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).
And now for the controversy… Fly Fisherman magazine has a good article on the fishery and the controversy 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.
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).
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
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″).