Home » Catch, Release, Repeat: Success on the South River

Catch, Release, Repeat: Success on the South River

Although there are plenty of exceptions to the rule, it is a well-known fact that most fly fishers gravitate towards waters that have special regulations. Across the country, the language and intricacies of the rules varies somewhat. Be it “fly fishing only, catch and release,” or simply some derivation thereof that ensures the vast majority of fish are returned to the water, these ponds or river beats achieve rarified air in the minds of many anglers. The promise of healthy populations of large fish is, in many ways, comforting.

Certainly, there is something to be said for the reality that there are plenty of phenomenal fisheries that exist under little regulation. Often these waters are ignored needlessly… but those who do fish them would heartily disagree.

While the catch and release streams get so much publicity for the opportunities that they present, it is often true that the story of their existence – the fact that they even present a unique opportunity in the first place – is underrepresented. The hard work and dedication of state agencies, conservationists, land owners, and fly fishers exists behind every mile of regulated and maintained river. These efforts are worth acknowledging and celebrating, particularly if one is interested in fishing these waters or emulating the process somewhere else that needs protection.

Through the South River begins nearly 20 miles southwest of Waynesboro, this Virginia trout stream takes on an entirely new character as it draws close to the town. Significant spring influences infuse cold, clean water into the river. As has often been the case in the east coast, and notably within Appalachia, urban manufacturing and rural agriculture took a toll on the water and the fish. Mercury, sewage, and dye polluted the water, the sediments at the bottom of the river, and what organisms remained.

Thankfully for Waynesboro environmental guidelines, damage mitigation, and time helped the South River. Along with habitat reconstruction and stocking efforts, the past few generations have seen trout return to the stream in a very successful way. “The river has changed in some amazing ways in the last twenty years,” said Tommy Lawhorne, co-owner of the South River Fly Shop in Waynesboro. “Now, you’ve got a great chance to catch a big trout right the street from the shop – right in downtown Waynesboro.” Downtown, through the continued labors of groups like the Shenandoah Valley Trout Unlimited, there is a flourishing fishery.

Flourishing enough to warrant special regulations.

Beginning January 1st of 2017, a significant stretch of water in downtown Waynesboro became catch and release only. Before this change, anglers keeping fish under the delayed harvest rules were strongly suggested to limit their consumption of trout due to the mercury issue mentioned earlier. Yet as is the case in any urban fishery, many fish were caught and kept. The new release mandate was urged by SVTU, the South River Fly Shop, and many other valley locals who see the potential in the river. “The fly fishing community, and others in the community, came together to make this happen,” said Lawhorne.

A stretch of the Upper South SRA.

In addition to the new regulations in the popular downtown stretch, another portion of the South River is changing guidelines a little more radically. Upstream of Waynesboro, where the spring influence is more significant, the river takes on the characteristics of a spring creek. The water is clear as it meanders through woods and fields, and fosters the growth of aquatic vegetation found in spring-fed environs. As is the case with these ecosystems, wary trout gladly call it home.

Fishing this water was not an option for many until 2011. The same organizations mentioned above and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries worked with gracious landowners to allow angler access on these miles of South River. Additionally, the main perpetrator of mercury pollution in the early 20th century, Dupont, supported the creation of the Upper South River Special Regulation Area. The special regulations allowed entry, fishing with single-hook artificial lures, and two fish over 16” to be kept. “People along the river have been great to work with,” said Lawhorne. “And the local fishers do a great job to pick up any litter and respect their property.”

For many in the valley, the Upper South holds as much – if not more intrigue as the downtown stretch. The nutrients and temperatures of spring creeks are famous for providing conditions that are conducive to consistent, year-round growth of trout. Coupled with the unique style of fly fishing that such streams afford, the Upper South draws a lot of interest and a sense of ownership from those in the region. “It is like a completely different river,” said Kevin Little, the other owner of South River Fly Shop. “You have to fish it like any other spring creek: slow, long leaders, very careful wading.”

That interest and ownership was a driving force to the additional change of regulations on the South River. The Upper South SRA became fly fishing only on January 1st, with one fish over 20” permitted to be kept. As is the case in the other Virginia water under the same rules, Augusta County’s Mossy Creek, few fly anglers will probably take advantage of the harvest provision. “People know how fragile the river is, so most won’t think about keeping a fish,” said Little.

A large trout cruising on the South River.

The “new” fishing opportunities should be spectacular now, and only improve in the years to come. Local and visiting anglers have the tireless efforts of men and women in the public and private sectors to thank. Yet those efforts are hardly over now that the new regulations are in effect. Vigilance by all who utilize the resource is necessary to prevent damaging private property, illegal harvest of trout, and even a catastrophic pollution scenario that would wipe out a century of recuperation. “We still have a lot of work to do,” said an angler who was coming off a morning of fishing the Upper South SRA. “Agriculture and manufacturing are such important parts of the region, but they can decimate the fish if even some little thing goes wrong.”

On their own, the river and its trout will do what nature does when unhindered – adapt and survive. Fly fishers can ensure that happens today by not just enjoying the opportunities created by regulations, but by carrying the torch of those who pioneered the progress on rivers like the South.

Riffle, run, pool habitat on the South River.


A special thank you to the gentlemen of the South River Fly Shop. They all took time out of their busy schedule to share their passion for the South River with me; in much more depth than I would be able to write about. If you are in Waynesboro, or fly fishing anywhere in the Shenandoah Valley / I-81 corridor, I strongly suggest you stop in.

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