Shenandoah River – Main Stem

Information gathered from Virginia Dept of Game and Inland Fisheries


Black Bass

Smallmouth Bass

Serious smallmouth anglers know the Shenandoah River is one of the top smallmouth bass rivers in the eastern United States. Densities of smallmouth are not as high in the Main Stem as they are in the North and South Forks of the shenandoah. Smallmouth bass catch rates can average up to two fish per hour. Fisheries biologists consider catch rates greater than one fish per hour to be very good. Remember, fishing success can vary depending upon environmental conditions. While densities of smallmouth bass are lower on the Main-stem Shenandoah than the North or South Forks, growth rates are better and larger fish are more common. The natural mortality rate of smallmouth bass in the Shenandoah is high and harvest by anglers is low, based on research conducted by biologists. Therefore, the smallmouth bass population is mostly controlled by environmental influences (floods/droughts). Years where there is a very successful spawn produces a strong “year-class” of bass. These strong year-classes are what makes the fishing favorable. When one or two strong year-classes of bass are reaching sizes that anglers target, fishing can be excellent. However, when weak year-classes are produced by environmental factors, fishing success can be poor. Currently, there are several strong year-classes of bass recruiting into the fishery. There should be good numbers of quality-size smallmouth bass available to anglers in 2002-2003. Anglers will find smallmouth throughout all habitats on the river. One of the most productive areas to find smallmouth on the Shenandoah are directly below riffle areas or bedrock ledges. These areas provide cover and transport food items directly to waiting smallmouths. Overall, anglers should target structure closely associated with faster currents when hunting smallmouths. Various types of artificial lures and live baits can be effective for catching smallmouth on the Shenandoah. Anglers should not limit their fishing for smallmouth to just the warmer months. Smallmouth are active throughout the year and some of the larger fish are caught during the colder months.

Largemouth Bass

Largemouth bass do not gain as much attention as there cousin the smallmouth bass, but the Main-stem Shenandoah is home to an excellent largemouth population. Largemouth are common throughout the river in the slower current pool areas. Excellent numbers of quality-size largemouth bass are available to anglers. Largemouth up to seven pounds have sampled by biologists in recent years. A recent angler/creel survey conducted by VDGIF indicated that largemouth bass are being underutilized by anglers. One of the best locations to encounter largemouths is near woody debris that accumulates along the banks of the river. Theses areas provide cover and attract small sunfish the main prey of hungry “bigmouths.” Most any offering of artificial or natural bait should entice a largemouth.

Limits (smallmouth and largemouth)

From the confluence of the North Fork Shenandoah and South Fork Shenandoah Rivers, Front Royal, VA., downstream to Warren Dam:

  • All bass 11-14 inches must be released
    Daily creel limit is 5 bass per day

From the base of Warren Dam near Front Royal, VA., downstream to Route 17/50 bridge:

  • All bass 14-20 inches must be released
  • Only one bass longer than 20 inches may be harvested per day.
  • Daily creel limit is 5 bass per day

From the Route 17/50 bridge downstream to the Virginia / West Virginia state line:

  • All bass 11-14 inches must be released
  • Daily creel limit is 5 bass per day.


The Main-stem Shenandoah River is home to several sunfish species. They include: redbreast sunfish, rock bass, green sunfish, bluegill, and pumpkinseed sunfish. All the sunfish species tend to occupy the same habitats. They prefer to associate with areas with reduced current and structure. The redbreast sunfish may also be located in areas with faster currents. Sunfish densities are excellent and the number of larger “hand-size” panfish is outstanding . Seven to eight inch sunfish are quite common in the Shenandoah River.

  • No minimum size limit
  • 50 per day in aggregate (combined) creel limit

Rock Bass

  • No minimum size limit
  • 25 per day creel limit


Both black and white crappie inhabit the Shenandoah River. The black crappie is the most dominant of the two species. Crappie densities tend to be low and the only areas they can be encountered in fair numbers is in large, deep pools. Crappie like structure and will typically be found near the main channel of the river. Since crappie exhibit “schooling” behavior, where one is caught others are sure to be closeby. Anglers should try small jigs and live minnows when targeting crappie.

  • No minimum size limit
  • 25 per day creel limit


The VDGIF annually stocks fingerling-size musky at several sites on the Main-stem Shenandoah River. There has been no evidence of muskies reproducing naturally in the Shenandoah river, therefore they must be stocked to sustain a fishery. Adult musky densities are low and closely resemble numbers seen in a wild, reproducing population. The area directly downstream of Warren Dam is the best location to connect with a musky on the Main-stem Shenandoah. Musky are “ambush” predators and often lie just off the main channel waiting for a meal to float or swim along. Also remember these fish are a “cool-water” species that is active even during the coldest months of the year.

  • 30 inch minimum size limit.
  • All musky less than 30 inches must be released.
  • 2 fish per day creel limit

Channel Catfish

Channel catfish are plentiful in the Main-stem Shenandoah River. Recent sampling by VDGIF biologists indicated a healthy catfish population dominated by quality-size (2-4 lb) fish. Some 10+ lb individuals were also collected. The large pools in the river are the best place to locate channel cats. Don’t overlook pieces of structure in all areas of the river for they will also hold catfish. Anglers should take advantage of the catfish spawning season when the water temperature reaches the low-mid 60’s (F). Channel cats will move out of the deeper pools, usually heading upstream, and congregate at the head of pools in shallower water. Unlike other fish that do not feed during spawning, catfish feed heavily during this time. Even though most people think that you can only catch catfish after dark, anglers can also have success during daylight hours. Commercial catfish baits, homemade “stinkbaits”, cut bait, and some live baits can be used to catch channel catfish.

  • No minimum size limit
  • 20 per day creel limit


American eel, white sucker, northern hogsucker, common carp, yellow bullhead, and redhorse are some additional fish species commonly found in the Shenandoah River that anglers may encounter.