Pedal, Don't Paddle

New trails next to the country's best rivers make bikes the most simple and effective fishing vehicles.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Like many outstanding fisheries, the river we were fishing flowed through remote countryside, at times several miles from the nearest road. The conventional way to fish the river had always been to float it in a canoe or johnboat.

A gray mantle of dusk had long since cloaked the valley, yet the river's waters remained warm against our legs. Throughout the thigh-deep riffle, smallmouth bass dimpled the surface as they rose for egg-laying mayflies.

With a grin that plastic surgery couldn't have removed, I unhooked my 24th bass of the hour. "See what I mean?" I asked my partner. "If we had floated this stretch, we'd be at the boat ramp right now to avoid taking out after dark. Since our bikes have lights, we can fish all the way up until dark before we have to quit."

Our grand rail-trail experiment had worked. The long, sad decline of America's railroad industry had presented us with a whole new way to fish. Instead of paddling, we'd just pedal.

Throughout the United States, once-active railroad lines are being shut down at an unprecedented rate. In 1916, the nation's rail network totaled more than 300,000 miles. Fewer than 145,000 miles remain open today. Fortunately for everyone, many abandoned railroad rights-of-way are being converted to recreational trails. Anglers are doubly fortunate: Many of those new recreational trails just happen to parallel some of the nation's most popular fisheries.

Virginia's New River Trail, for instance, runs for 57 miles cheek by jowl with one of the Southeast's most dynamic smallmouth bass fisheries. Missouri's Katy Trail gives anglers access to more than 180 miles of the Missouri River and its tackle-busting catfish. Trout anglers in California can access nearly 10 miles of the Sacramento River by riding the Sacramento River Trail, which parallels the river through Redding. Anglers who frequent the C&O; Towpath along Maryland's Potomac River can enjoy nearly 185 miles' worth of fishing for a cornucopia of warmwater species.

According to the Washington, D.C.¿¿¿based Rails-to-Trails Coalition, more than 1,000 "rail-trails" crisscross the country from California to Maine. Most are open only to hikers, cyclists, and horses. Bicycle enthusiasts adore rail-trails because they provide easy cycling. Grades seldom exceed 2 percent, traffic is almost nonexistent, and many trails feature hard-packed or paved surfaces.

Ease of travel also equates to speed of travel. Well-conditioned mountain bikers can fly along most rail-trails at speeds greater than 15 miles per hour, and even the paunchiest couch potatoes can average 8 to 10 mph. It's this potential for speed that makes rail-trails such a prime option for anglers.

Think about it. To float to a prime spot 5 miles from the nearest launch ramp, a fisherman must haul a boat to the ramp, put it into the water, park his car, and then poke along at the river's prevailing current speed-possibly for two or more hours-before arriving at the desired location.

A bike-riding angler of average speed and ability would be on the trail less than two minutes after arriving and would reach the prime fishing spot in less than a half hour. It's the perfect approach for anglers who have limited time, who prefer to fish a favorite pool or riffle, or who are following the upstream progress of a mayfly or stonefly hatch.

On Pennsylvania's Pine Creek, for example, an angler on a bicycle could hit the stream's legendary green drake hatch at its peak anywhere in the roadless Pine Creek Gorge simply by pedaling upstream from Blackwell along the Pine Creek Trail.

Almost any bicycle can be converted into an efficient fishing vehicle. A modest investment of time and money will yield a serviceable steed. Up the number of hours or dollars, and the degree of utility increases sharply.

A minimalist, for example, might find an old coaster-brake "cruiser" bbike at a yard sale for $10, put new inner tubes in the tires for $5 more, and fashion a rod holder from a piece of plastic sewer pipe for another $5. A wealthy gear freak, on the other hand, might sink $2,500 into a state-of-the-industry mountain bike, hitch a $275 trailer to it, and instantly be able to tow more than 75 pounds of fishing tackle anywhere along any trail.

Most cyclist-anglers choose a course that meanders somewhere between the two extremes. Any sturdily built bike with fat, tough tires will handle all the punishment a rail-trail is likely to dish out. Mountain bikes certainly are up to the task, though they may be a bit of overkill. So-called hybrid bikes, which combine the upright handlebars of a mountain bike with the lighter weight of a road bike, are almost ideal for rail-trail use.

Road bikes, on the other hand, tend to be just a bit too fragile. Thin-walled tires and graveled trails simply don't mix-unless, of course, one really enjoys the smell of tire-patch glue. (For more information on bike selection, see "No Spandex Required" on page 97.)

A handful of add-on items is all it takes to convert a bike into a platform any piscator would be proud to own.

One of the handiest is a rear rack. Most racks cost $25 to $45 and mount to a bike's rear seat stays with three or four small bolts. Installation is generally a snap.

A rack instantly creates cargo-carrying room. On its horizontal platform, veteran cyclists can lash a tent, a sleeping bag, or both. The sides of a rack have hooks and bars that allow bicycle saddlebags, or panniers, to be mounted. A good set of waterproof panniers can cost $150 to $250, but they keep equipment dry regardless of the weather.

Carrying a fishing rod on foot is awkward enough; on a bike, it becomes exponentially tougher. That's why veteran cyclist-anglers mount rod holders to their bikes.

The simplest holder is a foot-long piece of 2-inch PVC pipe with a slot cut into one end (see photograph below). Clamped to the upright leg of a rear rack with simple pipe clamps, it holds an assembled rod vertically, sort of like a radio antenna. More important, though, it prevents a pool-hopping angler from having to disassemble and reassemble rod and reel at every stop. (Be careful. If your particular trail features overhanging limbs and thick brush, you could break a rod.)

Cyclists who feel compelled to carry tons of equipment might want to consider purchasing a bike trailer. Good-quality trailers cost $150 to $300, but they'll also carry every stitch of gear an angler could ever need.

The final modification probably is the most important: a headlight. Riding a rail-trail after dark isn't a good idea without proper lighting. Lights range from souped-up flashlights that clamp to a bike's handlebars ($25 to $50) all the way up to digital-output lights with dimmer switches and long-life rechargeable batteries ($250).

A rod holder and a light are the only true necessities; the rest merely adds to the level of comfort. The payoff comes when the fish are biting, all the boaters have long since left the river, and you're the only soul left to reap the rewards.