Roanoke County’s Explore Park is trying to lure visitors in, using a rod and reel. Fishing trips are being introduced to the Roanoke River Gorge, which flows through the park.
While the weather put a damper on business early in the season, they're casting out late but undeterred.
Josh Laferty is a co-owner of Rock On Charters, which offers guided float trips on several rivers in Virginia and the highlands of North Carolina. At Explore Park, they’re offering half day float and wade trips from six inflatable rafts, each with a pilot and fishing equipment.
“This is a fishery that we knew about and that we had explored. Due to lack of public access, it’s somewhat of a difficult fishery to access unless you come from upstream in a smaller boat. Quite frankly, a desire to expand our business and to find something a little closer to the mainstream Roanoke area that offers people easier access, shorter drive times, things like that. We felt like this was the perfect fit if we could make something work here.”
The State Department of Game and Inland Fisheries stocks Striped bass in Smith Mountain Lake each spring but some move up into the Gorge where there’s more oxygen in the water where they can be found year round. But it’s strictly catch and release in this part of Explore Park
“We prefer to release the Smallmouth and Muskie. We just feel that it’s more of a sport fish and it’s not necessarily the best table fare.”
Laferty says visitors are surprised by how quiet and peaceful it is here, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway and less than 30 minutes from downtown Roanoke. Anglers routinely see butterflies, birds, otter, heron, deer, bald eagles, osprey, and kingfishers.”
“There’s tons of wildlife here. Bald eagles, they have really made quite a presence in the Smith Mountain Lake area. It’s not at all uncommon to see them up here, on this stretch of the river.”
According to the latest survey from the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service, fishing is a $1.1 billion a year industry in Virginia.
“For me, a 10 minute drive, come find 20, 30, 40 inch stripers and go an hour in the other direction and there’s 30, 40, 50 inch Muskie. Another hour in another direction and there’s 18 to 20 to 22 inch trout.”
Laferty and Belcher hope to make Virginia a destination fishing spot like Montana, Colorado or Florida. But unlike out West, anglers can be on the water here every season of the year.
“They can visit here, three to four times a year, and experience a completely-a radically different environment and style of fishing-throughout 12 months.”
Rock On Charters is the latest business to partner with Explore Park to try and draw in visitors. Since the park closed its historic area several years ago, several ideas have been kicked around such as camping, a rock climbing wall, and last year there were covered wagon rides. But so far, nothing seems to have taken off. Officials with Rock On hope they’ll be successful, in spite of their season starting about six weeks late this year because of the high water.