May 23, 2017
By Bruce Ingram
Bass-muskie trips on the New and James rivers in Virginia can bring the thrill of catching jumbo smallies and muskies. Experience both rivers for yourself right now.
I've fished the entire lengths of the New and the non-tidal James and also have plied both waterways since the 1960s. Arguably, these are the two best combination smallmouth and muskie streams in the entire state — and perhaps in the entire Mid-Atlantic region.
Hoping to catch a muskie while smallmouth fishing, though, is not apt to result in success. Over the decades, I've landed a grand total of three muskies, two from the James and one from the New, while focused on smallmouth. Fortunately, experts exist on how and where to go to do so. On your next river float trip, you can come prepared to catch both smallmouth and muskies.
EXPERT ADVICE FROM GUIDES
Ken Trail operates Rock On Charters and Britt Stoudenmire runs the New River Outdoor Company and the Southern Muskie Guide Service. They offer these perspectives and tips for summer smallmouth and muskies.
"Last year, the smallmouth fishing on the upper James was incredible," said Trail. "My clients and I experienced our best bass fishing in many years. We caught a lot of fish in the 14- to 18-inch range with a few 19- and 20-inch fish. What's so exciting to me is that a lot of those fish around 16 inches that we caught last year, are going to be pushing 20 inches and beyond this year and in 2018."
Trail enthuses that the muskie action was just as sublime. In 2016, one of Trail's clients landed a 49 1/2-inch muskie, and the year before, a customer outdueled a brute that went 51 1/2 inches. He reveals that an average fish runs around 34 inches, and many eclipse 40 inches. For bass, the guide employs topwaters such as buzzbaits, Rebel Pop-Rs, and Whopper Ploppers.
Soft plastic baits will work in the summer, says Trail, but often the daily topwater bite will produce the best action of the day.
For muskie, Trail opts for an artificial created by Anthony Ashby (the Hot Tail Glider) and another one by Eric Eversole (Pond Fork Inline Blades). Also quite effective is a Cowgirl Muskie Mayhem.
Interestingly, Trail says in the summer, smallmouths and muskies will often inhabit the same general areas, although infrequently in close proximity.
On the James, that often means that the bronzebacks will hold in eddies and slicks/runs below rapids while the muskies will congregate further from the main current and around water willow beds and wood cover. However, sometimes these members of the pike family will situate close to well-aerated water, just like smallies.
Trail agrees with biologist Williams on the fragile nature of muskies, and the guide confirms that because of that fact, he will not target them in July and August.
There are 10 float trips from Iron Gate to Snowden, and the guide emphasizes that all of them possess the potential to produce both species in size and quality. The Springwood to Buchanan (4 miles) junket is perhaps the best-known muskie hot spot on the upper James. Below Snowden, three of the least known muskie getaways are Bedford Dam to Bedford Dam (float fishermen paddle a mile upstream then drift back), Bedford Dam to Hunting Creek (3 miles), and Reed Island Creek to Big Island Dam and Back (3/4 mile up and 3/4 mile back).
Britt Stoudenmire specializes in helping his clients catch trophies as well.
"On the James during the month of June, muskie are typically post-spawn and will have moved into areas with deeper holding water (that has) faster, feeding waters nearby," he said. "Topwater plugs are an absolute favorite of mine when fish are shallow and feeding. Tailbaits such as Dahlberg's Whopper Plopper, Bucher's Top Raider, or Sennett's Pacemaker are several of my favorites. Vary the retrieves between slow and fast and make sure to figure-8 these plugs, particularly during the nighttime hours."
NEW SMALLIES AND MUSKIES
Ten trips exist on the lower New from Claytor Lake Dam to Glen Lyn, and all of them offer the potential to catch trophy smallmouths and muskiess.
Whitethorne to McCoy Falls (7 miles) probably holds the reputation as the best muskie excursion, but Claytor Lake Dam to Bissett Park (5 miles) and Bissett Park to Peppers Ferry Bridge (6 miles) have their fans as well. Stoudenmire offers these tips.
"Smallmouths will begin feeding heavily in the month of June, moving from spawning flats to more traditional summer waters with current nearby," he said. "One tactic that has proven to be a winner for me over the years is a lightly weighted tube jigwith a 3 1/2-inch profile and weighted with a custom 1/8-ounce round head insert. I like to cast the tubes slightly upstream and let the current roll them downstream for a very natural and subtle presentation. This tactic is especially beneficial when the water is low and clear."
SUPPLIES AND FLIES FOR MUSKIES
In Waynesboro, Tommy Lawhorne and Kevin Little operate the South River Fly Shop, which carries an array of muskie fly fishing supplies.
"We have rods from Redington and Mystic, lines from Airflo and Rio, Froghair Fluorocarbon leader material (44lb, 60lb, and 80lb), flies and the largest inventory of fly tying materials for muskie flies in the area," said Lawhorne.
For flies, Britt Stoudenmire recommends these.
"I had the pleasure of fishing with river guide Brad Bohen several years ago in the beautiful North Woods of Wisconsin and he introduced to me to several of his flies that have proven to be winners here in Virginia," he said. "The Single and Double Buford and the Single and Double Hangtime Optic are two of my favorites."
— Bruce Ingram
The guide says that when the water is higher and more colored, a brightly hued crankbait like a Bandit 100, 200, or 300 series can be a game changer and is likely to attract larger fish. If the grass on the bottom of the river has not materialized, Britt likes to work the crankbait right across the bottom, ticking the tops of rocks. Most hits by big fish simply stop the bait as in a spongy feel that starts to move slowly. Make sure to swing the rod at the same angle as you are retrieving for a more reliable hookset and keep the rod pointed downward to keep the fish from jumping.
"I have seen many clients over the years loose gigantic fish because they pull straight up on these fish before they really have one hooked well," said Stoudenmire.
For muskies now, the guide prefers inline spinners such as Llungen Lures' LT-9, particularly in clear water. If the river is up and has more color, the choice is a Llungen Lures' DC-9 or DC-10.
"Put these inlines in over drive and you'll see your hookups increase and lazy follows decrease," said Stoudenmire.
Tackle Tips For Muskie Fishing
Joe Williams not only manages the New's muskie fishery, he also avidly pursues this gamefish. New in 2017 on the river from Claytor Lake Dam to the West Virginia state line is that from June 1 to the last day of February, no muskie 40 to 48 inches can be kept. From March 1 through May 31, no muskie less than 48 inches can be creeled. Throughout the year and on both the lower and upper New, the limit remains one per day. On the upper river, from Fields Dam to Claytor Lake Dam and including the lake, no muskie less than 42 inches can be kept. "On the lower New, there has been some stockpiling of muskies under 42 inches and the relative weights of these fish have gone down," explained Williams. "We don't want a lot of these fish taken out, but the removal of a few could help the fishery."
To qualify for a citation, a muskie must measure 40 inches or weigh 15 pounds. Williams says that statistically, 51 percent of citations over 45 inches are being harvested. Generally, the best time to catch these bruisers, the biologist continues, is in January and February when these fish often congregate in their wintering holes such as long deep pools with lots of rock and wood cover. That plus the fact that hardcore muskie fishermen have little competition then for the best pools.
Interestingly, given the muskie's reputation as a barroom brawler type of gamefish, Joe says that the muskie is not a hardy species, especially in the summer and especially if not treated with care and quickly released.
A major point that Williams wants to stress is that the muskellunge is not negatively impacting the smallmouth fishery. Biologist Dan Goetz, who monitors muskies on the James, agrees.
"Virginia Tech has done two studies on the New River and found consumption of smallmouth to be less than three percent [by weight]," says Goetz. "We collected stomach samples on the James in 2014 and found zero smallmouths in muskellunge stomachs. They mostly eat minnows, sunfish, shad, and suckers. Now, yes a muskellunge will eat a smallmouth because they're opportunists and especially if an angler is reeling [a bass] in because it's going to look like it's in distress.
"But there are not enough muskies in the river to have an impact on the smallmouth population even if fishermen targeted them more frequently. So I believe anglers' stories of muskies eating the smallmouth off of their line, but it's like feeding a steak to your pet dog. You wouldn't normally give Rover a T-bone, but if you leave it on your plate he's probably going to snatch it when you're not looking."
Goetz adds that smallmouth population size is determined by year class strength. In order to have a large population of smallmouth bass, one or two good spawns need to occur every five years. Year class strength is determined by how much water is flowing through the river during the smallmouth spawning period. Poor year class survival happens when water levels are either really low or high during the month of June, which is when smallies typically spawn.
In-Line Spinners for Smallies
Years when James water levels are "normal" in June (for example in 2007, 2014, and 2015) the river experienced unusually strong classes of smallmouth. Unfortunately, from 2000 until 2013, the James only had one good spawning year, Goetz says. During that time the muskie population exploded. So it's easy to see why anglers think muskies are eating the smallmouths.
"The smallmouth fishery on the James is probably at one of the highest levels it's been in 20 years and should continue to increase for the next five to six years," said Goetz. "There is about a two-to-three-year lag from year class strength and its effect on the adult population. For example, if the adult population is low but they had a good spawn, it will take two to three years until those fish grow into the fishery and anglers notice their presence.
"To the contrary, if the adult smallmouth population is currently large, but fish haven't had a good spawn in five years, then their abundance will start declining quickly because there aren't many young fish growing into the fishery to resupply the adults. In a nutshell, the smallmouth population is highly variable and is driven by river flows and its effect on spawning success, not muskellunge predation."
Goetz says the muskie fishery is self-sustaining, and the DGIF stopped stocking the species in 2010 and has documented natural reproduction in the river every year since. Meanwhile, the adult population size has continued to increase. In fact, the muskellunge population has been exponentially increasing since 2000. The relative abundance (how many fish are collected from one hour of electrofishing) has nearly quadrupled from less than one fish per hour in 2000 to almost four fish per hour.
The biologist anticipates the population size will level off in the next few years. The average catchable size fish is 36 inches, but fish between 30 and 44 inches are fairly common. The largest fish collected was 49 inches and Goetz has heard of anglers catching fish over 50 inches. The range is from Lynchburg up into the Jackson and Cowpasture rivers, the streams that comingle at Iron Gate to form the James.
Finally, the DGIF has three years' worth of age and growth data and currently has two tagging studies occurring. One is a mark/recapture study which will eventually provide information on population size, mortality estimates, and movement. The second is an angler reward tagging study. The department has tagged about 200 muskies this past year and if anglers catch one, they are to return the tag to a DGIF office for a $20 reward. This study will enable biologists to estimate harvest rates (how many muskies are being kept), angler catch rates (what percent of the population is caught annually), and locations on the river where fishing pressure is heaviest.
The thrill of catching jumbo smallies and muskies is very much a part of the New and James these days. Experience both rivers for yourself right now.
Editor's Note: Author Bruce Ingram has written books on fishing both the James and New. For more information, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.