Fishing Virginia’s Historic James River

Photo: Kyle Mccann

Where, when and how to fish America’s founding river.

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.

Photo: Kyle Mccann

What To Fish 

Each section on the James provides unique habitat and features—meaning that the fish species available are relatively different from each other. Focus on one key distinction when picking which fish to target: above the fall line, inclusive of the Upper and Middle James; and below it, solely focused on the Lower James. 

Above the fall line

The most popular fish to find is the hard-fighting smallmouth bass, aka the smallie or bronzeback. An exciting target that’s a perfect candidate for lure and fly anglers alike, they’re aggressive and are the most abundant predator in the upper reaches. Tackle Tip: Tie on a topwater bug or plug, a subsurface minnow or bottom-bouncing crustacean imitation and target river seams, rock outcroppings, logs and near vegetation for your best chance on a tug. For an XL predator to target, musky can be found upstream from Lynchburg. These monsters provide the opportunity to catch trophies above 40 pounds, though don’t be surprised if the so-called “Fish of 10,000 Casts” haunts you during your hunt. Other notable fish worth targeting above the fall line include flathead and channel catfish, along with a handful of sunfish species.

Below the fall line

The tidal section of the James River is a nationally recognized largemouth bass fishery, with multiple professional tournaments taking place outside Richmond city limits every year. Tackle Tip: Topwater plugs, flies and frog imitations in the morning near structure on banks, or forage imitations like crankbaits and jerkbaits and the tried-and-true worm or jig near submerged structure will typically produce fish from 1 pound up to the elusive double-digit fish. Also nationally recognized on the tidal James are the catfishing opportunities: Fish weighing above 50 pounds are not uncommon, providing a hard fight for lucky anglers. Other fishy targets include striped bass, shad and black crappie—a healthy fishery of which provides some tasty table fare. 

When To Fish 

The James offers fishing action year-round. If you’re strategic, you can turn up the dial on your cast-to-catch ratio by knowing which fish to target and when. In the winter months, the James is cold, but that doesn’t mean the fishing is; targeting musky upstream from Lynchburg, smallmouth bass in deeper pools and largemouth bass plus catfish below the fall line are all options to break the cold-weather blues. (Make sure when temps drop, to fish ‘low and slow,’ and then slow it down even more.) Come spring, you’ll experience the overall best time of year for fishing as all species turn on the feedbag after a cold winter and, for most fish, the upcoming spawn. Summer on the James heats up, both in temperature and action in the early mornings and evenings, but be aware of rising air and water temperatures. Fall is a fantastic fishing time, similar to spring, where fish are looking to fill up before the cold of winter kicks in. 

Just Getting Started?

Head to a Public Lands location or Virginia’s licensing service, Go Outdoors Virginia LLC, for your fishing license. Tip: Go for the Avid Angler License if you’re planning to fish both above and below the fall line on the James—this will cover you in salt and freshwater scenarios. 

Overnight Trip Tips

If you’re taking the short 30-minute drive from Charlottesville to Scottsville, you’ll encounter a lot of local best bets. Horseshoe Flats Campground sits right on the bank for ideal babbling-river sound effects to aid a good night’s sleep. Check out James River Reeling & Rafting for watercraft rentals and shuttles with multiple float options. Finish a float or extended overnighter with a stop at James River Brewery, providing an impressive selection of cold, post-fish beverages to help you practice your next great fish tale. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.