Fly Fishing the James River

September 1, 2015 · 4 minute read

Credit: Chris Siess

The dog days of summer are here and while the sun has been scorching of late, the fly fishing around Richmond and central Virginia has been hot too!

If you haven’t tried fishing the famous James River through downtown Richmond and the surrounding areas, you are certainly missing out! Despite its urban setting, the James is home to a variety of species of fish that are all able to be caught with a fly rod, including smallmouth and largemouth bass, sunfish, striped bass, largemouth bass, carp, catfish and gar.

These fish are easily targeted by any experienced or novice fly (or spin) angler. The gear needed for a fun afternoon on the water is minimal. Waders are not necessary in the summer weather, simply wear shorts and a shirt that can get wet and an old pair of sneakers to protect your feet on the river bottom. Five through seven weight fly rods loaded with a matching floating line will be perfect for any situation you encounter on the James. A small backpack or side bag for a fly box, spool of 12 pound tippet, pliers and a bottle of water and you are set! Don’t forget sunscreen, polarized glasses and a hat too.


Credit: Chris Siess

Most anglers tend to think of the best fishing times as early morning or late evening, which is true. However, the fishing on the James can be fantastic throughout the entire day, even in mid-afternoon. The warm weather and bright sun brings out the damselflies and dragon flies and our clients’ primary quarry, the smallmouth bass, can be seen leaping out of the water to snag them out of mid-air. Dead drifting poppers across the surface in these same areas often results in a voracious strike.

When the smallies aren’t looking up, they can be caught on quickly retrieved streamers or crayfish and hellgrammite patterns drifted down on the bottom. Catfish and stripers will also readily take streamers and carp are always finicky with their meal selection, but catchable when carefully presented with a small, buggy looking fly or crayfish pattern. Sunfish, often overlooked due to their diminutive size, are most certainly the best looking fish in the river and can be a day-saver when other species have a case of lockjaw.

There are plenty of access points to the James including downtown just below the walkover bridge to Belle Isle on the city side, all around Belle Isle, Texas Beach, Pony Pasture, Huguenot Flat Water, and several other public points west of Richmond all the way to Scottsville. The further west you go, the less people you will see and less pressure the fish receive. Taking a drive to a spot further up river can make for a very nice Saturday or Sunday spent away from the crowds around Richmond. If you do fish downtown, week days are recommended as it can be hard to catch fish when the city’s residents also use the same fishing spots as a swimming hole.

Credit: Chris Siess

Credit: Chris Siess

If floating the river and fishing is your game, you can always do a short afternoon trip from Pony Pasture to Reedy Creek. This should take about 4-5 hours if you fish it well. Be wary of the lower water levels later in summer as you may have to drag your kayak or canoe across some of the more shallow areas.

The James can be a difficult river to wade for beginners due to the uneven bottom, occasional strong currents and deeper holes that can catch a casually wading angler by surprise. The Rivanna River, which runs through Charlottesville and south through Palmyra, is a great spot within an hour drive of Richmond for a beginner to “get their feet wet” and catch some fish. It provides several public access points and a soft gravel and sand bottom that makes for easy wading. Most of the fish are small, but don’t be surprised to see two foot long gar, large carp and smallmouth bass in the trophy range that you can cast to. The big fish live in the smaller waters as well!

If you haven’t had the chance to try your hand at fly fishing the local central Virginia waters yet, now is the time to do it! The fish will still be active through fall and a day spent on the water is much better than any day at work, doing chores or watching TV!

Knot the Reel World Fly Fishing offers guided wading trips in the James and Rivanna rivers, kayaking trips on Chickahominy Reservoir and the Chesapeake Bay, as well as fly fishing lessons in and around Richmond. They also sell custom, hand-tied flies, shirts and hats. Advice is always available for free as well! For fly fishing tackle, check out Green Top in Ashland, VA.