Shenandoah, Cowpasture, and James River fish kills update
The South Fork Shenandoah River begins at the confluence of the North River and South River near Port Republic and flows north 97 miles to meet the North Fork Shenandoah at the Town of Front Royal. The South Fork Shenandoah watershed covers 1,650 square miles. Surface runoff from the western slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains, parts of the Allegheny Mountains, Massanutten Mountain, and ground water from the karst regions of the Shenandoah Valley and Page Valley make up the flow of the river. The South Fork is a fifth order stream and averages around 100 feet in width. The substrate of the river varies from bedrock to cobble and boulder. Several species of rooted aquatic vegetation are found throughout the river. This vegetation can become quite dense during the summer months. The South Fork is typically low gradient, but does produce some class I and class II rapids. There are three low-head hydropower dams located on the South Fork Shenandoah. Dams at Shenandoah, Newport, and Luray are owned by Allegheny Power and operated as run-of-the-river hydropower projects.
The South Fork Shenandoah is a very popular destination for canoeists. The close proximity of the river to urban areas of Virginia and the aesthetic beauty of the valley attracts thousands of river users each year. Several canoe outfitters operate on the South Fork and canoe/tube traffic can be heavy on certain sections of the river during the summer months. Twenty (20) public access points along the entire length of the river creates the opportunity to plan many different float trips of varying distances. Except for the public access points and small sections of George Washington National Forest land on the west bank of the river, the majority of the land bordering the river is private property.
Maps & Directions
Note: All float descriptions are based on normal river flow conditions. Difficulty and safety considerations may vary according to changes in water level and flow.
Port Republic to Island Ford Map
Distance: 10 miles
A boat ramp was constructed by DWR at Port Republic at the confluence of the North River and South River. This facility can accommodate up to 25 vehicles and is one of the most scenic spots on the South Fork of the Shenandoah River. As you approach a big island about one mile below Port Republic, take the channel to the right. It is deeper and provides better fishing that the left-hand route. Portage your canoe (to the left of the dam), as running it is impossible. Long, flat runs and pools provide exciting redbreast sunfish angling. Smallmouth bass can be taken in fair numbers along this reach.
Island Ford to Elkton Map
Distance: 7 miles
A picturesque float, the South Fork meanders through farmland, once again providing excellent redbreast sunfish and rock bass fishing opportunities in the deep pools, and lots of small smallmouth bass action in the riffles. A Class I – II waters with one small ledge below Island Ford. Look for the DWR landing on the right-hand side of the river going downstream near the Rt. 33 bridge.
Elkton to Shenandoah Map
Distance: 7 miles
Put in at the DWR boat ramp at Elkton and rig up a small crayfish imitation for some smallmouth bass excitement. Get out of your canoe occasionally to wade the riffles and runs for best bronzeback results. Rock bass and redbreast sunfish add to the angling fun. A long power pool exists behind the 10-foot high dam at the town of Shenandoah. Pig-and-jig for largemouth bass or use live minnows for a trophy musky. Take out is on the right side of the river above the dam.
Shenandoah to Grove Hill Map
Distance: 8 miles
Access the river at the Allegheny Power “hand-launch” access site directly below the Shenandoah Dam. People launching canoes/kayaks at this site will have to park their vehicles upstream of the Dam at the parking area provided at the Town of Shenandoah/DWR access site. Takeout at the DWR dirt ramp on the right at Rt. 650 just downstream of the U.S. 340 bridge.
The river is accessible only to canoes/kayaks at the location. This is an easy float mixed with flat stretches and Class I rapids. This stretch has numerous smallmouth bass, rock bass, redbreast sunfish, musky, channel catfish, and in the slower reaches largemouth bass and bluegill.
Grove Hill to Newport Map
Distance: 6 miles
Access is at a DWR ramp located on Rt. 650 near Grove hill. The takeout is on the left, downstream from Newport on U.S. 340. Both access sites are dirt and are not accessible to trailers.
This section of river is comprised of several large pools and allows the angler a chance to fish for muskellunge, largemouth and smallmouth bass, bluegill, redbreast sunfish, and channel catfish.
CAUTION: Be aware that halfway to the Newport Access there is a large hydroelectric dam. Boaters can legally portage around the dam on the right side of the dam facing downstream.
Newport to Alma Map
Distance: 3 miles
Launch at the DWR ramp located north of Newport on U.S. 340 and takeout on the right side of the river upstream of the U.S. 340 bridge at Alma. Both access points are primitive and not recommended for trailers. This section is riddled with Class I riffles and runs which provide for quality smallmouth bass and rock bass fishing.
Alma to White House Map
Distance: 7 miles
The DWR access site at Alma is located just upstream from the U.S. 340 bridge on the right side of the river. The takeout is downstream of the U.S. 211 bridge on the right bank and can be accessed by Rt. 646. The Alma launch site is primitive and trailers are not recommended.
This stretch has a diversity of habitat: pools, runs, and riffles that provide angling opportunities for smallmouth bass, rock bass, muskellunge, sunfish, and channel catfish.
White House to Massanutten Map
Distance: 4 miles
The DWR ramp at White House can be accessed from U.S. 211 by taking Rt. 646. The takeout at Massanutten is on the left bank of the river and can be reached from Rt. 615. Both ramps are concrete and can be utilized by trailers.
The river in this stretch is characterized by large pools which provide excellent musky habitat.
Largemouth bass, bluegill, and channel catfish may also be found in the deeper pools, while smallmouth bass and rock bass may provide action in the riffle and transition areas.
Massanutten to Inskeep Map
Distance: 3 miles
The Massanutten DWR ramp can be reached from Rt. 615. The takeout at Inskeep can be reached off Rt. 675, downstream of the bridge on the left bank. Trailers cannot access the Inskeep ramp. This float has a dam that must be portaged halfway through the float.
This section of river has many pools and provides excellent muskellunge, largemouth bass, and smallmouth bass habitat.
Inskeep to Foster’s Map
Distance: 9 miles
Access to the Inskeep DWR ramp is from Rt. 675 on the left bank of the river downstream of the bridge. The Inskeep ramp is primitive and trailers are not feasible. Takeout at Foster’s on Rt. 684 on the left bank of the river. A Forest Service canoe ramp at Bealer’s Ferry is located approximately � of the way from Inskeep, also on the left bank.
A diversity of habitats are found in this section of the river as riffles, runs, and pools which provide angling opportunities for smallmouth bass, rock bass, muskellunge, redbreast sunfish, largemouth bass, and channel catfish.
Foster’s to BentonvilleMap
Distance: 18 miles
Foster’s can be accessed from Rt. 675 downstream of the bridge on the left bank of the river. The DWR takeout ramp at Bentonville can be reached from Rt. 613 downstream from the bridge on the left bank. Three Forest Service canoe ramps are located between the Foster’s and Bentonville ramps. The Forest Service access points are Goods Landing (2 miles), Seakford (6 miles), and Batzell (11 miles). Canoe and trailer access is available at the Foster’s and Bentonville ramps.
This section contains numerous Class I and Class II rapids which provide excellent canoeing and fishing. The best angling opportunities in this section will be for smallmouth bass, rock bass, and redbreast sunfish.
Bentonville to Simpson
Distance: 9.5 miles
Put in at Bentonville DWR ramp on Rt. 613. Takeout at Simpson DWR access on Rt. 623 (canoe access only). A rough trailer ramp in located at Karo (Rt. 340) approximately � mile upstream from Simpson. A shallow section of river with mostly rocks and ledges makes this good smallmouth territory. Class II rapids between Karo and Simpson could add a little excitement to the trip.
Simpson to Front Royal
Distance: 6 miles
Put in at DWR ramp on Rt. 623. Access limited to canoes only. Takeout at Front Royal boat ramp on Rt. 681. This section is shallow, with lots of riffles and rock cover. It is a fairly easy float with good smallmouth bass cover.
Front Royal to RivertonMap
Distance: 4 miles
Put in at Front Royal DWR boat ramp on Rt. 681. Takeout on Riverton boat landing, 1/4 mile upstream on the North Fork. This section offers good smallmouth fishing along with an easy, short float. There are some good deep pools near the end.
The South Fork Shenandoah River has a long-standing reputation as an excellent smallmouth bass river. Densities of smallmouth bass in the South Fork Shenandoah River are greater than any other river in Virginia. Smallmouth bass catch rates can average up to four fish per hour. It is not uncommon for experienced anglers to catch 30-60 smallmouth during a eight hour float trip. Fishing success can vary depending upon environmental conditions. The South Fork Shenandoah may be known for its high catch rates of smallmouth bass , but it does not produce the number of trophy-size smallmouth bass as other Virginia waters. Growth rates are extremely slow with smallmouth not reaching twelve inches until age 5-6. The smallmouth bass population is mostly controlled by environmental influences (floods/droughts). Years where there is a very successful spawn produces a strong “year-class” of bass. These strong year-classes are what makes the fishing favorable. When one or two strong year-classes of bass are reaching the sizes that anglers are targeting, fishing can be excellent. However, when poor year-classes are moving into the fishery, fishing success can also become poor. Currently there are several strong year classes recruiting into the smallmouth fishery. There should be good numbers of quality-size smallmouth bass available to anglers in 2002-2003. Anglers will find smallmouth throughout all habitat areas on the river. The best places to find smallmouth bass in higher concentrations are directly below bedrock ledges, at the head of pools directly below riffles, runs with various pockets and eddies, and the tail-end of pools. These areas produce faster currents which wash food items to waiting smallmouths. Smallmouth can be caught with all types of artificial lures and live bait. Anglers can catch smallmouth every month of the year in the South Fork Shenandoah River.
Largemouth bass do not gain as much attention as their cousin the smallmouth bass but the South Fork Shenandoah harbors a very good largemouth population. Largemouth bass are most common in the slower, deeper pool habitat areas of the river. Any large pool, including the power pools created by the hydropower dams, contain fishable populations of largemouth bass. Good numbers of quality-size largemouths are available to anglers. Largemouth bass of up to seven pounds have been collected by biologists from the South Fork in recent years. Looking at a recent angler/creel survey conducted by the DWR, largemouth bass are being underutilized by anglers. If you are interested in largemouth bass, target your efforts near woody debris in the pools of the river. Most any offering of artificial or natural bait should entice a largemouth.
The South Fork Shenandoah is home to several sunfish species. Redbreast sunfish, bluegill, and pumpkinseed sunfish are the most common Rock bass can also be included in the sunfish group. Green sunfish are also present, but in very low numbers.
Redbreast sunfish are the most abundant sunfish species inhabiting the South Fork. They can be found in all types of habitat throughout the river. Usually where there is one many others will be in close proximity. Any type of structure (large boulders, woody debris, edges of vegetation mats) will hold redbreast. Unlike the other sunfish species, redbreast will also occupy areas of the river with faster currents. Redbreast in the 6-7 inch range can make for some exciting fishing. Anglers can catch redbreast on small artificials and live bait. These sunfish can be quite aggressive and catching them on larger artificial lures is common.
Bluegill and pumpkinseed sunfish are quite abundant and are found mostly in the slower currents associated with pool habitat. Anglers should target structure like large boulders or woody debris when fishing for these two species.
Rock bass or “red-eye” (as they are referred by many anglers) are abundant throughout the entire river. These fish can be found occupying the same habitat as the other sunfishes.
Both black and white crappie inhabit the South Fork. The black crappie is the most dominant of the two species. Crappie are predominantly found only in the large pools of the South Fork. The pools formed by the hydropower dams at Shenandoah, Newport and Luray have the highest concentrations of crappie. Anglers should target woody debris in these pools when fishing for crappie.
The DWR annually stocks fingerling-size musky at 10+ sites on the South Fork Shenandoah. There has been no evidence of muskies reproducing naturally in the river, therefore they must be stocked to sustain a fishery. Adult musky densities are low and closely resemble numbers seen in a wild, reproducing population. Anglers should focus on areas where structure is present adjacent to the main channel when hunting muskies. Musky are “ambush” predators and often lie just off the main current waiting to strike prey that swims/floats along. Also remember that these fish are a “cool-water” species, and unlike other species are active during the coldest months of the year.
Channel catfish are plentiful throughout the entire South Fork Shenandoah. Catfish numbers increase as you move downriver into bigger water. The large pools in the river are the best place to find channel cats. Recent sampling conducted by DWR biologists indicated a healthy population dominated by quality-size (2-3 pound) channel cats.
Other fish species
American eel, white sucker, margined madtom, northern hogsucker, common carp, fallfish, yellow bullhead, brown bullhead, and redhorse are additional fish species commonly found in the South Fork Shenandoah River.
For more information about the South Fork Shenandoah River, please contact:
Fishing, boating, and general information:
DWR Verona Office
Shenandoah State Park
Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation
Raymond R. “Andy” Guest Jr.
Shenandoah River State Park
Daughters of Stars Drive
Bentonville, VA 22610
Camping & river access
United States Forest Service
George Washington National Forest
Lee Ranger District
102 Koontz St.
Edinburg, VA 22824
Accommodations, outfitters, and guides
Harrisonburg-Rockingham County Chamber of Commerce
Luray-Page County Chamber of Commerce
Front Royal-Warren County Chamber of Commerce
River conditions / water levels:
United States Geological Survey
River issues / water quality
Friends of the Shenandoah River
P.O. Box 410
Front Royal, Va 22630