BASSETT, Va. – The Smith River … A gem hidden in plain view.
You might question the part about “hidden.” After all, it’s well-known in some circles.
Many circles even.
Yet in Virginia, when it comes to fishing or floating we think more of the James, New and Shenandoah Rivers.
Cold tailwater rivers like the Smith are best known for trout fishing, which at the end of the day is a bit of a niche pursuit.
“This is a brook trout guys,” intones Brian Williamson of the Dan River Basin Association, as he addresses two busloads of elementary school children, who had just arrived at the Great Road River access in Henry County. They are on shore, while he, in waders stands facing them about 10 feet into the river, holding up a clear plastic cup, with a three-inch trout swimming inside.
“We are going to put them in the water here. Say goodbye to ‘em,” Williamson tells the students as he gently releases the fish.
A similar group of students is gathered around a nearby picnic table peering into a large plastic bin where crayfish, stonefly nymphs and other small aquatic creatures are on display — thanks to Williams who had netted them from the river just minutes before.
Krista Hodges, also with the Dan River Basin Association, is giving the picnic table group a lesson in what trout eat. The children had raised the fingerlings in the classroom, and she tells the students that the only way they can grow to be adults once in the river is if they have the food they need, such as the invertebrates in the bin.
The not-so-obvious lesson, the one she hopes creeps into their consciousness, is how important it is to maintain clean water in our environment.
“So when they put them in the river, you know if they care about the river and they care about the trout wanting to make it then hopefully they’ll want to protect the river as well,” Hodges said.
Although many of the students are clearly unfamiliar with life in the river or perhaps even standing on a riverbank, Hodges says this is a big day for them.
“A lot of the students have never done this before. They say this is the best field trip they’ve ever been on,” she said.
If the number of macroinvertebrates is any indication, the water is in good shape, which wasn’t always the case – especially in the days of textile and furniture manufacturing, when according to Williams, chemicals were often dumped directly in the river, or into nearby streams, which essentially created the same result.
These days the river flows clear and cold.
“And that’s our Henry County water. We’re very fortunate to have really good water and this river is in really good shape,” Williams said.
Not only does Brian Williams educate school kids, he helped build 13 access points – all part of the Smith River Blueway, which makes the river accessible for the anglers who come from all over the country to fish for larger versions of those fingerlings the kids released.
With Smith River Outfitters – guides who make a living taking people fishing, we would drift six and a half miles of the river, starting at the dam, where the river flows swift and cold from the bottom of Philpott Lake.
“We’re running about 15 to 20 trips a month right now. And our busiest months are coming up May through July and probably run around 25 almost maybe 30 days a month this time of year,” said EJ Stern owner of Smith River Outfitters.
Stern seems to know every rock and turn in the Smith.
If trout fishing is a niche sport then fly fishing would be like falconry compared to all hunting. It’s harder, takes more time and skill and can register many magnitudes of frustration above all other ways of boating a trout.
When it works, it’s also more rewarding.
We are fly fishing – using nymphs or underwater flies that might fit on a quarter. Fashioned from pieces of animal hair, feathers and the occasional rubber leg tied to a hook with thread, the goal is to fool a trout into believing it’s one of those underwater insects the school kids were ogling in the bin on the picnic table.
Though it’s attached to fishing line, it must be presented as if it’s drifting naturally in the current.
Which isn’t easy.
And yet, the Smith gives you more opportunities for success than most.
“The trout are getting bigger every year. We’ve got great trout and we’re actually looking at about 2000 trout per mile in the Smith River, which is a lot of trout, Williams said. A fact with which Stern agreed.
“The catch rate is great. It’s one of the best catch rates in Virginia. You will catch trout when you come to this river,” promised Williams.
“We can confidently say everybody that comes with us at least catches a few,” echoed Stern.
Armed with that information, the casting came with confidence… and in fact, several trout fell for those imitation insects, as well as a few streamers, larger lures meant to imitate small fish as opposed to insect larvae.
The Smith River’s cold water extends about 31 miles from the dam south toward the North Carolina border. Beyond that, the water is too warm for trout.
The river holds three species of trout: rainbow trout, which are mostly stocked by the Game Department, brown trout and the occasional brook trout, like the ones the school kids raised in their classrooms.
For reasons best explained by biologists, brown trout are by far the most populous.
“Part of the attraction is the wild brown trout in the Smith. They make up 85 percent of the trout in the river and 75 percent of all the species of fish in the river,” Stern said.
He explained that the conditions for the food preferred by browns are perfect in the Smith, and that the trout are growing faster now than ever before. In part because of a change in the river’s flow patterns after flooding took out the hydroelectric generator at the dam a few years ago. Essentially, it’s led to less erratic changes in the water level and allowed the ecosystem to find the balance it never had before.
Yet, even with the knowledge that so many targets lurk just below the surface, it’s helpful to be with someone who sees the river every day and every season, in all kinds of weather.
Stern is that kind of person, and he makes his living telling people how to fish and taking them to the most likely places.
Even with so many fish and expert advice, it’s not like trophy browns were jumping into the boat.
But we can’t blame the river or the guide for the obvious angler error.
But as the trees and grasses hem in the river, creating a tunnel of isolation and wilderness, so valuable in a world devoted to our digital realities it’s an escape that’s never far away.
Whether you land big fish or not, there is hope that this waterway stays clean, wild and full of fish and those critters they need to thrive.
And that those lessons on the riverbank sink in, assuring a place to fool a trout for generations to come.