The upper James River in Virginia offers some of the best smallmouth fishing in the country.
Fly fishermen and conventional fishermen both can enjoy the hard-fighting nature of the smallmouth in this absolutely beautiful river, which flows from the confluence of the Cowpasture and Jackson Rivers in Bath and Highland Counties, through Lynchburg and Richmond, past Williamsburg and Jamestown to the Chesapeake Bay. It’s upper sections wind through the Jefferson National Forest, cross under the Blue Ridge Parkway, and through the George Washington National Forest, along the beautiful Appalachian Mountains.
Words alone cannot describe the beauty of this stretch of river, or the thrill of landing a 4 or 5 pound smallmouth bass that call it home.
The river’s fall line runs through downtown Richmond, and anywhere upstream of there the smallmouth are plentiful year-round. This section of river also holds largemouth bass, catfish, and sunfish, and even musky, but the smallies are the predominant species, and the most fun to catch.
There are many good places to fish from the bank or wading, especially in the foothills, but float fishing in a canoe, kayak or other small boat is the best way to go for large numbers of fish. For kayak fishermen, you’d be thrilled to experience the James’ beauty and serenity, as well as the excellent smallmouth fishing that has been a mainstay of the river for decades.
For conventional fishermen, on light spinning tackle or small baitcasting gear, try small jigs or grubs in natural colors. Suspending jerkbaits like the Rapala X-Rap, and Senkos are also excellent choices. Focus on slow-moving water and the deeper pools. If the bite is slow, use smaller baits and slow down your retrieve. I also like to use small spinnerbaits, buzzbaits, and crankbaits in the warmer months, and have caught many fish on topwater poppers. Live minnows and worms will work too, but artificial lures are more feasible if your fishing from a kayak or canoe.
The fly fisherman can have so much fun fishing for smallies on the James, they might not want to go back to trout fishing! Use a 7 or 8 weight fly rod with matching floating line with a weight-forward taper and a 1x or a 0x tippet for bugs and poppers, or a sinking tip fly line and a 6 foot leader setup with strike detectors for underwater flies. A good tip to remember is the lower the water, the longer the leader. If the water is shallow, say under 3 feet, the fish will be easily spooked, so you may want to use a 9 to 12 foot leader and cast a little upstream of your target, letting the current carry the fly to the fish. Also be very quiet and move slow when approaching your fishing hole. It doesn’t take much to scare-off a fish.
Smallmouth bass dine on many different insects, but their most common cuisine includes frogs, mayflies, grasshoppers, caddisflies, damselflies, dragonflies, hellgrammites, shiners, leeches and crawfish. Just as in trout fishing, it helps to “match the hatch”, but smallmouth are not nearly as finiky as trout. Try a popping bug alongside grassbeds in the summer, and in colder water, a sinking fly cast to a gravel bar or against the bank in 2 feet of water can produce trophy-size fish.
All freshwater fish like to hang out around structure, and smallmouth are no exception. Fly fishermen and conventional anglers can use this to their advantage. Any particular boulder, rockbed, downfall, bush or weedbed is likely to be holding a fish. One trick I’ve learned is when you catch a smallmouth in a particular spot, release him and come back 3 or 4 hours later to catch the same fish again.
The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has an excellent float trip map as well as public boating access locations here. I highly recommend printing the page if you are going, as there are rapids and dams to avoid along the river’s 340 miles. You can buy a Virginia freshwater fishing license online here.
Whatever your style of fishing or your method of getting to them, I guarantee you will have a blast fishing for smallmouth bass in the awesome James River. Don’t forget to bring your camera, as you will be showing your family and friends not only your fish, but the incredible scenery of the river and the surrounding country.