For serious bass anglers, winter in Virginia has a lot to offer. The quality waters of the James and New rivers serve up big smallmouths and Briery Creek provides a great chance at trophy largemouths.
The morning was an all too typical late winter one for Virginia: Dreary, cool, and rainy. It was the kind of day that gave you the feeling that spring would never arrive, a feeling that seemed to linger in the murk like the smoke from a cheap cigar.
I was on the way to fish the upper James with two well-known guides, Barry Loupe of Saltville and Cap't Jack West, who guides out of the Campground at Natural Bridge. Despite the skill of my guides, the weather made me less than optimistic about our chances.
Loupe and West were enthusiastic, however. Both men fervently believe that the winter months are excellent times to duel with jumbo river smallmouths.
At 11:15, we put in at the Campground at Natural Bridge on river right, and the guides immediately decided that they would probe deep-water dropoffs with tubes and jig and plastic trailers - logical choices. With the premise that I should throw something different, I decided to use a lure that was certainly not logical for the time of year - a shallow-running crankbait.
The first smallmouth of the day, a nice 13-incher, latched onto the shallow crank about five minutes later. As I released it, I commented that it must be a fluke to catch such a fish on that lure. But a few minutes later, a 14-inch mossyback made its way to the boat - fooled by the same lure. An 18-inch specimen and a 16-incher immediately followed that smallie. By high noon, all of us were hurling shallow-running crankbaits and catching some very aggressive and good-sized James River smallies.
I am not going to try to explain why those wintertime smallies were so eager to chase down crankbaits; frankly, I don't understand what happened. All I can report is that the three of us caught and released some 25 smallmouths between 12 and 18 inches during less than five hours of fishing as we coursed down the James from the Campground at Natural Bridge to Snowden.
But one thing's for sure: Loupe and West are definitely correct in their belief that wintertime river fishing can be stupendous.
Jack West holds up a fine James River smallmouth. The bass was taken last winter near Glasgow. Photo by Bruce Ingram
"Although we found aggressive and shallow smallmouths on that trip, most of the time the low metabolism of the fish keeps them out of the swift current," said West. "I have found that winter smallmouths bunch by size in the easily recognizable holes and quiet areas. Where you find one trophy smallmouth, you will probably find another.
"So I fish the slow, deep holes. I work them for lengthy periods of time, sometimes making as many as many as 15 or 20 retrieves through them. Sometimes, you just really have to 'stimulate' the fish into biting. When the bite is really slow, you just have to remind yourself that sooner or later, the bass must eat."
After the late morning and early afternoon feeding spree ended, the three of us went an hour or so without catching any fish. Not surprisingly, that slow period dovetailed with a cold front that chased away the rain and left the sky cobalt blue and the wind stiff. The crankbait bite was gone with the proverbial wind.
Another hour or so passed before Loupe and West determined the new pattern - 3- to 4-inch tubes dragged agonizingly slowly across rocky substrate in deep pools. Loupe especially caught nice bass, catching and releasing a half dozen or so quality brown bass in one 45-minute period.
"Tubes are often excellent baits during the winter months," said West. "A pumpkin-pepper or some shade of brown is a good choice on the James. Another excellent bait is the Case Magic Stik, made by Charlie Case of Clarksville. Dead drift this soft plastic minnow imitation through slow, deep holes - a deadly technique.
"And don't be afraid to use larger tubes and jerkbaits, which conflicts with many fishermen's recipes for wintertime success. Most fishermen prefer small baits, believing smallies want only tiny morsels due to the frigid conditions. On the other hand, I have had my best success fishing larger baits, deep and slow."
The two trips that we combined into one float were from the campground, which is near Natural Bridge Station, to Glasgow (two miles) and from Glasgow to Snowden (five miles).
The first excursion has only one Class II rapid, and it is easily avoided by moving over to far river left. Because of its gentle nature, the Natural Bridge Station getaway is an ideal wintertime float. Riffles, gentle pools, and rocky backwaters predominate. The take-out is on river left at Glasgow where the Maury River enters on river left. This access point is on Route 684 and is known as Locher Landing.
However, the Glasgow to Snowden junket possesses the most intense whitewater on the upper James above Richmond and definitely should not be run by novices or even intermediate canoeists, particularly in the winter. West maintains that caution is advised.
"A running level of 1,500 to 1,700 cfs in the winter creates good but manageable current for my raft," he said. "I am a safety nut and can manage the entire float at this level. However, I don't personally believe there is a safe level for canoes or johnboats, especially in the winter. Hypothermia is a potential killer, and this float isn't for novices. In short, the Glasgow float holds great numbers of quality smallies, wonderful scenery, and exciting whitewater, but, again, it is definitely not for everyone."
Numerous Class Is and IIs punctuate the Glasgow float, the two most notorious rapids are the Class III Balcony Falls (Class IV in high water) and the Class II Little Balcony. A vast rock garden below Balcony Falls provides superb habitat. However, a long pool follows this rock garden and requires a great deal of time to paddle through. The take-out is on river left along Route 130 above Cashaw Dam.
The dam is the reason for the expansive pool. Indeed, if Cashaw Dam were not in place, fishermen and whitewater rafters would have additional water to enjoy their pastimes - and help the local economy with the money spent on recreation.
For guided trips with Cap't Jack West, contact him at (423) 926-8539. For information on or reservations for the Campground at Natural Bridge, call (540) 291-2727, or visit www.campnbr.com.
NEW RIVER The New River is another Old Dominion waterway renown for its wintertime action.
West offers a unique guide package where he takes clients on the James for one day and the New the next. The guide relates that the section of the New below Claytor Lake Dam offers the best wintertime action.
"Unlike the headwaters of the James, which is pretty much a free-flowing river until Cashaw Dam and susceptible to flooding, water levels of the New below Claytor are dam controlled and far more dependable than the James when it comes to planning fishing trips. This is especially true in the winter when winter run-off can play havoc with the James' water levels," he said. "On the New, anglers will want fluctuations to be running around 2,000 cfs. Take note that the daily fluctuations often will run between 1,100 and 2,500 cfs. This range is normal, and the fish are used to it."
To learn what water level the New is running, West relates that anglers should check out the Radford gauge: http://va.waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/current?type=dailydischarge&group_key=basin_cd&search_site_no_station_nm=Radford. For streamflow data by river drainage in Virginia, the general Web page can be found at: http://va.waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/current/?type=flow.
The guide also offers several other tips on scoring during the off season. First, he says that New River anglers should look for springs, which are gathering places for smallies during the cold winter months. Even a small seep dribbling into the river can raise the water temperature a degree or two and cause bass to stack up in that area.
Second, West reveals that a black jig-and-pig is his recipe for wintertime success on the New. Work this bait as deep and as slowly as your patience will allow he instructs. Large jigs, running at least 3/8-ounce and as much as 3/4-ounce, will sometimes elicit strikes from the biggest bronzebacks in a pool.
Anglers can choose from among nine floats below Claytor Lake Dam. However, I would recommend that fishermen avoid several of these trips. The Ripplemead to Bluff City junket, though it has excellent cover and numbers of quality smallmouths, features too many major rapids. The Class III Clendennin Shoals alone is reason enough not to put in at Ripplemead. As Jack West noted earlier, hypothermia is a real danger at this time of year, and a dunk in the New now could prove fatal and would certainly be unpleasant. I also would not recommend Bluff City to Rich Creek now because this getaway offers little deep-water habitat of the kind that cold-water bass prefer.
Among the remaining options, Claytor Lake Dam to Peppers Ferry (11 miles), Whitethorne to Big Falls (seven miles), Eggleston to Pembroke (six miles), and Pembroke to Ripplemead (two miles) all have the right combinations of deep water and rock/wood cover. The Claytor Lake Dam trip contains very little swift water, a strong reason for considering this float.
Whitethorne to Big Falls is the most well-known wintertime float on the entire New River, and it is famous for producing trophy smallmouths, largemouths and muskies during the off season. Readers should note, though, that Big Falls, also known as McCoy Falls, lies at the end of this trip; and this rapid should definitely not be run now. Informal access points are available on the river right above the rapid, just off Route 625.
Jack West rates Eggleston to Pembroke very highly, proclaiming that the cliffs, wooded shorelines and scenery alone make this excursion worth taking at any time of the year. I likewise can rhapsodize about the joys of this float, but the Pembroke getaway does contain several Class II rapids and one strong Class II-III that could make wintertime boating iffy, especially if you are in a canoe.
Given its two-mile length, the Pembroke to Ripplemead float makes for a pleasant half day of fishing. However, the Class II Pembroke Rapid at the beginning can be a real boat buster at any time of the year. This rapid is left to center and has a penchant for drawing boats toward it.
One last point to consider about cold-water fishing on the New is that many anglers do not run from point A to point B. They merely put in at one of the access points and paddle upstream and down or use a trolling motor to return. Given the swift water and dangerous undertows that characterize the New, this game plan may be the best option.
BRIERY CREEK If still water and largemouth bass are on your winter wish list, head for Briery Creek. At 800 acres, it is not one of the larger impoundments in the state, but this Farmville area impoundment continues to be a major draw for wintertime anglers, especially those who live in the Tidewater and Piedmont regions. Bud LaRoche, a regional fisheries manager for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), explains why.
"Briery Creek remains one of the best big bass lakes in Virginia," said LaRoche. "In the spring of 2002, I participated in some sampling there one day, and we caught three largemouths over 8 pounds and two of them were over 10 pounds. In 1986-87, the department stocked Florida-strain largemouths because they have the potential to reach larger sizes than northern largemouths.
"I don't know if any of those Florida bass are still alive (a severe winter in the late 1980s is believed to have killed many of those fish), but I do know that those Florida largemouths passed on their genes. Regardless of the subspecies, it is difficult to sample the larger bass on Briery. Those bigger fish are rarely shallow enough to be caught.
"Another interesting aspect of Briery is the 14- to 24-inch slot for black bass that went into effect in 2001. It is still too early to tell if that slot is making a difference in the bass fishery. In fact, several more years could easily pass before we have a handle on the effects of the new regulations. One of the goals of the slot is to increase the number of times that the larger bass in Briery can be caught. The VDGIF wants Briery Creek to be a trophy bass lake. And from what we are hearing from anglers, they have accepted the fact that the lake is being managed for trophies."
LaRoche says that although the vast majority of anglers are releasing Briery's overgrown largemouths, some of the larger fish are leaving the lake in livewells and coolers. Under the slot limit, only one bass over 24 inches can be kept, though anglers can keep five fish under 14 inches. Those smaller bass, the biologist notes, make for far better eating than the larger specimens.
The biologist also points out that because of Briery's reputation as a big bass factory, the central Virginia water can receive a considerable amount of pressure in the spring during the pre-spawn period. Winters for the past four or five years have generally been quite mild, and savvy anglers have plied the lake even during January and February. Last February, continues LaRoche, was very warm for the season and, in fact, was warmer than March.
"As far as Briery is concerned in the winter, pick your days if you can," said LaRoche. "Wait for a warm front and when it comes, head for the lake. The state has not experienced a cold winter in a long time, and fishermen can take advantage of that fact."
Dennis Hill of
Vinton and I were not fortunate enough to be blessed with a warm front on a late winter trip that we took to Briery Creek. Our arrival found both the air and water temperature decreasing and a cold, misty rain falling. But the allure of trophy largemouths was sufficient to make us spend the morning there.
Hill was able to catch nice largemouths by cranking brushpiles and logjams. When Briery was impounded in the 1980s, many of the trees were left standing. Over the years, numerous trees have toppled into the lake and created excellent cover. Brushpiles are also common throughout the lake.
Thus, wintertime anglers can put together a goodly number of milk runs, alternating between plying standing trees, downed timber, and brushpiles. Although Briery is a small lake by Virginia standards, it "fishes big," given all the available cover. And along with other cold water, big bass producers such as Gaston and Anna, Briery offers a legitimate chance at a wintertime 8-pounder.
IF YOU GO For current fishing information, contact PC's Pullover, (434) 223-1982 or Worsham's Grocery, (434) 223-4373. The Farmville office of the VDGIF may be reached at (434) 392-9645. For information on planning a trip to the area, contact the Farmville Chamber of Commerce, (434) 392-3939.
My favorite time to fish for trophy river smallmouths and lake largemouths is in the spring. But if the weather is not too inclement, I don't mind angling for quality fish in the winter months, either. Just be sure to always wear a lifejacket, practice safe boating procedures, leave the body of water if a wintertime storm approaches, and to always inform someone of your destination and the time you expect to arrive back home.
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