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Best smallmouth fishing in Virginia, or how I rode the lightning

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Back in my younger days I spent quite a lot of time fishing on the 2 branches of the Shenandoah river in Virginia. I had some really nice places but the best of all was on the South Branch just west of Bentonville, Va. I can give you directions to it but can no longer vouch for the ownership of it and it may no longer be accessible. Looking at the satellite images of it nothing seems to have changed at all. But this is the story of how I found it and some of the fish I caught there.


There is a road that runs along the river and along the river several groups of trees. I had seen it while driving to another spot but never really paid attention to it until I happened to notice a US Forest Service sign on a fence post that very clearly stated the land behind the sign was owned by the forest service. The entire mountain above the river is National Forest but I always figured the pasture along the river was privately owned. Now with proof that it was open to recreation I parked my truck and eyed the situation. The pasture is about a half a mile long but only about 75 yards wide where the sign was. The fence however was clearly of the electric variety and I could see some cattle about half way down the pasture. It wasn't clear if they were slow mean cows or fast mean cows but I figured with a 1/4 mile head start I could cross the pasture with time to spare. As it was I had a leisurely stroll across the pasture with the cattle paying me no attention. Negotiating the electric fence on the river side was no problem. It was a 4 strander but there was a nice wooden corner post with angled braces that let me cross easily. 


I still remember my first cast once I got to the water. I flipped a gold Mepp's spinner with the red tube on the treble hooks out and downstream of a small riffle. As it swept back to the bank below me I got a hit and set the hook. I was using a 6 foot ultralight rod with an equally light reel loaded with 4 pound test. I wasn't expecting what happened when I set the hook and line started ripping off the tiny reel headed toward the middle of the river. As I watched the line peel off and the spool emptying I knew I was going to have to get into the river to go after the fish or it would surely spool me. Being as I was wade fishing it was no big deal and I jumped in and headed after the fish. I crossed the river to the far side following the fish as it went and gaining line. No sooner than we got there it pulled a U-turn and headed back the other way. The water was mostly about 2 feet deep with some holes that went to 3 or 4 feet and a bit of grass. There were 2 small islands where trees had hung up and over the years dirt had built up around them. As I passed the one nearest the far edge for the second time I spotted an otter looking out of the grass on the island. And then 2 more smaller ones jumped into the river. That was pretty cool to see but I really couldn't stick around with a giant fish on the line. 


After crossing the river twice more I finally had worked the fish down to being tired and landed it. It was a 15 pound carp and I had hooked it in the eye socket. Was bizarre and a let down as I thought I had a record size smallmouth for sure. So I released it and then started wading around and seeing what the stretch of river really had to offer. And it was good. All of the deeper holes held plenty of smallmouth, rock bass and sunfish. I could seriously catch a fish on every cast. Upstream the bottom was corrugated across the current. The rock ledges were about 6 feet apart and while the water going over the top of them was only 3 feet deep, the holes in between them were chest deep and deeper. Some of them I am sure were 8 or 9 feet deep. And they were home to giant smallmouth bass. The trick to catching them was to get the lure just as deep as you could without dropping between the rocks. If you went below the rocks you would lose lures to the line getting torn up. Usually, how it happened was you would go a couple of casts without a hit and then something would slam the lure and the line broke just as soon as you set the hook because it had been sliding over the rocks and was weak.


After that first day I spent a lot of time fishing there. I could catch a mess of sunfish to eat, bowfish carp in the shade under the few trees along the bank, and catch bruiser smallmouth bass all day long. And I never had a problem with the cows. Sometimes they would see me crossing and would slowly drift up the pasture to see what I was up to but they were good docile cows. I had told a friend about the place and after hitting another spot took him to it. I had to swear him to secrecy and take an oath that he would share the secret with no one. As we had already fished one spot we were already wet so we parked, grabbed our rods and hopped the fence. And that is where it all went sideways.


In my mind, looking back on it 30 years later, it is just as clear as day. I remember being halfway across the pasture and feeling the ground shaking and a noise that caught my ear. I couldn't place the noise though and then my buddy squealed like a little girl and started running. I figured he had stepped on a snake and was laughing at his effeminate yelp as he crossed the fence. But why was the ground shaking and what the hell is that noise? I turned my head to see the biggest meanest cow I had ever laid eyes on followed by all the usual pacifist cows closing in on me at cow warp speed. They were only about 100 yards away and closing fast. I turned toward my buddy on the other side of the fence which now appeared to be about half a mile away and started running. My legs were like lead and it felt like I was running in quicksand and the cows were getting closer, especially the one with the great big horns that was now bellowing in rage that I had defiled his pasture and was trying to take his cows. My buddy was screaming encouragement to me, "Dude, you run like my grandmother". "You aren't going to make it, you better play dead". "Drop your fishing pole, no hold onto it and just before he gets you give him a good whack to show him who is boss". You know, the kind of encouragement you would expect from a guy friend when you are surely about to be stomped by a gigantic bull. 


As I neared the fence, I started to have visions of actually surviving the encounter. But then I also had the sudden realization that between me and living was 5 feet of electric fence and the high jump was not my forte' during track and field. But I pushed on, better to die trying than to give up and die. But the bull was now close. With every step I could feel his hot breath on my legs and I had no more speed to give. And how to get across the fence and then my buddy screamed, "He's almost got you, JUUUUUUUUUMMMMMPPPPP" and I did. I dove head first over the fence. I could see the fence pass beneath me as the hot breath caressed my calf muscles and I felt the sharp air of a horn being swung past my feet. I had made it, I survived, I started celebrating, and then something grabbed my left foot from mid air and brought me to a dead stop. 


I knew then I had lost and the bull had caught me so I glance back expecting to see my foot impaled by that needle sharp horn which with a flick of the neck would drag me back over the fence where I would promptly be stomped into a bloody spot in the green grass. But my foot wasn't hooked to the bull, it was caught by the toe on the top strand of the fence. I had about a millisecond of relief go through my body that I wasn't about to die under the hooves of an enraged bovine of massive proportions. And then I realized the fence was electrified. Hanging there in mid air I realized that I wasn't being shocked and as I prepared to hit the ground and roll out of it in my best paratrooper impersonation, my graphite fishing rod hit the ground.


You have no doubt heard a story about a fisherman standing with rod in hand being struck by lightning and that during lightning storms you should immediately seek shelter or at least put you fishing pole down lest it attract the lightning to you. I am here to tell you that is probably good advice because graphite fishing rods are excellent conductors of electricity and now that I was connect to both the fence and to the ground I was receiving a first hand lesson in just how little resistance they offer to the flow of electricity. My body convulsed with wave after wave of electrons seeking to get back to wherever it is electrons come from. I saw stars, though to this day I am unsure if it was because I was directly hooked to a nuclear power plant or if it was just from hitting the ground with my face. I was hooked to the fence but good and each jolt when I was touching the ground made all my muscles contract which lifted me back off the ground. And gravity was playing its part and bringing me back down at 9.8 meters per second per second. I don't know how long I was riding the lightning but I do know when my shoe came off and I was thrown free of the fence of death, that the grass in a 6 foot radius from the fence on my side was flatten down as if a tornado had gone through and there was a slight depression of the ground too.


When I came too, I could hear angels around me and they were laughing. One of them said, "Dude, you made it, I though you were a goner for sure" and then the rest of them started laughing again. I opened my eyes, no angels, just my buddy looking kind of concerned but with tears in his eyes from laughing so hard. Standing on the other side of the fence was the herd of cows. The big mean one stomping in the dirt and throwing wads of grass into the air with his hooves and shaking his bifurcated tail. At some point we were going to have to cross back over that pasture, but for now we had some fishing to do. And the fishing was good and the otters were home and came out to play. 

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Great story !


You should think about just a touch of polish for prime time, and sending that to you favorite Angler Mag...electronic, or paper.    :thumb:

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