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Discover the James is your source for adventures on the James River near Richmond, Virginia. Our focus is to educate about the wildlife and history along the banks during our river tours and fishing trips. The James in many ways is as it has been for 15,000 years, but to find it you have to look and listen to the water and the animals around you.

Our website,, shares information on our programs and adventures of this historic river.  Throughout the pages you can also enjoy beautiful images and read stories about the James. All the photos on were taken during our programs.  I hope you enjoy this website as much as I enjoy maintaining it.  Keep up on recent stories through the blog below and look for new programming from Discover the James, as our vision of programs and adventures continues to grow every season.


For more information or to book an excursion:
Contact Capt Mike at 804-938-2350 or
Above, left photo: This is Varina, a resident bald eagle in Jefferson's Reach on the James.  The photo was taken by Lynda Richardson on a Bald Eagle Tour. Varina was perched on one of her favorite branches, and luckily, the evening moon was setting in the western sky, and offered up the perfect backdrop.
--Photo by Lynda Richardson.
Below, left photo:  This is Bandit, again, one of the resident bald eagles of the James River. You can clearly see a band on her right foot.
--Photo by Mark East. 
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Discovery of the James: The Great Return, Day 2

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Mon, 09/01/2014 - 18:28
August 11, 2014.  Day Two, Monday.
Rain, rain, go away. I woke the first time around midnight; damp, and realized the inside of my tent was getting wet. I needed a larger tarp and quick! Luckily Warren brought an oversized tarp, and once it was in place covering the entire tent my comfort level rose and the rain was no longer seeping in from small openings at the base of my temporary abode. Sleeping was still tough and I woke up about every 30 minutes finally giving in at 5:15am. It was probably more excitement at the unknown and the reality of paddling down the James River than the rain.
A break in the rain came about 6am so I climbed out of my tent, wandered down to the river and started to fish.  Casting a buzzbait drew a few strikes in the swift, shallow water, but overall nothing of size was biting. There were a few pockets of slow water and a few eddies where I had hoped smallmouth bass would be hiding, waiting for my lure.  A buzzbait, is cast and retrieved while on the surface of the water.  A metal blade spins and causes the top of the water to ‘buzz’ and it is quite an effective lure for smallmouth bass, but also offers the excitement of seeing fish hit the lure, sometimes exploding on the surface after it.
There was no wind and the river was serene, flowing from right to left, meandering through the mountains towards the piedmont.  I stopped fishing and watched as the haze of dawn burned off into the beauty of a muted sunrise.  The sun and all its light and warmth were, unfortunately, socked behind a sea of clouds but the grayness of the morning was still stunningly beautiful.
Surprisingly we were in cell phone range and my weather app gave us the following news … two more days of rain, and mild temperatures at night for the next FIVE days … some nights down into the 50’s. How can that be, it’s August? We didn’t complain and agreed staying dry at night was going to be important. 
From that point on, the morning of Day 2, our wet clothes never dried. The river, rain, dampness and dew saw to that.  So we kept one set of dry clothes for camping, then as we broke camp each morning, near the end of cleaning up we would don our wet clothes for the day and tuck the sacred dry pair deep into a hermetically sealed bag.
Looking at the radar around 7:15am, it indicated we were in for some pretty heavy rain in about thirty minutes.  First things first … and that meant camp coffee, then breaking down camp (in the rain).
Eventually, the Tripper was packed full and we climbed aboard, shoved off and paddled downriver towards Gala in a soaking rain.  About a mile downriver we found the mouth of a small stream on river left and paddled up into it.  A short distance later we found Gala’s quaint, well-maintained boat ramp and pulled the Tripper to shore and secured her to a tree. 
There were a number of local marts and stores close to the river at towns along the James, and Gala was our first stop. Warren put in a ton of time researching all the locations we could walk to from the river in order to restock on ice and other camping necessities.  From the headwaters of the James all the way to Scottsville, we had plenty of places close by to restock, but once past Scottsville, the stores were few and far between and we would potentially need land support after three or four days past Scottsville.  At that point, we would be quite close to Richmond by car and about two days out by paddle.
In Gala, we walked to Kelley’s Market for ice and found a few slices of heaven (with some bacon, lettuce and tomato in between). It turns out that Kelley’s made the best BLT’s in the Blue Ridge Mountains … hands down.  I can only imagine how good that BLT would have been if it was five, six or seven days into our trip after eating only granola bars, fish, potatoes and onions.  I’m not sure, but I think the rain even stopped for a while eating those awesome BLT’s.
The main focus of the day was paddling through the rain.  The river was quite shallow in many places, and we managed well on most every riffle, but a couple of times we had to get out of the Tripper and wade/push/pull her through the shallows.  We covered more distance than any other day, a total of 21 miles.  Although the fishing looked outstanding in most places, we didn’t fish much.  The few casts Warren and I did take yielded a few decent sized smallmouth bass and a couple of red eye bass, perfect for another campfire dinner.  Some of the best fishing was during a stop and ‘leg stretch’ near the mouth of Craig Creek, just past Eagle Rock.  Fishing was good, but I didn’t see any rocks shaped like eagles (but did see plenty of faces in them).  After Eagle Rock, we cruised past Saltpetre Cave and Narrow Passage finally beaching near Springwood. 
It took a while to find a good campsite and it was getting late, but we found a wonderful spot, again on river left. This campsite, as it turned out, offered the best fishing of the trip. We camped about 200 yards below a class I rapid that had a small island of rocks and grass in the middle of the river creating a large eddy and breaking the river up into two faster flows, one right at our campsite and the other along the far shore. The shoreline at the campsite was a combination of grass, sand and shallow water … all of which pushed the flow of the river back towards the middle, creating some interesting shoreline fishing.
While talking about cooking up the fish we had caught, I heard a bass jump, turned and saw another one leap out after a blue damselfly. I halted dinner preparations and quickly grabbed my fishing rod with the top-water buzzbait tied on.  I cast towards the eddy formed by the grassy island and pulled my lure across the surface and through the fast water when the first fish hit. I hooked a nice 12-13” smallmouth bass but it jumped one too many times and shook the hook free in mid air. 
It was beautiful.
Over the next 20 minutes of twilight, I hooked eleven more bass and caught six of them.  All the fish were in the 11” to 14” range. Beautiful bronzebacks (smallmouth bass) and what a way to end a day.
After fishing, Warren and I agreed to skip dinner and just have a couple of beers.  I cleaned the fish and prepared them for our next evenings dinner.  I scaled the fish, then gutted them and took the gills out.  Leaving the head and fins on, I cut through the side of the fish, vertically, four or five times.  I set the fish in a plastic freezer bag with a few shots of teriyaki sauce, some smoke flavoring and pepper.  As it turned out, that was a stroke of fortune because the 24 hours of marinating made the next meal set the tone for the rest of the trip
A short time later rain moved in, again, and forced us to our tents a bit early.
Top Left Photo:  Warren showing his superhuman strength, holding up a huge sycamore tree. 
Center Left Photo: Packed and ready to roll onto Gala, VA.  The Tripper was FULL. The rain was full on when we shoved off from our Day 1 campsite.  
Bottom Right Photo:  Shallow water and getting the Tripper through the riffles often proved a slippery task.  Beautiful scenery.

Discovery of the James: The Great Return, Day 1

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Tue, 08/26/2014 - 20:54

August 10, 2014.  Day One, Sunday.
On Sunday morning, August 10, Lynda Richardson, my wife; Bob Jones Jr., a good friend; Warren Foster, my paddling partner; and I met at Jones Landing (a small fishing and boating club on the south shore of the James in Richmond) to pack for the Great Return … a 16-day paddling adventure from the headwaters of the James River back to Jones Landing.  Not sure of the exact mileage but a bit over 200 miles total would be safe to say. 

We left Richmond for Iron Gate, VA about 8:15am and arrived shortly before noon. 

Upon packing our vessel, we left on our adventure at 12:50pm.  Warren and I paddled “up” the James, working our way through a class II rapid going as far as we could go by canoe. Wading the last 500 yards we arrived at our first destination, the headwaters of the James River.  A spot where the pristine Cowpasture River and the not–so-pristine Jackson River converge to form the historic James River.
During our time at the headwaters, I fished and caught a four nice smallmouth bass, all tucked within the eddies along the opposite bank. The river was narrow and the far shoreline was in casting distance.
We waded back to our canoe, the Tripper, which was loaded to the gills with supplies for the next 16 days.  The Tripper held eight fishing rods, four dry bags full of fishing tackle and one tackle box.  We also had camping gear, cooking gear, a large cooler, tools, clothes, raingear and number of other important items for fishing and discovering of the James.  The Tripper is a well-used Old Town, 18-foot canoe owned by good fishing friends Jason and Roger Flora.  They let us use the canoe and our ‘rental’ payment was a four pack of the best beer in Richmond … the Great Return.  A west coast IPA brewed by RVA’s own Hardywood Brewery.
Once back into the Tripper, we began our journey into the unknown.  The scenery from the very beginning was stunningly beautiful.  Mountains in all directions and clear, low water to experience the James’ fishing at its best.
The first town to pass would be Glen Wilton, which came and went with literally no sign there was a town at all.  We made it through a few riffles and small rapids until we were a mile or so past Glen Wilton and our first real test of the trip. The “Squeeze” or the “Narrows” was our first challenging rapid.  The river cuts hard to the left and narrows down to less than 40 feet and then the “Squeeze” sets in … A sharp right turn with water churning up from both sides of the river. After scouting the “Squeeze” we paddled upstream, turned the Tripper and worked our way back.  The water whisked around as the river turned hard to the left towards a steep bank.  The river swirled with water pushing back from the bank and we caught the large boil of water which carried us about three feet from the bank and past a large tree along river left and two big rocks on river right.  We made it.  The “Squeeze” got our hearts pumping as we wondered what was next.  I had heard about many kayaks and canoes flipping in the “Squeeze” so I began to feel confident we could handle the others. 
Now it was onto the small town of Gala, VA.  At Gala we were going to restock on ice and grab any items we may have forgotten.
It took a while to find a good campsite this first night, but it was a fine location.  Our first campsite was on river left, about a mile from Gala.  The opposite shore was lined with rock from the Blue Ridge Mountains … almost a sheer wall of rock going up about 1000 feet. Just downriver on our side of the river was another rocky bank shooting up at a steep incline. The river was shallow and fast moving with a class I rapid just upriver offering the soothing sound of water rushing over rocks.  A calming influence as the rain continued, occasionally taking over the sounds of the river.
The rain stopped offering us a chance to cook uninterrupted by precipitation.  Warren did a masterful job starting our first campfire with wet wood.  The fire burned long enough for us to cook four smallmouth bass, potatoes and onions.  After dinner, we sat by the campfire, reflected upon the day and looked at the river maps to see what lays ahead for tomorrow.
While looking at the maps, a strange sound came in from deep in the woods.  One that I had never heard before in the wild. At first, it sounded like a woman giggling far off in the distance. I began to think we were not alone there deep in the woods, next to the River.  Suddenly, the noise became recognizable.  It was a screech owl.  I heard my wife play the sounds of a screech owl many times while calling in birds, but there it was out in the wild. A most beautiful sound that slowly faded off into the distance after ten minutes or so. 
Campfires are memorizing.  After a long silent time of listening to the woods, mountains and river, I asked Warren what his highlight of the day was.   Without hesitation, he said, “Going to the headwaters.  That was on my bucket list.”  Bucket list items are few and far between I thought.  Good stuff.  That was about the time the rain set in and forced us into our tents.  That first day was a great beginning of what was to be some of the best days of my life.
Lying in my tent I reflected on what we had seen that day … osprey, red shouldered hawks, mallards and a muskrat.  We saw more green heron and great blue heron than I thought was possible.  Large mayflies were flying around the campsite after dark. Knowing their lives were quite short at this point, I hoped they would survive the night to turn on the bass and create a little feeding frenzy on the surface. But most of all, I thought of the scenery. Paddling down river though the high banks of rock and mountains in the background, the river was so different from what I was used to in Richmond.  Riffles and rapids created wave trains, which we rode down, each one offering to carry the Tripper giving us time to hold our paddles and take in the moment of being there, in the mountains, on the James.  True discovery.
Top Left Photo:  Getting ready to leave on the Great Return.  One mile below the headwaters.  Photo by Lynda Richardson.
Top Left Photo: Warren was pulling and I was pushing the canoe upriver, through a class I-II rapid about a half mile below the confluence of the Jackson and Cowpasture Rivers. The location where the two rivers meet is the headwaters of the James River ... our destination and official starting point.  Photo by Discover the James.
Center, Panoramic Image:  The Headwaters of the James River.  The Jackson is coming in from the left, while the Cowpasture is coming in, directly across view. The two form the headwaters of the James River, which is heading out the right side of the image.  Love this place.  Photo by Discover the James.
Lower Right Photo: Our canoe, the Tripper, pulled into shallow water as we scouted the first major rapid we encountered ... The Squeeze.  The view is looking upriver, while the rapid is the right of the image, out of view.  Because of all the technical aspects of running the rapids, the last thing I was thinking about was taking photos of the actual rapid. Big mistake, I will do that next time! Photo by Discover the James.
Bottom Left Photo: Our Day 1 meal consisted of pan fried bass, with potatoes and onions being cooked in each package of aluminum foil. This was the only day we pan fried the bass. Every time from here forward, we cooked them on the grate, directly over the fire. We tried to 'smoke' them, but flames did hit the fish as we cooked them. I think it only made the fish better. Wish I had some right now! Photo by Discover the James.
The best thing on your stringer could be a photograph.  Capturing a defining moment on a fishing trip can add that “picture worth a thousand words” and spark memories of an outing to last a lifetime.  Your camera may be the most prized of all the gear you take fishing, but only if you have it ready to use at a moments notice.
If you anticipate a moment and are ready with your camera, whether it’s a sunrise, a close encounter with wildlife, a great catch, an extraordinary smile, or a special moment during an outing you’ll catch a few defining images to go along with a stringer of fish for dinner.
Young anglers, especially, offer plenty of photo opportunities.  In the image above, a young boy just caught his first fish, a nice James River bluegill.  I can still hear the shriek of excitement in his voice. 
About eight years ago, at a catfish pond, a thirteen-year-old girl was fishing with her classmates, which happened to be all boys.  Fishing was pretty good and ALL the boys caught fish.  The only girl in the group had yet to feel the tug of a fish.  She was a bit frustrated and was about to move to the other side of the pond when, suddenly, a fish took the bait.
At the end of her line was the greatest fish in the world.
Excitedly, she reeled, and moments later her first fish … a two-pound, white catfish was flopping on the ground at her feet.  She puffed up with pride at her accomplishment. Her smile was huge (citation sized).  Jumping up and down her arms rose into the air as if they became wings and appeared weightless.  THIS was a defining moment.  That kind of joy is the height of angling and perhaps, at that moment, she was the most excited I’d ever seen someone who had just caught a fish. 
Whoops! Where was the camera?  It was nowhere to be found.  By the time the teacher arrived with it, the moment had changed.  Photos were taken of her holding that first fish, but the original defining moment with the young angler swelling with excitement, was gone.  Today, a cell phone camera would have filled in, but the quality of a digital camera is hard to beat.
Don’t wait for decisive moments.  Anticipate and help make one happen.  Having your camera “at the ready” can make a difference.
During the annual Flatout Catfish Workshop, a program offered through DGIF’s Angling Education Program, a familiar opportunity presented itself.  Anticipating the explosion of water from the caudal (tail) fin of a flathead catfish, upon its release, I positioned myself for a photo. In a split second the flathead erupted, powering its way back to the deep, and the photo opp was there. 
The image on the right was snapped at the moment of release by a ‘surprised’ student.  I love the way this angler looks like she is dancing in the river … with flatheads.
Take plenty of shots and experiment with timing and subjects.  Upon viewing images from your trip you might notice something unexpected that makes a shot special (click here to see the ultimate unexpected moment – non fishing related). 
Keep your camera close and use it.  Don’t forget about cell phones, they work well too.  Pictures will preserve those memories of your fishing trips with family and friends.  
To see a few more of my own favorite ‘keeper’ photos, click here.  Happy Fishing (and photo taking)!


February 28, 2014 & March 2, 2014.
Osprey are beautiful birds and lead an amazing annual life cycle. Half of which can be seen on the James River. Pandion haliaetus, or osprey, return to the James River in early March from their annual migration spending about six months of the year on the James and the other six in the deep south, migrating as far as Central and South America. Each year, a few new pair of osprey make their breeding home on the James in Jefferson’s Reach as the overall numbers of osprey continue to grow and expand from the historic lows, in the 1970’s, caused by DDT.
Osprey are easy to love. They are majestic and even angelic, looking like an angel when they hover, in place, preparing to dive on a fish.  One of my favorite pair nest on the top of an old navigational post on the upriver end of Varina Farms. When they return this March it will mark their third year as a mated pair on the James River.
I first noticed the new pair in mid April 2012. They were late getting started. Six weeks after the beginning of osprey season on the James, this pair showed up and it took them an additional two weeks to decide upon a site to build their nest.  They flew along a quarter mile of riverbank, diving low along the trees and soaring high above the bluffs. Back and forth, up and down, they searched, until they settled on an old light pole at the river’s edge.  Long past it's life as a structure used to illuminate the river at night for navigational purposes, the top of the light pole was a perfect manmade structure for their nest.
“It sure is late in the year to lay eggs.” I remember thinking, as they were busy constructing their nest … flying amongst the limbs of oaks, pines and sycamores, diving in and around every branch.  Visually inspecting each one, occasionally touching a limb with talons.  When the right branch was located, the osprey would circle around on its flight path and grab it in mid air, snapping it off, instinctively turning the new nest material aerodynamically. Upon their return to the nest site they would carefully weave each stick into an exact location.  Breezy days are my favorite days to watch them build as they fly into the wind to maintain precise control, hover above the nest, then land to weave the next branch into place.  I am in awe when watching nature’s architects at work.
April soon turned to May, and every osprey in Jefferson’s Reach was deep into breeding season, some with young seemingly ready to fledge, or fly for the first time. This pair laid an egg in mid May and incubated into June.  The chick hatched in late June and was welcomed into the world with mid day temperatures reaching 102 degrees in it’s first week of life. The attending parent on the nest was diligent in protecting its chick from the heat of the direct sunlight, shading the newly hatched bird with its outstretched wings throughout this period of extreme heat. The parents would shift position around the nest as the sun rose and the heat set in always keeping the young bird in the shade. Miraculously, the young male osprey fledged and eventually headed south, leaving in late September, one of the last osprey to leave on its first migration.
In September, young-of-the-year osprey migrate for the first time, spending the next year and half in the southern end of their migration route. They usually find their lifelong mates after their second full year of life, often after arriving to their breeding grounds, like the James River. But maybe they are more romantic than we think? Perhaps they met before leaving their southern range, or along the route of their first migration north; on a beach in Aruba before crossing the Caribbean Sea or a riverbank in South America. Perhaps while crossing hunting flight paths on the Orinoco River in Columbia while looking for a small peacock bass meal.

Or in the midst of millions of acres of wetlands and thousands of miles of shoreline in Georgia’s string of barrier islands a male and female osprey were perched on the same branch when one caught the eye of the other. Seems quite dreamy, but more likely they met on the James, both returning for the first time in 2012 and it just took the male time to entice a female to stay and spend the next fifteen to twenty years together as life-long mates. How and where they met is a part of the story that will always be theirs.    

Knowing what these osprey have overcome, through numerous observations, during their first two migratory seasons on the James is what makes this pair special to me. These observations are the parts of their story, which are ours, and we can share, learn, protect and inspire.

In early March 2013 when this pair came back for their second breeding season they had a bit of a surprise. Their nest remained intact during a mild winter, but an unexpected visitor had taken it over. A large female Canada goose was sitting on eggs.  Lots of eggs! It was not long before the multitude of eggs hatched and goslings were packed around mother goose, on top of the 30’ pole.
So they waited … patiently.
Normally Canada geese nest much closer to the ground, and in this case “Mother Goose” chose poorly.  When the goslings left the nest they had to jump out and down about 30 feet to the water. The goslings must have made their break at low tide and instead of hitting water at the end of their skydive, they smashed into the sand, rocks and mud of the river’s bottom at the shoreline. One day Mother Goose had a dozen chicks chirping tightly around her and the next day she was swimming with only one tough gosling near her.
Canada geese taking over an osprey nest happens more than you might think, and the osprey will wait for the geese to leave, take back their nest and prepare it for nesting. Unfortunately for the osprey (and Mother Goose) the lone gosling was gone less than two days after it jumped out of the nest, forcing Mother goose back up onto the nest to attempt another clutch of eggs. I don’t know if she ever laid eggs or not, but she sat in that nest for weeks, and no chicks ever appeared. The action of Mother Goose forced the osprey to build another nest, choosing to build on the next light pole downriver, about 100 yards to the east. So even though they were ‘on time’ in 2013, they were still late laying eggs.
They quickly built a large, sturdy nest, laid eggs and began incubation, which takes about six weeks. Although impossible to tell how many reddish-brown spotted, cream-colored eggs were in their clutch, they were most certainly sitting on one to three eggs.  Both male and female took turns incubating. Over time it was apparent that something had gone wrong, as neither parent ever made any attempts to feed young, indicating the eggs never hatched. They failed to hatch any eggs, and were one of two osprey pair that had a failed breeding season in Jefferson’s Reach in 2013.
By September they were unceremoniously gone. The female left first, in late August, followed by the male within a week or so. Female osprey generally leave first followed by the males and the young-of-the-year within a few weeks. The males spend those last couple of weeks ensuring the young osprey know how to hunt and fend for themselves to increase their chances for survival on their treacherous first migration. A young osprey, making it’s first migration, has a 50% chance of survival its first year. Factors of survival include getting lost at sea, hurricanes and just bad luck, like finding themselves in the Dominican Republic. Dominicans have been known to shoot osprey because they believe them to eat their chickens.
If an osprey makes it to South America, it will stay for a year and a half before returning to the area it was born to breed, marking another new beginning in the adult life and annual life cycle.
This year, In March 2014, adversity is waiting for them on the James. When they return they will again find a new visitor in that original nest, where Mother Goose was the year before. A pair of great horned owls have taken over the nest and are sitting on eggs.  The owls took the nest in late January and laid eggs in early February.  The time it will take too long for the young owls to fledge, and will most certainly force the osprey to use nest number two for the second year in a row.  It also may prove that the second nest location is too close to the owls and force them into a third nest location, as owls have been know to kill and eat osprey.
Regardless, perhaps the osprey will have learned something in year two that will help them have a successful breeding season in 2014. It is these kind of stories that can only be known through observing nature over time, and its these stories that drive me to share, write and hopefully educate.  --Capt. Mike 
Photo Credits: Top, left: A female osprey in flight with some fish in her talons, above the James River.  Female osprey can be identified by the patch of dark feathers on the neckline.  Males have no dark feathers in that area.
Middle, right: An osprey comes down onto the river to snatch out a fish from the river's surface. Osprey also crash down, into the water after hoving above like an angel.  Photo by Ricky Simpson.
Lower, right: This photo was from 2012, the last time a pair of great horned owls took over an osprey nest in Jefferson's Reach. Here, two young (pre-fledge) great horned owl chicks sit waiting for one of the adults to bring back a meal.  Photo by Linda Stoneham. 
Note: March 2, 2014
Saw the first osprey of the season today about 7:25am. The female osprey was perched on the 146 channel marker on the James River, as her nest name is 146 Osprey Way. She has been the first sighted osprey on the James for the last three seasons, including 2014. Also, the owl is still nesting is nest number one (from story above) and guess who is back in nest number two? The osprey? Nope ... it's Mother Goose from last season!!  Who would have thought it, but she is back. No eggs, just standing on the nest with Daddy Goose protecting from the ground.  --Capt. Mike
Note:  March 8, 2014, about 10:00am
This morning, the male osprey came back to the 146 Osprey Way nest. He announced his return by showing off high in the air, sqwaking and chirping while diving up and down in areal acrobatics. Once he finished, he came down and landed on the channel marker.  Soon there after, the female osprey came down and perched wing to wing with her mate. It was obvious they are mated for life as it just seemed like they were happy to see each other.  They didn't leave each others sides for quite some time until they both left their nesting site to go begin gathering branches for their nest together. 
The female began building last week, March 2 but a storm must have blown out her work. The nest barely had any sticks in it the early morning of March 8, but by mid afternoon, they was noticeably more branches and sticks on the channel marker.  They also now have names, which is a story for another time .... Ann & Walter.  --Capt. Mike