The reason to fish the Jackson tailwater is simple: beautiful wild trout. The fish in here aren't pale, pellet-eating, fin-damaged, Powerbait-suckered, lethargic, happy-to-fill-your limit stockers. They are brightly colored, hard-fighting, freedom-loving, high-jumping, and drag-engaging rainbows and browns. The browns have red spots brighter than a brookie. The rainbows make your average stocker seem like a fall fish. Once you fish here, you'll never want to fish a put-and-take area again.
The tailwater section of the Jackson river has water cold enough for trout courtesy of the cool depths of Lake Moomaw and the bottom-release Garthright Dam. Water releases are usually too big in winter and early spring to fish. They seem to keep it pretty constant after June 1. Check the GSGS website before you go. Flow rates around 280cfs are perfect for wading.
You can fish from Johnson Springs all the way down to the Mead Westvaco Landing at Covington. A popular way to fish the river is to float from Johnson Springs to Smith Bridge, Indian Draft, or Petticoat Junction (in order, look for signs off of 687). If you don't want to bring two vehicles, Riders Up! Outfitters out of Clifton Forge runs a shuttle service. They charge $25. Call them at 540-862-7999. But give the right answer to the question: Do you practice catch and release?
And now for the controversy... Fly Fisherman magazine has a good article on the fishery and the controvery involving "King's Grant" property owners who exclude fishing due to rights conferred by the English monarchy before the Revolution. I'm not making that up.
As a result, fishing rights on the river are a bit murky. Some people have King's Grant rights because they were recognized by a court case. But unless a property owner was part of that case, their assertion of their rights as Englishmen is not legally valid... yet. A group of property owners is currently suing anglers for fishing between Smith Bridge and Indian Draft. See Beau Beasley's article on the case in Midcurrent. That said, I go by this map on the VDGIF website. It tells me I have to respect the no fishing signs upstream of Johnson Springs. My rule is that I don't fish right along the bank where a property holder has mowed the lawn and set up chairs and stuff. But I'll fish the opposite bank. And I ignore all those fancy signs around Smith Bridge that tell me I'm in a no-fishing "red zone". I also don't step on the bank where there are no trespassing signs. If anyone hassles you, knuckle your forehead, say, " I'm buggerin' off governor!" and do so.
Directions: Take Rt 39 to Warm Springs, and then go south on US 220 through Hot Springs. Turn right on 615 in downtown Hot Springs. After a few miles it turns into Rt 687 (Jackson River Rd). Follow 687 until you can turn right onto Natural Wells Rd/ Rt. 638. The left turn into the Johnson Spring's access area is about 1/2 mile ahead. You can fish right there at the Johnson Springs access, but the better water is around the bend past about 1/4 mile of slow deep water. To get to it, you'll need to wade across the stream (dicey) and wade/bushwack along the left bank (going downstream) till the water gets faster and shallow. The best wading access I know of is upstream of the scenic trail parking lot at Petticoat Junction (cross the road and about 1/2 mile down the trail).
I fished the first mile below Johnson Springs. A size 16 sulfur nymph dropper below an X caddis produced the most fish, but a size 12 comparadun emerger produced the biggest browns. Good sulphur hatch right before dark, but the fish were very choosy about sulfurs. I saw some #12 sulfurs and #14 black stone flies all day.
I floated Indian Draft to Petticoat junction. Beautiful water, and we didn't cover half of it. Not much of a hatch, but fish did rise to a #12 parachute emerger in mahogany and grey, especially around 7pm. I caught 11 fish, the largest being about 12", but I rolled a brown that was so big it prompted me to take the Lord's name in vain.
The trail upstream from Petticoat Junction is currently closed for repair, so I waded at Indian Draft. There's nice looking water right at the put-in, but I caught all but one of my 8 fish a quarter mile downstream where the river re-converges after going around 2 islands. The fish started rising around 6pm to sulphurs (I think), but I caught most of my fish on a green drake emerger.
Upstream of Petticoat Junction produced 11 fish, including my largest rainbow of the year, a 15" beauty that took a #14 pheasant tail monstrosity (see below).
Upstream of Petticoat Junction continues to be a great place to fish. In the morning, the Le Bug fly in a #10 produced well in the quick runs both on the swing and high sticking. In the afternoon, my bank beetle produced up top, with some really great vicious takes.
Avoid the owner's beach a half mile above PJ at the bend pool, as they are claiming King's Grant rights to the bottom of the river. They called the sheriff on an angler who was merely wading in the water in front of their property. This is evidence of precisely what we've feared would happen as a result of the North South Development case. See Virginia Rivers Defense Fund
I caught 12 fish upstream from Petticoat Junction, mostly rainbows except for a nice 15" brown that hit a golden retriever. My best fly was a parachute ant fished in the slower pockets behind boulders.
I caught 8 fish, mostly on a #16 le bug fly (a bead head soft hackle with a red wire body and peacock hurl) fished as a dropper below a golden retriever. The biggest was a very nice 18" brown. This is an especially good rig to fish the fast runs for rainbows.
My #12 bank beetle fly continues to produce. I hooked my biggest fish ever on a dry fly with it, a brown that was easily 18"+. She broke me off on 6x. About 5pm grey drakes started to come off, so I switched to a mahogany drake emerger in #10. That got me about another dozen fish. They would take with a little splash and then go airborne on the set (even the browns). Great fun!
An olive bead head soft hackle produced the biggest fish of the day, a 16" brown. We also caught fish up top with a #12 bank beetle fished along the banks. Water levels are perfect for wading or canoeing.
Floated from Johnson Springs to Smith Bridge with Tom B. This is a terrific trip with unbelievably good water. There were #20-22 spinners between 8am and 10am. After that we caught fish on #14 bank beetles (see August fly of the month) and #12- #8 hoppers (esp. Madama X).
Today it was all about #14 bank beetles.
Currently fish below the Johnson Springs access are taking soft hackles on the swing, #16-14 beetles, and #12 hoppers. There's also a hatch of #14 mayflies some early mornings. Try rusty spinners around 9am.
Here's the new VDGIF creel regulation for the Jackson Tailwater:
Jackson River Tailwater (Allegheny County): From Gathright Dam downstream to the Westvaco Dam at Covington: No rainbow trout 12 to 16 inches; no brown trout less than 20 inches; 4 trout (combined rainbow and brown) creel (harvest) limit per day, only 1 of 4 can be a brown trout. All rainbow trout between 12 and 16 inches and all brown trout less than 20 inches must be released immediately. The 7-inch statewide minimum size limit does not apply to rainbow trout in this section of river.
Translation: The state is trying to promote larger fish in the Jackson by letting you weed out the smaller rainbows and letting good size fish(12-16" rainbows and 7-20" browns) get to be trophies. (You can keep 4 rainbows a day under 12", even rainbows under 7". You can't keep any browns, except one a day over 20").
Doug Stegura on January 1, 2012. We caught only 4-5 apiece, but can you complain about
a 55 degree New Year's Day?
A 15" brown that took a #14 bank beetle. Note cardinal flower in the background;
they are everywhere in late August.
A nice 16" rainbow, caught November, 2011.