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Virginia's Smallmouth Bass Forecast

Virginia's Smallmouth Bass Forecast

Smallmouth bass have an almost mystical appeal to many Virginia anglers. Here's the latest on what's happening and how the fishing will be this year for Mr. Brown Bass. (Febraury 2006)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

In any given fishing forecast, inevitably, there is both good and bad news. Unfortunately, some major news on the Virginia smallmouth bass front last year was very much of the negative kind -- and it was news that will have repercussions this year and likely in the years to come. Once again, a fish kill rocked the Shenandoah and Potomac system -- likely killing over 80 percent of the adult smallmouth bass on the South Fork of the Shenandoah.

"The fish kill on the South Fork of the Shenandoah appears to be following the same pattern as the one we had on the North Fork of the Shenandoah in 2004 and that West Virginia experienced on the South Branch of the Potomac in 2002," said Don Kain, water monitoring and compliance manager for the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) office in Harrisburg. "In each case, low numbers of dead fish began appearing around early April. The situation continued for four to six weeks. Nearly all the dead fish had skin lesions and sores."

Many live fish have been observed with these same lesions, greater than 50 percent of the smallmouth bass and sunfish in some cases. Other species have been affected only in very low numbers, if at all.

"Even though only low numbers of dead fish have been seen at any place and at one point in time, the overall effect of this situation has been very significant," Kain said. "While we can't provide exact numbers, we probably lost over half of the adult smallmouth bass and sunfish during each episode. The fish kill seemed to end by mid-May on the North Fork in 2004. The kill in the South Fork seems to have persisted longer, possibly because of the extended cool spring weather."

Kain noted that these are not classic fish kills like those that occur from a spill, chemical release, or even low dissolved oxygen. Most fish kills from pollution events occur quickly and in a well-defined area. With a typical fish kill, there is generally an upstream zone with no problems, then a severe impact zone at the point of pollution, followed by a gradual recovery downstream. However, these fish kills have been river-wide. In the North Fork, the kill began upstream of Broadway and extended to beyond Strasburg. In the South Fork, there have been reports of dead fish from the head of the river at Port Republic to Front Royal and beyond.

Kain stated that the DEQ and Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) have responded to every report of dead fish, many times visiting the site and other locations upstream and downstream. They have periodically sampled fish to determine numbers and density of live fish and the percentage with lesions. A review of the ongoing water quality data (both current and historic) has taken place and nothing has been found that suggests a clear cause for these events.


The DEQ has also tried to determine what the kills on the South Branch and North and South Forks have in common.

"We have looked for common threads in these three fish kills," Kain said. "All three watersheds are highly agricultural, with poultry predominating. These rivers have relatively high levels of nutrients. Our water quality analyses do not show any recent trends that would correlate with the fish kills, however. In our ongoing North Fork Shenandoah River water quality study, we sample monthly at eight or nine sites. We also sample weekly at two of these sites in hopes of identifying any short-term variability that might not be detected in our monthly sampling."

Interestingly, Kain reported that the benthic data from the North Fork looked quite good through the fish kill and continues to do so. There were very strong insect hatches during the spring of 2005 on both the North and South Forks. Using the insects as water quality indicators does not suggest that the cause of the kill is water quality, Kain added.

"It is interesting to note that these fish kills occurred sequentially, rather than simultaneously, and that they have occurred only during the last four years," Kain continued. "One would expect that weather patterns, runoff, chemical use and timing, etc., would be very similar among the three watersheds and that flows and water quality variability would follow similar patterns in all three watersheds. The movement of the fish kill events from west to east over time follows a pattern one might expect from a disease that is carried by fish or another host as it spreads through a basin. Also, the fact that not all fish are dying at the same time suggests something other than a single water quality 'event.' The pathology reports to date have not demonstrated any disease or harmful parasite."

If there is a positive aspect, it is that we have seen a very strong year-class of smallmouth bass from the 2004 spawn. These young fish seem unaffected by the kill, are present in high numbers in both rivers, and seem to have excellent growth rates. Despite the fish kill, adequate brood-stock fish remain in the river.

"In a couple of years, barring a recurrence of this kill or other serious environmental event (such as drought or a major flood), the fishery may be very strong," Kain said.

DGIF district fisheries biologist Steve Reeser agrees with Kain's analysis and adds these comments.

"We continue to look at the similarities of the fish kills that occurred on the South Branch and the kills on the North Fork in 2004 and South Fork in 2005," he said. "We have had discussions with West Virginia DNR and Maryland biologists regarding these events and will continue. With the kill occurring in subsequent years and appearing to move south to east in the Potomac watershed, we wanted to investigate the possibility of a virus or other pathogen causing the kill. We have taken fish with lesions to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Fish Disease Lab in Pennsylvania to check for known fish viruses as well as other pathogens. I'm not sure when these results will be in."

He did say that they know the adult smallmouth bass and redbreast fisheries have been greatly reduced throughout the South Fork and mainstem Shenandoah. However, exactly how bad the situation is won't be known until more sampling is done, and that data compared with previous sampling.

"There was an excellent smallmouth year-class produced in 2004 and the young-of-year from it appear to be unaffected by this fish kill. We even saw this in the North Fork Shenandoah with the fish kill that claimed most of the adult smallmouths in that river. If we have a strong year-class produced in 2005, that will significantly help the recovery of the smallmouth fishery in the Shenandoah," Reeser said.

Catch rates of the 2004 fish should be high and these fish should be averaging 9 inches the summer of 2005. However, Reeser also pointed out that replacing the larger, older fish would take several years. With it taking six to eight years for a smallmouth to reach 14 inches in the Shenandoah system, rebuilding the population of quality-sized fish will take some time.


Dan Wilson is the DGIF biologist who keeps tabs on Philpott Lake and Smith Mountain.

"The last creel survey at Philpott was 1995," he said. "I would like to have another one, but the budget/part-time employee cuts have really limited creel surveys. We have been concentrating our creel time on waters where the most important management changes are occurring, such as the James River and the new slot limits."

Smith Mountain Lake has a 14-inch, two-fish regulation for black bass, meaning that only two of five bass creeled can be less than 14 inches. Wilson offers an interesting commentary on this regulation, which has been in effect a number of years.

"Black bass regulations on most large reservoirs in the Southeast are no longer necessary," he said. "Bass anglers who fish these reservoirs practice catch-and-release to the extent that harvest is no longer a limiting factor in the black bass populations. Release rates for bass at Smith Mountain Lake in 2003 were 91 percent, which is in the normal range for reservoirs. Most large reservoirs in the Southeast are in the mid-90 percent range. When the 14-inch, two-fish regulation was established, the release rates were much lower and the regulations had more of an impact. Over time, the regulation has probably become antiquated, but it would take a removal of the regulation to absolutely prove it. Since all the reservoirs on the Roanoke River have the same regulation and no one has really complained about it, we have just left it the way it is. The regulation is probably not helping or hurting the bass populations."

Because the regulation is probably not helping the bass population, the limit could conceivably be made more liberal. However, Wilson notes that the bass angler community sometimes perceives the removal or relaxing of such regulations indicate a lack of concern for bass populations, so any deregulation is often met with some hesitation. Bass anglers would rather have a strong fishery and tight regulations than a generous bag limit that leads to tougher fishing. Therefore, anglers would have to be assured that the current limit can change without hurting the fishery.

"We have discussed changing to state regulations or something similar on all these 14-inch, two-fish waters just to simplify the regulations since they probably are not contributing much anymore," Wilson said. "I do expect that the 14-inch, two-fish limit may be changed in the future."

Wilson added that bass regulations are still very effective in smaller reservoirs or lakes because of the limited number of fish available, the accessibility of these fish (harder to hide or escape a hook in only 100 acres of shallow water) and the more diverse group of anglers that fish these waters (a larger percentage of the anglers are harvest oriented).


DGIF biologist John Odenkirk is in charge of the Rappahannock and has some good news to report.

"Smallmouth anglers in northern Virginia will be thankful for the perfect environmental conditions of spring 2004 for years to come, as a record smallmouth bass year-class was produced," Odenkirk said. "Electrofishing catch rate of age-0 (young-of-year) smallmouth bass during fall samples was an astounding 43 per hour -- triple the average and the highest documented, by far, since record keeping began in 1995.

"These fish will show up most noticeably in creels beginning in spring, 2006. However, 2005 probably brought marginally fewer quality fish than 2004, as trophies from the excellent 1997 year-class continue to dwindle from the population. However, if the persistence of the 1997 class was any indicator, the 2004 year-class smallmouths should be with us for years to come. Average spawns through the late 1990s and early 2000s resulted in modest numbers and size structure during the past few years, but the near spawning failure of 2003 was likely fully felt in 2005. Forage increases because of shad migration above Embrey Dam should result in increased growth and higher biomass at upstream sites."

Embrey Dam, of course, was removed several years ago, and both the angling and paddling communities greeted its destruction with widespread approval.


In northwest Virginia lie two important smallmouth fisheries: Lake Moomaw and the Maury River. Biologist Paul Bugas monitors this duo.

"The smallmouth population at Lake Moomaw is outstanding," Bugas said. "Gill net sets for trout the winter of 2004-05 yielded large catches of quality smallmouths around Coles Point and Hughes Draft. Electrofishing in April produced numerous 13- to 19-inch smallies suspended along vertical structure in the lower lake. Later in spring, big females were captured and released in the riverine sections of the Jackson River and Back Creek. Reproduction is strong and growth remains good."

An angler survey will be conducted in 2006 to assess fishing pressure, catch rates and harvest from Lake Moomaw. If you think lake fishing for bronzebacks is fun, then this beautiful mountain lake should be highlighted on your list of places to visit.

"The Maury River continues to produce smallmouth bass like they are going out of style," Bugas said. "An angler survey was completed in 2004, and clerks saw many large smallmouths darting among the rocks in the clear water. Although big fish are available, Maury River is a small river with high reproduction and slow growth. The scenery and abundance of 8- to 10-inch smallmouths make this an ideal destination for kids or beginning anglers. Four stations, from Beans Bottom to Glasgow, are sampled by electrofishing annually. Catch rates for 2004 were comparable to 2003, which produced good numbers of bass."


Fisheries biologist Tom Hampton offers an overview of the smallmouth possibilities in far western Virginia.

"The North Fork Holston really shines for smallmouths from 16 to 18 inches," the DGIF biologist said. "There are some trophy fish available as well, but the proportion of fish from 16 to 18 inches is really impressive.

"The Clinch River has good numbers of smallmouths, with a chance for a trophy fish. The 2004 year-class was a good one, so anglers can anticipate great fishing a few years down the road. Laurel Bed Lake offers smallmouth fishing in a spectacular setting. Angler catch rates are excellent, and the size of fish improves each year. Fish in excess of 20 inches are possible."

The New River is arguably the best smallmouth bass fishery in Virginia, so, in the case of this article, the best has been saved for last. DGIF biologist John Copeland offers these thoughts.

"Below Claytor Lake, the best recent New River smallmouth bass spawns were in 1996, 1997, 1998 and 2004," Copeland said. "The 2004 year-class is the best spawn documented on the New River below Claytor Lake since 1996. These smallmouth bass were in the 5- to 7-inch size range in 2005, so anglers now should start catching them regularly. Anglers will have the opportunity to catch some trophy smallmouth bass from the 1996 spawn, a strong year-class that should have started producing fish over 20 inches in 2005."

He noted that during fall electrofishing for smallmouth bass in 2000, 2001, 2003 and 2004, DGIF fisheries biologists collected 2,375 smallmouth bass from 2 to 22 inches long. About 63 percent of these smallmouth bass were over 7 inches, which is the size when fisheries biologists consider them part of the fishable population. About 39 percent of the smallmouth bass over 7 inches in past samplings were over 11 inches, which is when fisheries biologists consider them quality size. About 15 percent of the smallmouth bass over 7 inches were over 14 inches, which is when fisheries biologists consider them preferred size.

"As you can see, smallmouth bass over 20 inches only accounted for about 1 percent of the smallmouth bass collected over 7 inches long during these years, so smallmouth bass over 20 inches are real trophies," Copeland said.

Interestingly, Copeland added that in the most recent angler survey, between 68 and 91 percent of anglers were targeting smallmouth bass, depending on which section of the river downstream from Claytor Lake was surveyed.

Editor's Note: Bruce Ingram is the author of the following books (cost in parentheses): The James River Guide ($15), The New River Guide ($15), 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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