By Bruce Ingram
When Ed Pfister of Madison Heights met me at the put-in above the Bedford Power Dam, I could tell that he was understandably very satisfied with his angling efforts. Pfister pulled two 3-pound smallmouths from his livewell and then regaled me with the story of a muskie that he had caught right after he landed the smallies.
As I climbed into Pfister’s canoe, I found it hard not to share his optimism that we would both soon be into bass. According to my angling log from that February day, the air temperature when we launched was 45 degrees and the water temperature was 40 degrees – not bad conditions for a winter outing.
But two hours later, an on-rushing winter cold front, dropping temperatures, brisk winds and the failure of either of us to receive a bite, sent us home to the television and an ACC basketball game. Such are the highs and the lows of wintertime bass angling in Virginia – jumbo smallmouths or largemouths on one trip . . . bitter cold, piercing breezes and no fish on the next excursion. Here are some possible destinations where, hopefully, you will encounter more of the former than the latter.
Between the Snowden area and Cushaw Dam to Lynchburg and Scotts Mill Dam, five other dams line the James. Pfister favors the second of these pools for wintertime angling.
“The area just below Cushaw Dam runs for almost a mile before the next dam, Bedford Power,” he said. “The area has large boulders and 12- to 15-foot-deep pools. All along the river right bank are deep cuts and current washes.”
The Bedford Power pool is accessible only by canoe or similar craft about 100 yards above the Bedford Power station. Parking exists on the opposite side of Route 130 from an old concrete pier. Anglers will need to cart all their gear over a guardrail and down a slight incline to reach the pier.
Pfister also likes the Monocan Park launch area near Elon in Amherst County. This access point is located on river left at the end of Route 652. The ramp is concrete and is suitable for most boats. The ramp gives access to the impoundment created by Reusens Dam. Pfister especially likes the section between Holcomb Rock and the dam. Both smallmouths and largemouths populate this pool, but the latter is more likely to be caught.
Some anglers like to bank-fish above Scotts Mill Dam in Lynchburg. Be careful if you do so, however, that you do not trespass across private land. Obviously, other fishing opportunities exist above the other dams on this section of the James. However, access is a major problem, and portaging is not possible around these dams. Anglers will have to gain permission from private landowners if they want to access the river.
For wintertime action, Pfister prefers a large 1/2-ounce spinnerbait with tandem willow-leaf blades and a curly tail grub as a trailer. He also relies on a 3/4-ounce spinnerbait with a chartreuse skirt and a No. 5 willow-leaf blade and a curly tail grub as a trailer.
A medium-heavy baitcaster and 12- to 17-pound-test round out his arsenal. As one would expect, Pfister likes to slow roll a spinnerbait over boulders, stumps, logs, and other forms of cover.
Late last winter, I floated from Pembroke to Ripplemead (2 miles) with guide Jack West, and Britt Stoundenmire, who operates Canoe the New in Pearisburg. The Pembroke float is one of the few on the New below Claytor that lacks major rapids for the most part.
And I must emphasize now that the New is probably the most dangerous river in the Old Dominion to float or to wade during the cold-water period. Every winter, it seems, newspapers report that people have perished on this Western Virginia waterway because of hypothermia or drowning after their boat has overturned. During the cold-water period, do not attempt to float the New unless water levels are ideal, unless you are a well-qualified paddler or unless you go with a guide.
The Pembroke float has one Class II rapid (and a notorious midriver rock obstruction) at the beginning of the float. Other than that, this excursion features riffles, rocky shorelines, downed trees, and shoreline eddies. The river right put-in is off Route 623, via Route 460. The river left take-outs at Ripplemead are nothing more than wide dirt spaces in the shoreline upstream from the Route 460 Bridge. The take-outs are off Route 636 via Route 460.
Another possibility is from Claytor Lake Dam to the Peppers Ferry Bridge (11 miles). Few anglers run this trip from the river right put-in, which is off Route 605 via Route 232, to the river left take-out at the Peppers Ferry Bridge (Route 114). This excursion is fairly mild for the most part, except for a Class II and a Class I rapid. What many anglers do is launch at the put-in and motor upstream and down from there. Catches of both smallmouths and largemouths are possible.
For wintertime action, Britt Stoudenmire opts for a 3 3/4-inch Case pumpkinseed tube, rigged Texas style with a wide gap 3/0 hook and a 1/8- or 1/4-ounce slip sinker inserted inside. Britt suggests that anglers crawl this bait across deep-water ledges and through pools and eddies. Stoudenmire also favors a 3 1/2-inch soft plastic jerkbait in white pearl. Don’t twitch this bait during the cold water period, he instructs, instead let it flutter to the bottom. The outfitter rigs the bait with a 2/0 hook that has had a weight molded to it; this style hook aids in creating the fluttering motion.
Marty Shaffner, who operates High Country Outdoors, likes the traditional 3/16-ounce jig-and-pig for wintertime river bass.
“The jig-and-pig was really popular with wintertime fishermen 10 years ago, but now the tube had replaced it,” he says. “The jig-and-pig is just as effective now as it was then, maybe more so because fewer people throw it today. Fish the jig-and-pig slowly around rocks, and you will catch smallmouths.”
Shaffner pairs a jig with a soft plastic trailer. The guide also relies on a 4-inch hard plastic suspending jerkbait.
“Give a jerkbait four or five cranks, then let it suspend for a few seconds until the bait starts to rise,” he says. “Then try to walk the dog with this bait in short twitches as you reel it in.”
Sadly, I must add that the Pembroke float last winter was the last time I fished with or saw Jack West, who died in early May. He was one of the best river smallmouth anglers I have ever met, and, more importantly, a good and decent person.
For guided trips with Marty Shaffner, contact him at 336-957-4630 or 902-0044; www.highcountryoutdoors.net. For guided trips or canoe rental from Britt Stoudenmire, contact him at (540-921-7438); www.icanoethenew.com.
The two pools on the Main Stem of the Shenandoah are, for the most part, more heavily populated by largemouths than smallmouths – indeed, considerably more so. And during the winter months, largemouth bass – many in the four-pound-plus range – are caught in good numbers. The first of these pools occurs on the Riverton to Morgan’s Ford section of the Main Stem. The second occurs in West Virginia and won’t be covered here.
The river left put-in is at a concrete ramp off Route 637 (Guard Hill Road) via Route 340. The put-in is actually on the North Fork of the Shenandoah, but this is not a bad thing for wintertime anglers after largemouths. The water flows very slowly in the North Fork through here and where the river meets the South Fork of the Shenandoah to form the Main Stem. Plenty of downed trees and shoreline wood cover hold largemouths.
Some three miles of slow, deep water exist from the put-in to the Warren Hydropower Dam. Much of this slow water is because of the power pool, but some is also because of the nature of the river in this area. To take out, you will have to motor upstream to the Riverton access point.
Well upstream on the South Fork of the Shenandoah is another power pool worth checking out for wintertime largemouths. This pool is found below the Massanutten access point, which is a river left concrete ramp off Route 615 (Egypt Bend Road) via Route 211.
I despise taking the Massanutten float for warm-weather smallmouths, but the two miles of slow-moving water between the access point and the Luray Hydropower Dam offer quality sport for cold-weather largemouths.
That’s because much of the river right bank is fairly heavily wooded with plenty of downed trees and brush piles. The river left shoreline offers quite a few docks and areas where wood cover exists. John Tipton, who now lives in Christiansburg but used to dwell near the South Fork, once told me that a 10-inch worm is an outstanding bait for trophy Shenandoah power pool largemouths. Work crawlers around woody debris in 10 to 20 feet of water.
Roger Jones of Richmond guides on some of the premier largemouth fisheries in the central part of the Old Dominion, including the Chickahominy. For wintertime action, Jones maintains that all the bass need to become active are a few warm days.
“Then you’ll find the Chick’s bass on dropoffs anywhere from a few feet to 20 feet deep,” he explains. “And once you locate one bass, you’ll find a whole lot more. Much of the time the bass on those dropoffs will relate to a deep-water bank or a ledge coming out from a bank. To further define this pattern, if the dropoffs are on an outside bend or if a feeder creek enters nearby, then you really have an ideal pattern.
“A second major wintertime pattern is a mouth of a creek, again in water anywhere from a few feet to 20-feet deep. Usually, when a creek enters another creek or the Chickahominy, a deep hole forms. A current break is also usually created. Look for the bass to be holding around that current break waiting for baitfish.”
Jones also maintains that the Chickahominy has three characteristics that define it as a wintertime fishery.
First, he describes the Chick as a “dark river.” The waterway is often stained and naturally has a dark bottom; those two factors help the river to retain heat and warm up faster than some bodies of water. Second, the Chick is known as a numbers fishery – hosting great numbers of largemouths in the 12- to 16-inch range. Because of that fact, anglers have more of an opportunity to score.
And, third, because the Chick has moving water, 40 degrees seems to be the magic temperature when fish can be caught. The Richmond guide explains that on other Virginia lakes and rivers, a temperature of 40 degrees often means inactive fish – but not so on this Central Virginia fishery.
Jones lists Yarmouth and Deep creeks and the Brickyard area as three prime wintertime areas. Two- to three-pound bucketmouths are likely on any given trip with five- to six-pounders possible.
Regarding lures, the Richmonder says that a 1/2-ounce lipless crankbait rates highly as it can descend deeper more quickly than many other lures. Also effective is a 1/4- to 3/4-ounce Silver Buddy. For both of these baits, the guide likes to retrieve them in an up-and-down fashion. He also will retrieve both the lipless and drop baits like crankbaits. A third choice is a 3-inch grub on a 1/4-ounce jighead. Jones swims this lure very slowly. The guide also offers this final tidbit of advice.
“In the wintertime, the tides are less important than any other time,” he says. “The fish are almost always deep, and they don’t move all that far even on warm days. Do try to fish, though, on either an incoming or outgoing tide. The only time that’s not good is a slack tide.”
For guided trips with Roger Jones, contact him at Hook, Line and Sinker: (800-597-1708). For trip planning information, contact the Richmond Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau: (888-RICHMOND); www.visit.richmond.com.
Roger Jones also guides on 48,900-acre Buggs Island Lake in south-central Virginia. As one would expect, the guide emphasizes that all Buggs’ bass need to turn on during the wintertime are a few days of rising air temperatures. The Roanoke River arm of the lake is usually not productive at this time, so Roger recommends four tributaries: Butcher, Grassy, Nutbush, and Eastland creeks.
Butcher attracts bass because it contains numerous stump fields as well as plenty of deep water in the 20- to 30-foot range. Grassy Creek features a number of small, shallow tributaries that constantly pump in warmer water. Nutbush is a very wide, flat tributary and has a tendency to warm faster than other entering streams. And Eastland is on the north side of the impoundment, which means it naturally receives more sunlight.
“When the bass are out in the main channels of those tributaries and suspending in 50 to 70 feet of water, they are almost impossible to catch,” explained Jones. “But after a few relatively warm days, they will move out of the main channels onto flats in 5 to 20 feet of water. At Buggs Island, a water temperature of 45 degrees seems to be the magic figure.
“Then, a good spot to fish is a long rocky point. Rocks retain heat well, and a point gives the fish the option of moving back and forth between deep water. A rocky point c
an become a prime place to fish if it has a few stumps on it.”
The Richmonder says that as is true during all seasons on Buggs Island, a good wintertime bass will run 3 to 4 pounds and any fish over six pounds is noteworthy. At this time, the bass tend to group by size, so if, for instance, one three-pounder is caught, chances are that other fish of the same size are in the same area.
The guide employs the same three artificials that he does on Chickahominy, but on Buggs Island he adds another bait to his lineup. Jones likes the traditional 1/2- to 3/4-ounce jig and pig with a plastic trailer. This lure has the advantage of descending quickly, and its weight helps an angler detect strikes better. A retrieve can easily take a minute or more.
Roger Jones offers five quick tips for wintertime fishing that are relevant for any body of water in the state.
- Wear a life jacket at all times. A fall overboard from anything from a canoe to a bass boat could prove fatal.
- Tell someone exactly where you are going and what time you should arrive home.
- Know the dangers and symptoms of hypothermia.
- Bring raingear and a change of clothes. Return home immediately if weather conditions worsen.
- Bring a cell phone.
(Editor’s Note: Bruce Ingram is the author of the following books (cost in parentheses): The James River Guide ($15.00), The New River Guide ($15.00), and The Shenandoah/Rappahannock Rivers Guide ($18.25). To obtain a copy, send a check to Ingram at P.O. Box 429, Fincastle, VA 24090.)
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