither downstream with the current to entice a lurking lunker to shoot out and grab it.

Steve started things off with a bang by nailing a 16+" fish in exactly that spot. Five minutes later I hooked another big one but he threw the hook.  We left this location after half an hour or so, and went on down to the riffle, pulled over onto the right bank, tied up, and started to wade.

By the end of the afternoon we had both limited out on "keepers" and put many more fish back in the water. At least five of these were in the 14-20 inch "slot" and couldn't be kept. There was one that just made it to 14" and several monsters over 16", deep-bodied beasties that fought like tigers.  Steve was using a fly rod much of the time but later switched to spinning gear. The bass weren't interested in his popper, though he did get some strikes on it.  We'd walk along the top of the riffle, or just to one side of it, casting up or down stream. It didn't matter, both sides produced plenty of fish.

About 3:40 they really started to hit.  I'd wade in knee-deep or hip deep upstream of the riffle and toss out bait so that it floated down along the bottom towards me. BANG! something would grab it, then we were off to the races.  Same thing on the other side, if you let the current carry it along the bottom.

I had been told about catalpa worms, allegedly "the best bait you can get," but although I've been eyeballing the only catalpa tree in my neighborhood, it wasn't infested. So I ordered a few dozen frozen from a bait company.  The company assured me that frozen ones were as good as the fresh ones. Let me tell you, the hype is just that: hype.

These things were worthless to anyone except the people selling them at $5 per dozen.  They're touted as being a "tough" bait, but thawed, the damned things were squishy soft and came apart in the air on a moderately vigorous cast.  I had to be very careful, because if my pitch were the least bit too vigorous, the hook would go one way and the worm another. With even a hint of a snag, or if you pulled one through weeds, it was gone in an instant.  Worse, absolutely nothing hit them.  To top it off, they stink to high heaven.  I have a few dozen left in the freezer and will eventually get rid of them.

Nightcrawlers, though, were the magic bait that has worked well for me in that river for 25 years.  I'm a hopeless duffer with artificial lures. But if I had to feed myself on fish, I could do it using nightcrawlers as my go-to bait. 

When I bought them at a local convenience store, the clerk said, "Better check and make sure there are worms in the containers."  I asked why; she lowered her voice and in a conspiratorial tone she told me, "Chinese people come in and steal them!  And Mexicans!"  I asked why someone would steal worms, and was told with an air of authority that "They EAT them!"  I don't know if the local "furriners" eat worms, but if they do they're wasting time and money. They'd put them to better use by fishing with them.


Normally I'm a catch-and-release guy. I enjoy catching fish but don't much care for cleaning them, nor do I enjoy eating fish all that much. However, I have an ex-graduate student (and surrogate daughter) from Alexandria, Egypt, who grew up eating fish. She and her family moved to Blacksburg last month to take up a faculty job in my department, and since she misses fresh fish, I'd promised her she could have any that I caught. At 6:00 PM I rolled up to her house with my boat in tow behind the truck. I was smelly, filthy dirty, and wet, and handed her a basket with 9 fish in it.  Six bass between 10 and 13 inches and some slab-sided "redeye" in the 9" to 10" range. The limit of "keeper" bass is 5 per person, so we could have caught and kept a few more; but we put back far more than we kept.  All in all a very, very satisfying trip.

People seem to use the boat ramp but invariably go up or down river. Rarely is anyone stopped at that riffle. I did see a few kayakers and canoeists but powerboats would drift on past. I like it that way.  I suppose most people are using lures: perhaps they do better with those in other water. 

Occasionally I get snorts of derision from some of the fishermen I meet about using worms. They're derided as "kid's bait," but the fact is that every convenience store in this area sells 100 dozen or more in a week during the season; and they can't all be used by kids. I use them because they work.

The Light has shone upon me, and for many years I have been an Apostle of the One True Faith:  "There is no God but Live Bait, and Nightcrawler is his Prophet."