The fish kills on the Shenandoah and James watersheds have dominated the news in the last few years. But are better days ahead? (February 2010)
After having to lead with reports about fish kills the past few years for this magazine's annual state of the smallmouth story, I am glad not to have to do so this year. That's not to say by any means that the James and Shenandoah watersheds don't have serious issues. But let's start out this year with the fishery that is, right now, arguably the best smallmouth river in the South.
VDGIF fisheries biologist John Copeland lifts a fine smallmouth bass taken from the New River above Claytor Lake.
Photo by Bruce Ingram.
The New River
Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) biologist John Copeland says that anglers visiting the New River below Claytor Lake should catch plenty of smallies this year.
"The 2004 and 2005 smallmouth bass spawns were the best spawns since 1996, and the 2007 smallmouth bass spawn was above average," he said. "With these spawns contributing to angler catches now and the potential for these fish to be future trophies, the outlook for New River smallmouth bass fishing is bright. The large spawns of 2004 and 2005 were reflected in electrofishing samples in fall 2008, with 84 percent of the adult (over 7 inches long) smallmouth bass catch consisting of bass between 7 and 14 inches.
"About 15 percent of the adult smallmouth bass collected in fall 2008 electrofishing were in the 14- to 20-inch range, so anglers will find good numbers of smallmouth bass within the current restricted slot limit. The New River offers the potential for trophy smallmouth bass fishing, with smallmouth bass from the above-average spawns of 1996 and 1997 now over 20 inches long. Top locations for smallmouth bass include the Radford to McCoy Falls section of Montgomery County and the Pembroke to Pearisburg section of Giles County."
Copeland does fall sampling, so he does not at press time know the final results from that effort; thus, there is no word on the 2009 year-class. However, based on data from all of Copeland's sampling sites, the 2008 year-class of smallmouths in this section of the New was below the long-term average. With that said, at some of his sampling sites the biologist had above-average catches. Sites that stand out in this regard were Whitethorne and Rich Creek, so these areas should provide good catches of smallmouth bass in the 8- to 10-inch size range in 2010.
Previous sampling, adds Copeland, show that the Montgomery County section of the New River has the highest densities of smallmouth bass in the New River, followed by the upper Giles County area (Eggleston to Pearisburg). Smallmouth bass densities in the lower Giles County area (Narrows to the West Virginia state line) are lower than in other areas of the New River downstream from Claytor Lake, but are still higher than smallmouth bass densities upstream from Claytor Lake. The differences in smallmouth bass populations upstream and downstream from Claytor are likely because of a combination of factors, including the larger size of the river downstream, but could also be caused by lower river temperatures downstream from Claytor Dam because of the deep-water discharge.
Claytor And Other Lakes
Just as the New is the top smallmouth river in the state and quite possibly the South, Claytor Lake, the major impoundment on the waterway, is also performing well.
"The smallmouth bass population in Claytor Lake is strong, with the best sizes and numbers found on the main lake area from Peak Creek to Claytor Dam," said Copeland. "During electrofishing in a number of areas from Claytor Lake State Park to Claytor Dam this past spring, 45 percent of the adult smallmouth bass we collected were over the preferred size of 14 inches, 12 percent were over the memorable size of 17 inches, and 3 percent were over the trophy size of 20 inches."
Copeland reveals that this is a considerable improvement over the results from these same areas in spring 2007, when staff collected 15 percent over 14 inches, 6 percent over 17 inches, and only 1 percent over 20 inches. Right now, the size ranges of smallmouth bass in Claytor Lake are as good as most areas in the New River downstream.
However, keep in mind, continues the biologist, that the overall numbers of smallmouth bass in Claytor Lake are lower, since they compete for food and space with largemouth and spotted bass. In the New River, smallmouth bass are the primary bass species, so their numbers are higher than in Claytor Lake.
VDGIF biologist Dan Wilson says that in recent samplings on Philpott and Smith Mountain, he just does not find enough smallmouths to make any inferences about their populations. Bronzebacks dwell in the lakes and anglers catch them, of course, but often smallmouths in deep water are difficult to sample accurately with electroshock equipment.
John Odenkirk is the VDGIF biologist for the Rappahannock River, and he has both good and bad news regarding recent spawns.
"The Rappahannock system, including the Rapidan, had a poor spawn in 2008, and based on the month of rain in June (2009) I will predict an even worse year-class for 2009," he said. "However; all is not lost, as we had either excellent or average spawns for the four-year period from 2004 through 2007. Thus, fishing should still be relatively good for the next year or so, especially for larger fish until the whole of the 2008/2009 missed spawns shows up in a few years.
"We had been anticipating something like this and have been experimentally stocking smallmouth bass at several sites along the river, but it is still unclear how successful these stockings have been. We have recently seen some limited success with the collection of marked age 2 fish, and it is unclear if the hatchery fish recruit to our survey methods during the first year or years."
Odenkirk notes that it will probably take another year or two to better understand the impact of stocked fish on the wild population. Overall, abundance was down in fall 2008 because of the poor 2008 year-class, but size structure was excellent. The VDGIF recorded numbers of fish in the 14-inch-plus and 17-inch-plus size categories. Also, early indications are that growth has improved significantly since the department last checked, before Embrey Dam's demise. This, says the biologist, is very encouraging.
On a side note, concludes the biologist, since Lake Thompson accidentally drained (and subsequently refilled), northern Virginia anglers have lost a trophy smallmouth resource. The department plans to restock with smallmouths in the near future.
Herschel Finch, conservation director for the Potomac River Smallmouth Club (PRSC), says that one of the most positive upcoming developments in this fishery is that plans exist to remove the dam at Riverton on the North Fork of the Shenandoah. That would mean that float-fishermen could paddle from Woodstock to the Warren Dam, except for the Winchester water uptake dam, which does have a canoe chute/fish passage.
On the South Fork of the Shenandoah, he and other PRSC members have experienced fishing that rivaled what existed before the fish kills in the early to middle part of this decade. Many fish are in the 13- to 15-inch range and some smallies are now approaching the trophy range. Part of the reason for the improved fishing is excellent spawns in 2003 and 2004.
At press time, the PRSC had not observed any signs of wholesale die-offs on the South Fork. However, given the high, stained water that existed during the spring and early summer, dead fish would have been hard to see.
"Reports that I've had from folks fishing the North Fork of the Shenandoah are not so good," adds Finch. "The North Fork still seems to be having a moribund recovery. People are catching more fish than they were in 2003 and 2004, but those fish are still smaller. I received reports where half the fish caught showed evidence of lesions.
"The fish we're catching on the South Fork are by and large healthy looking and have no lesions. But as May wore on into June, more and more fish started to show irritation at the base of dorsal fins, on gill plates and a handful of them sported lesions. But not like in years past. I also have seen healed lesions on the larger fish, 17 inches plus. So obviously an otherwise healthy fish can recover from the lesions."
At this point, Finch is guardedly optimistic that the Shenandoah is on the road to recovery. And with the pending change in regulations under consideration by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality governing the "end-user" of chicken litter as fertilizer, Finch hopes that the Shenandoah will have a chance to complete its recovery and again become a world-class smallmouth fishery.
VDGIF fisheries biologist Steve Reeser reports that his Verona office has received a few good fishing reports from the North Fork of the Shenandoah. Also, while checking on the North Fork in 2009, the biologist says that it appears that the fish population looks much improved over previous years.
"The trends for both the South Fork and Main stem are similar," added Reeser. "The electrofishing catch rate for smallmouth bass greater than 11 inches and greater than 14 inches was the highest in the past 12 years on the Shenandoah. Electrofishing catch rates of smallmouths greater than 16 inches were the highest since 2004.
"Spawning success was excellent from 2004 through 2007, with 2004 and 2007 being outstanding years, and many of the quality-sized fish come from these two year-classes. Spawning success was extremely poor in 2008 due to water levels, and I predict that 2009 might not be much better."
Reeser relates that from the 2008 angler creel survey data on the South Fork of the Shenandoah, the angler catch rate for smallmouths shows an average of 4.14 fish per hour and on the Main Stem, the rate is 2.04 smallmouths per hour. The biologists ranks these percentages as "outstanding," especially as compared with the 1997 creel survey rates of 1.6 fish per hour on the South Fork and 1.0 on the Main Stem. Again, Reeser credits the successful spawns from recent years. The biologist also offers some interesting statistical data.
"Twenty-five percent of the smallmouths caught on the Shenandoah were between 11 and 14 inches," he says. "Anglers practiced almost 100 percent catch-and-release for smallmouths in the Shenandoah during the 2008 survey that ran from April through September. Seventy-five percent of anglers interviewed on the South Fork and 88 percent of the anglers interviewed on the Main Shenandoah were satisfied with the fishing."
Additionally, 75 percent of the anglers fishing the South Fork and 83 percent of the anglers fishing the Main Stem said that the number of times they fish the river annually has not decreased in the past few years.
"This is an indication to me that fishing pressure has not been affected by the fish kills," concluded Reeser. "The design of the 2008 survey was different from surveys that were conducted in 2005, 1997 or even the 1980s, so I cannot determine if overall fishing pressure has changed on the Shenandoah."
Maryland DNR fisheries biologist John Mullican relates that the 2009 spawn in the Potomac was a failure because of high water. But Mullican is not aware of any recent fish kills on the Potomac and says good numbers of 12-inch-plus smallmouths now fin the river. In fact, because of good recent year-classes, some high-quality angling for larger fish is on the horizon.
Tom Hampton, VDGIF biologist for the far western reaches of the Commonwealth, asserts that for the North Fork Holston River, the smallmouth population is stable. Catch rates are very consistent and good numbers of fish between 14 and 18 inches, with a fair number of fish reaching 20 inches, exist. The spawns of 2007 and 2008 were good.
"For the Clinch River, overall catch rates were down a little in 2008," said Hampton. "Recent spawns have been good, so there are lots of small fish. Catch rates for fish over 14 inches are consistent. There are fewer fish in the 8- to 12-inch range, probably due to poor spawning success three or four years ago.
"South Holston Reservoir continues to produce trophy smallmouths. The 2009 sample was one of the better collections in recent years. The lake reached full pool earlier than normal in 2009, so the spawn should have been a good one. Smallmouths up to 6 pounds were collected in 2009."
VDGIF fisheries biologist Scott Smith reports that on the upper James, smallmouth numbers were down a little in 2008, but not out of the normal range. This was mostly a reflection of relatively poor spawning success that year because of low water levels, as much of the Old Dominion suffered from drought. The number of smallmouths over 14 inches was down a little bit in 2008, but overall trends for fish of this size show a moderate increase since about 1999 and 2000.
Smith adds that smallmouth spawning success was very good in 2004 and 2007 and "average-poor" in the other years since 2003. Thus, there should be decent number of 6-year-olds and good numbers of 3-year-olds in 2010.
"A good spawning year will support the fishery for four to five years, so we should be OK for the next year or so," said the biologist. "The 2009 spawning success is expected to be poor -- too much water, for a change."
Of course, the biggest concern for James River smallmouth fans is whether any fish kills struck the upper river as they did in 2007 and 2008. The part of the stream in Botetourt and Rockbridge counties was especially hard hit those years.
"Fish kills in 2009 were present in the James, but not as severe, we think, as in 2007 and 2008," said Smith. "It's a little tough to tell, because the water was so high. Very few people were on the river (in the spring) to observe dead fish, and we had trouble sampling with our gear due to the high and muddy water. In general, it looks like fewer fish had symptoms in 2009 than in the previous two years, so we are assuming the kill was considerably less severe."
On the middle river, VDGIF biologist Dan Michaelson relates that in the 2008 electro-shocking, five sites were sampled from Wingina to Bremo. Smallmouth bass density declined on this stretch compared with the 2007 survey. This could be because 2007 featured a very strong year-class, while the 2008 one was only average.
Conservation Groups At Work
Many conservation groups are at work to improve habitat along our bodies of water. One such organization is the National Committee for the New River (NCNR) whose executive director is George Santucci. He emphasizes that the NCNR has accomplished a great deal recently.
- '‚Helped place a conservation easement on a 570-acre tract in the Bridle Creek/Cox Chapel area -- a locale that would have been turned into a state prison on the New.
- '‚Helped place a conservation easement on 156 acres on Little Stony Creek in Giles County -- an important tributary of the New.
- '‚Working to move the Giles County fly ash dump site, which lies in the 100-year floodplain.
- '‚Worked to stabilize 69 miles of banks on the New and tributaries in North Carolina -- which has obvious benefits to the Virginia section of the New.
- '‚Continued monitoring efforts on the New throughout its length. Have volunteer water quality monitors spread throughout the New River watershed that test for dissolved oxygen, Ph, temperature, turbidity and E.coli bacteria.
- '‚Conducted cleanups throughout the New River Watershed Worked with groups such as the New River Watershed Roundtable, ReNew the New, Virginia Tech and Radford Universities, as well as civic groups like the Boy Scouts and church ones.
For more information or to make a donation, conduct the organization at www.ncnr.org.
Editor's Note: Bruce Ingram is the author of the following books (cost in parentheses): The James River Guide ($17.25), The New River Guide ($18.25), Shenandoah/Rappahannock Rivers Guide ($18.25), and his new book, Fly and Spin Fishing for River Smallmouths ($19.25). To purchase one, send a check to Ingram at P.O. Box 429, Fincastle, VA 24090.