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Highroad Guide to the Virginia Mountains

By Deane and Garvey Winegar

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Sherpa Guides > Virginia Mountains > Valley and Ridge Province III > Shenandoah River

Shenandoah River

[Fig. 29(30), Fig. 30] The Shenandoah River is as beautiful as its name. A broad, shallow river that threads its way through the rich, scenic farmland of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, the Shenandoah River and its two major tributaries, the North Fork and South Fork, glide by apple orchards, hay fields, rail fences, and dark forests. As paddlers navigate the gentle meanders of the mature river, they are treated to the changing scenery of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east, the limestone and sandstone cliffs of Massanutten Mountain in the center of the Shenandoah Valley, and the Allegheny Mountains to the west. The river system flows northeasterly from its headwaters in Augusta and Rockingham counties until it merges with the larger Potomac River at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

Canoes, kayaks, or car-top boats such as john boats are ideal for exploring the Shenandoah system. Because of numerous shallows, ledges, and rapids—not to mention several old dams and low-water bridges that require portaging—motorized craft are uncommon on the river. Local people, however, have devised an ingenious method of attaching pitchforks to the props on boat motors, thus allowing the lower unit of the motor to kick up and out of harm's way when shallow water is encountered.

The North Fork of the Shenandoah River begins in the mountains of northern Rockingham County near the community of Fulks Run. It is a small river with clear water, pleasant scenery, and lots of wildlife—deer, wild turkey, beaver, raccoons, muskrats, Canada geese, and great blue herons—along its banks. Because it is narrow and shallow with only mild whitewater, the North Fork may require walking down the middle of the river and dragging a boat or canoe during dry summer months.

After flowing through a gap in Little North Mountain, the North Fork enters the Shenandoah Valley at Cootes Store west of Broadway. The North Fork of the Shenandoah River then slides along the western edge of Massanutten Mountain, which rises like a loaf of bread in the middle of the Shenandoah Valley floor. The river takes a turn around the north end of 50-mile-long Massanutten Mountain then heads east for some 4 miles to its juncture with the larger South Fork of the Shenandoah River at Front Royal. The two forks—the North Fork and South Fork—of the Shenandoah then become the main stem, or the Shenandoah River proper.

Actually, when most people refer to the Shenandoah River, they're including both the South Fork of the Shenandoah as well as the main stem. The South Fork—a broad, lengthy, and serpentine river—is the stretch where most fish are caught. It is also where several outfitters have established liveries that rent canoes and tubes for floating.

The South Fork of the Shenandoah forms at the community of Port Republic in the southwestern tip of Rockingham County. Trip planning is easy because, in addition to the services of outfitters, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has built public access points the entire length of the South Fork as well as on the main stem. The U.S. Forest Service has also built canoe launches on some of its lands bordering the South Fork. If you enter the river at Port Republic, check out the state highway markers on US 340 which runs parallel to the Shenandoah. A major Civil War battle was fought at Port Republic, where the cool South River out of Waynesboro and Grottoes combines with the warmer waters of the Middle River and North River that wind lazily across the valley floor from the western mountains.

Here the good fishing and floating begins. These features, along with accessibility, camping opportunities, outfitters, and beauty, make the Shenandoah a popular river—sometimes too popular. The South Fork below Luray can get crowded on summer weekends as scores of rental canoes paddled by city-weary visitors from Washington, D.C., bump and splash their way downriver. The moderately clear South Fork meanders northeasterly through Page Valley, which is part of the Shenandoah Valley, between Massanutten Mountain on the west side and the Blue Ridge range to the east.

A cautionary note: PCBs released by a Front Royal manufacturer in the main stem of the Shenandoah make eating fish from that section risky. The South Fork of the Shenandoah retains mercury leaked from an upriver Waynesboro plant. A public health advisory on this section suggests that small children and pregnant women avoid eating fish from the South Fork. Anglers interested in additional details regarding the health advisories should contact the Virginia Department of Health at (804) 786-1763.

Fishing the Shenandoah

[Fig. 31] The South Fork is renowned for its smallmouth bass fishing. Smallmouth are abundant throughout the Shenandoah system, but the South Fork is most easily accessible and may well have the best fishery. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries maintains many public access sites for boats and canoes. The sites are evenly spread throughout the South Fork's course. Several access sites also allow boaters to enter the river from national forest land on the west side of the river between Luray and Front Royal.

Don't expect big bass. The average smallmouth in the Shenandoah measures less than 14 inches. For the best sport, try light spinning tackle or fly-fishing gear. Small crayfish imitations are popular lures on the river. So are minnow-type lures such as Rapalas and Rebels. A slot limit applies. All bass in the slot between 11 and 14 inches—the best size for reproduction—must be returned to the river. Bass below and above the slot limit are legal to keep. Panfishing is excellent throughout. A few walleye may be found in the lower reaches of the South Fork from Newport Dam downstream. Channel catfish are also plentiful. The North Fork is smaller than the South Fork and has fewer developed public access points, so entry to the river is limited. The main stem of the Shenandoah River, like its North Fork and South Fork tributaries, is an excellent river for smallmouth bass, rock bass, redbreast sunfish, and channel catfish.

Public access points to the main Shenandoah are maintained at Front Royal (the beginning of the main stem) at Riverton and Morgan's Ford, at the VA 17/VA 50 bridge at Berry's Ferry, and at the VA 7 bridge at Castleman's Ferry.

Floating the South Fork

[Fig. 31] For a leisurely day of sight-seeing and fishing, take one of the many float trips available on the Shenandoah. The state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries operates several free ramps and access points strategically placed along the river so that floaters can choose between day trips of 4 to 18 miles.

For a free color brochure and map, with good fishing spots highlighted and danger areas pinpointed, ask the Virginia game department for a copy of Shenandoah River Float Trips. Call (540) 248-9360 or write Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, 4010 West Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23230.

A busy canoe livery that can put you on the river for a few hours or a few days is Shenandoah River Outfitters, 6502 South Page Valley Road, Luray, VA 22835. Phone (540) 743-4159. Rates include all gear, canoes, and shuttle service. Trips of varying lengths can be arranged, with overnight camping and hot meals included.

On the Lee Ranger District of the George Washington National Forest is High Cliff Canoe Camp, with free primitive campsites accessible only by river or by hiking in. The campground is on the west side of the river below Goods Mill. In fact, the entire stretch on river left between Goods Mill at VA 684 and Burners Ford at VA 664 is national forest, so camping is permitted. The few private homes within the national forest should be avoided, and campers should carry all trash away.

Also, the new Andy Guest/Shenandoah River State Park is being developed for day use about 1.5 miles downriver of the Bentonville low-water bridge on VA 613. Yellow park-boundary signs are on trees on river right just before a couple of canoe take-out points.

Picnic tables are available, and an access road is planned for completion sometime in 1998. The staff of Sky Meadows State Park at Delaplane is managing the park at present.

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