Smallmouth Bass Are a Blast in Virginia
If Brad Pitt had fished the James River in Virginia instead of the Blackfoot River in Montana, the film may have turned out differently by championing a different fish. “A River Runs Through It” is a great flick that popularized fly fishing. Trout are revered among fly fishers and for good reason, but the species isn’t the only option for a great day on fresh water.
My friend, local fly fishing and hunting guide Wesley Hodges, admires smallmouth bass and has been beating this rhetoric on his social media channels and in conversations we’ve had for years now. I’m grateful to him for guiding me and now understand why he loves smallies so much.
Here’s the thing: I enjoy trout and believe brookie fishing in the Blue Ridge during the fall and spring can be magical. The weather is perfect, and the colors of the mountains and fish are stunning. It’s the closest I will get to enlightenment.
Smallie fishing isn’t like that. It’s a wad of tobacco tucked in your lower lip, an iced-down mug of C4 creatine and drag zipping through the air as monster smallmouth crush Boogle Bugs. And that’s what I experienced when Hodges took me out fly fishing for smallies this past summer.
We planned the float trip months in advance. Both of us were feeling the effects of a snowier-than-usual winter as the dates approached and were itching to break out the drift boat.
Hodges wanted an earlier start than normal. I live more than an hour away, so he invited me to spend the night in his lodge where he hosts clients in Eagle Rock just south of Clifton Forge.
The lodge is an old farmhouse that Hodges transformed into a sanctuary for bird hunters and anglers. Hodges Farm is located along the banks of the James. I arrived and noticed lockers lining the entranceway with space to hold guns and gear. The lockers are equipped with power outlets for charging cell phones and cameras, and dog kennels are situated beneath the lockers.
There are rooms available to use in the house and two canvas glamping tents outside. The tents both have electricity and a wood stove for cooler nights.
That night we planned our route down the James and selected flies. We wanted to start off with deer hair poppers first and rigged a couple of rods to try different color patterns.
The morning was cool, and a translucent layer of fog hugged the ground. I woke early and sipped coffee happily while anticipating the float.
The water was low but the James was clear despite rain the night before. “Looking good for topwater,” I mumbled to myself.
We caught a few smallies on the popper but not as many as we expected considering the conditions. We switched to a Woolly Bugger and snagged a few more fish before lunch using the tried-and-true strip-strip-pause method.
We pulled over on a slow part of the river and anchored down in the shade for lunch. We ate roast beef sandwiches with grapes and chips, followed by C4 creatine to help rev the system back up for afternoon fishing.
During lunch we decided to go back to the popper. After 45 minutes of trying without any luck, we switched back to a Woolly Bugger. I was immediately rewarded with a fish, which threw up the contents of an earlier meal, revealing a belly full of baitfish and a reason to stick with the Woolly Bugger.
The fishing proved steady throughout the remainder of the day. A few smallies hugged structure near the shore, and a handful held onto deeper rock piles. Our most successful fishing came after floating rapids when we moved past the fast water and anchored downstream of eddies and slower pockets. Casting with the current, I stripped the fly and let it pause. We pulled out three or four fish after each rapid, and the rest of the day Hodges spent rowing faster in the stretches and working the rapids for longer periods.
This strategy produced the largest fish of the day—a 14-inch smallie that fought like a much larger fish. When I strip-set into it, I assumed I’d hooked a log by accident. I cussed thinking I’d ruined the spot, but then felt my fly line tighten between my fingers. The fish made a few hard runs before I netted it. Hodges captured a few quick grip-and-grin pictures, which I saved in my phone. I still peek at them when I haven’t been able to hit the water in a while.
Our most successful fishing came after floating rapids when we moved past the fast water and anchored downstream of eddies and slower pockets.
We released the fish and heard thunder in the distance. Soon, sheets of rain pushed through the trees and soaked us. The rain turned off whatever bite remained, but I continued to cast towards the riverbank while we floated and waited for the storm to end.
The sky cleared during the last few hours of the float, and all that was left were soggy feet and pruny fingers. The bite turned back on, and we hauled in a few more on Woolly Buggers. I even landed a fish right before we got off the water, marking another fine day of fishing with Hodges.
As we shuttled back to grab my truck, we talked about going grouse hunting in the winter. He also mentioned he was offering something new—a “cast and blast.”
Some of you may be familiar with a cast and blast, but for those of you who aren’t, let me share with you what is possibly an outdoorsman’s dream scenario.
The plan is to float down the Jackson River this winter and throw streamers to catch wild rainbows. We’ll have semi-automatic shotguns in the boat, and depending on what’s in season, if we see any geese or ducks, we’ll put down the rods and pick up shotguns. Taking aim, hopefully we’ll knock a few birds from the sky.
I can’t wait to join Hodges this winter for another adventure on the water.
For more information on guided fishing and hunting trips with Wes Hodges, visit wesleyhodgesflyfishing.com.
Photos by Spencer Roberts
Dallas Hudgens discovered his passion for fishing on Virginia’s suburban public lakes. In his youth, he pursued bass with a baitcaster. Today, he lives in the heart of the Blue Ridge and enjoys fly fishing for brook trout in the mountain streams of his home state.