Fishing for river bass in Virginia will give you some great smallmouth and largemouth action … and maybe something unexpected.
When friend Harry Byrd, IV, of Richmond began regaling me with stories of going fishing for Tidal James River largemouths in May and catching not only good-size bucketmouths but also jumbo striped bass and then later in June, phenomenally sized blue catfish, well, I knew I wanted to hear more about where this type of “double dipping” can be experienced around the Commonwealth. Here’s the scoop.
TIDAL JAMES LARGEMOUTHS AND MORE
“May on the Tidal James means it’s still time to double up on largemouths and striped bass,” said Byrd. “From my kayak, I catch both species by trolling a 4-inch Rapala Husky Jerk. This tactic is all about covering water and understanding where the fish may be holding.
“But here’s the thing. You can fish for both bass in the same way in the same places, but you won’t catch both stripers and largemouths from the same spot. Either the largemouths or the stripers will be there, but not both at the same time. Both species seem to like these small runs along the bank where there’s a major depth change.”
These small runs, or side channels as some call them, may only be 10 to 15 yards long and 10 to 15 yards wide. Most importantly, they are often locales where a sudden depth change occurs, usually from 3 or 4 to 10 feet. Byrd believes that the typically much larger stripers force largemouths to vacate a prime lair.
After all, he explains, a nice 3-pound largemouth is not going to want to “take up with” a 30-pound striper. Both species may be feeding on shad, but a largemouth, even a good-sized one, seeing a giant striper move into area will likely instinctively realize that it is about to go from predator to prey. When trolling the Husky Jerk on the lower river, Byrd has caught largemouths up to 5 pounds and stripers up to 30 pounds.
These side channels require a great deal of effort to find, but the Richmond angler emphasizes they are well worth the time to discover.
“It’s as if the river when the depth changed from 3 to 10 feet decided to take this ‘imperfection’ and accent it and make the drop-off deeper,” he says. “Another thing that is really interesting about these types of places is that once the striped bass move out and begin their movement down the James, the blue catfish seem to become more common in these channels.”
At this time, Byrd turns to live white perch as his go-to bait or lure. With perch, he’s caught largemouths up to 7 pounds and blue cats topping 30 pounds. Of course, blue catfish on the lower James sometimes weigh over 100 pounds, so veterans of these battles are not impressed with 20- to 30-pound specimens — although for an angler in a kayak, a 30-pound catfish puts up an exciting fight.
Because it’s so close to his home, Byrd often launches from Ancarrow’s Landing in May and June; but from his experience, he maintains that excellent action can be found from Ancarrow many miles downstream to where the Chickahominy empties into the James. Other hotspots include the Dutch Gap and Jordan Point areas.
UPPER JAMES SMALLMOUTHS
Roanoke’s Ken Trail operates Rock On Charters and says the upper James is no slouch either when it comes to producing bass and other behemoths.
“In May, absolutely the whole month is a fantastic time to catch both big smallmouths and muskies,” he says. “The muskies have just finished spawning, and those 40- to 50-inch females are ready to do some serious feeding and are probably more aggressive then than they are the rest of the year.
“For the smallmouths, it’s pre-spawn time, so they’ve moved to near those shallow, gravel flats where they will soon set up. I like to look for them in seam lines — those runs in 4 or 5 feet of water above or below spawning areas.”
Trail says that the muskies now often wait in ambush near water willow beds in deep pools. Patches of elodea or star grass may hold them as well, but nothing is likely to be as promising as a water-willow islet that abuts deep water or forms a point. Regarding lures, the guide relies on Pond Fork inline spinners with No 8 or 10 blades. Another favorite is a glide bait, 6- or 8-inch Hot Tail Gliders.
In terms of trips, Trail emphasizes that numerous quality excursions exist from Springwood in Botetourt County to the Big Island Pool above Lynchburg. Springwood to Buchanan (3 1/2 miles) contains a number of deep pools where the muskies dominate, and plenty of riffles where the smallies hold.
Buchanan to Arcadia (6 miles) contains a number of Class I and II rapids where the smallmouth hold above in the push water and below in eddies and pocket water. Muskies linger in the long pool near the beginning of the trip and a slow section at the end. Arcadia to Alpine (4 miles) has very similar habitat, and a well-known muskie alley exists on the last mile or so of the float.
The next focal point for both smallmouths and muskies is at the Bedford Dam. Anglers can paddle upstream to Cushaw Dam (1 mile) and back and have a chance to catch both species. Bedford Dam to Hunting Creek (3 miles) features plenty of rapids and riffles on its first half and long pools toward the end. And as Trail notes, the Big Island Pool has a reputation for producing some jumbo muskies, and I have caught nice smallmouth from the riffle areas.
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UPPER NEW RIVER SMALLIES
Ken Trail relates that the same lures and locales will produce smallmouths and muskies on the New River above Claytor Lake, but the two rivers do offer some differences.
“The Upper James is better for muskies as it seems to have bigger ones and more of them,” he says. “I think it’s because the James has better spawning habitat than the Upper New does, which has more problems with siltation. For smallmouths, it’s a real tossup between the two rivers. The New is possibly better, but the James has really been coming on the past few years.”
The guide has a number of favorite trips for both species on the Upper New. He lists Bridle Creek to Independence (10 miles) for its many rapids and riffles interspaced with deep, rocky pools. Be aware that this float hosts the treacherous, and ominous sounding, Class III Penitentiary Falls. Baywood to Riverside (8 1/2 miles) is another preferred trek with only one major rapid of note, the Class II Joyce’s Rapid.
Fries to Byllesby Reservoir (7 miles) hosts the longest, continuous rapid (over a mile) I know of in Virginia, the Class II-III Double Shoals. But it is also home to some of the best smallmouth habitat Trail and I have ever seen. And the sluggishly flowing last mile of this junket contains superlative muskie water. Finally, the guide says that if anglers want a full, and exciting, day on the water, take the Foster Falls to Allisonia (13 1/2 miles) trek: It has numerous Class I and II rapids, numerous rocky pools with water willow islets, and numerous jumbo smallies and muskies. For guided trips, contact Trail at 844-FISH-N-VA.
CLINCH RIVER SMALLMOUTHS
Guide Tommy Cundiff of River Monster Guide Service maintains that the Clinch River is an underpublicized destination for smallmouths and muskellunge.
“The Clinch really offers good fishing for smallmouths and muskies in May and June and onto into July until it gets too low to easily float,” he said. “Once the water temperature reaches 62 to 65, the smallmouths start to hit on top and once the temps pass 66 degrees, that’s the magic number.”
So it’s no surprise that Cundiff begins the month of May there tossing one of his favorite topwaters, the Heddon Tiny Torpedo. The size is right, he explains, and the prop bait can be twitched, popped, churned, and left to sit motionless. Just be sure to replace the factory hooks, which are too thick for good hooksets, with Size 2 Gamakatsu trebles. Also very effective is a Rapala X-Rap or a Lucky Craft 90 Pointer. Interestingly, once June arrives and the water temp surpasses 70 degrees, the guide opts for buzzbaits, Rebel Pop-Rs, and 3 1/2-inch Whopper Ploppers. He does this because he feels the smallmouths are more aggressive then.
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For muskies, the guide prefers 10- to 12-inch swim baits with 7-foot medium heavy baitcasters and steel leaders. One-half-ounce buzzbaits and Rapala X-Raps can be productive, too.
“The Clinch is a much smaller river than the James and New,” said Cundiff. “But it has all the same features for bass and muskies: eddies, grass beds, and pools below boulders and boulders in deep holes.”
Outstanding trips include Puckett Hole to Nash’s Ford (9 miles), which has more riffles and rapids than many Clinch excursions. Indeed, the gradient drops an average of 17 feet per mile, says Cundiff. Please note that the guide warns that inexperienced paddlers should not take this excursion. Also of high quality is Burton Ford to Millers Yard (7 miles). This float also has a favorable gradient at 11 feet per mile, which increases the amount of oxygen in the water in current and riffles. Several ledges may require portaging, depending on water levels.
Fort Blackmore to Hill Station (8 miles) has a much lower gradient of 2 feet per mile which helps explain why it is one of Cundiff’s favorite getaways anywhere for muskies. Islands and current breaks provide excellent cover for these gamefish as well. For guided trips, contact Cundiff at 844-LUV-2-FISH.
Britt Stoudenmire, who operates the New River Outdoor Company, says May and June can be an exciting time to fish the lower river.
“The transition from May to June on the New River typically signals the post-spawn period,” he said. “Smallmouth will begin feeding after the spawn and will typically begin to chase baits more aggressively, especially on dreary, overcast, and low-pressure days. I often employ a spinnerbait, buzzbait, or crankbait to take advantage of the aggressive behavior.
“I will fish all three of these baits across current, often quartering casts slightly upriver behind ledge or rock cover. Smallmouth love ‘busy water’ when they are feeding and the strikes can be jarring.”
The guide gives two examples of how good bad weather fishing can be in May. One was on an outing when “sideways rain and wind” were the norm. Britt had two guided boats out that day and one requested to return to shore. Stoudenmire and the other clients remained on the water and caught numerous 17- to 19-inch smallies that savaged 1/2-ounce white, willow-bladed spinnerbaits cast upstream into the busy water directly below ledge breaks. Almost all of the strikes came on the second or third turn of the reel.
Another epic trip that month took place on an overcast, drizzly day that began slowly — until Britt suggested the clients begin tossing buzzbaits. Over the course of the day the clients caught 30 or more fish 18 inches or larger including several citations and a 5 pounder. Fish were tucked into small pockets throughout the river.
“Muskie fishing can really pick up during this period, and I often employ an in-line spinner or topwater tail-bait,” said Stoudenmire. “Muskie hang where the smallmouth live this time of year so, basically, follow the smallmouth patterns with bigger gear and baits.”
Regarding trips, 11 excursions exist on the lower river, and boat mates and I have caught 18- to 23-inch smallies on all of them. Truly, no bad trips exist on the Lower New. Some of my favorites include Eggleston to Pembroke (6 miles), Pembroke to Ripplemeade (2 1/2 miles) and Bissett Park to Peppers Ferry (5 1/2 miles). But, again, it’s hard to go wrong when planning a junket on the New below Claytor. For guided trips, contact Stoudenmire at 540-921-7438.
A TROPHY SMALLMOUTH RIVER
The North Fork of the Holston doesn’t possess the number of other large gamefish species that the aforementioned waterways do — but it has something else of great worth, says guide Tommy Cundiff.
“The North Fork contains more 14- to 20-inch-plus smallmouths per mile than any other state river,” he said. “Local people know how great it is, but it’s just not that well known outside of far Southwest Virginia.
“I have a simple rule for going after the Holston’s big smallies. If I normally use a 6-inch lure on other float trips, there, I will use an 8-inch one there. The North Fork proves that old saying about bigger baits catching bigger fish.”