We planned the operation with military precision. Four guys coming together from four different locations to attack the North River Gorge in a classic north-south pincer movement. Julius Caesar would have been proud of us.
Art Reynolds and I headed out from Northern Virginia after a flawless link up at 0630 on a bright Friday morning to meet with Chuck Woods in a commuter lot off of I66 at 0730. 1.5 hours later, we picked up Jim Pettit in Bridgewater. Our scheme was aggressive. We would fish the entire 6 mile stretch of the stocked trout water in the gorge. To make this easier, we deployed two cars with one parking at the lower end and one at the upper. In keeping with the KISS principle (Keep It Simple Stupid), one team would attack from the lower end, one from the north, conduct a passage of lines in the middle, coordinate on any “trout enemy” activity encountered and then continue the operation to consolidate on the objective. After being relieved in place at the end of the day, any survivors would link up at the lower rally point.
We conducted the final briefing on the day’s plan, filled up with coffee at the Quarles station and then blasted west towards the line of departure. Undetected by the enemy, Chuck and Art dropped off at the lower entrance while Jim and I drove farther north to the North River Campground. While I do not think we had to pay a fee just to park there, the signage was unclear. There is a five dollar per night fee to use a campsite and a check box on the envelope for “day use”. Uncertain, we dropped five bucks in the slot to keep the car from being towed and started to walk down the well improved, wide trail. In true cavalry spirit, we headed towards the “sound of the guns” or, in this case, the sound of a rapidly running river.
The North River Gorge is stocked by ATV several times during the season. Once we were on the trail, it was easy to see how the VDGIF accomplishes this. The wide trail starts at the campground and was clear all the way down to where we had to cut away from the trail to get back up to the car at the lower gate. Kudos to the VDGIF for making the extra effort to stock in this fashion as it provides a nice remote experience to those fishermen who enjoy a solitary day on the water. We encountered trout most of the way down and even caught a few.
Jim and I followed my normal strategy. We walked about 1/4 mile to put some distance between us and the families in the campground and then cut over to the river. Jim immediately tied into a nice fish! He was using a Wulff with no dropper. This was going to be a good day. I tied on the same pattern with a green midge dropper and began beating the water.
The North River in this first mile is a medium gradient stream that has deeper holes behind rocks and in the bends. These are separated by very shallow, wider runs that approach 30 feet in width. Once we figured this out, we would move quickly from spot to spot and avoid the areas that did not look “fishy” enough. The glare on the water from directly up or downstream camoflaged the true depth of the skinny sections. Best to look at it from the vantage point of the bank and then sneak in.
I did not pick up any fish until I switched to a black copper john with a small, unweighted pheasant tail nymph. Once I tied this on, I picked up two nice rainbows in rapid succession in a deep, tight pool downstream of the first ford. At this point, Jim and I had to make a decision. We had not been moving very fast as there was good action and good water so far. But, it was noon and we had 4.5 miles of river to cover.
We decided to pick up the pace and stay on the trail. We would fish the areas where the trail came close to the river under the assumption that the ATV stocking truck would not stray far from the path in loading up the river. Later, I discussed this with Chuck and he said that the river probably has fish spread across the entire length since the stocking started in November and there was plenty of time, rain and higher water to push the fish into the areas away from the trail. So, if you go there, allocate more time so you can discover the portions of the river that we did not see. Looking at the map at the upper right, it is obvious that Jim and I did not fish most of the river.
After we adopted the hole to hole strategy (akin to MacArthur’s island hopping in WWII), we moved downstream much faster and linked up with Chuck and Art about 2.75 miles down from the campground at 1515 hours. We exchanged intelligence. At this point, Jim and I had caught about 8 fish between the two of us. Art and Chuck had done about the same. To confuse the enemy, we released these captured prisoners after telling them to encourage the smallies to attack. While Jim and I were using dries and nymphs, Art and Chuck were throwing variations of wooly buggers. We confirmed the link up time at the rally point as 1800 hours, redistributed ammo, water and separated to focus on the enemy positions identified. Since we did not have the forces to occupy any positions, our assumption was that the enemy surged back after being forced out by our respective sweeps north and south.
With 3 hours to cover 3 miles of water, Jim and I shifted into high gear. I quickly moved downstream until I slammed into a broad, deep section about 3 miles from the campground. The water here was 2 – 5 feet deep and about 40 – 50 feet wide. Knowing there were smallies in the river since I had caught one upstream, I decided to tie on a small popper. I waded out into the slow current and looked for potential holding areas; quickly locating one near a fallen tree. On the second lob of the popper to the tree, it landed with a small plop and the water blew up as a fish mangled it! Had to be a smallie! But it looked odd as I played it to hand. This was a rainbow! I had never caught or heard of anyone catching a trout on a popper. All I can think of is that the popper was a size 6, so it was not a true bass sized lure. This guy was probably crazed with hate after being tormented by Art and Chuck and unloaded on the popper.
I had another massive strike on the next cast; same white and red popper. Not sure whether this was another trout as I missed the strike. Once the adrenalin wore off, I looked around and saw a nice rainbow finning in the water 8 feet to my front. I flipped the popper about 5 feet upstream to see what he would do. As the popper drifted downstream, he moved a bit and then rose and nosed it without striking. Ok. I need to add a small popper or two to my already overloaded fly box.
1600 hours. Time flies (ok.. sorry about the fly fishing pun). I fished my way to the end of this pool, missing several more hits on the popper and then jumped back on the trail. I joined up with Jim and we decided to walk quickly to the end of the river and spend any remaining time fishing the lower section. As we walked, we discussed how the terrain had changed. While the upper section of the river had more of a gradient with associated rapids and riffles, the lower section was gentle and had more deep pools.
In fact, it killed us to walk by many of these. They screamed to be worked over – especially this late in the day when empty stomachs and cooler temperatures drive the fish to feed. Many of these pools are right next to the trail, so our assumption is that each one receives a few fish from the wandering ATV.
Bottom Line: Wonderful place. The physical challenge of a good 2.5 mile hike to get to the best water in the middle will eliminate all but the hardy few from visiting the Gorge. After the first 3/4 mile in each direction, we saw no evidence of human activity. No trash, no bait jars, no empty bottles. But here’s the dilemma. This is a full 3 hour drive from Northern Virginia. 3 hours can also put me on the North Branch or the South Branch of the Potomac where there are bigger fish…. makes for a tough call.
This section is only viable until the early summer. I expect that most of the trout die when the water heats up. Although Jim did see the beast of the river – an 18 inch trout – finning in one of the pools, I expect that trout survival here is minimal.
Getting There: Here are the detailed directions from Google to the North River Campground
“Take S.R. 42 to the south end of Bridgewater, turn right just after the bridge, onto S.R. 727. Go west 3.3 miles to a “T” intersection with S.R. 613. Follow S.R. 727 to the left and go another 2.6 miles to the intersection with S.R. 730. Turn left onto S.R. 730 to Stokesville. At Stokesville, turn west onto S.R. 718 and continue one mile to the intersection with Forest Development Roads 95 and 101. Turn left onto FDR 95, follow past Todd Lake Campground; road is gravel from this point. Continue another 4.6 miles to the intersection with FDR 95B. Turn left and go one mile to the campground.”
To get to the lower entrance, look for it right after you turn left on FR 95 coming off 718. Maybe a 1/2 mile or so after you make that turn.
Secrets Revealed? No. This is a public location that is documented in the following places:
Flyfisher’s Guide to Virginia
US Forest Service
About 0.5 miles from campground
Jim at the end of a good hole indicating the size of the trout in front of him
Spot where trail crosses the stream about 0.75 miles down from the campground
On a black copper john
Typical wider pool at the start of the gentle gradient area
Trout magnet got this smallie
You can see the typical pool, run, pool, run pattern
The trail. Perfect for a mountain bike
Moderate gradient sections pop up
The turn hole is just below here up against the cliff
The popper pool
Not staged. This guy really hit the popper
Unless stated otherwise, this article was authored by Steve Moore