The Tidewater Region of the state is home to what I would consider the best largemouth river fishery at this time.
According to Aaron Bunch, fisheries biologist with VDGIF, “In recent years Chickahominy has had an unusual combination of extremely high angler catch rates, due to high bass abundance, and very nice size distribution of fish available to anglers. Bass in the 6- to 8-pound range were reported on a fairly regular basis. Anglers fishing above Brickyard Landing had the best size distributions in their catch.”
Bunch went on to say that previously the river had good catch rates, but most of the fish were less than 1.5 pounds. This reportedly caused tournament anglers to run all the way up the James to “The Pits” to find larger fish.
There is an abundance of large bass in the Chick now due to the incredible 2006 and 2007 spawning success and the stocked F1 largemouth.
Anglers can expect to find a stable and very viable largemouth fishery provided we continue to dodge major weather calamities, which can seriously impact tidal river fisheries. During the spring anglers typically find fish in the tributaries on plastic combinations of jigs. Some anglers will throw crankbaits in crappie and sunfish colors or even shad colors.
Until the weather warms the fish will feed on edges of mudflats near deeper water, which warm up on sunny days. Try the outgoing tides.
Further south is a reservoir that often gets overlooked as a prime largemouth fishery. Western Branch Reservoir in Suffolk, at 1,579 acres, has a great largemouth fishery, largely due to the forage base of alewives and gizzard shad along with a very strong population of sunfish. Western Branch Reservoir also has great habitat.
“There are a lot of sandy points, coves and shallow shoreline at Western Branch which is great bass habitat, particularly for spawning,” noted Chad Boyce, VDGIF fisheries biologist.
Boyce also pointed out that woody debris is common. VDGIF collects data on fish and uses a term called Catch-per-unit-effort of preferred fish (CPUE-P below) which is a measure of how many bass over 15 inches are collected by biologists during a set unit of effort (in this case, 1-hour of electrofishing). The larger the number, the more big bass were found during the sample. Western Branch had 68 such fish on the last ranking and handily beat the other impoundments.
Anglers should fish the shallows of the lower end in March and April as the water warms quicker. Use pig and jigs near beds and structure to pick up spawning fish. Later in the year the fish will hit plastics of all types all over the lake. Fish deeper once summer arrives and during low light try the topwater bite.
Southern Piedmont Region
Gaston Lake (20,300 acres) is managed by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. Therefore I went to Kirk Rundle to get the latest on Gaston. Gaston is considered a stable and consistent fishery and some of that can be attributed to the 14-inch minimum size limit and five-fish creel limit. Two of the five fish can be less than 14 inches. This approach has been in place for 10 years, according to Rundle.
“Our catch rates are based on number of fish sampled per electrofishing hour, with average catch rates in the Piedmont ranging from 30 to 60 largemouth an hour. Catch rates in 2012 and 2014 were similar and slightly above average, with 2012 catch rates at 66 per hour and 2014 catch rates at 61 per hour. Catch rates for larger fish were rather good with approximately 65 percent of the largemouth bass sampled in 2014 above the minimum size limit and approximately 20 percent greater than 18 inches.”
Rundle went on to state that it appeared that recruitment continues to be good, as are growth rates. Anglers will find that shad colors work well in shallow water locations during the spring spawn. The best angling occurs near cover such as logs, docks and rip rap.
Our annual bass roundups would not be complete without at least a mention of two standouts in the region, Sandy River Reservoir (740 acres) and Briery Creek Lake (845 acres). I spoke with VDGIF’s Dan Michaelson to get the latest update on them.
“I would say that Sandy has shot ahead of Briery. We’ve noticed over the past 4 or 5 years a steady decline in the overall quality of bass in Briery and attribute the issues to Largemouth Bass Virus and possibly crowding of fish in the large trophy slot. Briery was packed with fish from 15 to 18 inches in 2013. Many were in poor condition but lengths were excellent. Briery is still a quality bass fishery but it is not what it was 10 years ago. ”
Anglers should note that the regulation for keeping bass at Briery includes a slot of 16-24 inches.
Sandy River Reservoir has a good size distribution of largemouth according to Michaelson and a healthy population of bass over 15 inches. Gizzard shad and bream are the primary forage in that impoundment. Briery has blueback herring in addition to gizzard shad and bream.
Briery is known to be a trophy lake, but Sandy River has its share of quality fish too. At Briery, anglers need to look among the standing timber remains and edges of the shoreline where drop offs occur in March for prespawn bass. Sandy River is reportedly a bit easier to fish. Look near the hinge trees coupled with coves or shallows during the spawn to find bedding bass. The standing timber is also a good bet during April.
Southern Mountain Region
Claytor Lake in Pulaski County is 4,363 acres of water, which can be daunting to try to fish. However, the bass fishery at Claytor has been stable for years. With low harvest and plenty of largemouth bass from 14-18 inches, it is a good destination.
There was a great gizzard shad spawn in 2014 which will produce enough forage to allow these predators to fatten up. Mike Burchett at Rockhouse Marina is an avid bass angler. He suggests that anglers cover a lot of water on the lower end of the lake throwing shad-colored jerkbaits and crankbaits in water less than 7 feet during late March and April. Claytor rarely gets stained or muddy but Burchett said the few times it does, anglers find phenomenal fishing with crayfish-colored baits. Stop by his marina to get the latest conditions. No bass under 12 inches may be creeled.
Steve Owens works the region for VDGIF and also suggested that South Holsten Reservoir at 7,580 acres in Washington County would be a great largemouth bass jaunt. The lake straddles the state line with Tennessee. The largemouth average size tends to be 3 to 5 pounds and the population is very stable.
There are plenty of threadfin shad, gizzard shad and alewives in the lake. Owens pointed out that unless you are targeting smallmouth, fish woody debris for largemouth. As in many spring fisheries, in this lake a jig worked around the structure, but near a drop off, is king for hooking fish. Remember that to fish the Tennessee side of the lake, anglers will need a South Holsten Reservoir Fishing License. ($21).
Northern Mountain Region
Paul Bugas works the region as one of VDGIF’s fisheries professionals. Bugas spent some time explaining the largemouth fisheries in his region to me. During our conversation Douthat Lake came up as a good location to catch largemouth.
Douthat Lake is one of the smaller lakes in the region at 50 acres but offers anglers a shot at a memorable bass. Since this lake is usually a trout fishing destination, more pressure is put on the trout by both humans and bass.
Largemouth that are big enough will feed on stocked trout. While the lake is not considered fertile or productive as some piedmont region lakes, the input of trout that sometimes provide additional forage for the largemouth helps. The steep-sided lake does offer potential spawning sites uplake where Wilson Creek feeds it and the bathymetry (underwater topography) is less steep.
Due to the location of the lake in the mountains, anglers won’t see largemouth move to spawn until mid to late April. Fallen log structure on the west side of the lake and in other areas would also be a good spot to fish for largemouth bass.
Large spinners or crankbaits in trout colors are likely to take the bigger fish. However, anglers will also catch largemouth on jig and plastic combinations in crayfish colors too. No bass under 12 inches may be creeled.
Lake Moomaw is regarded as a great fishery for many species, including largemouth bass. This Jackson River impoundment holds back 12 miles of water endless locations to catch bass along its 43 miles of shoreline.
Largemouth here typically range between between 12 to 18 inches. With plenty of alewives, gizzard shad, crayfish as well as minnows in the lake, the largemouth bass have much to feed on.
In late March anglers would do well to use jigs and deep-diving crankbaits to fish in water 5- to 10-feet deep. April is spawning time and the fish can be found where the Jackson River and Back Creek meet. The islands in the lake offer additional shallow-water habitat that is easier to fish than the deeper water.
Crayfish colored plastics and crankbaits are good starting points but alewife or shad colors are also very good. Look for crowns of trees that were dropped into the lake by the USFS and VDGIF as well as stumps for structure in these areas. No bass under 12 inches may be creeled at Moomaw.
Northern Piedmont Region
John Odenkirk, who works in the Fredericksburg office of VDGIF, reports that Hunting Run Reservoir in Spotsylvania County has come back on the radar for largemouth anglers. My experience at Hunting Run shows that there are plenty of smaller fish measuring less than 15 inches to be caught and they are a lot of fun to catch. New or young anglers can have a ball with the numbers of fish.
However, Hunting Run was off the charts with memorable largemouth bass, those over 20 inches, in VDGIF’s sampling recently. In fact, Odenkirk said they turned up a 25-inch fish there while sampling.
Anglers are going to find the bass hugging the edges of ledges and structure in mid-March when they are in prespawn. Fish the mid-lake to lower-lake areas, particularly around stick ups. There are some underwater islands that are good locations to fish too, so use a fish finder.
Odenkirk shared that he stocked shiners and threadfin to try to give the largemouth a boost in forage. Last year he put gizzard shad in there and he plans on another stocking of them. There is a 16- to 22-inch slot limit at Hunting Run. Only one fish over 22 inches may be creeled.
Lake Anna has been a very stable and consistent largemouth fishery for the past 10 years. It remains one of the region’s “go to” waters for anglers who want to catch good numbers of fish and still have a chance at quality largemouth bass.
With a harvest figure of less than 1 percent at the lake and a size structure that is well balanced, anglers cannot go wrong by spending time on the lake to learn where the bass are found.
Odenkirk told me that it is amazing to him as a fisheries professional how Anna continues to produce so well year after year. He suggests that in the spring anglers should head to the lower mid-lake or upper mid-lake sections in search of bass. Most fish average 2 to 2.25 pounds and measure approximately 16 inches. They feast on the schools of herring, threadfin and gizzard shad. Some white perch and bluegill are also forage.
Prespawn areas to fish include “The Splits” where water willow is starting to emerge. Before the water warms, anglers should try slowly retrieving spinnerbaits near the edges of this vegetation or even out on the edge of the channel.
This year looks to be a banner year for largemouth anglers across the state. We featured a few waters from each region but honestly there are more waters that were nearly as good. Send your hawg pics to the Camera Corner for consideration!