By John Page Williams
Photos by Meghan Marchetti/DWR
Captain John Smith famously described Virginia as “well-watered.” He was right: our Commonwealth ranks slightly above average in rainfall for the United States, with a range of 38″-42″ in liquid precipitation. In fact, we have seen more than 60″ in two of the past three years (2018 and 2020), so there’s plenty of water waiting for us boaters as 2021 begins.
With this entry, Notes from the Field begins a new monthly series on Boating Access sites built and maintained by Virginia’s Department of Wildlife Resources. Whether you love birding by canoe or kayak, fishing from a johnboat, or exploring with a powerboat, these landings offer you a huge variety of opportunities that stretch from the lower Eastern Shore and Virginia Beach to South Holston Lake and the Clinch River in Southwest Virginia. We’ll visit these landings and offer sketches of what you’ll find, from natural history (birds, other critters, and wetlands) to surprising stories of how these waterways have served past generations of Virginians. Oh, yes, we’ll talk about fishing too, and boating conditions you may want to pay special attention to.
Any way we look at it, Virginia is a land of significant rivers, including four large ones, the Potomac, Rappahannock, York, and James, which flow into the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary (drowned river valley) in the country. Those rivers in turn grow substantially from their own tributaries, such as the James’ Rivanna and Chickahominy, the York’s Pamunkey and Mattaponi, and the Rappahannock’s Rapidan. To the south and west, Virginia rivers flow elsewhere, like the Roanoke system on its way to the North Carolina sounds and the New, America’s oldest river, draining Southwest Virginia on its way toward the Mississippi. Some of these waterways have dams creating reservoirs. They may be small, like 124-acre Lake Orange, or very large, like 20,600-acre Smith Mountain Lake.
We’ll try to cover landings on a variety of waters for you, broken into several broad categories: Tidal/Saltwater, Tidal/Freshwater, Free-Flowing, Reservoir, and Lake.
Tidal/Saltwater landings sit on the Chesapeake’s lower rivers or close to the open Chesapeake Bay itself. They are suitable for in-shore paddling in appropriate weather, birding, a broad variety of fishing, and general exploring in larger boats. One element you may find particularly interesting is the maritime history of these waters, from the explorations of Captain Smith in 1607-09 up through the succeeding four centuries to present-day watermen’s harvests and commercial shipping.
Tidal/Freshwater sounds like an oxymoron, but it refers to the upper tidal sections of the rivers, the waters at their heads of navigation where their beds reach sea level where the eastern edge of the Piedmont plateau meets the western edge of the coastal plain. Even though the tides affect these waters, the flow from the upper watershed pushes salt downstream, creating a transition that varies from fresh through brackish to salty. It’s no accident that a lot of Virginia’s early history played out on these waters, when the rivers served as primary highways for Native American commerce and English colonial shipping, with major ports developing at Hopewell, Richmond, West Point, Fredericksburg, and Alexandria and many smaller ones in between.
It’s surprising to find how far up these winding rivers those early captains were able to travel under sail and oars. Some of this commerce continues even today (under less labor-intensive power, of course). Meanwhile, the marshes and wooded swamps of these waterways attract a huge variety of birds, from bald eagles, ospreys, and great blue herons to migratory waterfowl, while the powerful currents attract both resident fish and migratory species, from shad and herring to striped bass (rockfish) and even Atlantic sturgeon.
Free-Flowing waters are the rivers above sea level, draining the slopes of the Appalachian Plateau and the Blue Ridge, then running across the Piedmont toward the coastal plain. These waters are largely shallow, often fast, and sometimes rocky, making them most appropriate for paddle craft. Some slower sections may be suitable for floating in johnboats with small motors. They too served as highways for Native Americans, and the James carried a great deal of commerce in bateaux and canal boats during the 17th and 18th centuries. All are suitable for birding and fishing, as well as lazy summertime floats.
Reservoirs are large impounded waters, mostly built in the 20th century by damming rivers for power generation, flood control, and water-related recreation. Several allow boats with unlimited horsepower for fishing, day cruising, and tow sports like water skiing. Smaller ones may limit outboard horsepower to 10 or 12. Two of the largest, Buggs Island and Lake Gaston, lie on the Roanoke River with waters in both Virginia and North Carolina. Fishing is excellent in all of them year-round, and they offer commercial facilities like marinas with fuel docks, bait shops, fishing guides, motels, and restaurants. If there’s a downside, it is that water traffic can get hectic on summer weekends. That said, their scenery can be spectacular, and there are always quiet coves for paddling.
Lakes are smaller impoundments, many created and managed by the Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) for fishing, paddling, and birding. Some also offer fishing piers and hiking trails. A few are former millponds impounded a century or more ago for waterpower. Several offer outstanding fishing for trophy largemouth bass. Virtually all offer opportunities to catch panfish like crappie, bluegills, and catfish. They are widely distributed around the Commonwealth and readily accessible to anyone with a fishing license.
DWR owns and/or manages more than 200 public boating access sites located on all of the above types of waters. As the Boating Notes from the Field series continues, we’ll explore a variety of these boating access sites across the state. You can find a DWR-managed boating access site (searchable by city/county or water body) and more information about specific water bodies on the DWR website.
John Page Williams is a noted writer, angler, educator, naturalist, and conservationist. In more than 40 years at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Virginia native John Page championed the Bay’s causes and educated countless people about its history and biology.