IT SEEMS that ever since the movie "Deliverance," there has been much to-do about the dare-devil aspects of canoeing. Shooting rapids, once a badge of courage, now is merely another suburban rite of passage, like buying your first pair of Top-Siders.
But white water is not the only water. Part of the appeal of canoeing is solitude and a sense of timelessness, and these often are not readily available while hurtling through angry waters. Less really can be more, which is why I prefer my canoeing to be done through float-fishing.
Float-fishing combines three of the most peaceful outdoor activities known to man: canoeing, fishing and camping. There is no interest in seeing how many miles you can paddle, how many rapids can be traversed; in fact, the best rivers for float-fishing seldom have anything more challenging than an occasional Class II rapid (Class VI is the most difficult), and trips are usually limited to a mile an hour. During the day, the canoeist takes his time, stopping frequently to wade, fish and think deep thoughts--or none at all. In the evening, a campsite is secured alongside the river. Setting up camp, cooking, eating and sleeping are done to the accompaniment of the sounds of the river--and without blaring radios and the innate ugliness of RVs. More often than not, the canoeist is the only camper around for some distance. I have done many types of camping, but none other has offered such tranquility and peace of mind.
Fishermen have found a float trip practically ideal. Because of a canoe's mobility, one has almost unlimited options. If one place doesn't produce, move on. The canoe allows the fisherman to fish from shore, from the middle of the river or from the other side. Often he can get out to wade, an especially comfortable way to counter 90-degree-plus heat.
In the Washington area, the float-fisherman can choose many rivers that can be reached in a few hours. All offer Class I and II rapids that offer a challenge without becoming an ordeal, as well as choice smallmouth bass (and occasionally trout) fishing in sometimes spectacular settings. Most are served by outfitters that will supply canoes, paddles, life jackets and shuttle services to put-in and take-out spots. Guides sometimes are hard to obtain (although really seldom needed), but nearly all outfitters I've dealt with will help plan a trip and provide detailed maps showing campsites, rapids and so on.
Float-fishing can be undertaken from late spring to fall--generally, any time the water is warm enough for the fish to become active (about 57 degrees for smallmouth bass). Although most canoeists prefer single-day or overnight excursions, trips of several days to a week can be delightful, provided they are well planned. Some like to find an attractive campsite and use it as a base for fishing; others will camp at a different site every night.
Sites have been established on most rivers on government and private property. Campsites set up by the federal goverment sometimes have cooking grills and running water, and they are popular, especially on the Potomac. You may have to get permission to camp on private property, but most landowners are accommodating if you appear responsible and promise to keep the noise down.
The availability of these sites depends widely on the time of the day and season. Obviously, summers and weekends mean more competition if you want that wonderful place near the rapid and away from curious cows. A site should be obtained by 1 1/2 hours before sundown (you do know when the sun rises and sets on this trip, don't you?). Even if the fish are pleading for one more cast so you can deplete their numbers, it's just not worth it if you have to set up camp in the dark or get shut out altogether.
One more caveat: In the summer, restrict trips to larger rivers, since smaller ones often are too low to canoe on after several rainless days. I made my first float-fishing trip three years ago on a stretch of Virginia's James River, near its confluence with the Maury. For two days, we paddled at our leisure, stopping to fish or swim when the mood hit. It was the July 4 weekend and quite hot, but we were comfortable throughout. We were pushed by the paddling, although not to exhaustion, and still had time to enjoy the stunning scenery of the Jefferson National Forest, which borders the James. Heretofore indifferent to canoeing and fishing (although I had camped for 25 years), I concluded then that float-fishing offered the best of all worlds. I still believe it.
Another memorable trip was a two-day excursion through one of the most beautiful stretches of river in the East, the South Fork of the Shenandoah. Putting in about noon at Bealer's Ferry, midway between Front Royal and Luray off Route 340, I canoed and fished at my leisure. In the evening, I found a spot near two small islands, just after a Class I rapid. Such conditions are ideal for catching smallmouth bass, which are tremendous fighters and very tasty as well. This evening, at their prime dining hour, they were leaping out of the water about every five seconds. Because this area was not readily accessible to the motorist or hiker, I had a stretch of river made to order for fishing and not a single competitor.
That night I camped at one of several sites at Compton's Rapid, the only Class III rapid in this stretch of the Shenandoah. Again, I had the prime fishing hours of dusk and dawn to bring in several fish, as well as the solitude and serenity I would never find at nearby Shenandoah National Park, with its army of campers and high-tech vehicles. In the morning I paddled hard for a few hours, knowing another choice fishing spot was ahead. I took out at Bentonville, about 10 miles from Front Royal, feeling thoroughly rested despite covering 19 miles in two days.
There were almost no campers on the river and only a few canoeists during this trip. Granted, weekends are a different story. Not only are there more fishermen and campers, but weekends are the prime time for the occasional canoeist. Groups of 10 or more are common. Some are considerate and reasonably quiet, but many large groups appear more intent on splashing and whooping it up than anything else. I've had several pleasant fishing excursions ruined by leather-lunged commandos bellowing, "Ramming speed!" as they merrily crash into one another.
Since most rivers used for float-fishing are generally innocuous, all types of craft can be used. Jonboats (similar to rowboats, but longer) and inflatable rafts are not as maneuverable as canoes, but are more stable and easier to fish from. On the James, especially, one sees a variety of craft, even Huck Finn-type wooden rafts.
Mostly, what is needed is common sense and adaptability. Float-fishing is as idyllic as any experience I've had, but it is not for everyone. There are many inconveniences to deter the dilettante and the faint-hearted. Although not especially strenuous, float-fishing does require initiative, resolve, some mental toughness and knowledge of the outdoors--and yourself.
For a float-fishing trip, especially one for more than a day, the canoeist must plan intelligently. This means scouting the river (either paddling a stretch beforehand or studying topographical maps from the U.S. Geological Service and guidebooks); drawing up menus for every meal; packing clothing for several possible situations; testing stoves and lanterns before setting out, and remembering insect repellent, suntan lotion, hats and other minutae that if forgotten could have a profound (and miserable) effect on the trip.
Once on the water, the canoeist must react surely to changing river and weather conditions, as summer thunderstorms are frequent in the mountains. Every canoeist should be able to beach quickly and cover up when a rainstorm comes. He should know how to walk a canoe over a rapid by using bow or stern lines, and know what to do if the canoe capsizes (hold on to the canoe if you can; if not, stay in a sitting position pointed downstream, although never downstream of the canoe). One need not be an expert in camping, canoeing and fishing, but knowledge of the fundamentals is important.
Mark Kovach, a fishing guide on the upper Potomac, recommends learning how to read a river to find the most likely spots to catch fish. "The number one thing I tell my clients is to look for a place that has the most food going by and requires the least effort for the fish to move from there," he says. "That can be by rocks, at a split in the current, before or after rapids. Often in a split in the current, you'll see a slick, shiny, flat stretch of water near the riffles. That's a good place to try."
If using bait, you should keep plenty of hooks handy, for fish, particularly bluegills, often swallow the hook. When a hook is deeply embedded, don't yank it out. You almost assuredly will kill the fish. Since the object is sport, not slaughter, simply cut the line and let the fish swim away with the hook in its mouth. Its acidic juices will break down the hook enough to slip out. And keeping a few fish for dinner is fine, but there is no excuse for amassing a large stringer for ego's sake.
You can save a lot of heartbreak by packing plenty of rope. You must tie everything to the canoe before you hit the water--unless your idea of fun is scuba-diving for a lost camping stove--and there should be enough rope left over for bow and stern lines. Protect belongings with large plastic trash bags (double-wrapped) or waterproof duffel bags and ammunition boxes. You assuredly will get wet, but keep a towel and bailer handy to control the amount of water in the canoe. An extra paddle is a good idea; some even pack a 6- to 8-foot pole which can give more control in swift waters than a paddle or oar.
And keep a sense of humor. There will be annoyances and sore muscles, downpours and snagged lines, but if you didn't want surprises, you would have stayed at a Holiday Inn. This is a time to be savored and cherished. After all, big-city living is tense and stressful enough, so seize the opportunity to dictate your own schedule, do what you want when you want.
"I've had even experienced fishermen tell me that floating is the most enjoyable way they've ever fished," says Kovach. "There are so many options available, and it's so peaceful. I can't think of a better way to spend a day than floating down a river."