Extending 348 miles from Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains into the Chesapeake Bay, the James River isn’t all history. This river is full of life. To be fair, it’s hard to avoid nods to the storied past of a waterway that supported the first permanent English colony at Jamestown and then Virginia’s first colonial capital at Williamsburg. But its diverse waters offer a full range of modern outdoor adventures. And for anglers in particular, this river still hosts excellent fishing opportunities it’s had for centuries that preceded European arrival in 1607, when it was known as Powhatan by the tribe of the same name who inhabited the lower river. There’s a full slate of angling targets and year-round offerings sure to satisfy the greenhorn and seasoned veteran alike. And to understand how to get the best fishing experience, whether you’re a bait dunker, fly a-fish-ionado, lure junkie or catfish noodler, first you need to understand the various sections of what’s known as America’s founding river.
Where To Fish
The James has three distinct sections—Upper, Middle and Lower—each with different characteristics and all offering unique fishing opportunities from a species and tactic perspective.
The Jackson and Cowpasture rivers collide to form the headwaters of the James, helping stage its journey (mostly) eastbound toward the Atlantic. Fishing the upper reaches, you’re greeted by pristine natural beauty and abundant wildlife—all equating to unmatched fishing potential, especially when it comes to smallmouth bass. If you choose to stalk your prey on foot, Virginia DWR maintains numerous shoreline access points between Iron Gate and Big Island, with the crowd favorites upriver from the Horseshoe Bend Boat Ramp. If fishing via watercraft, be it paddle and pedal or motor power, the Upper James offers various float options and launch points for experienced paddlers and jet-powered boat operators. (Start with the local favorite 9-mile float from Horseshoe Bend to the Buchanan Boat Ramp.)
The middle section of the James starts in the town of Lynchburg and flows to the capital city of Richmond. Like the Upper James, there are multiple access points throughout this section for anglers on foot or fishing via various watercraft—try Pony Pasture Park in Richmond on foot, or make a full-day float of the high-yield section from Howardsville to Scottsville. With less elevation fluctuations than the upper section, you’ll encounter predominantly flatwater, with infrequent Class I-II riffles spread throughout until hitting the Richmond city limits. If heads-up, urban fishing is your thing, this section will scratch that itch. Richmond greets anglers with fast water and obstacles (up to Class IV rapids) from Pony Pasture Park to the 14th Street Bridge downtown, which marks the ‘fall line,’ a geographic feature separating upper elevation Appalachian piedmont and the Atlantic coastal plain tidelands—and responsible for the rapids here and on other principal watershed rivers of the coastal Southeast.
The Lower James continues below the 14th Street bridge and flows 110 miles until it meets the Chesapeake Bay near Hampton Roads, Va. This section is tidally influenced, but is not entirely saltwater, proving itself as a fantastic spawning ground for anadromous fish species of the mid-Atlantic and freshwater species alike. From April to June, in particular, this section (downriver of Richmond especially, best accessed via Ancarrow’s Landing) fills with all types of fishy friends (striped bass, shad, white perch, catfish and largemouth). When hunting for places to fish on the Lower James, a paddlecraft or boat are your best bet with its deep-water nature. If watercraft options are not available, countless city-, county- and state-run parks have ample shoreline and piers to cast a line from. James River Fishing Pier is the most popular and for good reason: It’s open 24/7, attracts all sorts of baitfish from the pilings/structure, and offers a great opportunity to hook into a flounder, striped bass, croaker or puppy drum.
No matter where you fish on the James River, safety should be top of mind: wearing life jackets on any craft, knowing your limits on rough water, and staying aware of your surroundings. For more insight on the Upper and Middle James, Virginia DWR offers in-depth information on what to expect from the headwaters to the fall line.