Smallmouth Glory in West Virginia
West Virginia's New River will have you casting for more -- smallmouths, that is.
Cast, cast, cast. Young Dave had been hard at it and wanted a break. “Squirrel, I need a smoke,” he said to his guide.
“Son,” said Squirrel, in a tone reserved for misguided children and small, furry pets, “you’re already smoking. We’ve boated 18 fish, and none of those other humps has broken double digits. Now quit whining and get that plug in the water.” Squirrel’s friendly grin belied his appearance. Unfolded from his raft, Brian “Squirrel” Hager stood 6 feet 3 and change, and he sported a shaved head and a back bulked to the width of an SUV. Squirrel looked like a benevolent bouncer — maybe not so benevolent.
Squirrel’s edict echoed louder than nicotine’s siren song. Young Dave picked up his rod and resumed casting. He could smoke later — maybe next week, if Squirrel gave the okay.
This exchange came about because, of all things, a meeting. Field & Stream had gathered on the New River in West Virginia for its annual editorial conference. Class VI River Runners, a diversified rafting outfitter, provided meeting rooms, meals, and entertainment. On the second day, the entertainment took the form of a friendly fishing contest in which the guide of the winning boat would get the prize. From the start, Squirrel announced he was the man.
Young Dave is contributing editor Dave Hurteau. “Young” distinguishes him from Dave Petzal, who’d be Young Dave only if Methuselah’s first name had been Dave. Young Dave was teamed with Jean McKenna, the magazine’s assistant managing editor. Jean doesn’t have as much fishing experience as Young Dave, who grew up so far back in the hinterlands of upstate New York that he didn’t have a zip code until he went to college. Nonetheless, she is a quick study and the owner of an even quicker tongue: “Quit griping, Dave, and fish.”
The rest of the group was spread up and down the New River in 11 rafts, manned by guides from Class VI and other New River outfitters. The New, one of West Virginia’s premier whitewater rafting rivers — on which thousands may run in a day — is also a fine smallmouth stream. How fine? Check these numbers:
Although the contest ran from 1 p.m. until 7 that night, two hours were consumed with raft launching and recovery, travel to and from the river, and general tomfoolery, so time on the water amounted to about four hours per boat. In those four hours, the 11 boats landed 318 smallmouths, which works out to 7.23 fish per boat per hour. That means each fisherman averaged a fish every 17 minutes.
Not everyone, however, was so — shall we say — lucky. Some of the fishier members of our clan — I won’t point a finger but I will say their names sound like Ken Schultz and John Merwin — fell below that average. Suffice it to say, Squirrel came through on his prediction. With his guidance, Young Dave and Jean not only boated 47 fish, the largest number taken, but also caught the largest bass, a fine 17-incher.
“I always say this is a baker’s dozen stream,” said Dave Arnold, one of the managing partners of Class VI. “You’ll catch a dozen fish in the 10- to 14-inch range before you’ll hook into a big one, but in a decent trip, a good fisherman should be able to play at least one 3-pound fish or larger. Especially with a guide like Squirrel.”
Whether Squirrel’s winning card was his knowledge of fish and river or his motivational expertise remains to be seen. What is important is the fact that there is fishing like this on a river noted for its rafting and that a fishing-guide base built on recreational whitewater is available. Arnold explains: “We couldn’t offer guided fishing on the New if we didn’t have the recreational whitewater business as our foundation. That pays for the rafts, the insurance, all our overhead. Whitewater rafting keeps the business going, and the fisherman really benefits.”
To understand the importance of this guide base, you must understand the rivver. The New finds its source in North Carolina, cuts through a piece of Virginia, and pools into West Virginia behind a ’50s-era flood-control dam at Hinton. Below the dam, the New runs for 50 miles to its junction with the Gauley River. A fisherman with some sense and a bit of whitewater experience can handle the upper stretch of that waterway, but the last 14 miles from Thurmond to the New River Gorge Bridge — the world’s longest single-arch steel span — is best left to the experts. In that stretch, the New drops 240 feet in a series of 23 rapids.
It takes an experienced hand to run those drops without an accident. Moreover, it takes teamwork to fish the whitewater. An angler has only seconds to size up a stretch of water and make a presentation before he is swept downstream. This does two things: It forces a fisherman to read the water quickly and cast, cast, cast, and it limits the amount of pressure felt by the fish. New River smallmouths are different from still-water fish. They grow rangier and stronger from fighting the current, and they develop quick reflexes to pick off food as it is swept by. If a fisherman could work from the bank to repeatedly cover a good holding eddy, he could hammer the bigger fish. But the banks from Thurmond to the bridge are nearly inaccessible; the only practical solution to fishing the whitewater section is a moving raft. Consequently, a fisherman has at best one cast at each good pocket of water.
Which brings us back to Squirrel’s advice: “Get that plug in the water, son.” Listen to the man — he knows what works.