The river of the long cast.
The South Branch downstream of the Smokehole section is absolutely spectacular! While the river hugs the road for its entire length, there is no way that this much water can be pressured.
I was at the tail end of my September 07 jaunt into the western part of Virginia where I visited the Jackson, Back Creek Gorge, Roaring Run and other water that were beyond the pale for a day trip launched from Northern Virginia. After fishing the section of Back Creek maintained by the power company, I headed north to find a nice, clean and inexpensive motel in West Virginia. My plan was to check out Smokehole and fish the South Branch in the section between the downstream end of the Smokehole special regulation section and the Big Bend campground. Two reasons for this: (1) It was September and I was after smallies; (2) I did not want to buy a $17 annual trout stamp for a one day event – something I assume I would be checked for in the Smokehole trout catch and release area.
Turns out that strategy was perfect. When I drove by Smokehole on the way down, I saw a few other guys fishing the trout section, but I had every mile between the end of the special reg section and Big Bend to myself. It was amazing. And it was amazing torture. Where to pull off? I only had one day, maybe 6 hours before I had to head home and fish the Dry River on the way back for an hour or two.
I drove all the way down to the Big Bend campground with the agony of indecision sweeping over me. Heck with it. I drove back towards the Smokehole and pulled off in a wooded area that looked like I would have to hike a bit to get to the real river as opposed to just stopping along the side of the road. With a few mosquitoes buzzing, I slapped some repellant on and plunged through the woods towards the inviting sound of running water. After slogging over a muddy branch stem produced by the low water, I broke through to the main stem of the river.
In this particular spot, the river tightened up to form a deep, fast run. Nymphs! I rigged up a dropper with a copper john and some generic looking thing on the bottom and started to float my way downstream. After a few adjustments, I finally zeroed in on the right depth and started to pick up some smallies and chub. Big chubs, small smallies. Who cares! It was fish action!
I worked this section until I hit the bend and could peer downstream and see that the world opened up. The river became wide, still, and deep in the run to the east. The sun was just starting to claw its way into the chilly valley at this point. I turned my face to it and welcomed the warmth but did not let that moment distract me from the real work (joy) of fishing. As the sun hit the water, the top action turned on forcing me to change tactics.
Rather than continuing to work downstream, I decided to hike down and work my way back up. That way, I could hit the fast run again after things calmed down and proceed farther upstream. This would keep me near the truck and maximize the fishing before I had to hit the road for the Dry River.
Loading up a hopper pattern without a dropper to match the interest of the fish, I targeted the rocks on the edge of the deep section as I slowly worked my way upstream. The rocks were all on the east bank of the river with a broad beach on the west produced by the low water. To minimize my noise, I kept to the beach and flipped the flies upstream and across the river to the dense rock formations. Each formation had clearly defined and visible pools. Plenty of targets, plenty of choices.
I was forced to move slow. Not because of the water or the need for caution, rather it was because of the action! I picked up a number of smallies and plenty of bluegills in this section as I made what passed for long casts at my skill level – many of which actually came close to their intended targets.
Midway through the lower, wide section, I had to switch hoppers as the smallies had ripped the legs off the original one. I continued to use that until the top water action died out. Switching to a wooly bugger, I continued upstream. The bugger picked up more chubs that anything else, so when I got back to the run, I swapped that out in favor of another set of droppers. The fast section had turned off, so I moved upstream and broke through from the narrow band into a wide pool marked by a huge rock at the upstream end that funneled the entire volume of the river around a tight, deep corner. The water bubbled and churned around the east side and spilled over a series of rocks that marked a transition from shallow to deep.
This was the place for long distance! I sloshed up to position in the lower third of the pool to work the bank and noticed smallies skittering in front of me. Thankfully, they are not as nervous as trout, so I was not concerned. I worked each section of the pool. Starting close and then reaching out in arcs – just like the books advise and picked up more smallies and bluegills.
I must have stood in this pool for an hour as I worked up the bank. I could see action over there, but could not pull anything significant out. With the pressure of time on me, I finally got to the big rock and changed to streamers and then nymphs with no luck. I used the rock as my exit point and walked down the road to the truck. Of course, being a fishing addict, I could not keep my eyes off the pool; even though I had just fished it.
What I saw stopped me cold. Right underneath me, I could see a huge school of big smallies churning around doing fish things. Well, huge in this case equaled about 5 – 8 fish. Ouch. Dry River would have to wait. I tried to slowly climb down the steep bank with the dry soil crumbling under me; working hard to slide me into the water with the smallies. I made it to a rock outcrop and immediately faced a huge challenge – how to cast? There were trees and bushes to my right and left and the bank behind. No clear way to do it. If I had more time, I would have gone back out into the pool and worked this section again based on the new intelligence on the enemy, but I had to stand and fight right here. Weakly attempting some crippled roll casts, I worked a crawfish pattern out. Frustrating! I could see the big girls down there but they just looked at my crawfish with disgust; no interest. I changed to hoppers and wished I had some poppers – those would have attracted attention! Nothing. After 30 minutes, I had to leave. The Dry was still waiting and it was a long drive back. I clawed my way back to the road and quickly moved to the truck, purposely not looking at the tempting water. I had to move on.
Bottom Line: Wow. The South Branch is about a 3 hour drive from Northern Virginia, just like the North Branch. I’ll be back here as it offers both smallie and trout action based on the season and the stocking. I’m sure that the Smokehole section probably draws the bigger crowd. That’s fine with me as I’d rather work smallies anyway.
Getting There: Mapquest yourself to Franklin, WV and follow US 220 north. Turn left onto Smoke Hole where 220 breaks away from the river. If you pass Jake Hill Road, you have missed the turn. Smoke Hole road follows the South Branch. You will pass the special regulation section and the place I fished is downstream of that, but you have miles of river to choose.
The deep run where I initially fished
The river opens up. This is looking upstream to the deep run
Downstream – this is the beach
Around the corner, further downstream – wide open spaces.
Looking back on the “one hour” pool from the upstream end
The large rock is to the right – exceptionally deep pool
Unless stated otherwise, this article was authored by Steve Moore