As Brian Hager digs his raft’s oars into the clear water of the New River, I glance over my shoulder at two more rubber rafts heading downstream. The boats are filled to the brim with teenagers hell-bent on reaching the thrill they came for: a long stretch of pounding, angry rapids a quarter-mile farther down the river. I can hear the faint rush of water over rocks as I cast toward the boulders along the river’s banks, and I’m eager to see what the first set of rapids of the day will bring. Hager, however, is in no hurry. The two of us are in search of a different kind of thrill. The New River has plenty of whitewater for those who seek it, but it’s also home to an incredible smallmouth bass fishery.
Hager, or “Squirrel” to his friends, has been guiding on the New for over 12 years and has seen nothing but an increase in the size and numbers of smallmouths during his tenure. Although some days are better than others, late spring and summer are undoubtedly the best times to float-fish. Virtually any lure you throw will entice a few bass, and surface lures like buzzbaits are always good choices. Hager says his clients typically catch some of the biggest fish he sees all year during the warmer months, and many of those trophy-class smallmouths are taken on top-water baits.
The New River snakes its way through the New River Gorge, known as the Grand Canyon of the East. The water is guarded by towering emerald slopes and offers stunning scenery for those who can find a moment to take their eyes off the water. That’s a hard task, especially if you are pulling a buzzbait across the calm sections of the river or drifting into the abyss of a towering set of rapids. You never know when a smallmouth will shoot up from the green depths and smash your lure as it gurgles across the surface. Look away and you just might miss the fish of a lifetime. Or you might get flipped out of the raft as the boat bounces through another set of Class IV rapids.
While Squirrel doesn’t normally guide fishermen through the gorge itself, he runs plenty of rapids upriver from the gorge nonetheless. The bigger whitewater, Class V and VI rapids, that are the main attraction of rafters in the New River Gorge, aren’t too kind to the aluminum frame in his craft that includes swivel seats and lean bars designed specifically for fishing. No matter which section you float, plenty of fun awaits. On the section I floated with Hager, each stretch of calm water was punctuated with yet another stretch of billowing water that slammed into boulders, curled toward the sky and created a sense of panic that you’d expect from the tallest or fastest ride in any amusement park. Although water levels are lower in the summer (spring is the best time for whitewater) and the rapids a little less threatening, they still don’t disappoint.
As Hager maneuvered his raft around the mid-river rocks and through the rollercoaster rapids, I managed to fire casts toward the calmer shallows against the banks. Cool water sloshed up and over the front of the heavy rubber raft as we hit each wave. And while my guide fought the water with the agility of a prize fighter, I battled bass after bass. There aren’t many places in the east that offer so much excitement in one package.
Contact: Class VI Outfitters; (800) 252-7784; www.class-vi.com.