2012 Virginia Bass Forecast

When it comes to bass fishing in the Old Dominion there are many standout waters. Each year we feature these regular standouts but we also try to add in a few other gems that are worth a day on the water.

One change that has occurred over the past year and is still evolving is the transition at the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) management from five geographic regions of responsibility to four regions of responsibility. Typically we covered two waters from each of the five regions for a total of at least ten waters. Our goal is still to cover at least ten waters from all around the state. Also, we plan to include more "out of the way places" or lesser known places that offer quality bass fishing.

TIDEWATER REGION

The Tidewater Region has a number of waters that are productive for bass fishing. One of the best is Western Branch Reservoir. This impoundment has over 1,200 surface acres. It is one of the water supply lakes for Norfolk, but is located in Suffolk County.

Chad Boyce, VDGIF fisheries biologist responsible for managing the lakes in the region, stated that of the five water supply lakes he would choose Western Branch for his bass fishing foray. Western Branch is at the bottom end of the chain of impoundments used to provide drinking water, making it more likely to have consistent water levels.

"Water levels that are consistent are key to being able to find fish," he explained.

RELATED: Tips, Tactics and More from the Game & Fish Bass Page)

Boyce went on to report that the largemouth bass fishery at Western Branch is in great shape. There is plenty of herring and shad forage for bass and stripers, and habitat for spawning is very good too. Boyce mentioned that during recent sampling they collected strong numbers of 4-pound bass, and some fish that weighed more than that. Each year biologists sampling the lake collect bass that are citation-class by both weight and length.

Bass here exhibit spawning behavior as early as mid-March and those behaviors continue through the full moon in April, when the peak usually occurs. Finding bass making beds in March is common.

Boyce noted that their sampling has shown bass to be tight to the shoreline much of the time and near woody structure (and there is a good deal of wood cover at this lake). Focusing on this habitat and also looking for forage in the same area will serve bass anglers well. Shad-colored baits are a given but using plastics around the woody structure is also productive.

Because of its proximity to Virginia Beach, Norfolk and the general metro area, the impoundment can be busy on the weekends. The bass fishing is typically best on weekdays. Anglers should remember that they will need a boat permit to launch and fish at Western Branch.

According to VDGIF, the permits can be purchased at Lake Whitehurst fishing station on Shore Drive in Norfolk or at the Granby Municipal Building on Grandby Street in Norfolk. Permits by the day or year are good on all five water supply lakes. Private retailers also sell the permits. These include Dashiel's Half-Round Showroom in Suffolk and Ocean's East in Virginia Beach.

The impoundment has several access points. Boyce recommended the VDGIF ramp on Girl Scout Road. The reservoir is open year around, but only allows electric motors or gas motors not exceeding 9.9 horsepower.

Scott Herrmann handles the northern part of the region and he thought that Waller Mill Reservoir would be a good fit for this article. The 360-acre reservoir is owned by Williamsburg as its water supply impoundment. Herrmann and I discussed what makes Waller Mill a good bass fishing destination for the year.

"Waller Mill has good numbers of bass in the 2- to 4-pound range and even some 5- to 6-pound fish. When we recently surveyed the reservoir we had a preferred catch rate of 37 largemouth bass per hour. That figure was quite good!"

While anglers are not necessarily going to catch high numbers of fish at Waller Mill, they will catch fish that are healthy and chunky. The reservoir has been one of the most consistent producers of largemouth bass in the region for years.

Anglers who have never fished Waller Mill should understand that the impoundment's bed is steep in many places but does have some points where more gradual drop offs occur. Fishing tight to the bank under overhanging trees with shad-colored crankbaits is by far the most effective technique. Suspending cranks such as RatLTraps will help anglers keep baits in the strike zone longer. However, any crank that is fished with a close eye on the fish finder to determine precisely where the fish are holding will work well. There are plenty of coves to fish too.

Herrmann reports that bass fishing pressure is relatively low on the lake so this may be just the place for bassaholics to cast and flip their favorite baits.

SOUTHERN PIEDMONT

Smith Mountain Lake is one of Virginia's prettiest lakes. It is clear and very deep and more than 20,000 acres in size, which can be daunting when you first shove your bass rig off into the water from any of the numerous ramps. Dan Wilson works the lake (and the others in the region) and was willing to share his insight into what makes Smith Mountain tick. Wilson stated that fishing in the early spring is good pretty much all over the lake as the bass are spawning in shallower water. However, the upper part of the lake is more fertile and therefore the bass density is better. The problem is that the upper end of the lake is very steep, making fishing tougher.

"Fishing the steep banks and vertical structure in the upper end of the lake can be tough. A cast may only put a lure or plug in the strike zone for a small amount of time that the bait is in the water. Whereas in the lower end of the lake, where the depth change is more gradual, anglers are able to keep baits in the strike zone where fish are holding for a much greater percentage of time," he explained.

Wilson also noted that the 2003-year class of largemouth bass was the start of a trend of improvement in the lake's fishery. The past few years the fishery has stabilized somewhat, according to Wilson, but bass anglers have really noticed a difference in the last six or seven years. Good forage has been a big factor in the improved in size structure int he bass populatin and better catch rates for anglers.

Jason Sanders, whose family regularly vacations on Smith Mountain, has also noticed an improvement. He and his wife and brothers fished the lake last spring and in late June each year. His discussion with me also pointed out that the lower end of the lake is easier to fish.

"I like to fish topwater early and late off main lake points with a Super Spook Jr. During the day I go to a jig in a green color. We fish the ends of boat docks or main lake points. One rig that works well is a Mann's 8-inch watermelon worm with red flake. My wife, Candice, used this set up to catch a 5-pound fish while we were down there last summer. I often cast the same rig with a 3/4 ounce weight on 15-pound line across a point in 20 feet of water and then drag it back like a Carolina rig. My favorite crankbait to use at Smith Mountain Lake is the KVD Strike King baits," he added.

Buggs Island, Briery Creek Lake and Sandy River Reservoir are all notorious for great bass fishing. Last year we mentioned that biologists had detected Largemouth Bass Virus at Buggs Island Reservoir. Biologists have confirmed that approximately 40 percent of the bass were exposed to the virus in 2010 but that rate in 2011 dropped to 23 percent. Sampling at Sandy River Reservoir and Briery Creek Lake also has indicated the presence of the virus. In fact, a small bass die off in early summer of 2010 is believed to be the result of the virus infecting some bass. The good news is that the virus impact at Sandy River and Briery Creek has not been noticeable.

As far as Buggs Island's exposure is concerned, the virus is usually short lived and anglers usually see an upswing in population and size structure in a few years after bass build up immunity. Anglers are already seeing improved bass fishing. The virus tends to impact the larger fish more than the smaller fish and only impacts largemouth bass.

The fisheries at these three impoundments remain very good. The best thing anglers can do while fishing these waters to help prevent the spread of the virus is to limit the time bass are in livewells in hot weather and keep stress levels down for bass by quickly releasing them if you are not creeling them. Stress seems to be a common factor in the spread of the disease.

SOUTHERN MOUNTAIN REGION

Tom Hampton was our source for the Southern Mountain Region of the state. He was kind enough to give us a new water to consider for bass. Although small at 53 acres in size, anglers living near Tazwell County will find that Witten Lake has a good abundance and good size structure of largemouth bass. In fact, the last time Hampton sampled the lake his catch rate for the bass over 15 inches was over 30 fish per hour of sampling.

Due to a drawdown of the lake five years ago, the size structure declined. However the new slot limit of 14-24 inches has proven to be effective at allowing largemouth to grow to trophy size. Anglers who want to catch a real trophy may just realize their dream at Lake Witten if they fish it regularly.

The main forage at Lake Witten is bluegill, but stocked trout also end up as bass meals for the bigger largemouth and thus the bass are able to put on weight faster as a result. Access to the lake is via Route 16 north out of Tazewell to Route 643, which is then followed to the lake.

Each year we at least mention Claytor Lake as a good bass fishing destination. Given its massive size, the impoundment can take a good amount of fishing pressure. Popular places to fish for largemouth here include the midlake tributaries and creek arms. Anglers who fish the structure in these creeks will hook bass up to 20 inches with regularity. In fact, many of the bass are over 15 inches in size. Crankbaits in shad color are the best bet as most of the largemouth feed on alewives and shad. If these baitfish are not common in the area you are fishing, then go with a crayfish imitation: Largemouth will readily pick them off the bottom when available. Jigs of brown or motor oil color will do the job nicely.

NORTHERN MOUNTAIN AND PIEDMONT REGION

In the western portion of the region the old standby spots for great but different largemouth fishing are the dam pools on the Shenandoah. We mentioned this fishery off and on every few years. The fishing pressure tends to be light for largemouth as everyone focuses on the smallies and not on the largemouth in the South Fork or mainstem of the Shenandoah.

Jason Hallacher works for VDGIF and has done sampling on the river. He reported that recent sampling continues to show that the fishery is robust. Largemouth 3 to 5 pounds are available and fish larger than that are possible. Soft plastics bounced off and around woody debris in the pools are the best places to tangle with chunky and feisty river bass. Two good places to launch a canoe include the town of Shenandaoh, where you can paddle upstream into the pool or do the float located at this link:  http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/fishing/waterbodies/display.asp?id=173&section=maps.

Hallacher also suggested the Massanutten location. Most of the pools hold good numbers of largemouth bass.

Hallacher pointed out that anglers looking for quality bass might also seriously consider Skidmore Reservoir. This water is 118 acres in size and is crystal clear and cold. Being so clear and clean makes it beautiful, but sometimes a tough place to catch bass. However, bass sampling indicates that the populations here has good size structure, with many fish in the 3- to 5-pound range. Brook trout fingerlings provide trout anglers future fishing opportunities but many of these trout end up as instant meals for largemouth bass.

The primitive launch site makes for low fishing pressure on this mountain reservoir and often weekday anglers will see few other anglers. There is decent bank access and anglers should count on making long casts with trout-colored lures to entice largemouth bass. Access is by the Forest Development Road 227 off Rt. 33 west of Harrisonburg near the West Virginia state line.

Last year we mentioned Lake Moomaw and would be remiss if we did not give an update on fishing there. Moomaw is yet another beautiful mountain lake but can be tough to fish. We mentioned night fishing the shallows last year for bass but in addition to that great tip, Hallacher also mentioned that if the water levels are good anglers should try the Jackson River area and specifically the Bowler Landing flats or the two islands in the middle of the lake. Anglers are secretive about their spots but reports show a lot of activity near these islands.

One more location and tip Hallacher shared was that weedbeds downstream, or anywhere else they pop up on Moomaw, offer shallow cover and feeding areas for largemouth. The fisheries guys have found these areas to be good sampling areas so they should also be good fishing areas.

Further east in what used to be the Northern Piedmont Region we have a few destinations that are noteworthy for the year. Pelham Reservoir is the water supply lake for Culpeper. The reservior requires anglers to have a permit to launch a boat and another to fish the impoundment. At press time there was word that the town may have additional boat launch opportunities near the dam, which would allow larger bass boats easier access.

According to John Odenkirk, VDGIF fisheries biologist, the best bass habitat is located near the dam and the possible new access would be great for anglers. Odenkirk commented that the sampling catch rate near the dam was double that of Burke and Occoquan, which are top waters in the region. He and his crew sampled 83 fish measuring 15 inches or larger.

"The fish are high quality and are in great condition. I have never seen anything like the sampling we did there. The fish were fat like footballs," he explained.

Anglers are only permitted to use electric motors. Permits are available on weekdays from the treasurer's office on South Main Street in suite 109. You can call 540-829-8220.

Next, the tidal Rappahannock River was another bright spot in the region. However, that comes with conditions. Odenkirk shared that during recent sampling on the river they found the best year class ever and the highest catch rate in 10 years. He further explained that the size structure was good too. However, his sampling indicates that the best fishing occurs very near Fredericksburg. The creek mouths are key on the outgoing tide and woody structure is also a good place to focus. Once biologists got down to Port Royal the sampling numbers dropped off noticeably.

Another tip to remember is that there are many tournaments that are run out of Hicks Landing. Anglers tend to release the fish at the landing after weigh in. Guess where sampling rates were noticeably higher? Yep, you got it, around Hicks Landing.

The bass in the upper tidal portion are fat and healthy and anglers are seeing more and more baitfish in late summer and fall. Fish the outgoing tide out of the City Dock, Little Falls off Rt. 3 or even Hopyard Landing for good action. The further upriver you fish the better your chances of catching a bonus smallie too!

Last, Lake Anna is a bass stronghold in the region. Odenkirk looked through his data and found that their sampling this year indicated a near record year. As is normally the case, the bass numbers were best above the Rt. 208 Bridge. The S curve in the Pamunkey arm and the areas around Jetts Island, Plentiful Creek and Ware Creek as well as nearby coves were sampling hotspots.

Bass anglers have a slew of options this year where they can catch large numbers of bass or catch a trophy bass. I think the toughest part is choosing which water to fish. When you catch a quality bass from one our choices be sure to send a picture to our Camera Corner for consideration in a future issue. Don't forget to carry the camera on the water!

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