Discovery of the James: The Great Return, Day 2
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.