Three Hotspots For Virginia Dog-Day Bass
September 30, 2010
In August it's either hot or even hotter. Smart bass anglers, though, know some quality bass spots that still produce in the heat.
King Montgomery of Burke prepares to release a Tidal Potomac largemouth that was taken from main river lily pads -- a predominant pattern on the waterway every summer.
Photo by Bruce Ingram
The time is mid- to late summer. Your vacation time is nigh, or you have the weekend off, and, by golly, you want to do some bass fishing. Well, here are three bass fishing destinations worth considering.
SMITH MOUNTAIN LAKE
Smith Mountain is the closest lake to my Botetourt County home, and I have seen it approached many ways during the dog days.
On a midsummer outing with noted guide Dale Wilson of Huddleston, I watched him use Texas-rigged plastic worms to yank largemouth bass out of deepwater brushpiles.
On a July trip with touring tournament pro Randy Howell, I observed him employing floating worms to lure largemouths to the surface.
And on another visit, my buddy and I put on the body of water well before dawn and did the old run-and-gun gambit past a series of docks on the main channel. We caught a number of nice bass before 9 a.m. and then called it a day as the heat and the skiers drove us from the lake.
Geoff Hill, a 27-year-old communications technician from Salem, is like many young hardcore bass anglers in that he is trying to make a name for himself at some of the major tournaments that come to within relatively close driving distance of where he lives. So Hill was understandably pleased when he finished 18th last October in a national tournament that was held on 20,000-acre Smith Mountain Lake.
The Salem resident minces no words when asked about how the bass action can be on this Roanoke/Lynchburg area impoundment in August.
"The late-summer period can be a very tough time to visit Smith Mountain," Hill said. "But there are two ways to approach the lake then. The first is to arrive at the lake at sunrise and stay until the boat traffic becomes heavy. This past August, for example, I did pretty well by fishing the lake from 6 to 11 in the morning. I caught a fair number of largemouths in the 5- to 6-pound range."
Hill says he did so by venturing well back into several tributaries. Specifically, he likes to run up No Name (also known as Magnum), Poplar Camp, Stanford creeks in the Blackwater arm, and Lynville, Beaverdam, Buff, and Grimes in the Roanoke River arm. But he is not just randomly running and gunning.
"That morning pattern is a very specific one," Hill said. "I have to go way back into the creeks, at least to the back third, and find stained or colored water and then have to locate laydowns or brush piles that are no more than 2 to 3 feet deep."
Once the Salem resident locates the right kind of wood at the right depth in the preferred water color, he has to select a bait that works. Most of the time, it is a 3/8-ounce white buzzbait, which he retrieves at a moderate pace. Hill also likes to cast the buzzer so that it runs across, by or into wood.
By 9 a.m. or so, the buzzbait bite often ceases, but the bass remain around the same cover. Hill continues to catch bass by switching to one of the homemade jigs that he makes, especially black and blue or green pumpkin models in the 3/8-ounce sizes. The angler flips or pitches the jigs, depending on water clarity and distance to the target. On one glorious outing, the Virginian landed a 6- and a 4-plus-pounder by implementing the jig pattern.
A third option for these morning bass involves Hill changing to a 1/2-ounce Hawg Caller tandem Colorado spinnerbait with a chartreuse and white skirt. Employing a high-speed baitcaster, Hill zips the blade bait across and by the downed wood. During the morning hours, usually well over 95 percent of the bass are largemouths.
The second major August pattern concerns Hill fishing the lake from an hour or so before sunset until around 10:30 p.m. Interestingly, the creeks that are so productive early in the morning are not so late in the day.
"I have my best luck in the evenings by fishing the main channels of the Roanoke and Blackwater rivers," Hill said. "By far the best place to fish is a brushpile in 12 to 20 feet of water. Some of the guys use a GPS to find the wood, but most of them just line up landmarks. One really good thing about Smith Mountain is that the right water depth is very easy to find.
"Usually, you can locate that 12-foot depth by following a shelf just a short distance out from the bank, because this lake has such steep dropoffs really close to the bank. On Kerr, you might have to travel 200 yards from the bank to find a significant dropoff. On Smith Mountain, you only might have to go a few yards."
Lure selection is also different at night. Hill primarily relies on Texas-rigged, creature-style soft plastic baits for after-hours brushpile action. Other Texas-rigged plastics that perform well include 6-inch ringworms and straight needle worms. Of course, topwater artificials are also an option.
"For some reason last August, the really good topwater action didn't begin until after the sun had been down a few hours," Hill said. "And sometimes, the fish really didn't hit at all until after midnight. I think that was because the water temperature was still in the mid-80s at sunset and really did not drop much until after midnight."
For surface action, Hill cruises points, ripraps and docks, again on the two main channels. His most productive lure is the same size buzzbait that performs so well during the early morning period. Also of note is that Hill is able to catch more smallmouths after dark than he is early in the morning. Nevertheless, even after sunset, the largemouths still constitute about 90 percent of the catch.
For more information on planning a trip to Smith Mountain Lake, contact the Roanoke Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau at 1-800-635-5535 or online at
THE TIDAL POTOMAC
My most memorable visit ever to the Tidal Potomac was when noted outdoor writer King Montgomery of Burke and I spent a morning working lily pads and grassbeds on the main channel. We tossed buzzbaits across the pads, dropped fly-rod poppers into openings in the salad, and ran spinnerbaits down the outside edges, and we caught largemouths up to 3 pounds -- not bad for a midsummer outing.
Geoff Hill fishes the lower Potomac so
me 10 to 20 times annually as part of his tournament schedule. He says the bass fishing was outstanding in 2003 and "pretty good" in 2004. To win a tournament during the summer, Hill estimates that anglers would have to record five fish averaging 3 1/2 to 4 pounds, depending on the weather and frontal conditions, of course.
"In the summer, there are just so many fish on the Potomac that are active, much more so than on our lakes," he said. "You can consistently do well on the Potomac, I think, because of the changing tides and moving water which keeps the bass active. Another reason why the summertime fishing on the river is better is because the largemouths hold so much shallower and so are easier to find and cast to. Plus, bass-type habitat is easily found."
For the tidal Potomac, that habitat often comes in the form of lily pads and grass beds. And it's no secret, continued Hill, that creeks, such as Mattawoman and Kanes, host an abundance of vegetation for many years. Chicamuxen Creek does so, as well, especially at its mouth. In the past, another major tributary, the Occoquan River, also featured a considerable amount of vegetation, but the growth there was not strong this past year.
"By August, often the best way to work the pads and grass is to move well back into the vegetation itself -- sort of carve yourself out a little niche," Hill explained. "I like to make a small lane back to the far side of a pad bed and search for bass in 1 1/2 to 2 feet of water -- sometimes that's all the depth you need, providing there is just a little bit of moving water from the tide changes. I prefer to flip my 3/8-ounce jigs to the vegetation.
"Another interesting thing about this style of fishing is that you can flip the pads for several hours and catch nothing and then in 30 minutes land three to five keepers that are big enough to win a tournament. I also have found -- and I know this is against conventional wisdom -- that my best success has come on flat low tide when the water is just starting to come back. It's as if the bass are just waiting with their bodies pointed out from the pads and with their mouths open for the baitfish to return."
When that is the case, sometimes the bass will remain well back in the vegetation, but mostly Hill enjoys better fortune when he positions his boat along the outside edges of a bed. Besides the jigs, he also will toss a chunky, 4-inch flipping tube in green pumpkin. Buzzbaits and spinnerbaits will also produce bass.
Another game plan involves leaving the creeks and moving to the main channel. An excellent form of structure on the main channel is where, for instance, a ledge extends out from the bank and drops from 3 to 12 feet in a span of 10 feet. And of course, lily pads and grassbeds conceal bass as well. Hill speculates that on the main channel, he spends about 90 percent or more of his time from the mouth of Nanjemoy Creek up river to the Blue Plains area, which is a mile or so above the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
Hill said anglers should also have some back-up options.
"For example, if summer rains or runoff have made the river cloudy, I like to go up to the Blue Plains Water Treatment Plant and fish downstream from there," he said. "Water comes crystal clear out of that plant, and sometimes the fish will stack up on the dividing line between the mud and clear water.
"I am basically a vegetation fisherman on tidal rivers, because that's the type of fishing I do best. But there is a lot of wood on the main river and in the creeks in the form of laydowns, boat docks and pilings. Shallow-running Bandit 100 and 200 series crankbaits are really good around that wood. If you're the type of fisherman who knows how to work wood, then you should definitely try to get on that pattern. That's another thing I like about the Tidal Potomac. People can pick a pattern that allows them to fish the style they are best at."
A final possibility, continued Hill, is to run well up river about seven or eight miles above the Woodrow Wilson Bridge toward Georgetown. The river is much smaller there, and smallmouths even appear from time to time. The bass tend to average a little smaller in size, but less fishing pressure exists.
For information on planning a trip, call the Alexandria Visitors Center at 1-800-388-9119; or the Arlington County Visitors Center at 1-800-677-6267; or online at
The Tidal Rappahannock
Well-respected veteran guide Teddy Carr of Locust Grove is a big fan of the Tidal Rappahannock and maintains that the river is on the comeback trail.
"The bass population was adversely affected due to the drought of a few years ago," Carr said. "It's my opinion that the drought allowed the salt wedge to increase to the point that largemouths could not carry out successful spawns. Up until this past year, fishing has been tough, but there was a dramatic pick-up in 2004.
"Largemouths can be found from Fredericksburg to Totuskey Creek, but once you go downriver from Leedstown, the bass are primarily found in the larger creeks. Smallmouth bass can be found from Fredericksburg to the Four Winds area."
Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries biologist John Odenkirk agrees that the fishery is improving.
"My analysis of the fishery is that it was hit hard by several years of poor recruitment," he said. "Most of this occurred during the 1990s and was probably related to the flow extremes experienced during this time. We had four drought years and two flood years during this period with the consecutive drought years probably committing the most harm.
"Thus, the current adult stock is depleted by this natural cycle. However, we had excellent spawns and recruitment in 2003 and 2004, and these fish should begin showing up this year. . . . Abundance, while low, increased about 100 percent from 2003 to 2004 in electro-fishing surveys."
Carr and Odenkirk both emphasize that fallen timber is the primary and most abundant form of cover. Also important are spatterdock, marsh reeds and arrowhead pads. Lots of old barges and wharves line the river bottom, and there is also an occasional cut with small amounts of hydrilla.
One of the best dog days tactics is to explore the dozens of small marsh feeder creeks just big enough to wedge a boat inside, says the guide. Odenkirk told me that Massaponax Creek is probably the best tributary that he knows of. However, many times large bass are not inside the creeks but in the main stem just outside, notes Odenkirk. Carr's favorite larger creeks are located in the Green Bay area and Piscataway Creek that lies just down river from Tappahannock.
"I like to fish the woodland marsh found at Green Bay on the last three hours of an outgoing tide," he said. "There are myriad of fallen water oaks and stumps and bushes to crank around, but most of all the marsh is a jig man's dream come true. I also like to fish the large marshes around Leedstown Drakes Marsh and Otterburn Marsh."
The guide relates that now the average size range for largemouth bass taken by anglers is 13 to 15 inches, but as the river makes a full recovery look for that to increase to 14 to 17 inches. Odenkirk adds that the average size of adult bass overall is only around 12 inches due to the strong influence of 2003 fish, but there was very good size structure of the older fish, that is, those 16 to 18 inches.
For information on planning a trip, contact the Fredericksburg Visitors Center at 1-800-678-4748;
www.fredericksburgva.com or the Spotsylvania County Visitors Center at 1-800-654-4118. For guided trips on the Tidal Potomac and Rappahannock, contact Outdoor Action with Teddy Carr at (540) 854-4271; or visit their Web site at