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A Whitewater Fishing Adventure on The New River

Measurements taken at the old mining town of Thurmond show the New River spikes to nearly 100,000 cfs each March, then dwindles throughout the rest of the year. That makes spring the most hazardous—­and thrilling—time to raft it.
Measurements taken at the old mining town of Thurmond show the New River spikes to nearly 100,000 cfs each March, then dwindles throughout the rest of the year. That makes spring the most hazardous—­and thrilling—time to raft it. (Nick Kelley/)Archambault got his nickname in the Marine Corps (“Archy is easier to say when you’re getting shot at”) and spent his first years out of the service with Outward Bound, volunteering as a liaison between veterans and “super hippie raft guides.” The Florida native spends half his year fishing saltwater, and the rest on the New. Whenever he gets a day off from guiding anglers in West Virginia, he gets right back on the river to throw flies himself.
Archambault got his nickname in the Marine Corps (“Archy is easier to say when you’re getting shot at”) and spent his first years out of the service with Outward Bound, volunteering as a liaison between veterans and “super hippie raft guides.” The Florida native spends half his year fishing saltwater, and the rest on the New. Whenever he gets a day off from guiding anglers in West Virginia, he gets right back on the river to throw flies himself. (Nick Kelley/)Flyfishing isn’t one of my vices, so I opted for a medium-action spinning outfit instead. This Abu Garcia Revo STX reel did the trick.
Flyfishing isn’t one of my vices, so I opted for a medium-action spinning outfit instead. This Abu Garcia Revo STX reel did the trick. (Nick Kelley/)The New River Gorge drops 750 feet over 50 miles, creating its famed whitewater. Congress protected this stretch, and 70,000 adjacent acres, in 1978 with a National River designation.
The New River Gorge drops 750 feet over 50 miles, creating its famed whitewater. Congress protected this stretch, and 70,000 adjacent acres, in 1978 with a National River designation. (Nick Kelley/)After we load gear and strap the raft frame to Simon’s truck, his fellow guides drive us to the put-in in exchange for beer money.
After we load gear and strap the raft frame to Simon’s truck, his fellow guides drive us to the put-in in exchange for beer money. (Nick Kelley/)Simon, 35, and Otter, 11, have spent most of their lives guiding: summers on the river, ducks and geese in the fall.
Simon, 35, and Otter, 11, have spent most of their lives guiding: summers on the river, ducks and geese in the fall. (Nick Kelley/)We land bass all week and release each one. Not because we’re catch-and-release purists, but because Archy and Simon refuse to eat anything that lives in the New River.
We land bass all week and release each one. Not because we’re catch-and-release purists, but because Archy and Simon refuse to eat anything that lives in the New River. (Nick Kelley/)Archy caught this fish near camp, but the best smallie action is in the rapids, where bass like to tuck behind rocks, in eddies, and in the pillowy Vs of water just ahead of the rapids, feeding on whatever floats by.
Archy caught this fish near camp, but the best smallie action is in the rapids, where bass like to tuck behind rocks, in eddies, and in the pillowy Vs of water just ahead of the rapids, feeding on whatever floats by. (Nick Kelley/)It’s easier to muscle through flat stretches of river while rowing backward, but it’s critical to face rapids head-on. This allows boaters to read the current and make the technical maneuvers certain sections require. Here, Archy tucks in his oars to clear the rocks as he threads a narrow chute. Careless rowers can easily snap oars on hazards like this, rendering themselves handicapped mid-rapid and thus more likely to flip, get swept into danger, or both.
It’s easier to muscle through flat stretches of river while rowing backward, but it’s critical to face rapids head-on. This allows boaters to read the current and make the technical maneuvers certain sections require. Here, Archy tucks in his oars to clear the rocks as he threads a narrow chute. Careless rowers can easily snap oars on hazards like this, rendering themselves handicapped mid-rapid and thus more likely to flip, get swept into danger, or both. (Nick Kelley/)After paddling my packraft all day, I tie off to Simon’s boat for the evening bite. He’s ferrying much of camp on his 12-footer, including the cooler full of food that serves as his seat, Yeti dry duffels stuffed with sleeping bags, a 5-gallon jug of drinking water, two spare oars, dog food, and the crew’s daily ration of whiskey.
After paddling my packraft all day, I tie off to Simon’s boat for the evening bite. He’s ferrying much of camp on his 12-footer, including the cooler full of food that serves as his seat, Yeti dry duffels stuffed with sleeping bags, a 5-gallon jug of drinking water, two spare oars, dog food, and the crew’s daily ration of whiskey. (Nick Kelley/)Simon leads commercial trips with individual, waiver-signing paddlers, and has been known to kayak and riverboard (imagine swimming with a kickboard in Class Vs), but he loves his custom-fitted oar boat best.
Simon leads commercial trips with individual, waiver-signing paddlers, and has been known to kayak and riverboard (imagine swimming with a kickboard in Class Vs), but he loves his custom-fitted oar boat best. (Nick Kelley/)Otter and Simon sneak in a few casts at midday. It is possible to fish from the public banks, but the terrain is so steep and the woods so thick that locals often can’t reach the water on foot.
Otter and Simon sneak in a few casts at midday. It is possible to fish from the public banks, but the terrain is so steep and the woods so thick that locals often can’t reach the water on foot. (Nick Kelley/)The Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, which runs beside the river, was completed in 1872. It’s still active with freight and Amtrak cars, as I learned when workers started hosing down cars near our campsite at 5 a.m.
The Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, which runs beside the river, was completed in 1872. It’s still active with freight and Amtrak cars, as I learned when workers started hosing down cars near our campsite at 5 a.m. (Nick Kelley/)We might not have had fresh fish, but we didn’t go hungry.
We might not have had fresh fish, but we didn’t go hungry. (Nick Kelley/)These little rapids wouldn’t pose much danger if I fell in, but standing in the riverbed would. Never try to stand in shallow swift water. You risk foot entrapment and getting pushed beneath the surface.
These little rapids wouldn’t pose much danger if I fell in, but standing in the riverbed would. Never try to stand in shallow swift water. You risk foot entrapment and getting pushed beneath the surface. (Nick Kelley/)We used 7-foot medium-action rods to throw PowerBait Power Swimmers with white jigheads. This worked well until Simon lost my rod in the last rapid.
We used 7-foot medium-action rods to throw PowerBait Power Swimmers with white jigheads. This worked well until Simon lost my rod in the last rapid. (Nick Kelley/)I’ve run rapids without a guide, but it’s much safer to boat with someone who knows the river—or how to navigate an unfamiliar one. A good paddler can read a rapid like a good angler can read the current, but we didn’t need to scout the New because my companions have it memorized. Before each stretch of whitewater, Simon briefed me on which path (a “line”) to take through the rapid, which way to swim if I flipped, and which undercut rocks could trap me below the surface.
I’ve run rapids without a guide, but it’s much safer to boat with someone who knows the river—or how to navigate an unfamiliar one. A good paddler can read a rapid like a good angler can read the current, but we didn’t need to scout the New because my companions have it memorized. Before each stretch of whitewater, Simon briefed me on which path (a “line”) to take through the rapid, which way to swim if I flipped, and which undercut rocks could trap me below the surface. (Nick Kelley/)There are plenty of slow-moving stretches on the New, giving solo rowers a chance to catch bass.
There are plenty of slow-moving stretches on the New, giving solo rowers a chance to catch bass. (Nick Kelley/)Here, Archy drops into Middle Keeney, a Class IV rapid named for a coal-union organizer. It’s important to lean forward, rowing (or paddling) with powerful, even strokes to punch through big waves head-on. Hitting a rapid at an angle can flip your boat. If you do fall in, know which way to swim or look to your guide for a hand signal. Don’t wait for rescue—swim hard, and never try to grab onto tree branches sticking out of the river. The force of the current can trap you against submerged limbs like noodles in a colander.
Here, Archy drops into Middle Keeney, a Class IV rapid named for a coal-union organizer. It’s important to lean forward, rowing (or paddling) with powerful, even strokes to punch through big waves head-on. Hitting a rapid at an angle can flip your boat. If you do fall in, know which way to swim or look to your guide for a hand signal. Don’t wait for rescue—swim hard, and never try to grab onto tree branches sticking out of the river. The force of the current can trap you against submerged limbs like noodles in a colander. (Nick Kelley/)The fishing, of course, is best in the early morning and evening, but we also seem to get more bites whenever a train rumbles by. Archy swears the vibrations scare the fish out of their holes, and it doesn’t take long to discover he may be right.
The fishing, of course, is best in the early morning and evening, but we also seem to get more bites whenever a train rumbles by. Archy swears the vibrations scare the fish out of their holes, and it doesn’t take long to discover he may be right. (Nick Kelley/)The final mile of riffles before the old Fayette Station Bridge and then the famous New River Gorge Bridge holds some of the best fishing of the trip. The smallies here are hand-size but hungry, and hit nearly every lure I throw to them.
The final mile of riffles before the old Fayette Station Bridge and then the famous New River Gorge Bridge holds some of the best fishing of the trip. The smallies here are hand-size but hungry, and hit nearly every lure I throw to them. (Nick Kelley/)The final mile of riffles before the old Fayette Station Bridge and then the famous New River Gorge Bridge holds some of the best fishing of the trip. The smallies here are hand-size but hungry, and hit nearly every lure I throw to them.
The final mile of riffles before the old Fayette Station Bridge and then the famous New River Gorge Bridge holds some of the best fishing of the trip. The smallies here are hand-size but hungry, and hit nearly every lure I throw to them. (Nick Kelley/)Last summer, Simon traded a truck camper for cash and this welded stand, a literal lifesaver for steady fishing through whitewater. The metal platform gives me a lift too, making it easy to sight-cast to bass holding in eddies and above rapids.
Last summer, Simon traded a truck camper for cash and this welded stand, a literal lifesaver for steady fishing through whitewater. The metal platform gives me a lift too, making it easy to sight-cast to bass holding in eddies and above rapids. (Nick Kelley/)The massive boulders lining the New also hint at what sits below the surface. Here, Simon floats into a cave that becomes an undercut at higher water—a death trap for capsized boaters who get sucked into the opening and pinned by the current.
The massive boulders lining the New also hint at what sits below the surface. Here, Simon floats into a cave that becomes an undercut at higher water—a death trap for capsized boaters who get sucked into the opening and pinned by the current. (Nick Kelley/)Each year, the New swells its banks and sends mud, trash, and timber roiling downriver. This leaves tangled heaps of sun-dried driftwood along the beaches, providing more than enough fuel for the few campers who sleep there.
Each year, the New swells its banks and sends mud, trash, and timber roiling downriver. This leaves tangled heaps of sun-dried driftwood along the beaches, providing more than enough fuel for the few campers who sleep there. (Nick Kelley/)

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Hell or Highwater on the New River
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