July 13, 2008

The Roanoke Times, Va., Mark Taylor Column

By Mark Taylor, The Roanoke Times, Va.

Jul. 13--LOW MOOR -- Just moments after it began a wriggling return to the fishing rod that flung it, the tiny crankbait came to an abrupt stop -- in the mouth of a smallmouth bass.

When this happens on the first cast of the day it can mean good things are ahead.

And here on the lower Jackson River this kind of quick action doesn't come as a surprise.

Fisheries biologist Paul Bugas has studied this section of stream for about 10 years, and has found that bass catch rates are among the best in Western Virginia.

The fast fishing is a result of a combination of things, the most important being that the river has a bunch of fish, according to population samplings.

Additionally, pressure is relatively light, so the fish haven't been educated like on the region's more popular smallmouth streams.

Everyone knows dumb fish mean fun fishing, which is why the Jackson ended up as the second stop on the eight-week Summer Smallmouth Tour that just got under way.

The Jackson River would probably get more attention were it not for a couple of factors.

One, while the stream runs cool and clear from Gathright Dam down to Covington, it takes on a brown shade after it passes through the MeadWestvaco plant on its way to meeting the Cowpasture River to form the James River near Iron Gate.

The color comes from natural tannins released by wood processed in the plant, Bugas said.

"Even though it's tea colored, it doesn't appear to affect the stream biology to any large degree," Bugas said.

Water run through the plant is closely monitored to ensure it doesn't violate pollution standards, and there are no fish consumption advisories on the river.

Yet many locals, plenty of whom probably remember the days when the river really was polluted, still often call the section the "dirty water," a derogatory term that hardly enhances the river's recreational appeal.

Another interesting factor is the size of the Jackson's bass.

Despite what Bugas deems "stunning habitat," the fish tend toward the small side. While the river has in recent years had oodles of fish in the 10- to 12-inch range, fish much bigger are rare.

"The bass grow very slowly," Bugas reported. "In 10 years of sampling, the biggest bass I've ever gotten was maybe 14 inches long."

There is nothing wrong with a 10-inch smallmouth, of course. On ultralight tackle, a fish that size can be a hoot.

So despite the dearth of trophy bass the fishery deserves more attention than it gets, and more attention certainly couldn't hurt things in Alleghany County, where outdoors-related tourism could potentially provide some hope for bringing in much-needed dollars to the long-suffering local economy.

The Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has tried to help by improving access to the lower Jackson River. Roanoke Times photographer Sam Dean and I launched a canoe at one of them, at the Island Ford Transfer Station just east of Covington, for a quick float Monday afternoon.

Immediately below the put-in comes a textbook smallmouth pool, one filled with boulders and a modest amount of current.

When that pool produced that first-cast bass and several others, it seemed we could be headed for one of those magical 100-fish days.

But then things got strange. The next two good pools were busts, producing not a strike.

In another prime-looking spot a little farther downstream we found some more willing fish, but by then another pattern had started to emerge: these fish were even smaller than normal.

They were healthy, for sure, with perfect fins, fat bellies and the dark coloration common on smallmouth pulled from darker waters. But none topped 8 inches.

Bugas said the lower Jackson was affected this year by the mysterious fish kills that have plagued the Cowpasture and James.

During a recent electroshocking effort, Bugas said he found that about 30 percent of the bass collected showed some signs of sickness. The number is similar to rates found on the James and Cowpasture rivers.

On the James and Cowpasture, scientists have theorized that the kills have been particularly tough on older fish, perhaps because those fish are under the most stress during the spawning season when the problems seem at their peak.

As we pulled in one 6- to 8-inch bass after another it was hard not to wonder if the Jackson's older bass, those once-abundant 10- to 12-inchers, hadn't been hit hard this spring.

"We'll have a better idea after this fall," said Bugas, who plans to conduct more sampling then.

While the lack of even middle-sized bass was disappointing -- we didn't catch a smallmouth over 8 inches long the entire day -- it wasn't going to ruin this trip.

It couldn't.

The stream is just too pretty, the action for those small bass just too fast.

And it's hard not to feel encouraged that not long ago the stream was home to not much more than a few bullheads and carp.

The lower Jackson River might not be the destination around which to plan a long fishing vacation, at least not just yet.

But for a fun day trip, it's worth a look, providing you pack your lightest gear.


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