By John Page Williams
Photos by John Page Williams
It’s hard to make a mistake turning either direction after launching from DWR’s Deep Point Landing, in eastern Gloucester County on the Piankatank River’s south bank. The north side is Middlesex County. To the left, upstream, it’s a six-mile run to a power line crossing at the point where the river leads into its source. That’s Dragon Run, which drains the 40-mile-long Dragon Swamp.
“The Dragon” grows extensive bottomland hardwoods like pumpkin ash, gum, sycamore, river birch, red maple, and dogwood, along with huge bald cypress trees. Even though the Piankatank is considered a small river as Chesapeake tributaries go, the Dragon carries a great deal of clear water, filtered by those deep timberland soils and stained tannic by fallen leaves and needles. Watch a depth sounder as you go and you’ll see the power of the flow in the deep holes (8′-15’) that the run carves out in the turns, even above the power line where the channel is quite narrow.
Downriver, the Piankatank changes character, widening out on a four-mile run down into Mathews County on the south bank, to the Route 3 Bridge at the old steamboat port of Dixie. It’s another two miles to the mouth of Cobbs Creek, and seven more to make the turn between Stove Point to the north and Gwynns Island to the south, where the river empties into the open Bay. Running downriver, the salinity increases. Below the Dixie Bridge, it becomes excellent oyster habitat, with extensive restoration reefs scattered most of the way to Gwynn’s Island. Savvy anglers with light tackle and fly rods prospect those reefs for speckled trout, puppy red drum, rockfish, and flounder.
Our most recent exploration of these waters came on a clear, cool day late last fall with the Department of Wildlife Resources’ (DWR) Alex McCrickard and Scott Herrmann aboard a 19-foot DWR jonboat. Just upstream is the old watermen’s community of Freeport. With deep water nearby, both it and Deep Point served as landings for farmers and foresters to ship out produce and lumber years ago, but now Freeport is a mix of local residents and weekenders. There are a couple of other residential communities on this part of the river, along with a commercial campground, but the river’s banks upstream quickly turn into woods and marshes, with only occasional houses and docks.
The river was empty of boat traffic the day we were there, but it hasn’t always been so. When Captain John Smith and his crew visited here in the summer of 1608, they found it sparsely settled by Algonkian Native people, but archaeological evidence tells of human habitation for at least a millennium before. English colonists trickled upriver from the Bay in succeeding years, looking especially for timber. Early foresters got the trees out of the swamp with mules and floated them down the run.
In the 19th century, Freeport and Deep Point became landings for schooners to pick up the lumber for shipping to Washington and Baltimore, since the river there offered not only depth but also enough width for wind to both sail and maneuver. Freeport became the uppermost Piankatank wharf for the Baltimore steamboat line, with other wharves scattered downstream on both Middlesex and Gloucester/Mathews sides. Civil War skirmishes interrupted the trade, but it began again afterward and continued up into the middle of the 20th century, when roadways and trucks took over.
After launching the jonboat, we turned left and headed up toward the Dragon in search of blue catfish feeding in deep holes on the outsides of the river’s meandering curves. The Piankatank’s salinity up here grades from brackish to fresh, with the marshes changing from big cordgrass to wild rice and a variety of other freshwater plants. I remembered an August day decades ago, just above the power line, seeing a profusion of rice in bloom, with beautiful bullhead lilies and cardinal flowers in bloom at the edges. Springtime brings shadbush, mountain laurel, and wild iris (blue flag). Bald eagles, herons, egrets, and ospreys nest here in season, as do swamp songbirds like prothonotary warblers.
The brackish waters host white perch, white catfish, and an increasing number of blue cats. Further up, as the Piankatank becomes Dragon Run, the water becomes a happy home for chain pickerel, largemouth bass, redbreast sunfish (shellcrackers), yellow (ring) perch, and channel cats. In the spring, the upper river hosts a few spawning river herring, hickory shad, and rockfish. (Please note that it’s illegal for any person fishing tidal rivers to have river herring in their possession – this includes blueback herring and alewife. All river herring inadvertently caught by anglers must be immediately released back into the water.)
We used the jonboat’s depth sounder and a detailed C-Map chart app on my phone to anchor up with the outgoing current at the edges of the holes. There, we set lines on medium spinning tackle, using small chunks of cut fish for bait, and rigged on sliding sinkers. As the photos show, we caught a nice mess of “eater” blue cats, along with a bonus brown bullhead. With lines set, we also cast small spoons and spinners with light rods to find some of the river’s scrappy, tasty white perch.
More ambitious upriver anglers might fish larger baits, especially around channel-edge fallen trees, to find significantly larger blue cats of 20 pounds or more, or look for rockfish in spring with cut bait or bucktail jigs. From May on, the specks and puppy drum beckon downriver on the oyster reefs. Moreover, at any season, the Piankatank can make a birder smile; the boat landing is a stop on the Virginia Bird and Wildlife Trail. It’s one of Virginia’s sweetest rivers, and Deep Point Landing offers an open door.
In more than 40 years at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Virginia native John Page Williams championed the Bay’s causes and educated countless people about its history and biology.