Some of the best and most fun bass fishing of the year is about to crank up. Here's a look at what the top fisheries in the state have in store for anglers.
The author likes to fish pre-spawn bass in places like Briery Creek, Occoquan and other reservoirs full of cover like the standing timber here. Photo courtesy of Mark Fike.
In our chats with fisheries biologists all over the state, it soon became evident that largemouth fishing is good within a reasonable drive of just about any town. The fairly stable weather patterns we have experienced in most parts of Virginia the last five years or so in terms of rain and temperatures have allowed the bass populations to have at least average reproductive success and, in some cases, better than average success.
In each region, we have highlighted some very good bass fisheries. But keep in mind that our focus is largely on public waters and typically large fisheries. According to the biologists on the water sampling the bass populations, there are a number of other good opportunities in the form of small waters that may be just as good if not better than the larger well-known impoundments. If you know of a small pond or lake nearby, give it a shot. You might find that the money you save on gas can be put toward a taxidermy bill!
In the Tidewater Region, anglers find an assortment of great bass angling opportunities in both rivers and impoundments. We hit both on the recommendation of the fisheries biologists who work the region.
Bob Greenlee, fisheries biologist for VDGIF for the northern portion of the region, gave the nod to the tidal Chickahominy as his choice for a bass-angling expedition. He also suggested other tidal tributaries of the James River, including Herring Creek. Anglers are finding better aquatic vegetation growth on the river now, which equates to better largemouth habitat.
The Chickahominy has always been a popular bass fishery, but anglers noticed a serious decline in the fishery in the late 1990s, which coincided with a severe drought lasting several years. Once the drought broke in the fall of 2002, the fishery rebounded. By the time biologists did the 2006 electrofishing survey, they had record-breaking numbers of bass charted. Some of the rebound can be attributed to supplemental stocking of largemouth bass. Ongoing research is gathering data on the long-term survival of these fish.
Natural recruitment of bass during the last few years has been very good -- and 2005 was exceptional -- and anglers are already seeing that year-class at the ends of their lines. There are a number of bass in the 3-pound range and even some fish up to 7 pounds being caught. Herring Creek has become locally notorious for producing fish over 3 pounds.
First-time visitors will find that the river is only hard to fish because there are so many places that hold bass. On calm, sunny, early-spring days, anglers might look for shallow mudflats because there the water warms more quickly. Once the spawn concludes, look for bass near channels in conjunction with structure such as cypress trees, duck blinds or blowdowns.
To fish this river effectively, an angler will need a tournament-sized bass boat to keep in position during a moving tide or a large johnboat with a motor to run from location to location. Greenlee expects the fishery to remain in good shape for at least the next few years because of the recent successful spawns.
With respect to fisheries farther south in the region, VDGIF fisheries biologist Chad Boyce said that Lake Cohoon (510 acres), a tributary of the Nansemond River in Suffolk, is his choice of a bass-fishing destination for the season. The lake has produced a huge bucketmouth that weighed over 11 pounds! Bass find plenty of sunfish, gizzard shad, alewives, blueback herring and crayfish to fatten on in the lake.
As of press time, there were five citations registered from the lake for 2008, with more to likely be entered.
Boyce said, "Cohoon can be characterized as having waters that are slightly stained from tannins and tends to look like a old millpond, with the cypress trees scattered throughout the lake, especially in the upper reaches. Cohoon is known for its spring black crappie fishery, summer bluegill and redear fishing, and chain pickerel, but the lake also has produced many nice-sized bass."
Boyce told us that the latest sampling indicates that the average size bass is 12 to 14 inches, but there are plenty of 17- to 20-inch fish in the lake. They sampled one bass within the last year that weighed over 8.5 pounds and stretched more than 22.5 inches.
Anglers using johnboats of at least 14 feet find them perfect to fish the water. Boyce reminded us that outboards up to 9.9 horsepower are permitted on the lake as well.
Anglers wanting to contact the local bait shop for up-to-date fishing conditions may call (757) 539-6216.
SOUTHERN PIEDMONT REGION
The Southern Piedmont Region is awash in good bass destinations, and it is always a tough job to choose just one or two waters to profile.
VDGIF fisheries biologist Dan Wilson manages Smith Mountain Lake. He had plenty of interesting material to share with us about Smith Mountain. During the late '90s until 2003, the population of bass in the lake was declining. At that time, the forage shifted from threadfin shad, which suffered a die-off because of a cold snap, to alewives, which tend to be found in deeper water where bass can find them during the summer. The reproductive success of largemouth bass since that time has been good, and during 2003, the spawn was outstanding. That one outstanding year is showing up at the end of bass anglers' lines in the form of 5-year-old fish measuring 13 to 17 inches.
Wilson said that the lower end of the lake is easier to fish because the upper end tends to have less oxygen available for fish during the summer when algae blooms. Anglers will find that fishing the lower end of the lake during the summer at 20 to 25 feet is the ticket most days. In the early spring, anglers will find them on the banks in shallow water spawning.
We could not complete the roundup on this region without mentioning Briery Creek Lake. This 845-acre lake in Prince Edward County has been on the national radar for its trophy bass fishery for more than a few years. The bass fishery at the lake thrives because of strict regulations and plenty of great habitat in the form of standing timber and vegetation. It can be a tough place to fish because of the quantity of standing trees.
Successful anglers find that pre-spawn bass are best caught with live bait or jigs. Once the bass begi
n to stage and spawn, they move shallow, where they are more susceptible to soft-plastic baits, which are often best cast from a distance to avoid spooking the fish.
We spoke with Vic DiCenzo, VDGIF fisheries biologist for the district. He pointed out that the fishing pressure at Briery, due to its notoriety, is high. He suggests that anglers try the middle of the week or during rainy days to avoid the crowds.
Anglers that hit the water at Briery can expect the average fish to be 14 inches. We also asked DiCenzo what size boat an angler needs to effectively target largemouths at Briery. He responded that a 14-foot johnboat with a 9.9-horsepower motor and a trolling motor with a pair of batteries would be ideal. However, he also pointed out that bank-bound anglers can find good fishing while hiking through the WMA.
According to the biologist, the fishery should remain stable and possibly even improve over the next few years.
SOUTHERN MOUNTAIN REGION
Southern Mountain Region anglers are likely not surprised to hear fisheries biologist John Copeland's opinion that, "Claytor Lake is the best bass water in my district."
The bass (all three species) feed heavily on gizzard shad, alewives, bluegills and even some crayfish at this 4,475-acre lake. Largemouth bass are faring quite well because of catch-and-release, stable water levels during the spawn the last few years and good habitat in coves at the lower end of the lake and in Peak Creek, according to Copeland. In fact, these lower end coves and Peak Creek tend to be the best places to hook largemouths on the lake.
Copeland recalled that during the last spring sampling biologists collected plenty of fish in the 12- to 17-inch range. Copeland expects to see the fishery remain steady for the near future at Claytor.
Fishing at Claytor can be done with any type of boat, but to take advantage of the coves a bass boat or johnboat works best. Anglers can contact Mike Burchett at Rockhouse Marina at (540) 980-1488 for up-to-date bass-fishing information on the lake.
Copeland's second pick for a largemouth trip would be Gatewood Reservoir. Gatewood (162 acres) is large enough to handle some pressure but small enough to enjoy great aesthetics. The main forage species for largemouths at Gatewood are bream and yellow perch. Once again, catch-and-release and stable water levels combined with good habitat make a winning equation for largemouths and anglers alike. Copeland reported that the last survey yielded bass in the 13- to 17-inch range. The fishery is similar to that of Claytor. On this lake, anglers can use electric motors, which are available for rent. Johnboats work well at Gatewood.
For more information on lake access and fishing, call Gatewood Reservoir at (540) 980-2561 or the Pulaski County Parks and Recreation Department at (540) 980-8624. You can visit the Web site at www.pulaskigatewood.com.
NORTHERN MOUNTAIN REGION
The Northern Mountain Region is no slacker when it comes to offering the mountain anglers a few good bass destinations. After speaking with VDGIF fisheries biologist Paul Bugas, we learned that the Shenandoah River, particularly the 97 miles of the South Fork of the river, is a growing largemouth fishery. Once well known only for its smallmouth opportunities, the river now boasts a stout largemouth fishery that gets better each year.
According to Bugas, the river has plenty of access for anglers to launch johnboats or small canoes. These two types of watercraft are ideal for chasing bigmouth bass on the river.
Largemouth bass on the river tend to average 14 inches, and it is no real feat to get a limit of bass weighing up to 3 pounds with the occasional one topping that. The bass have plenty to feed on in the river, including crayfish, shiners and madtoms.
The best areas of the river to fish are the nutrient-rich areas behind the power dams. They are located at Front Royal, Shenandoah and Newport. The habitat in the slack waters is conducive to good reproductive success for the bass. Bugas noted that the entire river is getting to be better bass habitat. More aquatic grasses are growing in the sediment, and the slower areas of the river are particularly good places to cast for largemouths.
Many bass anglers, including Bugas, have seen success casting plastics and crankbaits midday. Others find the thrill of pitching topwater lures during low-light periods to be outstanding. Live bait is an excellent way to get a limit in short order as well. Keep in mind there is a slot limit of 11 to 14 inches on the river with a combined creel limit of five fish daily.
In other opportunities around the region, bass anglers will find good fishing in the smaller lakes and ponds. Most of the lakes and ponds have healthy populations of bass. Some have more small fish than large fish, but all have some large fish up to 8 pounds.
Two lakes we noted that were good recently include Douthat Lake at Douthat State Park. The 50-acre lake has a number of happy, trout-fed largemouths in it. Although the average size fish is approximately 11 inches, there are some bruisers in the water there. Remember that fishing during the fall, winter and early spring months does require a trout stamp. This is an area that is family friendly with camping, piers and concessions.
Another gem to consider is the upper Rec Pond in Bath County. The lake is small at 45 acres but has plenty of bass in it as well as other species of fish. The great thing about this location is that there are camping facilities nearby and the location is beautiful. This is an excellent place to take a youngster camping and have plenty of good opportunities to catch bass, and anglers can fish all the way around the pond from the bank.
NORTHERN PIEDMONT REGION
The Northern Piedmont Region is mostly heavily developed and subject to tremendous fishing pressure. However, despite all the pressure, there are some outstanding largemouth prospects in the region.
John Odenkirk is responsible for the northern portion of the region and readily pointed to Occoquan Reservoir as the top bass water. The reservoir was ranked number one of all the district waters.
The impoundment is very productive with plenty of good shoreline habitat and abundant wood structure for the bass to use. There are numerous bluegills, white perch, alewives and gizzard shad in the reservoir, and the bass feed upon them regularly.
Odenkirk also noted that the reservoir has something else going for it.
"Occoquan has a high percentage of northern alleles in population, and the reservoir is situated in a northern part of the state."
Odenkirk went on to explain that not all waters do best with Florida-strain or tiger bass and Occoquan appears to be doing well with the northern strain of bass.
Anglers fishing the vast shoreline of this long
impoundment will find that the spring rains will cause water fluctuations and clarity changes which affect fishing. Odenkirk pointed out that rising water that is warm or at a stable temperature can be good for bass fishing.
The average size of largemouth bass at Occoquan is nearly 18 inches! Odenkirk went on to say that a five-fish stringer would likely weigh in between 18 and 22 pounds.
Although the reservoir is large and long, a johnboat with a small gas motor and an electric motor would serve an angler well. However, any seaworthy craft, including a kayak, would be good to use. Our fisheries source pointed out that the mid-lake area around Fountainhead is really good for spring bass fishing.
Occoquan is a very reliable bass fishery for anglers. It has held its standing in the top three for quite some time and this year made it to the top spot. There are three different parks on the reservoir and places to rent boats too.
Given the fact that the state has not had a drought or any severe weather that has affected the fishery for several years now, the largemouth bass outlook is great for this season and should continue to be good for the next several years. While the waters we featured are the better ones, don't overlook the local waters no matter how small. There is a lunker lurking in most waters in our state. You just have to catch it and then send a picture to us for the Camera Corner!