Light Rod Fly Fishing the ancient New River
in SW Virginia

...with Bill Byrd.

It sounds like a total contradiction -- the ancient New River. However, the New River in Southwest Virginia is actually the oldest river system on the North American continent and second only to the Nile River in Africa as the oldest river in the world. It begins as two streams in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, then merges into the New River four miles from the Virginia line.

As does the St. Johns River in Florida and the Nile River in Egypt, the New River flows northward rather than southward like most other major rivers in the eastern United States. It flows lazily for 160 miles through Grayson, Carroll, Pulaski, Wythe, Montgomery and Giles counties in Virginia before it empties into Bluestone Lake in West Virginia and becomes the Kanawha River at Gauley Bridge. Then the New River ends its journey by emptying into the great Mississippi River, and ultimately the gulf of Mexico.

By most accounts the New River still is one of the best fishing rivers in Virginia, along with the James and Rappahannock rivers in Virginia. The NEW features outstanding populations of just about every major freshwater game fish in the state: smallmouth bass, spotted bass, largemouth bass, rock bass, striped bass, white bass, hybrid striped bass, muskellunge, walleye, black crappie, channel catfish, flathead catfish, yellow perch, redbreast sunfish, and bluegill.

State records from the New River include muskellunge (45 lbs.), smallmouth bass (8 lbs. 1 oz. -- established 3/12/2003), and yellow perch (2 lbs. 7 oz.). The state record spotted bass came out of Claytor Lake in 1993 at 3 lbs. 10 oz. Given its size and quality the New will likely produce more record-setting fish in the future.

The New can be fished by wading or in just about any light craft as you'd expect. If you are staging a float you can use your favorite canoe, jon boat, Kayak, inflatable rocker hull pontoon boat, or inflatable float craft. There are meandering stretches of wide waters with some with some shallow sections and four to six feet of water in others. There is plenty of fish holding cover everywhere.

On my float trip in mid May, 2007, the choice was a strong inflatable three man craft with me set up in the front and my guide placed center. I was equipped with rods rigged 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 weights. This array of fly tackle gave me choices to catch just about everything in the river. The flies included several patterns to cover everything from river bluegills and smaller sized smallmouths to large smallmouths and tiger muskies.

From the night before my trip when I met my guide at his home, I knew that I'd enjoy fishing with him on the New River. His knowledge of the river, demeanor, and the quality of his approach assured me that the day would be good.

While discussing gear for the next day's fishing, I mentioned my desire to fish my 3 weight on the trip, I could see that he didn't believe that anything under a 5 weight would do the job. Under normal conditions his expectation might have been correct.

As the day proceeded from about 8AM it became obvious that the larger smallies and tiger muskies were not active in the river that day, so we'd have to go to plan B or C to really catch some fish and have an active day.

Downsizing always works for me because I have tremendous confidence in fishing light/ultralight tackle with a stealth presentation. The fish seem to confirm that notion works frequently!

So I down sized to light tackle using my 8 1/2 foot 4 section Orvis TLS 3-weight with a favorite suspending fly and began probing every little likely looking bit of structure and cover. It was fly fishing 101 all over again. Shoreline woody cover particularly shallow and shaded held many fish. Any good looking spot behind a rock or small hole could hide the next fish. Small islands like the one above left, holes in the river bed, and current tongues held fish.

Since the 18 inch smallmouth I caught was my largest all day, it (seen right) was caught on my 5 weight with a larger minnow fly. I didn't get to fully test my 3-weight on the biggest fish. I did stop the smallies I caught up to 16 inches on my 3 weight dead in their tracks and had them to the net in under a minute -- no problem.

The most important issue was my light stealth approach and covering a lot of likely water patiently. It was the key to catching a world of fish -- not just a handful of bigger fish over the entire day.

By the day's end fishing on the New, I had proved that under the specific conditions we encountered, the 3 weight was up to the task, actually saved my trip, and made fishing under the high blue sky of the frontal passage a great time! During the trip my guide acknowledged that he really enjoys fishing for bluegills on still waters with a 3 weight. His initial objection had been that he just didn't believe that a 3 weight would handle most of these smallies in river current. Since I have over 4,000 hours fishing light/ultralight fly systems I didn't have problems with the strong river smallies.

So that is how I worked it. In scenarios where bluegills, redbreasts, and rock bass were likely I fished size 10 and size 12 nymph patterns. Size 8 poppers worked later in the day when the cloud cover burned off as well.

The fat, strong river bluegills and 12 to 15 inch smallies were VERY aggressive by mid day and would hit huge smallmouth sized poppers. I simply down sized the poppers and nymphs and caught them on my 3 weight. These fish were STRONG and really great fun on my Orvis TLS 3 weight. They supplied the basic fun on the trip for the entire day!

Downsizing didn't produce just bluegills, rock bass, and redbreasts -- it produced MANY smallies to 16 inches as well. The smallies were not actively feeding, but would hit my downsized size 12 and 10 streamers and nymphs. Once hooked, they were big fun on my 3-weight tackle.

In areas that had produced larger smallies in the past, I fished my 5 or 6 weight with bigger flies and caught one really nice 18 inch smallie. The other larger fish were 16 to 18 inches, and the smallies that I caught on my 3 weight ranged from mostly 12 to 15 inches. One of the best surprise fish of the day was an estimated 17 inch smallie hooked on a bridge piling with my 3 weight.

I cast into the front edge of the piling, saw his mouth open and his gills flare and raised my rod. He dove trying to get into wood, I put full 3-weight power to him, he went airborne and threw my streamer two feet in front of the boat.

Given the clear, shallow conditions with VERY bright sunlight, I fished a floating WF3F line that featured a clear 10 foot front section. Coupled with an 8 foot leader I didn't line spook fish. I simply watched the tip of the colored portion of my line as a strike detector for subtle strikes. Most of the time the strikes weren't very subtle!

By downsizing tackle and flies and by using a stealth presentation for over 9 hours I cast and caught a variety of scrappy, fun fish. Had I elected to continue just looking for big smallies, I expect the trip would have been very slow.

As it was I caught and released over 100 river bluegills, redbreasts, and rock bass, plus the 26 or so smallmouths. MOST of my fish were caught on size 12 or 10 flies.

As with my Potomac trip in fall 2006, having the ability to downsize to light/ultralight tackle, smaller flies, and a stealth presentation saved my trip and made what could have been a SLOW day an action packed and fun filled day on a beautiful NEW river!! For more on downsizing your fly tackle for improved results read: Small Flies Work

If you want to have an interesting experience, go on the web and search for New River guides in Virginia. The NEW River can give you a full day of fly fishing pleasure and you may just find that tackle and skill testing Virginia smallmouth bass you've been looking for.

If you are like me and find the big fish action slow, downsize with a crisp 2 or 3 weight, small flies, and a stealth presentation for the day of your life. When you return to your motel you'll be tired from casting, fighting, and releasing LOTS of fish -- not just thrashing the water for a few fish.