December and January are prime months to get in the field and enjoy small game hunting and waterfowling, and there are some incredible fishing opportunities available for anglers who want to haul in some monster fish. With Christmas vacations coming up and the New Year’s holiday, take the time to enjoy some of the hunts and angling opportunities with a friend. We have found several of each for you and highlight them here.
SMALL GAME TRIPS
While most of the state’s hunters are chasing whitetail deer or turkey, there are some really neat small game hunts available on public lands that bear consideration. Squirrel hunting used to be a mainstay and Brunswick stew a regular winter table fare in a hunter’s house. Interest in squirrel hunting waned over the years but anecdotal reports show that interest coming back. VDGIF has increased squirrel hunting opportunities by extending the season to include September and adding a spring season.
While squirrels can be hunted with success in just about any area of the state that has a small hardwood lot on it, many hunters lack access to private land. For this reason we decided to highlight two wildlife management areas that offer not only great gray squirrel hunting but also a shot at taking a few fox squirrels too.
Merrimac Farm WMA is located in Prince William County next to Quantico Marine Corps Base. Although it is only 301 acres and located near heavily populated northern Virginia, few people really take advantage of this pristine little jewel and the squirrel hunting it possesses. There are plenty of hardwood bottoms along Cedar Run on its southern boundary, and old fields too. In fact, almost a third of the property consists of old, overgrown fields. The woodlands adjoining the old fields are likely where hunters will get shots at fox squirrels. The property used to be a licensed bird hunting preserve so it was very well managed for hunting even before VDGIF was able to secure the property. Permits to hunt Merrimac Farms will be issued through the quota hunt system.
Little North Mountain WMA is located near the Maury River in western Virginia in Augusta and Rockbridge counties. Adjoining Goshen WMA, this public land, combined with Little North Mountain, stretches to over 33,000 acres of varied habitat with some incredible hunting opportunities.
However, the Little North Mountain WMA is where VDGIF Small Game Biologist Marc Puckett suggests squirrel hunters try for some outstanding action. There are numerous access roads cutting through the WMA. With so much land open to hunting, hunters should find little problem having a little slice of mountain heaven to themselves for a morning or afternoon of bushytail shooting.
As noted with Merrimac, hunters looking to bag a fox squirrel need to focus on open areas. There are adjacent farms or private lands on the edges of the WMA that make better habitat for fox squirrels, and that is where Puckett suggests hunters look.
The gray squirrels, however, can be found in any hardwood lot. Hunters can access Little North Mountain WMA by heading ten miles west of Staunton via state routes 254 and 42.
Rabbit hunting is another small game pursuit coming back into popularity and Puckett was able to point us to several good opportunities to highlight. Fulfillment Farms in Albemarle County and New Kent Forestry Center in Providence Forge offer managed rabbit hunts via their quota hunt system. At press time VDGIF was offering two different slots for hunters over a three-day period to choose from once drawn to hunt. Hunters that are successfully drawn for the Fulfillment Farms hunt may bring two guests to hunt on either a Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. At the Fulfillment Farms hunt, aerial photos are provided during the pre hunt safety briefing. This year the hunt days are December 7-9 and January 4-6.
For the New Kent Forestry Center hunt, one hunter will be selected and up to five guests for one day of hunting. Hunt dates this season for rabbit are January 19-21st and the 26-28th. Dogs are allowed at both places for hunting and the habitat is managed well for rabbits and quail.
Interestingly enough, both of these managed hunts also offer quail hunting opportunities too. Puckett commented that the New Kent Forestry Center tends to have three or four good coveys on the property to work a dog. The New Kent Forestry Center will allow successfully drawn quail hunters to bring their dog and two guests on one day choosing from January 12-14th. The quail hunt at Fulfillment Farms is the same dates as the rabbit hunt.
Applications were due September 30th but keep this hunt in mind for next year. Check out http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/hunting/quotahunts/
Waterfowl hunting is likely the mainstay of a hunter’s mind come January and Virginia is blessed with ample waterfowl populations. Often it is not the lack of waterfowl in the area but rather the lack of access that makes waterfowlers scramble for hunting opportunities. Gary Costanzo, waterfowl biologist with VDGIF, spent a few minutes discussing the opportunities with us for this story.
“Princess Anne WMA in Back Bay offers hunters a really good opportunity to enjoy good shooting and take in great scenery. The quota hunts are done by randomly drawn numbers for the 55 floating blind stakes. The lower your number the better chance you get to choose your favorite blind stake to hunt. We rarely have enough hunters to fill all 55 blinds for the half day hunts.”
Considering that Princess Anne WMA is so close to Virginia Beach and the hunting is quite good, this quota hunt a really sweet deal for hunters in the region.
Blind selections start at 5 A.M. If you are late then you go to a standby drawing for a blind. All hunters must bring their boat and floating blind and a floating blind license. Because all of the 55 locations are rarely used, standby hunters are permitted. Be there at 5 a.m. for a shot at a half-day hunt. All hunting stops at 1 p.m. and hunters must have packed up and reported in by 2 p.m. Preseason scouting is recommended to determine if your boat will work and to become familiar with the area.
Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays are the general hunt days. Some holidays are included. Applications for a hunt number were due September 30th. Keep it in mind for next year or go standby to give it a try.
Costanzo pointed out that there is a good mix of ducks and geese in the WMA. Most ducks are puddle ducks but there are some divers. Canada geese and snow geese and even a tundra swan may be taken by those with a tag.
“The aquatic vegetation is coming back on Back Bay and that is drawing more widgeon and gadwalls. It is good for all ducks in general as well. We see plenty of mallards and other species too,” he reported.
Hunters may also want to visit the Find Game site for more hunting opportunities. http://www.findgame.org/
When winter comes around some of the best fishing comes with it and sometimes the largest fish of the year can be caught when the temperatures reside in the blue zone of the thermometer. One of several hot winter fishing trips is a striped bass adventure on Buggs Island Lake. Joel Richardson, a North Carolina native, guides on several southern Virginia lakes to include Buggs Island. Much of the year he specializes in largemouth fishing, but once Thanksgiving comes he focuses in the striper fishing. After 18 years of guiding he has figured out that there are two ways to catch striper in December and January at Buggs.
“You can find schools of striper in the 3- to 6-pound range in deep water, say 25 to 30 feet on ledges or you can fish shallow areas 4- to 10-feet deep around structure and catch larger fish, (about) 10 to 16 pounds. I try to guide clients to both depending on conditions,” he pointed out.
Richardson went on to say that finding the schools of fish is very much like finding them on any other lake. He uses his fish finder and looks for ledges where bait balls have fish under or around them. Finding a ledge on a major tributary near deeper water such as a channel is key he explained.
Once he finds the bait and fish, he and his clients use hand tied bucktails in 3/8- or 1/2-ounce size to entice hits. He also uses 1-ounce Hopkins spoons in chrome or gold color. The gold color seems to work best on cloudy days for Richardson.
When seeking the larger fish in shallower water Richardson fishes much like he would for largemouth bass.
“I see a lot of really big gizzard shad in the gullet of these stripers. The shad are 12 inches or longer and (the stripers) are shallow on flats chasing these fish. There seem to be fewer fish in the schools and they relate to cover such as a stump, a rock or boulder too. We may only catch one or two fish per spot but the fish will be much larger. We also pick up some really large largemouth bass in the process. I like to cast a Bomber Speed Shad in a shad color. This crankbait will only go down 6 feet or so on a long cast but it sure entices the hits!”
Richardson also told us that a 1/4 hand tied bucktail with a 6-inch white, jelly worm will also bring on the hits.
Some of the major tributaries that will hold good numbers of stripers include Butcher’s Creek, Nutbush, Grassy and Ivy Hill. All of these tributaries have boat launch access too. Get a good GMCO map, a quality fish finder and dress appropriately to fish the big water of Buggs this month or next. The best way to lock on to the hot striper action at Buggs is to go out with a guide such as Richardson and let them teach you how it is done. Richardson can be reached at 336-643-7214 home or 336- 803-2195 cell or at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.joelgrichardson.com.
In catfish circles there are several waters that invariably come up in conversation. One that always is discussed is the James River. Although the James does not currently own the Virginia state record for blue catfish, it has on numerous occasions and often trades that bragging right back and forth with Buggs Island Reservoir.
Captain Mike Ostrander has been guiding on the James since 2000 and he has put clients on numerous citation fish, including two in a matter of a few hours for me and my father-in-law. He rates the James as a standout catfishery and feels it will remain that way for the near future.
“There are several things that make the James great for catfish during the winter. It has plenty of structure, deep holes, a few warm water discharges and plenty of bait congregated in deeper water,” he said.
Ostrander went on to tell us that because of the above attributes, the section of the river from Dutch Gap to Hopewell is his favorite to fish in the winter.
Several things can give an angler the edge while fishing the James River for monster winter catfish. One is being willing to move around to find the fish. Ostrander marks fish in deep holes on his finder and then if he does not get a bite in a half hour or forty minutes he moves. He also stressed the need to learn how to use the fish finder and find catfish, which often hug the bottom. He puts out six to eight rods at various depths, including some shallow lines to cover his bets.
“Sometimes after a few warm days the fish will move into shallow water to feed,” he explained.
Typically, however, Ostrander finds fish in the 25- to 35-foot depths.
Ostrander knows the river well and commented that the fishing changes regularly. So one day the fish may be in one spot or relating to a certain depth and the next they will be in a totally different area. It is for that reason that I prefer to use a guide like Ostrander, who is out on the river daily and who is better able to keep tabs on the moving fish. No one wants to spend all day being cold and not getting a bite. Having a guide teach you and show you the ropes makes a winter trip that much more productive. Captain Ostrander can be contacted by phone at 804-938-2350 or at Mike@DiscoverTheJames.com or www.DiscoverTheJames.com.