Tuesday, January 7, 2014

New River, Virginia (2012)

I'm a bit behind...

In June 2012, Diana and I went to visit her uncle in the western tip of Virginia. Uncle Jim is the owner/operator of AOA Fishing, a guide service for Smallmouth Bass on the New River.

We were lucky enough to go out with Jim for three days (we could have gone for a fourth day, but we wanted to see some other local sites as well). I believe I caught just shy of 100 fish evenly split between a spinning rod and a fly rod. I was pretty excited about the total, but Jim said 100 fish days were not uncommon ~10 years ago.

Jim is a Smallmouth guy, so that's what we targeted. All but two of the fish I caught were Smallmouth or Rock Bass! The other two fish were Redbreast Sunfish, which was a lifer (#26 at the time). After a few hours, it was very easy to correctly predict what kind of fish was on the end of the line. If it hit and quit, it was a Rock Bass. If it hit and fought, it was a Smallmouth Bass. I grew tired of all the Rock Bass after a day or so.

The first fish of the trip for me was my lifer Redbreast Sunfish! On a fly!
Diana totally kicked my butt the first day. She caught a lot more fish than I did, and her spin casting was far more accurate. I spent the day getting schooled in how to properly cast a fly rod. The problem with being self-taught is that I've picked up some pretty bad habits that are hard for me to kick at this point. Still, it was very informative, if a bit frustrating.

It also took me about three hours to finally catch a Smallmouth!

Bask in her glory!
Uncle Jim's custom raft was fantastic. He was seated at the oars in the center of the boat. The bow and stern were raised, and Diana and I took turns on one end of the boat or the other.

It took a lot of convincing, but we eventually got Diana to hold one of her fish!
After I switched to a spinning rod I threw a plastic worm on the far side of a small rapid. When I started to reel it in I said something along the lines of, "Crap, I'm stuck." Uncle Jim did not like it when we got snagged....he did not want to lose any flies/hooks/leaders/etc.

I was starting to feel shame when my line popped free! I was relieved I wasn't hung up...but then I said, "Nope, I'm snagged again."

I'm not sure why it took me so long to realize I had a decent sized fish on the end of my line! After a brief fight I ended up bringing in my personal best (at the time) Smallmouth Bass!

This beauty was an even 18" long and weighed just over 3 lbs.
The next day, just Uncle Jim and I headed out while Diana went out with her aunt (Diana was a couple months pregnant on this trip, so she wasn't too thrilled about being on a boat in the hot sun all day).

The second day went much like the first.....except I was catching a lot more fish on the fly than the first day! The river was generally empty of other fishermen, but near the end of our second float we passed by a bustling campground. The campground had a pretty large weedbed along it, so I started casting along its edge....and I brought in my personal best Rock Bass!

At 9 9/16", this was my largest Rock Bass of the trip by about 1/2".
In the above picture, you can start to see some rapids as a white line beneath my left elbow. It was there that I managed to catch my new best Smallmouth Bass! The rocks were thick with plants and algae just upstream of the rapids (which were too big to go over....Uncle Jim had to take us on the aquatic equivalent of a switchback to get through them). I was a bit nervous to let my worm get too deep, lest I get hung up when Uncle Jim couldn't get us back to the hook.

Still, I felt like the area might have some decent fish in it, so I threw the worm into a couple sheltered areas. I missed the bass on the first cast. She came out as I was pulling the worm out of the water. We were quickly moving away from her, so I threw a desperation cast....and got a hookup! There were some tense moments (for me), while I tried to keep her from the vegetation while we stair-stepped some rapids, but Uncle Jim eventually got us through the rapid and I was able to bring her to the net. She topped my previous best by 1/8" and ~1/2 lb.!

I had never been more nervous about losing a fish until I had this one on my line in a rapid.
The final fishing day of the trip brought my most exciting moment. I was tossing the worm out, not really paying much attention when I saw a fish following it. Uncle Jim had said, "Drop the worm if you see a bass following it, and she'll hit it on the drop."

I'd been following his advice the first two days with quite a bit of success.

Except this time, it wasn't a bass. The fish was headed straight toward me, and in the dingy water I thought it was a bass. I stopped reeling in, and the fish immediately turned to its left and shot off. Muskie! It wasn't a big Muskie, maybe 12"-15", but the snout was unmistakable as it cruised past. My first (and still only) Muskie follow! I spent the rest of the day 'playing' every Rock Bass I had on the hook just in case a Muskie was around and hungry (we'd find a ~36" Muskie rotting on some rocks later that day).

Uncle Jim sends me an email every time they catch a Muskie in that stretch of river (4 or 5 times since we were there).

Diana came out with us again on the last day. She caught her biggest Smallmouth ever!

Debating whether or not she should hold it.
She held it! 13 1/4"

Diana was hooking tons of fish....way more than I was....but she was slow on the hook set, so she didn't catch nearly as many as she should have.

I had caught the largest two Smallmouths of my life the previous two days, but they were both on the spinning rod. For whatever reason, I really prefer to catch my fish on the fly rod if at all possible. I spent our final day really trying for Smallmouths on the fly.

After a couple hours, I was getting pretty good at counting to two before setting the hook after watching the popper fly disappear below the surface. I'd brought in several 9"-12" Smallies, but nothing too exciting.

Then she hit.

At first, I thought it was just another Rock Bass. The water was shallow and rocky, and she was right up against the shore. Perfect Rock Bass habitat. The popper sank, I counted to two....and then she darn near ripped the rod out of my hands!

Thus began the toughest fight I've ever had with a fish on a fly rod. A couple of jumps scared me half to death. At one point I had the fly line in my teeth because I really needed a third hand! After what seemed like an hour, but was probably about 90 seconds, she was in the boat and I was able to breathe again. A new personal best!

Still my best Smallie....19 1/8", just over 4 lbs. And on my beloved fly rod!
And that about wrapped up our trip. We're hoping to be able to get back in the next year or two. I'm not sure Uncle Jim will take too kindly to me wanting to dapple with micro-fishing equipment next time though!

Some shots of the New River:

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