|Day 1 VDGIF Description: "Be on your toes for some whitewater action after entering the river at Ripplemead. A Class II rapid awaits approximately one mile form the put in, followed by several more ledges that produce great canoeing fun. A long series of Class II riffles and ledges are located a mile below the confluence of Big Stony Creek. Clendennin Shoals, located near the tow of Pearisburg, is the strongest rapid in the float and provides some excellent opportunities to land a big smallmouth bass or monster flathead catfish. Bragging size muskellunge can also be caught in the deep holes."
The company was good and the food was better. Whoa! Given this is a fishing report, that lead in sentence should be a red flag. Any fishing report that begins with a comment regarding camaraderie or hearty chow must mean that the fishing was substantially better than the catching. But, I get ahead of myself. Eight Potomac River Smallmouth Club members participated in this expedition and moved independently on July 19 to the Walkers Creek Resort operated by the New River Outdoor Compnay outside of Pearisburg, VA. Given prior communications, I knew that we were going to float a challenging section of the river on Friday - especially after reading the VDGIF description. What I did not know was that Bruce Ingram described this float as having the most whitewater of any stretch of river in either Virginia or North Carolina! As the operator of a lumbering 16 foot, 90 pound, mostly plastic wide bottomed canoe, this was the last thing that I wanted to hear. I rationalized participation by assuring myself that if I lost equipment in a dramatic, flailing, splashing spill, I would have a good excuse for the Basswife prior to wandering off to the Bass Pro Shop to procure appropriate replacements.
Frankly, there was more planning and coordination around who would bring what to eat than the actual execution of the floats. For example, I had the mission to stop at the outfitter to pick up two trays of lasagna Terry Cooney's wife prepared for one of our dinners. Perfect! In addition to freeing the hostage lasagna, I intended to have a detailed question and answer session with the outfitter on what to expect and how to survive the following day. Although the conversation went nothing like this, this is how it played back in my mind.
Steve: Hi, I'm here to pick up Terry's lasagna and want to ask a few questions about our float tomorrow.
Outfitter: Great, it's in the fridge. What trip are you taking?
Steve:We're doing Ripplemead to Bluff City. I have the satellite picture and a map. I need some advice on the best way to negotiate some of the rapids.
Outfitter: What a fantastic float! It's got plenty of exciting whitewater that will provide stark punctuation to some great fishing! So you want to know about how to get your kayak through the most exciting lines for the maximum adrenaline rush?
Steve: I have a canoe.
Steve: I have a canoe.
Outfitter: You're a dead man.
Steve: Don't worry, my insurance is paid up, my wife is the beneficiary and, if the worst happens, it gives her the opportunity to move in with her twin sister and live with 10 cats
Outfitter: Even though you're not going on one of our trips, you need to sign the extra special, high risk liability waiver before I can speak to you.
Steve: Okay, how should I deal with the rapids to have the best chance of survival and disappointing my wife by returning?
Outfitter: Well, you run most of them on the left, a few on the right and one or two in the middle. If you are alert, you might be able to beach your canoe on the shoreline and walk it along the edge if the current doesn't sweep you into the roiling maw of the churning water and drown you like squashed bug before you know what's happening.
Steve: Okay, which ones do I run left in which do I run right?
Outfitter: It depends on how they look when you get there – just flip a coin and go for it.
Steve: A coin only gives me two options.. you just described three. Any other advice?
Outfitter: Wear something bright orange so the search and rescue guys can find your body easily.
Steve: Got it...I have an orange poncho. One more question, I'm on the hook by lunch stuff for the trip, where should I get it?
Outfillter: Since you'll be dead before lunch, you may as well go to the Super Walmart and buy the cheapest generic brand of lunchmeat and cheese you can find.
Outfitter: Hope that lasagna is good... It may be your last meal! Oh... and have a good day!
The next morning, after a paltry last breakfast consisting of a bagel with cream cheese and two calming cups of coffee, we drove into the misty morning to the put in. After a quick shuttle to the takeout and braving a burst of rain, everyone launched into a light drizzle to go hammer some fish. With a last, lingering glance at the safety of the shore, I pushed my beached whale of a canoe strongly into the current and focused my mind on fishing. New River is big water. Putting eight boats in at the same time is not a big deal. Everyone disbursed, following their instinct about what was good structure and what wasn't. I just let the current move me downstream to the first good looking eddy, dropped anchor and began to work.
I wanted to try an Alabama rig for a long time and tied one on. After three or four casts, it was clear it was not the right gear to use on a river with strongly moving current. It was obvious that the flow of water was causing the rig to tumble and act more as a fish repellent than a fish attractant.
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With that, I switched to soft plastics. I started with worms, switched to creature, and eventually settled on a green tube based on advice from the other guys who are having more success than I. I traded off using these and my fly rod with a popper. But, success is relative. As the most enthusiastic, but perhaps the worst fisherman in the crowd, my standards of a good day are pretty low. But some of these other guys actually keep fish logs to tune their technique and tailor their attack; not wanting to rely on my approach based on random instinct and whatever my hand happens to grab in my "bag o' lures." As I drifted closer to some of the other guys, I could hear some complaints about the quality of fishing. What they were complaining about sounded like a good day to me!
By this time, we exited the dead water and were rapidly approaching the first set of ledges and associated whitewater. I flipped a coin and went right, following the crowd ahead of me so they would be well positioned to haul me out of the 77 degree water. Good call. Made it. I was still alive. The day really wasn't great in terms of weather. The mist continued, the clouds hung low over the high cliffs protecting the shoreline and the rain continued to squirt on and off with an infuriating randomness. At least it gave me a good excuse to wear the orange poncho.
More fishing followed in the long stretch of relative calm prior to hitting the next trouble spot. At the second rapid, I noticed Steve Adams at the shore waving to me. I took that as a warning to head for him and I'm glad I did. The rapid was a tight chute that compressed the water and added velocity. I walked canoe down the left-hand bank and cheated death while the brave and intrepid kayakers in the crew all squirted through... one exception. Capsized!! Instantly, like starved mosquitoes buzzing intently towards exposed flesh, the crew moved quickly to the rescue. No harm, no foul. All the gear was tied down, nothing lost. In the back of my mind, I heard the outfitter's words echoing about how the first couple rapids were "easy" and would be a good "warm-up." Oh well, I was committed and, since I was a soldier once, would face my death bravely.
We stopped for lunch after passing under a railroad bridge and watched a crowd of other canoeists, mostly teenagers, confidently sweep through the churning water with expert power strokes. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all... or maybe they didn't tell the kids that this was their last day on earth. Onward! Just downstream of the railroad bridge the river took a sharp bend to the right with the first challenging rapid looming at the corner. This one had to 3 foot ledges towards the left, so I chose to run to the right. Dropping to the bottom of the canoe to lower my center of gravity, I grunted out full power strokes on either side, propelling the canoe forward with renewed speed. Stroke, stroke, stroke! I thought it was going great until the front of the canoe slammed into a rock while the force of the water flipped the canoe in a 180 degree turn. I was now facing upriver instead of down. I quickly applied a few back strokes, broke free and drifted clean only to look up at the 20 or so kids standing on the bank laughing at me from where they were taking their lunch break. The heck with those guys. Onward!
The fishing continued to be slow, I caught a few, nothing spectacular and the other guys reported similar luck. We churned through a couple more rapids. It seemed like every time we got through one, there was another up ahead. The more manuverable kayak guys could deal with this easily and take plenty of time to both fish and get oriented on a good line through the churn. In my monstrous canoe, I had to think about how I was going to deal with the rapid far in advance. After all, I had to flip the mental coin, maneuver to the proper place and hope for the best. This minimized fishing time, but that is a small trade-off when compared to survival. The hot lures of the day for those who were having success was a black senko or dark green tube.
The last major rapid is significant enough to actually have a name - Clendennin Shoals. The outfitter cautioned me to be very alert and watch for a key landmark. The terrain on river right would break from being high forested hills to grass covered steep hills. "When you see the cows on top of the hill, pull right and walk through." As I paddled downstream, I wondered if I would recognize the landmark without the cows. After all, it was a bad day and they might be inside watching TV. As it turns out, some of the other guys beat me to the rapid (by design) and were holed up on the side waiting for everybody to arrive. None of us had seen any cows and we discussed this particular rapid. Was it the ONE? Nobody knew for sure. I decided to slide down on the right - a good call. I didn't need to walk the canoe since there was enough water running over the shallow western shoreline to keep me moving without the danger of overturning.
It was smooth sailing from there to the take out. One last warning. Some of the guys who had been on the run before marshalled themselves at the junction of an island where a side channel broke left. They rightly pushed the group to take that passage to avoid the class II ledge at the base of the bridge. All of us deferred to living another day and took that good advice!
In short, bad weather, rough rapids, caught a few fish, had a good time with buddies, what more could you ask for? This is living!
BTW.. the lasagna was great!