The Great Return: Day 6, Lynchburg to Pettyjohn Island

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Wed, 11/19/2014 - 00:30
August 15, 2014.  Day Six, Friday.  Lynchburg to Pettyjohn Island 
The day started off well, in fact, it couldn’t have been better. Beautiful weather, lush green grass under our feet, fog hovering over the river and flathead catfish smoking over the fire.  After our daily camp coffee and breakfast bar we consumed a treat before departing downriver ... smoked flathead catfish. Yeah, it could not have been better!
Sitting around the campfire the night before, we studied the maps and the only challenge of the day was a rough class II rapid called Joshua Falls.  There were no towns or stores within walking distance from the James this day so we had a full day of paddling and fishing ahead of us.
Joshua Falls took a while to get to and we slithered through the class II rapid like an American eel working it’s way downstream through the rocks and rapids, heading towards the ocean to spawn.  Piece of cake!  Three miles later we arrived in an area called Galt’s Mill. 
The river ran deep in between ledges and shallow riffles which made for great bass fishing.  Galts Mill was spectacular; and was the scene of my favorite moment of the entire trip. The interaction I had with the natural world at Galts Mill was unforgettable and it wasn’t catching a big bass or flipping a rock finding a family of madtoms beneath it.  Neither an eagle, nor osprey, screech owl or green heron was a part of this memory.
We were engulfed in the hilly area of Galt’s Mill, paddling along when two otters rolled on the surface right next to the Tripper on the port side. I did a double take and looked down about five feet away where five medium sized, young otters suddenly popped up in a perfect row at the exact same time.  One, two, three, four … FIVE! The identical otters, lined up in a row, gazed directly at me, and I swear at that moment, their dark inquisitive eyes got a little bigger at the same time mine did!  Just as they appeared, they were gone ... slipping back down below the surface, synchronized for a perfect exit at the EXACT same moment. Within seconds of them disappearing, one otter shot back up, then back down.  Three seconds later two river otters popped up only to retreat again, descending below the surface at the exact same moment. This went on for a minute or two … always appearing and disappearing at the same time.  It was awesome.
Eventually they left our company. Once safely away, they began barking and continued on their merry way.  It was an incredible moment with nature and seeing the curiosity in the eyes of those otters was something I will remember forever.
We paddled on and on and agreed it would be nice to find a campsite a little earlier than later and enjoy the beautiful weather and fishing. To our surprise, there were no spots to camp.  There were no open shorelines, or sandy areas.  The only open areas were full of river rocks too big for comfortable camping … so we continued to paddle and search mile after mile without success.  I pulled out the map and saw we were approaching a mile long island on river left called Pettyjohn Island.  There must be camping there we agreed.
Once we arrived at the head of Pettyjohn Island, we slowed down and increased our search, looking at every nook, cranny and small islet.  Nothing.  We approached the end of Pettyjohn and discussed how often the ends of the islands were sandy and we should certainly find a suitable place for camping at the end of Pettyjohn island.  The island ended with steep, muddy banks and deep water all along the lower end with a narrow, shallow stream flowing into the main river from the backside of the island.  
There was a large open space at the end of the island but the banks were too muddy and steep … about six feet high all around making camping there questionable at best. We stopped and thought about giving it a shot, loading our gear up the steep bank.  While quietly deep in thought, I noticed the perfect little sandy beach just past the narrow stream that came into the river, making Pettyjohn Island an island.  I said, “Hey Warren” and pointed to the beach.  “Oh Yeah!” Warren exclaimed, “We are camping right over there.”  I agreed whole-heartedly.  It was one of our best campsites yet.

I set up my tent within a few feet of the river while Warren chose a spot under a huge sycamore tree about twenty feet away from the river’s edge.  The campsite was complete … chairs were in place, a small fire was going, and tents were set up so I went fishing.  It was beautiful there.  We were camping on the outside edge, at the beginning of a horseshoe bend, where the river flowed to our left and curved around, out of sight.  The other side of the river was a steep, narrow mountain on the inside of the bend and seemed like a haven for fishermen and hunters. The shoreline was steep and seemed to shoot straight up for about 500 feet or more.
I fished the deep water around the campsite for a short time then worked my way upriver to Pettyjohn Island, less than a hundred feet away.  A narrow creek broke off and ran around the backside of the island.  It was swift and shallow, running over hundreds of thousands of pebbles.  I waded and fished the shallow water quite a ways and the river never got more than a foot deep. It didn't take long to realize fishing was not good in this area so I made my way back to the main river channel and the deep water. 
While fishing near the base of Pettyjohn Island, I heard a pickup truck pull up and park in the open area at the end of the Island. Two young guys jumped out of their truck, loaded a small johnboat with their fishing gear and slid it down the muddy embankment. I nodded to them as they shoved off for some Friday night catfishing.  I remember those days, fishing on Friday night after a long week of work.  The excitement of arriving and the prospects of fishing deep into the night and the fish that were to be caught.  The stories of catfish bigger than Volkswagens below the dams and the ones that had gotten away. I could feel their excitement.
I finished fishing and sat down in my chair next to the campfire.  Warren and I watched as the two young men paddled up the deep, slow flowing James towards their catfish hole. The fire crackled, the sun set and nature was all around us ... It was perfect out. The stars were bright and if we counted them we would still be counting, perhaps close to a million by now as the faint outline of the Milky Way shot across the sky out of sight.  I heard a screech owl again and mentioned how much I enjoyed their call.  While listening to the screech owl off in the distance, the faint sounds of monster pickup trucks were in the distance. They drew closer. And closer.  There were two or perhaps three or four, we couldn’t tell. All of the sudden the engine noises grew to new heights and the headlights of the large trucks shined brightly through the trees as they too pulled into the open space at the end of Pettyjohn Island. Our perfect, serene surroundings suddenly changed.
Pettyjohn Island became the hottest party scene in all of Amherst County in a matter of minutes. 
Within moments of the trucks stopping a crowd of young folks jumped out and began their Friday night blow out.  Within five minutes there was a bonfire going. The flames were twenty feet high and the thick black smoke rose up over the tree line and crossed to the other side if the James in the light west winds. Most likely the result of old truck tires, gasoline and a match. Before Warren and I even said two words to each other their party was in full swing and the fire rolling. 
I said to Warren, "It's Friday night and these kids will probably burn out around midnight." I was dead wrong … we were in for a long night of little sleep as they went full-on until 5am!
About 20 minutes after the first wave of monster trucks arrived, another one pulled in and the yelling escalated. We couldn’t here a single sentence, but occasionally heard a word clearly enough to understand it.  EVERY person on that island was yelling at the top of their lungs. It was crazy over there.  It got worse and it wasn't the yelling or the environmentally unfriendly bonfire.  In fact it wasn't the trucks starting up and engines roaring while four wheeling around the island at high RPMs.
It was gunfire! 
A couple of minutes after the last truck arrived gunfire rang out. BANG! BANG! BANG, BANG-BANG! Who knows which way they were pointing those guns, but it was unsettling. Shots echoed throughout the valley and bullets were flying ... But where?  The two poor fellows catfishing in the Jon boat kept lighting up a small flashlight to alert the shooters where they were. I put my hands over my head, covering myself like an umbrella like it would stop a bullet should they have been shooting straight up.  There must have been thirty shots initially, then a flurry of gunfire would break out every hour or so. I remember at 3am the gunfire was heavy, and then it quieted down a bit. A couple of trucks left and the few partygoers who stayed went swimming. 
Just before 5am the fire burned out, the swimmers dried off and they called it a night, or morning. I laid in my tent thinking, "Finally!" NOT! One of the drivers must have had a bit of a buzz as one of the trucks got stuck, lodged in somewhere close to the party spot. That truck roared it's engine at redline RMPs over and over. No luck for either of us. Other trucks would leave then come back undoubtedly bringing in something to try and help dislodge their buddy. After burning numerous gallons of gas, spinning tires, the truck broke free and the last two truck faded away into silence. Ahh, the peace and quiet of sunrise ... finally!  It was 5:55am.

The Great Return: Day 4

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Tue, 10/14/2014 - 14:11
August 13, 2014.  Day four, Wednesday.  After the late night rain and great sleep, I woke up to the sound of a soft distant rain.  “No way, more rain?” I thought. The tent was dry but I heard rain.  As it turned out, it wasn’t rain at all.  I crawled out of my tent and worked my way down the pebbly shoreline. It was dead calm and quiet except for the sound of the water flowing from a spring into the river and darn if it didn’t sound like rain. 
Perched on the rivers edge like a great blue heron, I watched as a thick fog was creeping towards our campsite.  To the left, upriver, a dense fog hung in the air and blocked all view. To the right, downriver, it was clear up to the mountain peaks as the glow of dawn lit them.  On the river, in the middle of the Blue Ridge Mountains there was no direction. North, south, east and west didn't exist.  There was only upriver, downriver, river right and river left.
The fog was beautiful.
I spent the early morning drying off camping and cooking gear, packed them away, then hit the river. Instead of fishing I flipped rocks collecting crayfish, hellgrammites and madtoms … all excellent bait for smallmouth bass. Hellgrammites are the larval stage of Dobson Flies (cool critters with big pinchers and wings). I suppose we are lucky Dobson Flies only grow to be about four inches long.  Madtoms are an elusive species of catfish that also grow to four inches and are THE best smallmouth bass bait in the James River.  Madtoms are hard to catch and if not handled carefully, can sting you with their tiny needle-like pectoral fins and dorsal fin. The poison in their fins creates a bee sting like feeling, but the pain is worth it.
Flipping rocks that morning took me back to the times when I became addicted to fishing and the outdoors.  About 35 years ago, my family used to camp on the Shenandoah River in Bentonville, VA.  I remember the last road on the trip that would lead to the river … we would drive down the side of a mountain along a dense, curvy, narrow road which eventually opened up into a valley with the beautiful Shenandoah River rolling through it.
All these memories 'definitely' gather around her.
We’d pull through an old gate leading to a cow pasture in our old Volkswagen camper, find a good spot next to the river and set up camp for the weekend.  Fishing was awesome along the limestone ridges. These narrow, submerged ledges offered pathways across the river with deep water both above and below them.  There were also plenty of rocks in the shallows that offered unlimited exploration, rock flipping, bait collecting and set the stage for my lifelong passion.
I became pretty good at catching madtoms with my hands at a young age, and I still had enough skill to catch a few.  Although I saw three times as many as I caught, I put four madtoms in the bait bucket.
Eventually the Tripper was packed full and we set off for our destination that day … Glasgow and then camping at Balcony Falls, an area with a class IV rapid.  We paddled expertly through a number of class I and class II rapids that day without any problems.  The Tripper, our 'Old Faithful' canoe, grounded a few times in shallow water, as we cruised past Alpine and Natural Bridge Station.  It was an exciting trip loaded with beautiful scenery and excellent fishing, which included a surprise hit on a top water bait from a Muskie.  I didn't hook the great fish but just seeing one rise to a lure was pretty cool. 
After a short break, late in the morning, we paddled through a winding stretch of deep water that eventually ended in a long stretch of fast water with rapids and exposed boulders throughout.  As we approached it, the river appeared to drop several feet over the couple hundred yards of fast water.
I found it amazing how the river backs up with long runs of slow moving, deep water and then BANG! Rocks, riffles, rapids and shallows.  The James River zigs and zags through the mountains and natural dams of rock create those long stretches of deep water.
After a solid morning of gaining confidence in our paddling skills, I stood and scouted for a route to take as we approached the rapids with exposed boulders, mentioned above. I saw a nice wave train on river left. Wave trains are runs of water in between shallow, rocky areas that moves water fairly fast, creating a cascade of white water, or wave train. Warren and I very much liked wave trains as they moved the Tripper fast and efficient through some tricky areas.  As we entered this particular wave train on river left we sped up pretty quickly.  We enjoyed the extra speed for a few moments, then BOOM! We hit a rock barely submerged beneath the surface, on our port side, at full speed, the Tripper nearly flipped and both of us flew out of the canoe. 
Warren grabbed his fishing poles and paddle before ejecting from the Tripper. He continued his trip down the James by foot as he, rather quickly, slipped away, down river in the rapids.  I was tossed out and grabbed the Tripper with one hand and kept myself from hitting rocks with the other.  The Tripper and I were dragged downriver about fifty yards until I was able to work the canoe into an eddy of calm water.  I lost my paddle but had control of the canoe, which was half full of water. Warren made his way back upriver and we bailed water.  After bailing we took inventory of our immediately visible supplies. The only things missing were a paddle and the cooking grate.  “Oh crap” we thought.  “We have to get that grate!”  The cooking grate was key for our gourmet meals cooked over open flames." Both Warren and I worked our way back up to the submerged boulder that knocked us off and out of our rocker. We searched briefly and the grate was found about five feet from impact.  “Sweet, the grate was back onboard!” 
While heading downriver, using the spare paddle, we agreed the rapid that knocked us over would be called, ‘Rockfalls Rapid’.  After a chuckle over the event we located our lost paddle about a mile downriver floating in an eddy on river right. “Sweet, the paddle was back onboard too!”
Eventually we made it to Glasgow, tied the Tripper to a root along the shore and walked a mile to a convenience store. Our purpose whenever leaving the river was the same ... to resupply with our most essential items, one of which was ice.  Leaving the Tripper for long periods of time made me a little nervous but it was always fine, every time we came back all our gear, tackle and camping supplies were fine.  Good stuff.
We loaded the canoe with our needed supplies and journeyed about a mile downriver to find a campsite at Balcony Falls.  The river was noticeably different here.  The boulders shot from the river at greater heights and ridges of rock were longer and taller.
We arrived at Balcony Falls. "What a cool spot”, I thought.  The mountains rose up from all directions and huge, massive boulders shot up and out of the river just about everywhere as far upstream as you could see and as far downstream.  Apparently Balcony Falls is often used and camping is the norm at this location.  There were plenty of well-maintained campsites for an area that is only accessible by canoe or kayak. There was even a mailbox nailed to the side of a tree, full of supplies for those that might need batteries, a flashlight, matches, lighters, etc.  There was even a shovel to use so you could "Burry Your Poop" and it even stated so along the handle, but with more graphic words. 
Fishing at Balcony was incredible.  We caught plenty of bass and sunfish. Lots of wildlife in the area too … we saw an eagle, osprey, heron, kingfishers, a walking stick and a mink.  There were loads of minnows, crayfish, hellgrammites and madtoms too.  Balcony Falls was a pretty sweet spot.
The river had a different mood here and Balcony Falls looked BIG.  I mean an eighteen-foot canoe loaded with nine fishing rods, multiple tackle boxes, seven dry bags, two tents, a huge cooler, dry boxes with wallets and cell phones and two adventuresome dudes with paddles. I was VERY uneasy about paddling the Tripper through Balcony Falls so I spent the evening fishing and investigating river right. I made my way pretty far downriver searching for an alternate route. I climbed over massive boulders, wade fished through slow moving, deep water and through a few rapids too. The entire time my eyes were looking for an alternate, less daunting route.
I found one!
Later that night I shared my find with Warren. While sitting around the campfire, sipping a cold one, we decided to take the safe route … to take the route on river right. Immediate relief set in as I expected my whitewater, thrill seeking fishing partner to want the experience of Balcony Falls. "Whew!"
Once we were around and below Balcony, we still had a plethora of class II rapids, but nothing like Balcony. I was relieved, but still ready for some serious paddling the next day.
The Photos Stories: Above, left:  Looking upriver at the fog.
Middle, right: Warren on the bow, somewhere near Alpine, Virginia on the James.
Middle, left: Balcony Falls from above the big drop.
Below, right: Our saving grate hot at work, cooking up our meal at Balcony Falls.

The Great Return: Day 3

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Wed, 09/24/2014 - 17:35
August 12, 2014.  Day Three, Tuesday.
I woke to the sounds of water rushing over and through the class II rapids just upriver of our second campsite.  After two days of paddling and a tough first night’s sleep, last night’s deep sleep is just what the doctor ordered.  Again, fishing was the first thing on my mind … as it was every morning and this one proved to be special. 
Walking down to the river, I noticed a bald eagle flying along the opposite shore, traveling in the same direction we were to take in the next hour or two.  I marveled as our Nation’s symbol flew downriver, through the mist, turned with the natural bend of the river and slid out of sight.  “Silent and on a mission”, I thought, “Just like me.”  It was the first eagle sighting of the trip. Not a bad way to start the day.
After a few moments of taking the sights and sounds in I made a cast in the same area I caught six fish the evening before.  On my first cast, the great topwater fishing continued … I caught another smallmouth bass … a 12-inch fish. “How can this morning get any better?” I wondered. I made a few more casts with no strikes, so I walked down the shore to the end of a grass bed. With my feet at the edge of the water, I made a cast downriver close to the bank, and as soon as my buzzbait hit the surface I began to reel it back in, but something held onto the end of the line so I pulled back and ‘set the hook’ in case it was a fish.  For a moment, I thought I had snagged the branch of a submerged log until my rod bent further and line peeled from my reel.  A huge smallmouth bass engulfed the lure as it hit the water and after an incredible battle and lots of leaping from the river, I grabbed onto a wonderful smallmouth bass at the river’s edge. I scooped her up in my hands and asked Warren to take a quick photo so I could release her back to the river. The 19-inch fish was the finest bass I had seen on the trip. 
“WOW! How could this day start any better!” again I thought.
I fished for a little while longer from shore, then changed into my wet clothes (again) and waded out to the rocky island.  I fished all around it, including the deep water on the other side, the fast water upriver of it, but below the class II rapid.  Surprisingly I didn’t catch a thing, but I did hook a few.  The river looked so good, that I wished we could have stayed there all day but I knew we had to move on. 
I waded back to shore and saw that Warren had water boiling for coffee and we would soon be breaking down camp. 
While sipping hot camp coffee, we began hearing this high-pitched “WHOOP … WHOOP … WHOOP”.  I assumed it was a bird of some sort, one I had never heard before. The sound seemed to emanate from a couple of different locations across the river.  After coffee I went down to the shore to make a few more casts when I noticed something milling around just behind the rocky island.  It shot behind the grass and came up about 20 yards away and called out again …. “WHOOP … WHOOP … WHOOP.”
It was a river otter! We watched and listened for ten minutes or so, and then it was gone.
Eventually the Tripper was loaded and we began to paddle down river. This day would lead us though Springwood, Buchanan, Arcadia and a mile from Alpine. 
This entire area was incredibly beautiful and mountains shot up from every angle all around us.  The railroad followed the river at times leaving to trace its way around some impasse, but eventually rounding back right next to the river. The old canal system also followed the river hiding many stone walls lining the shoreline of James.  Incredible feats of man and machine back in time when the river and its usages were very different.
For as beautiful as the river was this day, my highlight was watching Warren fishing.  He started fishing about five years ago and has slowly but surely become a great fisherman.
During a period of slower fishing, I heard Warren say, “I’m going to tie on my favorite lure.  Yes, it’s a special one!”   A few minutes later, he had an oversized, blue spinnerbait attached to the end of his line.  He then said, “This is it. My favorite lure, but I have never caught a fish on it.”  On his first cast, the big, shiny, blue spinner bait flew further than I have ever seen a lure cast as his big blue lure suddenly became unattached from the end of his line. He then said, "Well I guess I'll never catch a fish on that lure."  All Warren was left with was a 'Mr. Squiggly'.
A 'Mr. Squiggly' is when your fishing knot comes untied and you lose your lure, leaving you with a short kinked and squiggly little part of line, right at the end … right at the end where the knot came untied.  No fisherman that I know likes 'Mr. Squiggly' but we ALL know him.  Being the guy he is, Warren then said, “That’s all right, I have another one.” So he tied on another blue spinnerbait. 

The next thing that happened is why Warren's persistence was my personal highlight of the day.  On his first cast with the new shiny spinnerbait he caught a bass ... a 10 incher. One his very next cast he hooked into another smallmouth bass, a bigger and meatier bass ... perfect for the grill!  It was awesome.
Over the course of the trip, I saw Warren become a great fisherman.  His casting became more accurate and he learned when to stop a lure in flight when it was cast to hard and going into the trees.  We both got snagged below the surface and in trees, but not many times.  Trying to turn a canoe loaded with about 900 pounds of man and gear to chase down a lure in a tree was a chore, so we both became better casters.
We paddled and fished to a point near Alpine, VA, where we found a great campsite on river right.  A small rapid ran the entire width of the river just above our campsite ... offering great wade fishing. The base of a mountain lined the opposite shore. We ate bass, potatoes and onions cooked over the fire again, and aftwerwards enjoyed a couple of cold PBR's as a couple of unexpected rain storms formed. We saw flashes of light and heard thunder, but didn't get any rain.  The first storm had somehow missed us, but the second one hit us pretty hard forcing us to our tents and keeping everything wet we set out to try and dry for the night. Even though it rained again, I think we both slept pretty good. I know I did.

Photos Stories ...  Top Left: Early morning 19" bass caught on a buzzbait.

Middle Left: Paddling downriver somewhere near Buchanan, VA.  Buchanan is a quaint little town with a great livery called Twin River Outfitters.  Click here for more info on Twin Rivers.

Middle Right:  Warren's bass he caught on the first cast after changing to a new lure due to a Mr. Squiggly.

Lower Left:  Warren's bass he caught on his second cast after the Mr. Squiggly incident.  Good fish!!!

Bottom Right: Some of the gear and clothing we continued to try and dry.  The late rains came in and we moved everything we could under the tarp. All the clothing remained as wet as it was when it was hung up.

Discovery of the James: The Great Return, Day 2

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Mon, 09/01/2014 - 14:28
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 - 16:54

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.