I set the hook a little too lightly, and Shawn Hash laughs. “You fly rodders,” he says. “Y’all crack me up.” Hash and I have been pals for a decade, and he knows I cast a long rod more often than a spinning outfit. “What’s up with that twitchy hook set?” he asks. “We’re not talking about our feelings out here today. You got to get real with these smallmouth bass. You’ve got to put the wood to them with this spinning gear.”
I shake my head, smiling, and then miss another fish that strikes short and tugs the soft-plastic grub into a gnarly wad at the end of the hook. Hash pours it on. “Now you’re letting them pull your pants down!” he hollers. “Get with it, man!”
But on the next cast the rod tip bumps just so, and I set the hook. Then I set it again for good measure. Hash nods approvingly. As the fish runs—zipping line across the current and across the river—it all comes back to me.
It’s been a while since I’ve been on the New River, a stream that’s run through my life for decades. When I graduated from high school, I set off on a week-long canoe trip along the New River in North Carolina. Years later, my son, Jack, and I paddled and camped the New in Virginia, a beloved three-day summertime ritual we repeated a half-dozen times. In West Virginia, I’ve caught smallmouth bass and trout from the New River, and rafted its Class V whitewater across three decades.
Despite its name, the New is one of the oldest rivers in the world—younger than the Nile by just a few billion years, but just as exotic in its own way. Here a meandering river flowing through pastoral farm fields; there a roaring whitewater cataract plunging through the deepest canyon in eastern North America. The New River switches things up like a carnival ride. My plan is to fish through its changing personalities, from the Virginia Highlands through the newest national park in the country, West Virginia’s rock-and-rolling New River Gorge National Park. The target: smallmouth bass, the bronze-backed brawling river native with an over-sized attitude.
But this time, I’ve sketched out a bit of a twist to the classic road trip: Instead of hitting the blacktop with a buddy, I’ve lined up two days of fishing with two veteran guides who happen to be long-time friends on the New. We’ll cover some of the fishiest water in two states, and while these are river stretches I’ve floated many times, many moons have passed since I was last there. Call it a road trip redux: Leapfrogging up the river, I’ll travel familiar stretches of water with a new set of eyes.
It didn’t take long to get back in the groove. After a rainy riverside night, Hash and I launch his raft near the old mountain town of Glen Lyn, where massive concrete piers in the river hint at the historic railroad that once soared high over the water. The New River unfurls in a miles-long S-curve here, with timbered ridges looming on both sides. For Hash, whose Tangent Outfitters is one of the most respected guide services in the watershed, the river is a place of constant discovery. “It’s a crazy fishery,” he says. “The state-record musky is from the New River. State-record smallmouth. State-record spotted bass. State-record walleye. You never know what you’re going to run into out here.”
With Hash on the oars, I have first crack at every piece of fishy water—and there’s a lot of it. The river here is wide, perhaps 150 yards across, but it’s hardly a single flow. It’s a labyrinth of rivers and streams within the river. At one point, anchored in middle of the river, I count at least six separate eddies, seam lines, and reverse flows within casting distance
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It takes a bit to dial into the rhythm of fishing Hash’s top bass rig—a lightly weighted finesse worm fished Ned rig style. It can easily be carried downstream if it isn’t well placed. We target the humped-up pillows of water just upstream of ledge drops and boulders, and the eddies and tailouts below. I cast the soft plastic into a current seam and keep the reel bail open as the lure slowly sinks. “The fish right now are in attack mode,” Hash says. “We’ve been getting hits right as you lift it off the bottom—like fishing a nymph rig with a fly rod.”
Attack mode sounds about right. We don’t catch fish on every cast, but we catch enough to be choosy about which ones go in the cooler. The New River might be a well-known trophy stream, but it’s also water that can put up big numbers of fish. A couple more times I have to relearn the lesson of putting the wood to them, but I soon figure out Hash’s favorite tactic of “feeding” the cast into the push of water just upstream of a ledge drop, and letting the river pull the lure along the unseen currents beneath the surface.
We break for lunch at Shumate Falls, a Class-III rapid with a river-left sneak route for rafts laden with beer coolers and tackle bags. Hash pulls the raft to the bank, and I grab a two-burner camp stove and a kitchen kit bag. As long as local regulations allow it, and the fish populations are healthy, I often insist on eating fish from whatever body of water I’m on—be it a farm pond or Appalachian river. Smallmouth bass aren’t exactly famous as table fare, but score them deeply enough, and fry them crispy enough, and there aren’t many paddlers who would turn down a bite.
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I clean two fish on the trunk of a fallen sycamore, and wade into a riffle to wash away the blood and guts. Standing there, thigh-deep in the New River, my mind flickers back to the long days I spent on the river more than 40 years ago. My buddy Jimmy and I paddled a rental canoe laden with gear stuffed in garbage bags. We pitched an old-school canvas tent in cow pastures by the water and on sandbars that seemed to quiver and shimmy each time the coal trains roared along the New. Oddly enough, I don’t remember fishing, although we stalked groundhogs with .22 rifles, and I know for a fact it was the first and last time I ever ate canned beef stew. Years later, when my son, Jack, and I began to paddle and camp the New, I’d definitely shifted my focus to fishing. We prided ourselves on packing little more than eggs, bacon, peanut oil, and fish breader, and feeding ourselves from the river.
After a lunch of smallmouth bass po’ boys—served neat, which means fish, bread, and a good appetite—the afternoon seems to hurtle by like the river water over Shumate Falls. We have bellies full of food and hold beers between our feet as we cast. When the river takeout emerges far downstream—a broad, cobbled gravel bar shallow enough to double as a boat ramp—no one wants to leave the river quite yet. No one wants to quit fishing.
Shawn pulls the right oar to spin the raft into an eddy, and the boat settles into the current seam. “I’ll hold you here,” he says. “Fire one off into that slick down below. You see it. I know you do.”
And I do. The rod bends one last time, and this time I let the fish run, not wanting to land it too quickly. On one side of the raft, the New River runs swiftly downstream. On the other, the reverse flow of the eddy purls upriver. For a moment, it seems as if the river doesn’t want to let go of us, either.
Running the Rapids
The next morning, I feel like I’ve been cosmically transported back in time. After pulling off the New River in Virginia, I drove north—through the Blue Ridge, across the Allegheny Front, and down into West Virginia’s New River Gorge. There I met my old pal Chris Ellis and his own Jack, a 19-year-old rising college freshman who’s spent half his life, it seems, standing in this river. Jack works as a rafting and fishing guide with Adventures on the Gorge, and I’ve seen a world of photos of Jack Ellis on social media, holding trout and squirrels and turkeys and bronze-backed bass. The kid likes to fish, and he and his dad have an easy-going, good-natured, trash-talking relationship that I share with my own son.
Chris shares Shawn Hash’s read on fishing for smallmouth. “You have to treat these fish like middle-school bullies,” he says. “Dumb, hungry, and mad at everybody.” But the Ellis boys use a different tool for the task: An exposed lead mushroom head on a jig, so you can feel it tap-tap-tapping the bottom. It’s a surprisingly intimate way to fish a gravel bar: Floating on the New, far beneath soaring Appalachian ridges, I cast the jig and bounce it across the cobble and ledges, trying to imagine what it might look like in the eyes of a smallmouth—crawfish, minnow, leech. It’s a tactile way to touch the very bones and sinew of the riverbed.
After a morning of near-constant good-natured ribbing, we each slip into our own little river world—the rush of water like a curtain around us. On a long straightaway I search the forest on river left. Somewhere hidden in the trees are ruins of large stone coke ovens used to bake impurities out of raw coal for use in steel manufacturing. Two mine explosions along this stretch of river in the early 1900s killed 70 miners, and most are buried in the quiet woods above the river. The raft slips by silent as a leaf on the water, and I scan the forest and see subtle horizontal lines in the forest canopy, a few out-of-place gaps that suggest the site of an old road or old building. It’s surreal to think about what the New River used to look like, just a hundred years ago. Mines and mining towns and smoke-belching trains and rough riverside bars and entire towns now molder in the forest as we slip by on our journey-within-a-journey.
But there are hazards to come. After a 90-degree bend in the river, we slip on life jackets and batten down the rods. Surprise Rapids is brawny enough to flip a boat—a tall ledge drop that, from upriver, hides a monstrous hole of foam that can suck in a raft like water draining down a sink.
Jack lines up the raft and pushes the boat over the ledge of the rapid. It’s only when you’re in the maelstrom that the challenge is clear: The suck-hole of the hydraulic churns to the right, five-foot standing waves tower on the left, and the only way through is to dance with both.
The bow of the boat hits the base of the first wave and I feel the raft compress, like a marshmallow between your fingers, as the stern edges toward the gaping hole in the river. Jack rips the right oar in a controlled fury—three hard strokes to correct the angle, then a half-dozen more, as hard as he can pull, on both oars to free us from the suck and nudge us across the edge of the wave train. I take a full wave in the lap as the main current carries us away from the hole, and twist around to Jack.
“A little close?” I ask.
“Maybe,” he says, grinning.
But what matters most is that we’re past the biggest rapid of the float, and we can get back to fishing. The river here is broken and cobbled, presenting pocket-water shots in machine-gun fashion. There are few long, arcing casts. It’s surgical fishing—eyes downriver, already plotting the next cast while the retrieve is still in the water. Jack has an angler’s sense of where the raft needs to be, and a rafter’s sense of how to position the boat, so the targets come quickly. I cast to that pocket there. That rock on the back. That eddy. That swirl of foam. All within 30 seconds—and then repeat.
At one point, Chris sets the hook a little too late for Jack’s taste. He lands the bass, but his son won’t let it pass.
“You gave that fish a minute and a half to get loose, Dad!” he howls. “If you need me to tell you when you have a fish on the line, just let me know.”
He looks at me and grins. “You have to keep these old fishing guides in tune.”
Indeed, I think. And that might be the best thing about a road trip, especially to a place textured with old memories. I love new water and unexplored country. But there’s something compelling about a return to familiar waters. Especially those that demand your best—no matter how long it’s been.
As we near the takeout, we all sense the end of the road. Jack dawdles on the oars, not wanting the day to end. No one remarks about the boat ramp. I’m not quite ready for the 5-hour drive home, but it’s more than the long ride that makes me want to linger. Against a sunny bank, white blossoms drift downriver, golf-ball-size blooms that gather in slowly whirling paisleys under the trees. I’ve seen them from time to time, all day long, and wonder aloud what they might be.
“They’re from the Paulownia trees,” Chris says. The seed pods of the Chinese native were so light they were used as packing material for shipping containers. “They came with the railroads, and they’ll probably never leave.”
I make another cast, and gaze up at the canyon walls, and murmur to myself: And who would ever want to?