Photo by Bruce Ingram.
Britt Stoudenmire could be forgiven for being extremely enthusiastic about the fish he had just caught.
After all, Stoudenmire, who operates Canoe the New Outfitters in Pearisburg, is known for guiding clients to trophy-sized smallmouths. But on our lower New River junket last July, it was not just oversized smallmouths that Britt corralled. He had just landed a 9-inch rock bass and was touting the virtues of the little game fish.
“You would be surprised at the size of some of the New’s rock bass,” he told me. “Sure, there are plenty of fish that only go around 5 or 6 inches or so. But many of them also run 9 or 10 inches.
“Rock bass are a blast to catch on a fly rod. I catch them on the same big popping bugs that I use for smallmouths. In fact, my biggest rock bass are almost always caught when I am targeting trophy bass with huge flies or lures. And if I have a client that has brought along his children, those kids can have a fun time catching rock bass of any size.”
One of the best aspects of seeking such panfish species as rock bass, redbreast sunfish, bluegills and shellcrackers in the Old Dominion is the tremendous diversity of waters that we can visit. Upland rivers such as the New and Rappahannock host quality numbers of rock bass or redbreasts; lowland lakes such as Buggs Island and Smith Mountain feature impressive numbers of bluegills; smaller impoundments around the state are often underrated panfish waters and many times sport the biggest sunfish; and just about any pond in the Commonwealth boasts plenty of bluegills or shellcrackers and sometimes both species. Here’s an overview of what’s available.
According to Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) biologist John Copeland, the average size of rock bass, also known as redeyes or goggle-eyes, on the upper New is around 7 inches, although the fish seem to have decreased in numbers in recent years. On the lower New below Claytor Lake, Stoudenmire said that the best section for redeyes is from below the dam to Whitethorne. This section contains, on average, less current and more pools and eddies than the river downstream. Rock bass do gravitate to areas where (no surprise here given their names) rock cover exists, but they generally avoid the swifter water sections that bronzebacks concentrate in.
“Panfish typically caught from the river include redbreast sunfish, bluegills and rock bass,” Copeland told me. “Rock bass are found in the highest numbers, followed by redbreast sunfish, and then bluegills. Rock bass were the second most caught and the most harvested species during the (most recent) angler survey. Rock bass accounted for 36 percent of the total fish catch and 69 percent of the total harvest downstream from Claytor Lake.
“Rock bass catches in fall electro-fishing indicate that good numbers of fish can be found in most stretches of the New River. Rock bass sizes vary between areas of the river. Good locations for nice-sized rock bass include Radford and Whitethorne in Montgomery County.
“Redbreast sunfish catches in fall electro-fishing indicate that this species is readily available in most stretches of the New River, although it is not as abundant as rock bass. Anglers should catch redbreast sunfish up to 6 inches in length at most sites along the New River.”
In the past, my favorite river to target redbreast sunfish was the South Fork of the Shenandoah. Unfortunately, the South Fork, as well as the North Fork of the Shenandoah and Main Stem, still suffers from a lack of panfish because of the fish kills this decade. Shenandoah Riverkeeper Jeff Kelble gives this update.
“Anglers will notice on the Shenandoah that we aren’t getting recovery of the redbreast sunfish as quickly as we would like,” he told me. “Angler reaction to this is inevitably a mixed bag, as there are those who have not enjoyed tangling with redbreast while they’re smallmouth fishing, but there are just as many who have targeted these beautiful natives or enjoyed their incidental catch.
“At any rate, I hope dearly that the angler community does not give up on the Shenandoah; the river is as beautiful as ever and we desperately need your voices to be heard if we’re going to get our problems under control in the future.”
In northern Virginia, the Rappahannock and Rapidan system ranks as the best place for flowing water panfish, said VDGIF fisheries biologist John Odenkirk.
“The redbreast and rock bass fisheries in the Rapidan and Rappahannock are good, but we do not see the very large redbreasts and rock bass. But for numbers, they are good bets.”
In size, 9,600-acre Lake Anna towers over all Virginia lakes north of Richmond. Odenkirk also manages this fishery.
“For bluegills, I would not recommend Anna, as like most large reservoirs with lots of shad and herring and other competing species, such as white perch, the panfish fishery is pretty lousy,” Odenkirk said. “The only bright spot is some nice redears in the lower portion of the lake where the substrate is hard and mollusks are abundant. Numbers are not great, but size structure is good.”
VDGIF biologist Dan Wilson told me that at 20,000-acre Smith Mountain Lake, bluegills are very popular among many anglers. However, as Odenkirk noted, competition with shad prevents the Roanoke area lake’s panfish from attaining considerable size. Bluegills thrive throughout the lake, and the fish often congregate within the lake’s many coves and docks.
At 48,900 acres, Buggs Island remains by far the largest impoundment in the Commonwealth. VDGIF biologist Vic Dicenzo gives the latest information.
“Buggs Island has many great fisheries, but sunfish/panfish aren’t too great,” he told me. “It is rare for a large reservoir to have a good sunfish population because of the competition with shad. White perch are super abundant in Kerr, but fish greater than 10 inches are not as common.”
White perch were first found at Buggs in 1988 and have become a popular game fish among anglers that like to bring home their catch.
For the purposes of this article, I will define small impoundments as any state body of water less than 5,000 acres. In his region, Odenkirk offers these choices.
“The best lakes for bluegills are Germantown in Fauquier County, Curtis in Stafford County and Orange in Orange County,” he said. “Motts in Spotsylvania County is also good. It is not an accident that three of these four do not have gizzard shad, as it seems lakes with shad have much of their productivity to produce good panfish siphoned off.”
Curtis and Orange are owned by the VDGIF and probably receive the nod for overall panfish angling because of better amenities and facilities on-site, continued the biologist, although Motts has had its accessibility upgraded, as well as its fish habitat.
“At one point, there were fantastic redear sunfish populations in Mountain Run in Culpeper and Phelps Pond in Fauquier, but I have not sampled these sites in a few years,” concluded Odenkirk. “However, I still recommend them.”
In Western Virginia, Lake Moomaw has become one of the premier destinations in the state for a member of the perch family. Additionally, VDGIF biologist Paul Bugas has some good news on the fish kill front.
“None of the kills that affected the James or Cowpasture have hit Moomaw,” Bugas told me. “Yellow perch were introduced by the VDGIF in the early 1980s when we were trying to establish a forage base for the trout. Some of the blueback herring, these did not take, and sunfish came from eastern Virginia.
“I suspect there were some yellow perch ‘hitchhikers’ that made their way into Moomaw via these stockings. Regardless, it has been a success story. The perch are both predator and prey to other sport fish in the lake. They are our representatives from the perch family in Moomaw, whereas other lakes utilize walleyes.
“The yellow perch grow to trophy proportions and seem to have found a comfortable niche in the reservoir. Many catch-and-release black bass fishermen catch yellow perch, and those usually find their way to the cooler for consumption. So, all in all, it’s a great sport and food fish. People love perch here.”
The major lake in southwest Virginia is 4,475-acre Claytor near Radford and Pulaski. Biologist Copeland gives this overview.
“Claytor Lake is my top pick for sunfish,” he said. “Quality bluegills are the showcase species at this impoundment. Late May to mid-June is the best time to fish for bluegills at Claytor Lake, but the fishing remains good through the summer. Claytor does not produce bluegill citations that rank it in the top tier of Virginia, but it can offer anglers daily limits of quality bluegills in the 6- to 7-inch range.”
In the past, Gatewood Reservoir near Pulaski has been a showcase for panfish action, especially among those anglers that enjoy using johnboats and canoes to ply mini-reservoirs. However, the news is not good.
“I cannot recommend a small impoundment in my area for panfish,” continued Copeland. “Gatewood Reservoir’s population is not what it used to be. I think it is due to a recent yellow perch introduction there.”
South-central Virginia has a pair of lakes that offer outstanding panfish potential: 740-acre Sandy River and 845-acre Briery Creek. Vic Dicenzo monitors these waters as well.
“Actually, Briery and Sandy are the other large impoundments in our district and both have good sunfish, predominantly redears, aka shellcrackers,” Dicenzo said. “Anglers can expect fish greater than 8 inches and occasionally greater than 10 inches. The best time to catch the larger sunfish is May and June at the onset of spawning.
“At Briery, there is a lot of aquatic vegetation and anglers have to locate beds adjacent to weedbeds or in small pockets of weeds. Visibility is pretty good at Briery. Sandy lacks the vegetation, and visibility is much less than at Briery, so anglers have to just cover more ground. At both lakes, mealworms and crickets tend to be the favorite baits, but fly-anglers can have great days with poppers. Bluegill numbers are higher at both lakes, but instead of 8 to 10 inches being good quality, it’s more like 6 to 8 inches.”
Besides the aforementioned vegetation, Briery also boasts massive amounts of both standing and submerged timber. Some of the biggest bluegills and shellcrackers hold in deep water near that cover. Sandy River Reservoir also features abundant wood cover and it is concentrated in two main areas. Additionally, the VDGIF has sunk Christmas trees, plus hinged trees so that they have fallen into the body of water.
I have long considered the Tidewater region to be the epicenter of the best panfish action in the Old Dominion. Biologist Scott Herrmann reports that through late October of 2007, the flatland bodies of water were dominating the panfish citation parade. The sunfish leaders (with totals in parentheses; sunfish must weigh a pound or measure 11 inches to qualify for a citation) were as follows: Lake Prince (53), Little Creek Reservoir (24), Nottoway River (20) and Western Branch (15).
For the yellow perch citation list (ringtails must total 1.4 pounds or measure 12 inches to qualify for a citation), 947-acre Little Creek ranked fourth with 18 and Western Branch fifth with 15. The citation figures are particularly valuable for understanding yellow perch population trends, as Herrmann relates that this species usually schools too deep for personnel to effectively sample for it in an electro-fishing craft.
“Little Creek Reservoir has consistently provided a lot of action for anglers willing to target redear sunfish,” Herrmann said. “The majority of the redears that anglers catch are of decent size in the 8- to 10-inch range. Anglers usually find the majority of all fish species in deeper water. The crystal clear water must be taken into account when fishing Little Creek Reservoir.
“Our electro-fishing catch rates from the spring of 2006 revealed 186 redear sunfish per hour. This sample collected redear sunfish up to 10 inches in length. The majority of the larger redear sunfish were holding in deeper water and not up close to the bank. A sample later in the spring would have revealed a higher abundance of breeding size redear sunfish.”
Herrmann said that the 2006 trap net survey collected a total of 308 redear sunfish over the course of two nights. The catch rate of 15.4 redear sunfish/net night was very respectable. An additional electro-fishing survey will be conducted during the spring of 2008. Anglers must pay a launch fee at the concession stand before setting forth in their boats at Little Creek. A fishing pier is provided for shoreline anglers. The concession stand can be reached at (757) 566-1702.
Another Tidewater possibility, continued Herrmann, is 75-acre Gardy’s Millpond on the border of Westmoreland and Northumberland counties. The biologist related that good numbers of 8- to 10-inch redear sunfish are present.
“The prime time for the redear action is usually around the end of April to the middle of May,” Herrmann said. “Gardy’s Millpond has some decent bluegill action as well with an abundance of bluegills in the 6- to 8-inch range.”
Gardy’s Millpond can be reached off Route 202, just to the west of the town of Callao. The pond is open to fishing 24 hours a day. Boats can be powered only by an electric motor.
Among panfish addicts, 1,265-acre Western Branch and 946-acre Lake Prince have attained legendary status, not only in Tidewater but also across the Old Dominion. Chad Boyce told me that the fishing remains of the highest quality.
“Excellent panfish options exist in Western Branch and Prince,” the VDGIF biologist said. “Western Branch would have to be my top pick for big shellcrackers, or more properly, redear sunfish. The large expanse of sandy, stump-infested flats and points in the lower end of the lake offer perhaps the best habitat in Tidewater to catch a trophy redear.
“Both Prince and Western Branch will also give up citation-sized bluegills as well. Electro-fishing in the spring of 2007 again showed excellent bluegill and redear populations in the lakes, with redbreast sunfish being present as well. An abundance of shoreline cover and excellent spawning habitat makes these two lakes hard to beat in this area.”
Given their reputations as panfish paradises, Western Branch and Prince attract a great many anglers from not only the Tidewater region but also those in the Richmond to Williamsburg corridor. The fishing pressure has its positive side, however, in that sunfish are never allowed to overpopulate and thus their sizes remain substantial.
Virginia certainly hosts numerous quality panfish destinations, and May is certainly one of the best months of the year to enjoy these high-quality fisheries.
Canoe the New Outfitters at www.icanoethenew.com , (540) 921-7438.
Shenandoah RiverKeeper site at www.shenandoahriverkeeper.org .
The VDGIF at www.dgif.virginia. gov .