with Mike Smith
NEW RIVER ADVENTURE
If you are serious about the world of smallmouth bass, then you know about the New River in southern Virginia. It is continually ranked in the top 5 smallmouth rivers in the country (google it). As I continue my smallmouth journey, it was one of the first destinations I just had to experience. When researching the fishery, one name continued to come up again and again: Mike Smith.
Mike is a modern-day renaissance man. Holding a Doctorate degree and the current position of Professor of English at Bluefield State University in the School of Education, Humanities and Social Sciences separates him from your “average” river fly fishing guide. When he’s not educating the next generation of college students, he is the owner of New River Fly Fishing. Mike grew up spending summers with his grandparents on the very stretch of New River water that he has currently mastered. If that wasn’t enough, he has authored four books on the river system (Fishing the New River Valley: An Angler’s Guide, Fishing the Roanoke Valley: An Angler's Guide, Fishing the Shenandoah River Valley: An Angler's Guide, and Fishing the Greenbriar River: An Angler's Guide).
He was/is an integral part in the creation of Flymen Fishing Company. Mike first met Flymen founder and CEO Martin Bawden in the early days of Flymen and has been a huge part of Flymen ever since as a fly designer and lead smallmouth guru among his many contributions to the flies and fly-tying materials you know and love. His signature flies include the Skull Daddy Crayfish, Foxy Shrimp, Forage Fly, Saltwater Forage Fly, River Creature, Salt Creature, and Egg Sucking Flash Minnow.
With that being said, I knew that this was the guy I wanted to experience the New River with and learn as much as I possibly could about the fishery. So, I reached out to Mike and set that date to begin the adventure. I booked the flights and put together the plan for the encounter the best I could. I do not like to bring any personal concepts, ideas, or mindsets when fishing brand new water. I truly want to feel the full guide experience from the beginning. We were in communication with what he expected of me and the location and time to meet up.
Mike rolled in a Tacoma with his NRS Otter Plus raft in tow. After the initial meeting we began the pre-game preparation for the day’s trip. Webster defines preparation as “the action or process of making something ready for use or service or of getting ready for some occasion, test, or duty.: a state of being prepared. 3.: a preparatory act or measure”. Mike was very thorough with rods, lines, flies, and his expectations for the trip. His excitement for the day was contagious.
Immediately after we launched it was crystal clear that he knew every rock, eddy, current change, structure, and slick that would hold fish on that day. From the beginning it was very evident that he was an educator, and I knew I was about to get a doctorate level education on the New River. This is exactly what I wanted, and I was a sponge trying to absorb as much knowledge as possible.
The Smallmouth were still in the pre-spawn mode, and I tried to apply any preset notions of where I thought they might be pulling off my limited history of my Ozark home waters. Boy was there a HUGE difference in how these fish were acting and the locations where they spent their time pre-spawn. It was FASCINATING. I must admit there were a few locations where I had a very slight amount of doubt. Only to be proving wrong time after time.
Mike is a perfectionist and very detailed and specific in his teaching. He tells you EXACTLY where they are, why they are there, and what fly they will hit. It took me a few miles to get dialed into his terminology and exactly what his expectations were. But once I did. IT WAS ON!
I don’t think there is any river in the country like the New River. It is absolutely a beautiful experience with elevation drops throughout the drift that have gorgeous rapids and structural changes. The eagles and ospreys fly over reminding you that you are not the best fisherman on the river. The locations for fish to hold are uncountable with too many options to have success unless you have someone who truly knows the river.
Mike began to breakdown the status of the fishery. He identified it as being pre-spawn for the Smallmouth and had already developed a plan. We focused on the “soft” water with depth up to 5’-8’ with rocks preferably. We rowed over some amazing water that I would fish 100% of the time. But Mike has been fishing this water since visiting his grandparents as a child in the summers and had fished every rock growing up.
My brother from another mother, Alex Kramer, was kind enough to join us in the back seat. Alex has become a very good caster and due to our relationship, he has also been bitten by the Smallmouth bug. We set up my rod with my personal version of Matt Grajewski’s Yard Sale. I do tie mine different in a way that suits my type of fishing and the expectations of the fly’s characteristics. Rather than tie with the Gamakatu B-10S hooks that Matt prefers, I use the Kona BGC on the front hook and the Kona BGH on the back. The Kona BGH on the back short tarpon fly appearance that shortens the overall length of the articulated 2 hook fly and gives me the necessary weight to accentuate the “kick” during retrieve. We were fishing the white-on-white pattern that had already put eight 20+” fish in the boat this spring on my home Ozark waters. We set up Alex with one of Mike’s favorites, the white flymen double barrel popper. We were both setup on Temple Fork Outfitters Axiom II-X rods and SD reels.
It only took a few turns of his oars before Alex had hooked up on a nice 14”er to start the day. I consistently pulled the bigger smallmouth out of the deeper holes with my fly, but all the fish would deny. They would be in full eat mode and then turn away at the last moment. In some cases, they would only grab the tail or simply ram the fly without a true eat. It was happening so often; Mike and I were amazed with their ability to just shut down at the very time for inhaling the fly. I’ve had this happen multiple times with big smallmouth and no one has ever given me a good explanation to why this happens. It never happens with smaller fish, only the big ones.
We stayed consistent though the first day with Alex and me picking up plenty of those fish in the 13” – 17” smallies. Mike kept us on fish the entire day and we knew that we were in the right place. After celebrating an overall great day, we discussed what stretch to fish the following day. Mike and I were in complete agreement that we should fish the same stretch again the next day. If you could have seen how many BIG fish I was moving you would understand. Mike is amazing at remembering every fish that moved from every hole. We knew they weren’t going to move in 12 hours, so we decided to take another run at them the following day.
We met again the next morning and headed to the boat ramp with a blue bird sky and not as much wind as the day before. We knew that the weather would make it more difficult. Mike and I re-rigged some reels and rods with the perfect setup for the day’s conditions and we wanted to make sure we also matched the fly patterns we would be fishing. This day we changed up and went to a smaller white game changer with a 15-foot intermediate Cortland line and we went back to the white flymen double barrel popper on Alex’s rod.
The same scenario began to unfold for the popper as Alex was consistently putting quality fish in the boat. But the gamechanger was not moving as many fish as the Yard Sale did the day prior. More than likely due to the blue bird sky and the size of the fly. The highlight of the trip was when Mike decided to put a different colored feathered game changer on Alex’s rod. This fly had more greys and darker spine. We were only a few minutes into the new change when Alex had a monster SLAM the new fly. After a quick back row and anchor, Alex landed the fish perfectly. She was a beauty measuring right at 20” and built like a football.
Even with the recent success of the gamechanger, Mike was very confident the stretch of water we were coming up on would be a perfect time for the popper. I must say, it was hard to buy in to this as Alex had just struck gold and I didn’t have the confidence that Mike did in the popper. ALWAYS LISTEN TO THE GUIDE! So, he set me up and picked exactly the area for me to work the bug on the back side of a small island that had depth and rocks. I began to work my way in and covering the area as well as I could. Then Mike said, “put it right past the rock and he should be there.” I did as told and WHAM! One of the most beautiful top water bites resulted in a perfectly marked 18” smallie. This fish had obviously been sitting on the light sandy area for a while as she was very light in color and more gold than bronze.
We continued putting a steady number of fish in the boat until it was time to push out. We celebrated a wonderful two-day adventure with a few pours of one of my favorite bourbons; Blade & Bow. It’s hard to get but if you find it you would be hard-pressed to find a smoother tastier bourbon. Once arriving back at the ramp, we began the sad experience of breaking down our gear and saying our goodbyes. One never knows how much time the Lord will allow us on this planet and that crossed my mind as I looked back at this beautiful river. Writing this story cannot in any way describe just how amazing the New River fishery is and its potential.
If you are considering your own adventure on the New River, go to newriverflyfish.com and BOOK Mike Smith. Quite simply, he's the best of the best and your experience will be well rounded with knowledge, tactics, strategy and a ton of fun. Just click on this link to start your New River Adventure.
Mike and I discussed our next opportunities to see each other, make tentative plans, and commit to staying in even better communication moving forward. Mike is a great guide and that goes without question. But our times together over the last couple of years has grown into a friendship that I hope lasts for my remaining years and one that I truly treasure. With that being said, “We will be back!”
P.S. Mike has continued to say that if the water was just a few degrees warmer the top-water bite should be awesome. Well after our day of full blue bird sun and higher temperatures did exactly that. On my way home the following day I got a text from Mike with multiple fish picks stating the old saying, “you should have been here today!” We literally missed the topwater bite by 12 hours.