Some of the best -- and most fun -- bass fishing of the year is about to start in Virginia. Here's a look at some of the best bass fisheries in the state.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
Although the drought in the late '90s and early part of this decade was tough on largemouth bass, the news has been great the past few years. Good recruitment in most impoundments and tidal rivers has led to an increase in catch rates and numbers of bass reaching the preferred size of greater than 15 inches.
Each region of the state has at least one fishery that stands out. Read ahead to find out which local waters get the nod this year from fisheries biologists.
The Tidewater region is an exciting place to live if you are a bass angler. There are numerous tidal rivers and tributaries that include productive largemouth habitat. In addition to tidal rivers, the region also boasts of several lakes and numerous ponds that offer excellent bass fishing.
Biologist Bob Greenlee spends many days on the waters of the tidal rivers sampling them to keep his pulse on the various fisheries that draw anglers from all over the state. Greenlee noted that the drought beginning some 10 years ago and ending five years ago put a stranglehold on the bass fishery. However, bass populations have rebounded rapidly since them.
"By 2006, tidal bass populations were so strong that in many rivers, including the tidal Chickahominy, electrofishing catch rates were higher than any previous survey year."
According to Greenlee, the Chick is seeing improvement in bass numbers because of good to excellent year-classes in 2004-2006. Anglers are already seeing the results, as those 2004 fish are now hitting 14 to 15 inches.
According to Greenlee's data, a 2-year-old bass on the Chick will measure 12 inches. Give it another year and a half and the fish hits the 15-inch mark. Some anglers who fish the tidal Chick and the James may hook up with a real river trophy weighing 5 to 7 pounds. These fish are the result of a great 1998 spawn. Greenlee also pointed out that angler catch rates nearly doubled between 2002 and 2005 on the Chick -- and set a new record.
There is suitable habitat throughout the Chickahominy River, but at times, the lower river is affected by a drought. As of press time, the 2007 summer was in a drought. Bass angling may be better upriver this season. Visiting anglers should try the winding tributaries that enter the river. The cypress trees, lily pads and numerous duck blinds provide great places to fish. There are a number of 3- to 5-pound fish in the river and fishing should continue to be good for the next several years.
On the James River, the biological situation is much the same. Fishing the main river is best above Hopewell and in the tributaries between the Appomattox River and Upper Chippokes Creek. There are a number of boat ramps to access both rivers. Most are private, but some public ramps do exist. Consult your GPS or a GMCO map to locate the one best for you.
The tidal Rappahannock has also rebounded quickly with good spawns in 2004 and 2005. Many of these fish are already between 12 and 14 inches. Angler catches support the biologists' findings, which showed record catch rates for the river.
According to Greenlee, the best showing they had of bass was when they sampled the river between Hicks Landing and Port Royal. There is good habitat for bass in the lower river near Leedstown, but anglers find it by venturing far into tidal creeks where salinity is lower.
While we were interviewing the fisheries team in the region, we also spoke to Scott Herrmann. Herrmann pointed out that Chickahominy Lake has turned out to be a great prospect for anglers over the past year with things looking to be at least as good for this year. He surveyed the lake last March and averaged 82.33 bass per hour. That is the highest catch rate VDGIF has had on the lake and that figure doubled the 2006 survey. After taking a closer look at the fish sampled, Herrmann found that he had an abundance of bass in the 2- to 4-pound range and some in the 4- to 5-pound range. His largest specimen weighed just less than 7 pounds and measured just shy of a citation length of 22 inches.
Anglers who fish the lake know that there are plenty of baitfish and bluegills for the bass to feed upon. The larger bass swipe a gizzard shad or herring when they feel the urge. Anglers who use artificial lures can mimic baitfish to improve their catches.
Herrmann had a few tips for visiting anglers.
"The action warms up quickly on the northern arms of Johnston and Lacey creeks. The majority of the bass we found were staging along the deeper edges of these creeks. It appears that the bass prefer to hold along the cypress trees instead of the shallow flats. The cypress trees provide better habitat for bass in terms of building a spawning nest. Chickahominy Lake has several small creek arms that will warm up fast during the early spring."
This is valuable information for anglers and will cut down on the time they spend casting and looking for fish. Herrmann also pointed out that the near future looks good for bass fishing at Chickahominy Lake. There are plenty of 10- to 14-inch fish that will move into the preferred catch size in the next year or so.
Bass fishermen should also be aware that the lock on Walker's Dam failed last spring. The lake at press time was subject to tidal fluctuations of a foot or so and is down 3 feet from full pool at low tide. Herrmann told us that Newport News has begun to repair the problem and with luck, the lake will be back to full pool by the time this issue goes to print.
When we traveled to the southern Piedmont, we had a number of lakes to choose from for our annual roundup. We first spoke to Dan Wilson, who works the western portion of the region. We asked about Smith Mountain Lake, as it is a popular destination for bass anglers. The mammoth 20,600-acre lake can be tough to fish because it is so clear, but there are great bass angling opportunities at the lake.
According to Wilson, the bass numbers at Smith Mountain have been increasing since 1994 and fishing was better this past season than the previous few years. Successful spawns in 2003 have contributed to a number of fish over 13 inches. Fishing pressure has dropped some at Smith Mountain, but that has been the case at other large reservoirs as well.
A look at the data from sampling at Smith Mountain shows a good size distribution of bass: 32.4 percent of the bass were between 8 and 1
3 inches, 35.7 percent were between 13 and 16 inches and 30.5 percent were between 16 and 19 inches.
Be sure to fish tributaries and coves for bass in the early spring. Boat docks in shallow water offer spawning areas for bass and can be fished effectively with accurate casts. Move quietly and slowly to avoid spooking bass.
Farther east, the bass angling tends to focus on three other reservoirs. Buggs Island is famous as a fishing destination and offers good bass angling. Vic Dicenzo is the fisheries biologist who is responsible for this wide swath of Virginia. Dicenzo is very enthusiastic about his work and has plenty of data about the top three lakes in his region.
At Buggs Island, the average size largemouth is a solid 14 inches, with a number of 3- to 5-pound fish. Buggs is 55 years old and has topped out as a bass fishery -- but it is incredibly stable. The catch rate for bass at Buggs is about one for every three hours of fishing. The bass at Buggs Island feed primarily on alewives and shad, so anglers should key lures in that coloration. Dicenzo offered a tip about Buggs that will be useful.
"Buggs is big enough that several tournaments may be occurring on any given day. Sometimes this overwhelms anglers and when they look at a map of the lake, they study it too much and spend so much time running all over. My advice is to pick a creek or a tributary, stick with it, and learn it. Then slowly add more water to your knowledge base."
Sandy River Reservoir is another great bass destination. Dicenzo's data shows that the average bass at Sandy River is 12 inches. There are a number of 3- to 5-pound bass and some that will even weigh in at 9 pounds. Sandy River is in the top 10 waters statewide for citation bass. This water is smaller (at 740 acres) and therefore easier to learn. Anglers find that the lack of dense cover when compared with Briery also helps in finding where the fish may be holding. During the summer, the catch rate at Sandy River is 1.25 fish per hour.
Anglers should be aware that on the first warm weekend in the spring, the ramp can get very crowded and the time necessary to launch and get to your spot can vary greatly. Keep this in mind when heading to this young reservoir. Fishing is better on overcast weekdays when fewer people are using the impoundment.
In a previous issue, we featured Briery Creek Lake. This 845-acre lake is well known and has leveled out in terms of the fishery. However, the lake is still much better for bass fishing than most of the lakes in the state. The abundance of cover can make it tough to fish, but there are plenty of fish to be had. The bass at Briery average 14 to 15 inches and may weigh up to 12 pounds. There is a slot limit of 14 to 24 inches. Only one fish may be creeled over 24 inches. The creel data shows that the catch rate is one bass per hour during the summer. During the spring, the lake gets very crowded, as anglers are seeking that lifetime trophy.
In the Southern Mountain Region, the best destination for bass anglers is likely Claytor Lake. This 4,475-acre impoundment of the New River looks more like a river than a lake but offers great fishing for three species of bass. Largemouth bass in the 2- to 4-pound range are common, but some bass weighing 8 pounds are around, waiting to be caught. There are smallmouth bass averaging 2 pounds and spotted bass averaging 1 pound that are caught with regularity. Fifty-eight percent of anglers fish for bass at the lake. A combined creel limit of five bass can be taken home.
With the habitat being shared by three species of black bass, the largemouth fishing can be a bit tougher than it might otherwise be. Biologists' reports, however, show that the largemouth population is increasing. One of every three bass caught will be a largemouth.
The coves of the lake are by far the best places to cast for them. Peak Creek, Clapboard Hollow, Spooky Hollow and Texas Hollow are popular places to fish. Lures that imitate fish such as alewives and sunfish are the best baits for largemouths at Claytor.
here are numerous ramps and access points at Claytor Lake to include the state park on the north side of the lake. Call (540) 643-2500 for information.
There are two destinations for bass anglers that we want to profile this year in this rugged region. Lake Moomaw is a great destination for anglers and offers both smallmouth and largemouth bass.
Paul Bugas, fisheries biologist for the region, reported that smallmouth sampling was above average and average for largemouths this past spring. Bugas told us that the average largemouth caught is 12 inches. Fishing the shallows in coves and along the shoreline is the most productive way to catch bass during the spring. Once the summer heat hits, anglers do well fishing on structure in water as deep as 25 feet. Another good place to fish is around the islands near Greenwood Point in the midlake area or on the flats. A day's catch of 20 bass is not out of the ordinary.
We also spoke to Steve Reeser, who works in the northern portion of the region. Reeser gave a nod to a small sleeper water called Lake Laura, which is privately owned but managed by VDGIF and open to the public. This 44-acre lake is not known for numbers of trophy bass, but there is a very dense population of 12-inch bass there. This lake is a great place for a parent to take a young person to learn how to bass fish and be able to take some fish home to eat at the end of the trip. By harvesting some bass from the lake, anglers will help the population grow a bit and free up resources. The water is clear at Laura and there is some vegetation present at the upper end of the lake. There is a slot limit on bass 12 to 15 inches.
The Northern Piedmont added a real gem to its lineup this past fall. Hunting Run Reservoir in Spotsylvania County just off Ely's Ford Road is a 455-acre impoundment that was stocked in 2003. Biologists' reports place Hunting Run in second place in the entire region in terms of preferred size bass. There are a solid number of 15-inch fish at Hunting Run, but some fish up to 7 pounds have been sampled, too. The theory is that several farm ponds were flooded when the lake was created and the bass in those ponds had a completely new habitat to move into.
Anglers can launch small boats and canoes now at the primitive ramp off Ely's Ford Road. A concession and other amenities will be built within the next year with a good ramp for larger boats. A county permit and a state fishing license are needed to fish the lake.
The lake is steep sided in some places but has coves with shallow water.
Steve Owens, fisheries biologist who helped stock and now manages the lake, told us that the builders put in some nice brushpiles that hold very respectable fish. Use a fish finder to locate these structures and fish them slowly.
Owens also pointed out that Hunting Run is a destination that anglers will want to fish for quite some time.
"Hunting Run is new and catch rates are high. We expect the fishi
ng at Hunting Run to be great for the next 10 years before it levels out."
Bass anglers have much to be excited about this season. Everywhere we looked the outlook was good. Be sure to fish some of the smaller lakes and ponds near your home as well as the ones we featured here. Good fishing!