About the river: The North fork of the Shenandoah River is an entirely unique river. Where the south fork is wide, with lazy sweeping bends with wide vistas and scenic views of the Blue Ridge and fairly benign in nature, the north fork tends to be narrow, winding, heavily forested with overhead tree canopy and have some chutes and drops that can be downright dangerous at certain water levels. You can float the south fork all year round, regardless of gauge levels, although I don’t recommend trying it above 6.0 . The north fork is best floated between 1.0 and 2.5 on the USGS gauges. Lower than 1.0 and you’ll be dragging your boat a lot in some areas. Starting at a 3.0 level on the gauge, the north fork begins to get swift and squirrely in places. Please note that because of the narrowness of the north fork, any tic up or down makes for a profound change in character of the flow. A strong rainstorm upriver from you can cause a marked change in just a few minutes on the north fork. In some areas when the river narrows down to just a good cast-length in width, Large deadfalls can stretch from bank to bank necessitating a portage or doing the old “limbo” trick if you have enough space under the tree.
The north fork probably figures larger in the Civil War history of the Valley, being the site of a number of Bivouac areas over the course of the war, for both North and South. Stonewall Jackson used the North Fork to his advantage several times during his famous “Valley Campaign”. It is not unusual to come across guys with a metal detectors combing the banks and adjacent fields searching for artifacts. After the battles of New Market, Cedar Creek, and Seven Bends, the water of the North Fork was said to run red with the blood of the combatants of both armies. Ghosts of the dead soldiers and even some civilians who were killed over the course of the war are said to walk the banks and old fords in a number of places. Do not scoff at these stories from the locals…too many good and otherwise sane people have a story or two to tell from personal experience. As for me? I’m gonna be off the water before dark, just to be prudent.
Also bear in mind that actual Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) ramps and access points are few and far between, so long floats can be the norm in a number of places. There are several “traditional” put-in/take outs that are next to bridges and roads that are used. If you choose to use one of these ‘traditional’ spots, get there early and set your shuttle vehicles as parking space is usually at a premium.
Bass Species Present: Largemouth, Smallmouth, other ,
The Bassin’: The north fork of the Shenandoah was hit hard by our die-offs in the early 2000s. Fishing was virtually non-exisitant for 5 years on the river. Only a handful of small smallmouth and virtually NO sunfish were all that were left after 3 straight years of devastating kills. Even now, certain areas close to the town of Woodstock and Strasburg remain virtual dead zones. but some good fishing can again be had between Cootes store near Harrisonburg and Red Banks near Mt Jackson. Mind you, the fishing is still not nearly what it was at one time, but a pleasant day on the river can still be had.
A good top water bite is usually going on early in the AM and evenings on the north fork due to the heavy overhead and bank forestation. But for the most part, small plastics and creature baits are the way to go. There’s never been much of crank or spinnerbait bite on the north fork for some reason. Most folks who go over there generally pack light, 3 and 4″ senkos, a few lizards and creature baits and some 1/0 hooks and 1/16 oz bullet sinkers and you’re good. Be particularly attentive around small feeder streams and such because you may catch yourself a trout or two in those areas.
The North Fork is an excellent trip to bring along a fly rod and fling some flies. If you do, be sure to stop by Murry’s Fly shop in Edinburg. The folks that staff the shop and the old guys hanging out there generally have all the local info you’ll need to catch a limit if you’re so inclined and like chasing the “slime rockets”.
There are several dairy farms along the north fork and invariably, the Largemouth fishing is generally excellent adjacent to them if you don’t mind dodging the cows cooling off their udders in the water.
Obstacles or Rapids to beware of: As I’ve already mentioned, deadfalls, strainers and rapidly changing water levels are the norm for the north fork. Stay out of old mill races and island cuts, they tend to be heavily silted in and full of strainers and dead falls.
There is an old mill dam just down from the Bridge put-in at New Market. The river takes a 90 degree turn to the right here and drops a good 3 feet in less than 30 yards. Now when I say a 90 degree turn I mean an immediate perpendicular change in the direction of the river, not a bend or a jog to the right, but literally the river goes to a hard bank dead ahead of you and whats left of the old mill dam directly ahead of you. The river flows off to the right of this. It’s dead flat and straight for a half mile and you’d swear the river just ‘ends’ for the longest time until you get close enough to hear the water cascading over the gravel bed. I suggest going a little ways up into the eddy formed by the dam and get turned straight so you can enter the cascading water parallel to the current. It’s mostly a fist-sized gravel bed now, but there are some basketball sized rocks in the chute that can easily knock you sideways if you just lazily make the turn into the chute at an angle and not straight. I speak from experience on this one.
Another tricky area is where the north fork drops under the I-81 bridge. This another good change in river elevation, probably 4 feet of change over 50 yards. This rapid is tricky in that it changes where you need to run it with water level. Most of the time, a center right line will be the way, but you may need to jog left or right, depending high or low levels. It’s not a BIG rapid, class 1-1.5 at best, but it’s changing nature will always throw a degree of difficulty into it. When in doubt, eddy out on the right and scout it using the bridge rip-rap as a walkway.
The north fork basically follows RT 11 thru the Valley and series of small towns are located about five to ten miles apart as you make your way downriver. Just about EVERY town has at least one low-water bridge crossing the river. Do NOT attempt to run under these bridges! The small openings underneath may look like you have enough room to clear it, but they tend to be built over bedrock chutes and old fords and the openings collect old wood, trash, tossed out washing machines, old docks that have broken loose in a flood and such debris as that. You get in there and dump underneath one of these bridges and the swiftness of the current coupled with strainers, old logs, and debris underneath and it will just absolutely ruin a fishing trip…word to the wise.
Likewise with low head dams. There are four between Mt. Jackson and Strasburg. ALL need to be portaged, especially the infamous Burnshire Dam. This dam has probably killed more boaters, canoeists, and careless swimmers than any other on the north fork. There are also several old concrete viaducts that carried water that set up one foot drops at three places between Mt Jackson and Woodstock. Couple this with the Seven Bends area with no public access anywhere for 27 miles of river, and you can see why only a couple of floats up around New Market are the floats of choice. VDGIF is still trying to secure some 2 acre parcels in the famous Seven Bends area but so far have been unsuccessful – maybe one day. From Strasburg to the Conflux at Front Royal you have one low head dam that backs up water for the Winchester water uptake. This dam has a fish migration chute through it but it is barely wide enough for a canoe to fit through and sets up a wicked hydraulic on the downstream side. This is another site of numerous tragedies over the years as well. I highly recommend portaging on river left. From there to Front royal is eight miles of very shallow, very flat water and generally holds few fish other than sunfish, carp, fallfish and the occasional catfish in a pool here and there. Even before the die-offs, this float was and still is strictly a novice canoeist run. There is the Riverton Mill/Hydro dam at Front Royal that you will need to portage on river right over a very nice (well marked along the river) portage path constructed by the Front Royal Parks and Recreation Department (thank you Dan Lenz). You’ll know you’re getting close when you see the old inverted truss bridge that carries RT 522/340 into Front Royal just upriver of the dam. When you see the bridge, you’re about a mile up upstream of it. There is a proposal to remove this dam in the near future but as always, politicians are hemming and hawing over the proposition so who knows if it’ll ever happen. The landing at Riverton, just on the other side of this dam is the last VDGIF ramp before reaching the conflux with the south fork.
Gauges: Use the USGS gauge marked at ‘Cootes Store’ to determine water levels on any of the North Fork floats. Bear in mind that even slight changes in level on the gauge will indicate a marked change in the character of the river because of it’s smaller size. The North Fork is at it’s best when gauges are reading 1.0 to 3.0.