Suffolk Lakes' Great Spring Bassin'

Suffolk Lakes' Great Spring Bassin'

The Suffolk Lakes -- Burnt Mills and Cohoon -- should be on your list of places to fish now for fat largemouths. (May 2006)

In Virginia's cotton country, it's probably a safe bet that the Suffolk Lakes are the best largemouth bass lakes in the region. The Suffolk Lakes are made up of a series of interconnected lakes, including Western Branch Reservoir, Lake Prince, Burnt Mills Reservoir, Speights Run, Lake Cohoon (sometimes spelled Cahoon), Lake Meade, Lake Kilby and the Lone Star Lakes (a series of 12 lakes -- some interconnected -- varying in size from three to 50 acres, totaling 490 acres).

Lake Cohoon, Lake Meade, Lake Kilby and Speights Run are water supply reservoirs owned by the city of Portsmouth but located in Suffolk. The city of Norfolk owns Burnt Mills Reservoir, Lake Prince and Western Branch Reservoir.

Burnt Mills Reservoir and Lake Cohoon are two unheralded bodies of water deserving of accolades for their stellar largemouth fishing. The month of May could be the best time of year to visit either excellent fishery.


An oldie but a goodie, Burnt Mills dates back to the early 1940s. This lake has two looks: The area near the dam is open and wide, while the upper end is stumpy and shallow. Burnt Mills covers 610 surface acres and is situated in Isle of Wight County.

The primary tributary for Burnt Mills is Great Swamp, a dense cypress swamp (common for this area of Virginia). Fisheries biologists with Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries indicate a good population of largemouth bass, shellcrackers, chain pickerel, bluegills, black crappie and yellow perch.

"The beauty of May is that most artificial lures are going to work well," said Mike Gizara, the concessionaire of the Lake Meade/Lake Cohoon Fishing Station. "There will be spawners and post-spawners in May, so anglers can target both stages of fish. First thing in the morning, I rely on a topwater lure (Pop-R or Zara Spook) or a 3/4-ounce, chartreuse-and-white spinnerbait. As the sun gets high in the sky, I use a Texas-rigged plastic worm or lizard to target bedding fish. Watermelon seed is my favorite color for plastics."

Like Gizara, Suffolk native Bobby Kinsey has fished these lakes for years. "Both lakes are fairly clear in their lower halves and become more tannic looking (although still clear) toward the cypress swamps that feed them," Kinsey said. "The structure and cover are the same in both lakes, too. They have plenty of coves, sandy shorelines, laydowns and treetops. Standing timber dominates the upper half of Burnt Mills and the upper part of Cohoon."

Kinsey cautions that both lakes can be hard on outboard motors. Underwater stumps are prevalent around the shorelines of both lakes, he added.

Gizara focuses in 5 to 12 feet of water during the morning at Burnt Mills, but as the sun gets overhead, he'll move to the 1- to 3-foot range for the spawners. "Specifically, I fish the points in the morning, then move into the coves when the sun is high."

Kinsey fishes a bit shallower at Burnt Mills than Gizara, although their fishing styles and techniques are similar. Kinsey said 90 percent of the bass population will be in less than 5 feet of water either getting ready to spawn, spawning or in a post-spawn mode.

Shallow pockets and coves with abundant sunshine are prime areas to search for bass in both lakes, he explained. His prime spots are underwater stumps and laydowns on sandy shorelines.

Kinsey doesn't have any pet lures or techniques at Burnt Mills. He favors floating worms and natural-colored tubes for sight-fishing.

Gizara said a reasonably good day in May on Burnt Mills -- under normal weather conditions -- would be 12 to 15 pounds for a five-fish limit. He has caught largemouths as big as 7 pounds from this Suffolk jewel.

"They average between 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 pounds mostly, but the chance of an anchor fish weighing between 6 and 7 1/2 pounds is always possible," Gizara added.

He said to look for anything that these bruisers can hide behind and ambush prey, like blowdowns, hurdles, rockpiles and stumps.

Kinsey has caught 8-pound-class largemouths from Burnt Mills but said bigger fish are available.

"I've heard of several bass over 10 pounds that have been caught over the years in Burnt Mills," he said.

Kinsey's opinion of typical days -- at Burnt Mills and Cohoon -- are stellar. He said accomplished anglers could expect 20 to 30 fish in the 2- to 5-pound range during the weekdays. Fishing pressure on the weekends will make it tougher, but fishing is still good.

"On typical Sunday tournaments, it will take at least 20 pounds to win and the 15-pound limits will place anywhere from eighth to 10th on most days," Kinsey said.

Gizara sticks to the open-water areas near the boat launch and dam early in the day during May, but will then navigate uplake to the standing timber areas during the midday hours.

"Although there aren't many named areas on the lake, any cove, point or spawning flat on the entire lake can be productive during the month," he said.


Lake Cohoon measures 510 acres and is a dynamo for largemouth bass, bluegills, chain pickerel, crappie and shellcrackers. Gizara employs the same tactics at Cohoon as he does at Burnt Mills.

"Cohoon and Burnt Mills are practically the same body of water, concerning water depth and clarity," Gizara said. "Cohoon has standing cypress trees uplake, but like Burnt Mills, it becomes more open in the midlake region down to the stair-stepped dam, which separates it from Lake Meade.

"Cohoon has one main creek and one smaller feeder creek, both of which are worth fishing in May," he said. "A good spot to fish in May is Briggs Cove, located halfway up the lake. It's a long creek and has standing cypress in the back and stumpfields half way back in the creek."

Gizara said the expectations are the same at Cohoon as they are at Burnt Mills. The average fish in May ranges from 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 pounds, but many larger fish are common, too. His biggest largemouth from Cohoon tipped the scales at 7 pounds.

"A decent day would be eight or nine largemouths per person; however, a good day would be more like 15 per fisherman, but I've caught as many as 30 in two hours on an exceptional day," Gizara said.


best Cohoon largemouth is in the 8-pound range; however, he has seen an 11-pounder caught there.

"The lures and techniques are the same for me at Cohoon as they are at Burnt Mills: I throw floating worms and tubes -- these are really the only two baits I throw this time of year," he said. "The only exception would be if we had an exceptionally warm spring and the spawn ended before the end of the month. If this were the case, traditional topwaters would be a great choice. Ricos, Pop-Rs and buzzbaits are ideal once the water gets in the middle to upper 70s. The main thing in May is to fish shallow."

Gizara targets 5 to 12 feet on edges of drops or points in the morning, looking for a fat, post-spawn pig. He casts Pop-Rs and Zara Spooks over likely areas. Once the day gets up, just like Burnt Mills, he heads for the coves to catch shallow bass with watermelon seed plastics.

"Calm areas where the wind isn't blowing will also help your chances," Kinsey added.


Burnt Mills Reservoir has a primitive ramp -- with limited parking -- located adjacent to the dam off Route 603. Gas motors (9.9 horsepower maximum) are allowed. The city of Norfolk has amended its codes to allow boats with outboard motors larger than 9.9 horsepower to access the lake if the gas tanks are removed or the outboard is disabled (prop removed). Bank-fishing is prohibited. A daily or annual boat permit is required from the city of Norfolk.

Lake Meade & Cohoon Bait & Tackle Shop at 1805 Pitchkettle Road (off Route 58) has a paved boat ramp for Lake Cohoon and Lake Meade, and offers boat rentals, trolling motors, bait, tackle, beverages and snacks. The concession is open only on weekends during winter months, but seven days a week otherwise. Gas motors as powerful as 9.9 horsepower are allowed. Bank-fishing is limited to the shoreline at the fishing station, excluding the dam. For more information, call (757) 539-6216. A permit (daily or annual) from the city of Portsmouth is required for fishing or boating at Lake Cohoon. These permits can be purchased at the Lake Meade & Cohoon Bait & Tackle Shop or through the city of Portsmouth Lake Kilby Water Treatment Plant, phone (757) 539-2201, ext. 0.

The city of Norfolk Web site ( has lake maps in Adobe Reader format. Anglers are required to have a city of Norfolk boat permit (in addition to a Virginia freshwater fishing license) to launch private boats in Burnt Mills. These can be purchased through a mail-in form by visiting the above Web site. To learn more about the Suffolk Lakes, visit online.

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