FAYETTE, W.Va. — Ready for a real fishing challenge? Then forgo a paddling excursion on a whitewater river and climb aboard a fishing raft with a spinning rod.
Lock your feet into the floor stirrups, brace your butt and back into the pedestal fishing seat, and then execute a perfect cast into an eddy behind a massive boulder while the raft rockets through a boiling rapid. Feel the bite of a feisty river smallmouth bass, set the hook and then try to work that fish to the boat.
Hell, if that isn't a double rush, I don't know what is.
There's a certain smug satisfaction in placing a pinpoint cast while bouncing through a rapid that had pleasure rafters screaming in exhilaration, or maybe it was terror, seconds before.
A caution: If you count staying dry while fishing as important, this isn't the experience for you.
We tried this in West Virginia's New River Gorge, but many rivers near military installations can offer similar challenges. The New River drops 240 feet over one 14-mile stretch, sports class I to V rapids and is considered one of the premier whitewater rivers in the Eastern U.S.
Dave Arnold, of Class VI Mountain River, is a veteran whitewater guide who warns, "You're going to get wet fishing the gorge. There's a 37-foot drop just across the three Keeney rapids. At the last rapid, where the water is channeling, the drop is about 14 feet. It's possible to flip a fishing boat in water like that."
These are locations where you don life jackets and move to the raft floor, firmly grasping your fishing rods.
"The risk-to-reward factor is [that] you're fishing sections of water largely accessible only by raft," Arnold said.
The guides who run the fishing boats usually are among the cream of the crop, able to read the water not only for successful navigation, but also with incredible skill using the oars to give you a decent shot at a pocket of water that might be holding a trophy bass.
Arnold says one of his favorite moves is to deliberately ground, or at least delay, a raft atop a boulder in or near a rapid that has just a couple of inches of water flowing over it, thereby allowing multiple casts within a promising location.
Knowledge of the fish habitat and biology is critical in locating lunkers. For example, on a bluebird day with a cold front, you're best off working shallow water near the edges, Arnold explained.
Hit the right conditions and the payoff can be an exceptional day with a two-person boat catching 50 to 100 fish. You'll catch a lot in the 9- to 14-inch range, but mixed in are usually a few reaching up to 22 inches or better and weighing 4 to 5 pounds.
Autumn can be the best time to launch whitewater trips. Fall foliage is spectacular, fish are hungry and summer crowds have vanished. Watch water levels, checking with your outfitter before a trip. Heavy rains can create huge, high, muddy water problems.
Make every shot count. You may only get one chance at an eddy on the side of a rapid. The finesse factor is challenged by the boat hurtling through whitewater often at the same time as a fish picks up the bait. Not to worry: Most whitewater trips offer ample places with more easily navigated water.
Smallmouth bass will make up 80 to 85 percent of the catch on a New or Gauley River whitewater trip. Also possible here and in other rivers are largemouth bass, rock bass, spotted bass, walleye, muskellunge, crappie, bluegill, carp, and flathead and channel catfish. Fishing trips are usually on a catch-and-release basis.
• Rods and reels: Bring two rods. You may lose one, plus having a different lure tied on to another rod lets you mix things up. Most people use spinning gear. Use a 6.5- to 7-foot medium-action rod with some stiff backbone. Pair it with a quality reel spooled with easy-casting 8- to 12-pound monofilament. A 10- to 14-pound fluorocarbon leader also is an option. Fly fishers want at least a 6-weight rod; an 8 may be a little heavy. Make sure your reel has quality gears and a high ratio, needed to retrieve fish quickly through the rapids.
• Lures and hooks: Don't overdo it. New River fish, for example, eat crayfish, small minnows and bugs. Curly tail grubs and tubes (3 to 4 inches), and flukes to 6 inches are among the best soft baits. One-quarter or 3/8-ounce jig heads usually work fine, but water conditions may dictate the best weight. Use sharp, sturdy hooks such as Daichis, sized for fish in the 1- to 5-pound range. Use see-through plastic containers that can be tethered to the boat.
It's next to impossible to fish the gorge without specialized rafts or boats and fast water know-how. Guided trips are abundant and affordable, with all-day trips ranging from $125 to $240 a person. See http://www.class-vi.com">http://www.class-vi.com, or call (800) 252-7784; http://www.wvdnr.gov/Fishing/Fishing.shtm">http://www.wvdnr.gov/Fishing/Fishing.shtm; http://www.rivermen.com/site/float-fishing">http://www.rivermen.com/site/float-fishing; or http://www.newriverwv.com/Recreation_Fishing_.php">http://www.newriverwv.com/Recreation_Fishing_.php.
Other whitewater fishing hot spots
There are many more. States in Appalachia and in or near the Rockies or the far western mountains offer the best whitewater fishing. Here a few to whet your dry fly.
Colorado: Fly fish for big German brown and rainbow trout in the Gunnison River. Multiday trips are the norm. See http://www.arkansasrivertours.com/gunnison-gorge-fly-fishing.htm">http://www.arkansasrivertours.com/gunnison-gorge-fly-fishing.htm.
Oregon: The Rogue River, Klamath River and more offer salmon and steelhead fishing, and the John Day River is a West Coast smallmouth bass bonanza. See http://www.fishinoregon.com">http://www.fishinoregon.com.
Idaho: The Snake River's Hell Canyon is legendary for its whitewater and world-class sturgeon, trout and bass fishing. Check out http://www.idahoriver.com/snakeriver.htm">http://www.idahoriver.com/snakeriver.htm.
Montana: A multiday trip on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River is a real wilderness outing. See http://www.wildernessriver.com/MiddleForkFlathead.htm">http://www.wildernessriver.com/MiddleForkFlathead.htm.