Nature Notebook: The summer smallmouth smorgasboard

river algea
The author deals with an algae bloom on the North Fork of the Shenandoah River in 2012 .

By Dylan Cooper, columnist

At last, the song of the periodical cicadas to our north has died out. But rest assured, there is still plenty of “bug” fishing to do in the heat of the summer. We’ve still got june bugs and japanese beetles, crickets and hoppers, damselflies and dragonflies, and of course dobsonflies(the adult hellgrammite). If you pay attention the next time you make a float down the river, you will likely see most of these and they’ll probably be in abundance. It doesn’t take an exact replica for your bait to catch the hungry bass, sunfish, and other species that are after them. More or less, it’s more determined by when you are fishing than what you are fishing with.

The old adage in fishing is that topwater works best at dawn and dusk. The reason that usually works (typically in deeper water systems) is because predatory fish will feed more in the low light hours when they can be concealed better, and then retreat to the deep water when the angle of the sun is high making them stick out like a sore thumb to their prey (and even their aerial predators). This cycle continues on down the food chain as well.

But it’s almost the opposite pattern during the heat of the summer on the river. Because there is little deep water to be found, and because low and clear waters leave them exposed anyway, bass are commonly seen roaming the shallows in the middle of the day, just waiting for a damselfly to touch the surface or a hopper to make the wrong jump. At this time, it’s just as easy for them to eat on top as it is on the bottom. Casting to shadelines, eddies, single rocks, current seams, and other micro-features that can give a bass that edge during the day will likely produce time and time again on your favorite topwater lure.

Sometimes water levels can get low enough that all the bass in an area will have to retreat to a deeper refuge. If you find one of these, be prepared for catches on back to back casts. These bass are usually very hungry from being holed up together with limited food, and it doesn’t seem to bother them to see their buddies pulled from the same hole and then return a minute later with a new piercing. 

Here is my rundown of my fishing experiences on our local rivers thus far this summer…

I just floated the South Branch of the Potomac near Romney, West Virginia, for the first time in my life. It is a beautiful stream and similar to both forks of the Shenandoah with lots of mountain views and agriculture along the banks (including the cattle pooping in the stream). We didn’t see another boat until lunch time, but then it got really busy. The fishing was quite disappointing for me as I couldn’t land anything but a few dinks. The best bass I saw pulled from the water was maybe 14 inches, and I saw a couple cruising that might’ve gone 17-18 inches. The worst part was that the flow was way down and even the kayakers were having to walk through a lot of the riffles.

The mainstem Shenandoah has treated me fairly well this summer. I can usually expect a mixed bag and plenty of water to cover even if I’m fishing around other people. Flows here tend to be good enough to float comfortably even when it gets fairly dry. The bass don’t seem to be scattered everywhere though and certainly favor certain stretches.

The South Fork Shenandoah is somehow fishing the best out of any area rivers I’ve been on. It comes as a surprise to me since it seems to get the most pressure, the most pollution, the most predation, the worst floods, etc. even after years of past fish kills, lesions, and poor spawns. Despite the spotty rains and parts of the watershed being abnormally dry, river flows here are still good enough to float without getting out often to push the boat. I’ve seen small but healthy stands of native grasses like stargrass, which is good for fish and bait habitat. I’ve also seen very little algae on the South Fork so far. Unlike grasses, algae can suffocate fish species, outcompete and kill the native grasses, and then they usually die after a short time. If an algae die-off happens in a large enough quantity, it can cause hypoxia or a sudden loss of dissolved oxygen in the water and cause a fish kill.

The North Fork Shenandoah is probably my favorite stream to fish, but it has been tough everywhere I’ve tried it this year. My best day was an eight hour float where we put just under 20 smallmouth in the boat between the two of us, with the biggest being 16 inches. This same float in the years 2012 and 2015 produced over 150 bass for me, with the biggest nearing 20 inches. That should be a huge wakeup call to DWR, who are now realizing the decrease in bass populations on the two prized bass fisheries of the New and James Rivers. The good news is the North Fork bass have been of better quality than anywhere else I’ve been fishing, but they are few and very far between. A low flow North Fork allows you to see just about every fish in the river, as long as you don’t mind pushing your boat over every shallow riffle. This year I have gone a mile or more at a time without even seeing a single fish in some reaches. 

Algae has begun its annual charge to take over the North Fork, although this year its not as bad as I remember it being in 2012 (see title photo). We desperately need a big flow to clean this algae out and help out the aquatic life. But what we really need is to do something about the cause of this excessive algae: nutrient loading to our surface waters. The Lord Fairfax Health District has even recently put out a safety advisory because of the algae on the North Fork around Strasburg. You should not make contact with the water in this area if at all possible, so stay on top of it in a boat. I do not recall ever being sick from ingesting any algae, toxins, or bacteria from the river since I am mindful of that, but I do know I have gotten headaches and dizzy spells from the smell of the rotting algae in the summertime on the North Fork. Certainly there are some harmful agents coming from the huge mats of spoiling scum.

Floating the river for summer smallmouth is probably my favorite pastime, yet the things I see there fuel my frustration with the apparent ignorance of the prevailing problems we have in our rivers. Do we not care that humans could safely drink from the river for millenia except for the last century? Or that the fish from the river used to be plentiful and healthy enough that they were a main staple, yet now fish populations dwindle even with reduced harvest due to mercury and other contaminants? We’re coming up on two decades since the first of the reoccurring fish kills on the Shenandoah and still have not solved the mystery. Algae, bacteria, and sediment choke our streams to the point that the simple act of recreating on them is no longer safe. Meanwhile, most of our community ignores the root cause of these problems and instead takes for granted our daily uses of the river like irrigation, drinking water, hydropower, waste disposal, tourism, and transportation.

It is time we do better for our river. 

Dylan Cooper is a Page County native and graduate of Luray High School and Virginia Tech. He is a stream restoration specialist for a local non-profit and a registered professional engineer in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Avid outdoorsman and ardent environmentalist, he resides in Luray with his wife and dogs.  

Email: [email protected]

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