By Steve Chaconas
My Fly is Open
The best thing about an annual fishing trip is that it takes place every year. After fishing 200 days a year on the Potomac River, venturing to new water is always exciting and a new challenge.
The Upper James River winds its way through southwest Virginia, within a few minutes of Lynchburg. Several institutes of higher learning are in the area: Liberty University, Randolph Macon, Lynchburg. River guide Capt. Matt Miles says it’s because smart people come to Lynchburg.
The mighty James begins its majestic journey in Botetourt County, winding through the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains to the Chesapeake Bay. The pristine beauty of the river is accessible through the Upper James River Water Trail. Paddlers, anglers and families can commune with nature and enjoy the sights and sounds of 45 miles of the Upper James, including 14 miles designated as a Virginia Scenic River. The Upper James River Water Trail provides spectacular mountain views.
This is my one time of the year to whip out my fly rod. Forgetting all I know about my bass fishing routine with spinning and bait casting tackle, I rearrange the fishing part of my brain (pretty much my entire brain) and focus on a totally different angling device. Fly-fishing is all about mechanics. Rods, line and angler must work in unison otherwise the very light lures cannot be delivered to strike zones. For late summer on the Upper James, light high floating surface lures must be presented into crystal clear water only about 2 feet deep. Fortunately for me, casts only need to travel about 30 feet.
Casting is key. Here’s the catch. You don’t cast lures, you cast line. Fly line is heavier in order to carry the light lure back out of the water and then forward to the fish. A clear GAMMA Frog Hair leader is connected to the fly line and tied to the lure. If the lure isn’t where the fish are, there’s no chance of catching one. The back cast is a gentle backward motion beginning with lifting the line with the rod, easing it backward and with line fully extended behind the angler, a forward motion propels lures to the fish. Just when I think I have it figured out, Capt. Matt crosses over to the other side of the river where I have to backhand the cast to avoid hooking him. My only piece of advice, never hook the guide.
Once a fish bites, a hookset is achieved by pulling the line with your line hand and holding the line against the rod with your rod hand. To clarify, if you are right handed, your right hand is your rod hand and your left is the line hand. Once the hook is set, the rod hand locks the line against the rod and the line hand strips (that’s fly talk for pulling line) line until the fish is at the boat. The reel is pretty much just for line storage unless the fish makes long runs. Sounds simple enough.
Standing for 8 hours as the small but comfortable boat glides down the water allows for an observational advantage. Floodwater remnants still dangle from overhanging trees, looking like nature’s clotheslines. Unspoiled scenery with river rock etched by billions of gallons of flowing water is framed with occasional river grass. Birds of prey announce our presence, as they show off their angling skills just downstream of our attempts.
It’s all about small mouth bass fishing. Catching bronze acrobats in close quarters is an adrenaline rush. In an instant, the cast results in a slight splashdown and then screaming line and a bent rod follows an audible slurp. Hooking and fighting 3-4 pound smallies is incredible. Controlling the big fish while the boat drifts downstream adds to an already challenging experience. Once landed, a quick photo and release and then the quest renews.
There are other noteworthy challenges, such as not standing on fly line and having it wrap around sandal straps or anything else in the boat. There’s also the new lingo; backing, beadhead, butt section…double haul, double taper, drag…Back Cast, Forward Cast, False Cast, Roll Cast, “S” Cast, and Shooting Line. While the learning curve is a long and winding road, the path to trying something new expands the fishing experience. Even bass anglers could learn a few new things. Learning to cast a bait-casting reel or to pitch, flip or skip will enhance fishing opportunities. Try using your opposite hand. Whatever the “new” experience might bring, grip the 6-weight rod with weight forward floating line and a tapered leader tied to a conehead nymph dropper hopper for a jumping rise with a dead drift over a redd. And, don’t forget, when you come to a fish ladder in the stream, cross it.
Potomac River Bassing in November
One of the best times for crankbaits. Mann’s Baby 1-Minus covers shallow water with wood or grass remnants.
To go a bit deeper, try Lucky Craft 1.5 crankbaits. Shad patterns in clear water and craw in stained. Find hard cover like riprap, as it gets a bit warmer on sunny days. Also try lipless cranks like Lucky Craft LVR D-7 to crawl along gravel bottoms or to find isolated grass clumps. For moving lures, I like GAMMA 12-pound Edge fluorocarbon line.
One of my favorites this time of year is the Lucky Craft Pointer 78, Gold, clown and baitfish patterns. Develop a cadence including pause length to trigger bites.
Mizmo tubes on Mustad 3/0 Mega Bite hooks and 3/16-ounce weights can be pitched to visible cover. Using Maui Jim HT lenses helps locate isolated cover. Carolina rigs with GAMMA Torque braid and Edge leaders cover large areas. Slowly drag green pumpkin Mann’s HardNose lizards with pauses. Soaking in Jack’s Juice Bait Spray will keep fish holding on longer.
Author Capt. Steve Chaconas is Potomac bass fishing guide & contributing writer for BoatU.S. (BoatUS.com) Potomac River reports: nationalbass.com. Book trips/purchase gift certificates: info@NationalBass.com.