About the river: The Shenandoah is actually 3 distinct Rivers: The south fork, the north fork, and the mainstem. It’s easier to write about as three separate rivers so I’ll begin this series discussing my favorite (and my ‘home’ water), The south fork of the Shenandoah River.
The Shenandoah figures large in American History and especially the during the years after the Revolution and the westward expansion into the interior. The Shenandoah Valley was never home to vast numbers of indigenous Americans. It was used more as a warring and hunting ground and the river itself as a fishery. Many old Indian fish dams are still present on the river (all three sections) and were used by the colonials and well into the 1800s as well. You’ll recognize them as being deep “V” shaped rapids with just a single drop comprised of basketball sized stones with a small shoot at the point of the “V” usually in the middle of the river. Be careful running these chutes as the “V” of course acts as a venturi and usually scours out a deep trench if there’s a sediment bottom right there. The water will be swift and the current strong. Later on, the south fork and mainstem were highways for commerce, being plied by massive flatboats, known locally as Gundulows. These large boats could be 8-10 feet wide and 90 feet long in some cases and could carry 5 tons of goods. Everything from Wheat. corn, pig iron from the local iron smelting operations, cured hams and salted beef in barrels…and they still only drew about 4 inches of water. Many a small town and crossroad bear a two word name such as “Elizabeth Furnace”, or have the word ‘Port’ as part of their name. The ledges were cut down by hand for the Gundalows in places, usually by slave labor with hand drills and sledge hammers..and later by dynamite. Look for these openings in the ledges as you work your way down the river. They’re usually easy to spot. The flatboats died out with the coming of the railroads in the 1830s and 1840s, but made a comeback for a time after the Civil War due to the railbeds being destroyed by General Sheridan at the end of the war. By the late 1800s, however, with the railroads repaired, the flatboats were once again consigned to the past for good.
The south fork rises at Elkton, Va at the conflux of the North and South Rivers to form the South Fork of the Shenandoah. The river is a classic limestone karst topography river, with alternating ledges, pools, with gravel bottoms giving way to bedrock, then chunk rock and back to ledges and gravel again. There seems at times no rhyme or reason to it. But they make for interesting changes in current speed, depth and shoreline topography. No large rapids are generally present on the south fork, but there are a few places you need to pay attention to. There are several Dams, both power and low-head type dams along the length of the south fork. McGaheysville was an old power dam that cracked horizontally and broke off the top half and rolled over downstream, creating a deadly hydraulic between the 2 halves at one time. Lord knows how many canoeists, careless waders, and swimmers drowned in this maelstrom of churning hydraulic and sharp concrete boulders and rebar. Thankfully, this dam was completely removed several years ago and is now an easy passage on river right past the ruins of the old hydro-power station there. But remain careful thru the area as remnants of the old crib dam (it’s predecessor) still litter the bottom along with some old chunks of concrete. The rebar is gone thankfully. The river continues on toward Luray past Newport. From Newport, buckle up for a wild ride at higher levels (3.5 on the gage) the rapids there all the way to White House, the local name for the take out under the 211 bridge. Although it’s a straight shot thru all of them, the wave trains can be pretty intimidating. You’ll have 7 or 8 sets of wave trains to negotiate thru this 8 mile stretch.
There’s another Hydro dam about 3 miles below White House with a good long pool backed up behind it. Power and Jet boaters use this area extensively. I would suggest skipping it all together and get down below the dam at Bixler’s Ferry landing. From Bixlers you return to the classic ledge/pool/shoal areas seen above the Page county power dam. No big rapids until all the way down to to where Compton’s Run joins the South Fork. This is a fast class II rapid at 3.0 on the gauge and a lot of fun. There’s a ‘low water’ or Submarine bridge at Bentonville you’ll need to portage on river-left. After that…it’s smooth sailing with a few ledges, chutes, shoal areas and the remnants of an old crib dam or two to negotiate on the way down to the conflux with the North Fork at Front Royal.
The Bassin’: Smallmouth are the primary quarry in the whole of the Shenandoah. Although some areas do hold significant Largemouth populations. Look for the big largemouth up around Luray, especially behind the Page County Power Dam. There is a substantial Muskie presence as well in some areas. Bring steel leaders, big baits, heavy rods, and look for cool water springs and small feeder streams with deep, slack current water and cover close by if you wanna tangle with them. I suggest a good fish gripper as well. Our biggest muskies (mostly are breeding naturals, not Tigers) are approaching 45 inches…some bigger. Good sized Blue Cats are also present as well as Carp the length of your leg.
Our die offs of the early 2000s damaged out fishery considerably, but since then we’ve had a steady come back and rapidly growing populations. Fishing is back to 30-40 fish days now. Most will be in the 10-15 inch range, with some larger fish sprinkled in to keep things interesting.
Obstacles or Rapids to beware of: Again, Go river right at McGaheysvilles for the best ride past the old power station ruins, and you have several wave trains from Newport to White House. Exit there and get back in at Bixlers Ferry to avoid the Power Dam and the power boats behind the dam. Compton’s Rapid can be a wild ride and good place to lose some gear if you’re not careful. Portage the low water bridge at Bentonville on the left. After that…no worries all the way to Front Royal.
Gauges: Use the Front Royal and Luray Gauges to check your levels. The local Outfitters stop putting canoes and Kayaks on the water at about 4.5…They stop putting rafts out at 6.0