Updated: Sep 17, 2022
One of the things I like to instill during my guided trips is an idea of responsible conservation of resources. There can be a balance of agriculture, forestry, recreation, and residences that allow for wildlife to exist in wide swaths and people to enjoy what the area provides. Just an hour west of the Shenandoah Valley the Jackson River is a well managed area, and a great example of how nature and recreation can benefit from each other.
Starting in a corner of Highland County near Monterey, Virginia the Jackson river starts as a small run in a highly agricultural area. Cow and sheep pastures surround the stream and creeks run off of Jack Mountain and Back Creek Mountain adding a more gradual flow. Running along Route 220 the stream begins to look like great trout water, but "No Trespassing" and "Private Property" signs are everywhere. Continuing south into Bath County provide the first fishing opportunities. In Bolar, or White Star Chapel by locals, the northern access to stocked waters are accessible. The road turns to gravel, but also turns into the National Forest where there is camping and plenty of accessible stream. This stretch is a put and take area, and is heavily fished by the locals so expect a fair amount of bait fishermen for company.
Further south is one of two stretches of Jackson River prime for fly fishing. The Hidden Valley area provides lodging, a campground, and horse facilities for the surrounding trails. The river is also a put and take area around the campground, but a hike upstream will lead you to an artificials only, limited creel fishing area. It is about a mile or so in, but because it requires a hike in you can usually have the stretch to yourself. In fact it is very remote and no cell service is available, a point impressed upon me by having my nearest bear sighting about 50 yards away, and with her cub no less. This area is stocked by a very rough service road and path that follows a stretch of the stream. However, this stretch becomes very low in the Summer and is best fished October-June.
Further down the Jackson flows through more private land and hunt clubs until it enters and fills Lake Moomaw. A lake was designed to provide controlled water flow in the area and to the downstream Mead paper factory. This is Virginia's second largest lake and no residences are allowed on the surrounding property. Crude campgrounds, boat launches, and picnic areas are all that is available and the lake provides fishing opportunities, but because of it's depth, fly fishing is limited. There is actually a Lake Trout run in the Winter and Spring, but because of the private property surrounding the top of the lake, the fish are virtually untouched.
Lake Moomaw tumbles out through the Gathright Dam. There is a 3/4 mile stretch directly below the dam, but I have found tough wading and heavy current can be a problem. I'd rather have my fishing experience be less stressful and life threatening. The wonderful part about this dam, besides providing a beautiful recreational lake, is that the water temperature for the downstream paper mill needs to be around 55-60 degrees. The depth of the lake at the dam is over 100' allowing a constant mixing of water temperatures to insure this. The result is that this "tailwater" section downstream is one of Virginia's most productive trout streams.
There are 18 miles of navigable water below the damn and Covington, Virginia, where a dam for the paper mill requires you to leave the river. Four launch points provide good stretches for half day or full day float trips and wading upstream and downstream from the launches is permitted for fishing the river. One caveat, especially when floating, is that there are areas of private river that are recognized under an old law known as King's Grant. You are able to float through the area, but fishing and wading or stopping is not prohibited. These are displayed on the riverside and should be headed regardless of how good the hole looks. There are several stories every year about Game Wardens waiting for folks at the ramp when they get out. There is now a Jackson River Scenic Trail which parallels the lower stretch as well, but again all private property and posted areas should be noted.
These waters are full of rainbow and brown trout, and populations that maintain themselves. Stocking does occur to supplement numbers, but the majority of the fish caught in the Jackson are truly wild fish. Rainbows, fat and in the 20" range plus and hooked jawed browns over 24" are caught by a several lucky anglers every year. Big streamers and nymphing with indicators are the usual for a days float trip, but occasional dry fly activity in the afternoon is possible. My most productive days are usually streamer fishing in pockets and nymphing and wading the longer riffles and runs.
Once below Covington, the Jackson joins the Cowpasture River to start the James River. As it flows east it becomes a warm water fishery. Home to smallmouth bass, rock bass, and muskie, this is an less utilized stretch of the James and a seldom sought out fishery in comparison to upstream, understandably so. When fishing the tailwater section below Gathright dam be aware that in addition to your trout stamp and fishing license you will need a National Forest Use Permit. An additional cost of $4, but necessary as Hidden Valley and most ramps are located within the National Forest. Also, only a few guide services registered with the National Forest are permitted to offer float trips within the park. Make sure you know who you are hiring. While you cannot get into any trouble, you don't want your day held up with Game Wardens.
Highland and Bath Counties offer a great escape into the Mountains. Small communities with local goods, culture, and upscale food abound. The Omni Homestead Resort provides lodging and entertainment nearby. The Jackson River offers a small stream managed forest area and a floatable trophy trout water. In two days you can fly fish tumbling tributaries for native brook trout in remote mountain settings with swinging bridges and horses, and floating western style for big rainbows and browns. A bit of space like out West out East.
Private water or float trips are available both on the upper and lower Jackson River.