Author: Herschel Finch (doahriverrat)…
About the river: The main stem of the Shenandoah River begins at the conflux of the North and South Forks at Riverton, VA. Riverton is actually a part of Front Royal, VA (my hometown) these days. But back in the day, it was a separate town and was a main stop for the flat boats I mentioned in the South Fork article. Here at Riverton, the flatboats would be unloaded, goods sold and even the boats themselves would be knocked apart for the lumber they contained and the lumber then sold, because you sure as heck weren’t getting a boat that was 12-14 foot wide and up to 80 feet long back upriver! Many houses and out buildings in the old parts of both Front Royal and Riverton contain structural beams and timbers with tell-tale mortises, holes and square joints that were used to hold the boats together.
There is a concrete landing just under the RT 340 bridge across the north fork as you head out of Front Royal. The conflux is only ¼ mile downstream from this landing. Just over 4 miles downriver, you encounter the 14 foot high Warren Dam, own jointly by the Front Royal Electrical department and Allegheny Power. It is an operating power-generation dam and they fire it up once a year just to keep the turbines and dynos in operating condition. The river is slow, generally deep, and mostly devoid of game fish, save for Carp, Cats, and the occasional Largemouth and sunfish behind the dam, but it really doesn’t back up enough water to form an actual lake. Some Muskie were stocked in this section years ago, but without the proper structure (chunky rock, little sediment and cool spring water influx) they have not done well in this section. Someone will come up with a small one on occasion, but if I’m going toothy critter hunt’n…I’m headed up the south fork to some ‘secret’ floats. Some small Smallmouth and some Largemouth can be had behind the dam, but this is a long slow pool and generally the domain of power boaters and jet skis. The water generally stays murky and the sediment stirred up as a result. Most serious fishermen avoid it like the plague for this reason. But if you do choose to run this section, portage the dam on river-left. It’s a long portage…probably 500 yards altogether, but it’s safer than trying the river-right portage over the dry end of the dam, which is steep with a 7 foot drop where you have to lower your boat over the dam.
Below the dam you’ll find good current and good fishing for smallmouth and some of the biggest Carp in the river if you care to try for them. Lots of local Bow-fishermen work the area below the dam going after the Carp. There’s also good sized largemouth there as well. As you continue on further down, you’ll find very shallow water for bit, but eventually you find good depth again and with it, decent fishing. This area flows thru private property on both sides of the river and access below the dam is non-existent except to property owners in the development on river right. Pastureland occupies river left. You encounter Cow pasture Rapids which aren’t so much a rapid, but a long set of ‘stair steps’ about 2.5 miles below the dam. About halfway down this feature is a very well preserved fish dam from pre-European times. Some good sized Muskie call the area just below the rapid home. Tangle with them at your own risk, a buddy of mine caught one near 45 inches in the 20lb+ category a couple of years ago and nearly lost a finger to a nasty bite, as some of us up here like to say: “Fish for something that can bite you back, you wuss!”
About 3.5 miles after the dam, and half a mile below Cow pasture, you’ll encounter a low-water bridge. Portage it on the right. Most fisherman consider the main stem to start at this bridge at Morgan’s Ford since it’s the first public access after the Riverton landing on the North Fork and it’s the first public access below the dam.
After Morgan’s Ford Bridge, you have about 49 miles of river to run, all the way to Harper’s Ferry, where it joins the Potomac at the town made famous by John Brown’s ill-fated raid in 1856. Accesses are easy, parking ample and generally in good shape. There are a couple of “traditional” access points in West VA but those are generally only used by the locals who know where they are. If you’d like to try a couple of those, drop me a PM when you’re in the area. As I mentioned, you’ll cross into West VA if you use the Rt 7 access and float down to Rt 9. This is a looong float, about 15 miles. But there are several areas you can paddle through as they tend to be fairly non-productive. Check with a ‘local’ (like your author maybe?) who can tell you where they are. Better yet, invite me along and I can show you.
The river after Morgan’s Ford Bridge tends to be wide, gentle, with long pools, varying depths , and awesome structure. There’s a couple of 3 mile sections you can spend all day long on if you intend to work every boulder, trench, drop-off and ledge you’ll find. And btw…make sure you bring your camera. The main stem holds probably the best chance of a trophy Smallmouth of 20 inches or better, not to mention some of the finest scenery on the east coast. Also bring the Muskie gear as well. These big toothy critters are plentiful along the main stem all the way to the Hydro dam at Mitchellville.
The Dam at Mitchellville is still in use and provides part of the power for Mitchellville and Harper’s Ferry, West VA. Portage this dam on river left as well. Fair warning…it’s a VERY long portage. You’re takeout is going to be a half mile from the dam on Bloomery Road. But if you’re lucky, one of the local folks with a pickup will take pity on you and give ya a lift to the put-in on the downstream side of the dam. I’ve seen it happen. It’s best to end a float at the Dam or start one below the dam, just to avoid the hassle.
The access point below the dam is a good one with ample parking and a good ramp. Be aware though that you will be sharing the put in with a lot of the White-water crazies…because about a mile and half downstream, you enter into what’s known on the American Whitewater website as “The staircase of Virginia”. Three miles of drops, chutes, miniature Falls and wave trains start here and continue all the way to Harper’s Ferry. The infamous Bull Falls is on this stretch. Bull Falls is a class 3-4 drop with a wicked hydraulic at the bottom and a long wave train afterwards. It’s not a straight drop, but it is fast and swift and has humbled a lot of near world-class boaters. There’s also the famous “Picnic Rock” this is where everybody eddies out and has lunch. 20 or 30 people can have plenty of room to sit , dry out, and even have their boats up on the rock with them (it’s big) This is a nice run to make if you like a little lumpy stuff thrown in with your fishing. However, even though it’s generally NOT life threatening… I do NOT recommend doing it if you don’t have a lot of butt-time in your boat…and you WILL need to wear a PFD and carry a helmet and do NOT go alone on this float. Preference will be for a partner who is intimately familiar with the run. The fishing in this section can even be pretty good, despite the heavy traffic, because so few people actual try to fish AND run the staircase. And it’s hard to beat running right down thru one of the most important and pivotal areas in our nation’s history…Harper’s Ferry National Park. The scenery is not to be missed, neither is the fishing.
If you wanna take out just after Harpers Ferry, you’ll be paddling out into the Potomac and getting out just before the RT 340 bridge on the VA side of the river at a spot called “Virginia Wayside” on river right. Best do it with a local a couple of times before you try it yourself. It’s easy to miss. If you wanna run on down the Potomac, which is magnificently visible from the top of ‘the staircase’ and just beyond the old bridge supports,, you’ll paddle on down to Brunswick, MD and take out there. VA and MD have a reciprocal agreement where a fishing license from either state is good from Harper’s Ferry down the Great Falls. Licensed vehicles from either state can use the state access points on either side as well.
Be advised, if you head on down and into the Potomac, currents and eddies get weird as the faster Shenandoah flow meets the Potomac at Harper’s Ferry. Need to keep your attention-level high thru there. There’s also a good sized rapid just below the conflux called Knoxville Falls. It’s a good test of your boater skills if you’re up for it. It’s fun.
So there you have it, the 3 sections that make up the Shenandoah River (and just a taste of the Potomac) This is truly a magical and even ‘haunted’ river in some respects, given its place in our nation’s history and the spectacular experiences you can have on it. If you ever get to the Shenandoah Valley, give me a call, drop me a line, whatever…and I would be more than happy and very proud to show you *my* river(s).