The James River features some of the best wintertime action for both smallmouth and largemouth bass in the Old Dominion. Here are the best sections to fish.
Duane Richards of Vinton hoists a good-sized smallie that he caught last winter while fishing the James above Glasgow. Photo by Bruce Ingram
By Bruce Ingram
Snow lay in the cuts and frost hollows along the bank of the James River as Duane Richards of Vinton, guide Capt. Jack West and I launched from the campground at Natural Bridge one Saturday morning last winter. One of the notions I have had to disabuse myself of in recent years is that river smallmouth bass can't be caught with any consistency during the winter months.
That's why I had asked Richards and West, two of the best cold-water smallmouth anglers I know, to take me on a trip down the James. Both individuals excel at not only catching good numbers of off-season bronzebacks but also at boating quality fish in the 3-pound-plus range. Still, I was not overly optimistic about our chances when we launched in Jack's raft just after 10 a.m.
The James was running high and swift; my water temperature gauge registered 48 degrees, and a cold front had come through the area the day before - all good reasons for pessimism. Duane and Jack were upbeat, though; but was that good cheer the result of confidence in their respective skill levels or just the optimism most anglers feel at the beginning of any trip?
Six hours later, we took out at the Snowden River left ramp above Cashaw Dam with both men of the consensus that the day had been "decent." Actually, what they considered decent, I considered spectacular, as Richards and West had dueled over the course of six hours with some 16 bass between 12 and 20 inches and put 12 of them in the boat. Even given my limited cold-water bassing abilities, I had been on four quality smallies and landed two of them. Of course, all fish caught had been carefully released.
Wintertime action for largemouth bass on the tidal James can be just as good, although I must emphasize that cold-water fishing on both the upper and lower James is weather dependent. Snow, prolonged cold fronts and water temperatures in the 30s can result in excursions when an angler should feel a sense of accomplishment if he manages a few bites, let alone a quality fish or two. With the admission that winter fishing is largely weather dependent, I offer some possible destinations on the waterway sometimes called "Virginia's River."
UPPER JAMES WINTERTIME EXCURSIONS As mentioned earlier, Jack West favors that section from the Campground at Natural Bridge (also known as Yogi Bear's Jellystone Park) to Snowden. The campground is closed most of the winter, but float-fishermen can put in upstream on river left at the Natural Bridge Station access point off Route 759 in Rockbridge County and float downstream to the river left Locher Landing on Route 684 in Glasgow. This 3 1/2-mile float offers plenty of riffles and runs and one Class II rapid. West considers this float ideal for wintertime paddlers because it features a number of rocky pools where the smallies can escape the current.
The Glasgow to Snowden (5 1/2 miles) junket features two major rapids, the Class III Balcony Falls and the Class II Little Balcony, plus a number of other Class Is and IIs. Warning: During the winter months, Balcony can metamorphose into a Class IV rapid. I do not recommend taking this float from a canoe during the cold-water period. West guides from a raft and is very safety conscious throughout the year, but especially in the winter when hypothermia is a serious danger.
West relates that the Glasgow excursion contains a number of deep, rocky pools below the many rapids that exist. Plus, after the James finishes coursing through a rock garden below Balcony Falls, the river flows slowly for well over a mile. Many wintertime anglers forego running this entire trip and instead put in above Cashaw Dam and motor or paddle upstream until they come to the first rapid. Then they float and fish back to the access point.
Below Lynchburg, a number of other quality floats are worth taking. The Bent Creek to Wingina (12 1/2 miles) junket in Nelson, Appomattox and Buckingham counties contains classic cold-water bass habitat. The put-in is on river right where the Route 60 Bridge crosses the river. A few Class Is and riffles dot the Bent Creek journey, but the real reason why the winter action can be fabulous is that this trip offers a number of deep, rock-laden pools. Boulders and deep-water ledges are major forms of cover, and the smallies often stack up in these areas during the winter months. The take-out is on river left where the Route 56 Bridge crosses.
Another possibility is Scottsville to Hardware River WMA (6 miles) in Buckingham and Fluvanna counties. The put-in is on river left downstream from the Route 20 Bridge and just off Route 6. Anglers in the greater Charlottesville area especially might like to try this float. The Scottsville excursion contains no rapids and very few riffles. What this trip does proffer in abundance are deep, rocky pools, submerged boulders and shoreline cover, primarily in the form of laydowns.
During the cold-water period, smallmouths generally avoid current, instead concentrating in areas where they can find food, such as it is, and sanctuary from swift water and the elements. That's why deep-water pools, such as found on the Scottsville float and that are laced with rock and wood, are so appealing to smallies. Minnows also migrate away from swift water then, and they too take up residence in slack water - another reason why the smallmouths concentrate in the same type of area. The take-out is on river left off Route 646.
Another possible float is West View to Maidens (11 1/2 miles) in Powhatan and Goochland counties. Route 643 leads to the river left put-in. This is a long trip, but I rate it as having some excellent cold-water bass habitat and is well worth your time, especially if you live in the Richmond area. This is another trip where anglers can launch from an access point (that is, at Maidens), and motor or paddle upstream and encounter quality deep-water structure and cover.
Besides deep holes, another smallmouth draw on the West View float is a water willow bed. Obviously, the water willow won't be growing during the winter season. But the beds themselves, which typically are slightly raised areas adjacent to the bank, often lure smallmouths - especially if those beds border or are near the main channel. Smallmouths will hold along the breaklines between the beds and channel and will sometimes even move shallow if a warming trend takes place. Generally, the breaklines that offer a steep dropoff instead of a gradual one are better in the winter.
HOW-TO SMALLMOUTH TIPS Duane Richards relies on a trio of baits for cold-water
"One of my favorites is a Buckeye Baits jig, made by native Virginian Matt Frondorff," says Richards. "I like the 1/8-ounce size if the current is fairly light, but I will go to the 1/4- or 3/8-ounce sizes - all in earth tones - if the current is swifter, like it was on our trip last winter. For a pig, I like a Case Salty Trailer, which is about 1 1/2 inches long.
"Don't use trailers longer than that in a river during the winter. A too-long trailer will cause the jig to ride up and lose contact with the bottom. And most of the bass will be on or near the bottom."
Richards also opts for 3 1/2-inch tubes in various natural colors. For both the jig-and-pig and the tube, he prefers 4/15 braided line because he feels that it does the best job at maintaining feel with the bait. This is crucial in cold water because most bites are very light and hard to detect.
The third choice is a 4-inch suspending jerkbait with an olive back and silver sides. After this bait is cast and it reaches what he feels is its proper depth, Richards recommends that the lure be slowly retrieved with plenty of pauses.
"For coldwater smallmouths, a suspending jerkbait has to sit right in a bass's face," he says. "Almost all bites will come when you pause the bait. And don't expect a smashing hit, it will be barely a tick."
Jack West says that he defines wintertime conditions as those days when the water temperature is from 36 to 50 degrees. The smallies hold off faster-moving sections of the upper James.
"I especially like the deeper, downstream ends of larger islands and good-size inside curves that are calm and form large eddies," the guide says. "Since the smallmouths' metabolism is so much slower in colder conditions, they aren't out chasing baitfish. And since deep, slow cold water holds oxygen well, the bass don't need to be out in the faster riffles and rapids where they are driven in warm water conditions.
"For lures, I like any large soft bait, worked extremely slowly. If you think you're working your lure too slowly, you probably should slow it down even more. Tubes and pig-and-jigs, and Case Magic Sticks in natural and dark colors work well for me.
Sometimes, in the frigid water, you will catch more smallies by downsizing your baits."
West adds that he has also had good luck working calm areas with a float-and-fly. Any bobber works for a float, and a leadhead jig and a grub or a large actual weighted fly suspended from it can attract some huge winter smallies.
When the water warms into the high 40s, a third proven winner is the old walleye three-way swivel setup, with a tube as bait, and a bottom-bouncing sinker. Use this rig where there is a slight current, so the tube will trail behind the swivel. Tie the sinker about 6-8 inches below the three-way swivel. Attach the tube at the end of a 20-inch length of line. Work this slowly, but with slight jerks every 5 or 10 seconds.
LOWER JAMES COLDWATER DESTINATIONS Veteran guide Roger Jones of Richmond relates that there is little mystery concerning where the best coldwater largemouth bass fishing occurs on the lower James.
"The best places are really community holes," says Jones. "The Barge Pits near the power plant at Dutch Gap are especially well known. At the Barge Pits, what you have are a number of old wooden barges that were placed there years ago and that have become great bass cover. The water discharge from the nearby power plant just adds to the appeal because the water in the pits may be as much as 10 degrees warmer than the water upstream from the plant. And in the winter, that is a very significant temperature difference.
"Fishing the Barge Pits is like fishing a small lake, and the same is true at several major gravel pits: the Meeks, Working and Canal pits. These gravel pits retain heat much better than other places do on the tidal James. All it takes for the fish to turn on in the gravel pits is one or two days of relatively warmer weather."
Meeks Pit is near the Dutch Gap and Osborne landings, while the Working Pit is close to the Curls Neck area. The Canal Pit is so-called because a long canal leads to it; this excavation is also situated in the Curls Neck area. Another favorite haunt of Jones' is the Deep Bottom area, which is right above Curls Neck. This locale comes by its name naturally as numerous deep holes exist, many of which are choked with laydowns that rest on pea gravel.
The guide explains that this combination of rock and wood draws shad and bluegills, and the bass know quite well how to take advantage of the forage. Jones also guides for catfish, and this past winter he netted several good-sized largemouths, which were of course immediately released, when he was employing a cast net for shad. Some 30 to 40 deep holes dot the Deep Bottom area, and any of them can produce impressive catches during a winter warming trend.
The common denominator for all of these lower James hotspots is that they are not out in the current of the main river. In fact, Jones emphasizes that main river structure and cover holds few fish at this time of the year, and the same is true concerning the many small creeks that dump into the waterway.
HOW-TO WISDOM Regarding lures, the guide says that one of his favorite artificials is a 1/4-ounce spinnerbait with a single No. 3 Colorado blade and a chartreuse or chartreuse-and-white skirt with a 4-inch trailer. The Old Dominion sportsman likes to slow roll this lure across wood cover, and he stresses that the bait must be inched along - the bass will rarely chase any lure now. Return a spinnerbait just fast enough that you can feel the blades turning. The large Colorado blade is crucial because of the extra vibrations it emits in the frequently stained water.
Another effective lure is a 3/8-ounce jig-and-pig in any crayfish color. Jones likes to slowly lift and drop this bait, so that the fall is very tantalizing. Interestingly, the guide also utilizes a crankbait for cold-water bucketmouths.
"I like to ease a . . . crankbait over any cover that the lure comes into contact with," says Jones. "I retrieve this lure very slowly, and add a little stop-and-go motion. This crankbait only dives about 6 to 8 feet, which is perfect for the submerged wood that I am fishing. I also like a really long rod, an 8-foot medium-action one, with a lot of tip action."
Finally, Jones emphasizes that wintertime anglers should be very safety conscious. He recommends that sportsmen wear proper clothing, which may mean snowmobile-type suits, as well as the need to dress in layers. Modern-day materials that protect against precipitation are also worth considering. The guide also strongly recommends that people wear lifejackets at all times. Falling out of a bass boat or raft or capsizing a canoe can lead to fatal consequences.
Jones also suggests that a fisherman always go with a friend or two a
nd that clear messages be left with loved ones concerning where the angler is going and what time he should return home. Furthermore, the winter is not the best time to explore sections of the upper and lower James that the individual is unfamiliar with.
IF YOU GO For guided trips with Jack West, contact him at (423) 926-8539. For information on Yogi Bear's Jellystone Park, call (540) 291-2727 or www.campnbr.com. For guided trips with Roger Jones, contact him at Hook, Line, and Sinker Guide Service (800-597-1708).
Editor's Note: Bruce Ingram is the author of the following books (cost is in parentheses): The James River Guide ($15), The New River Guide ($15) and The Shenandoah/Rappahannock Rivers Guide ($18). To obtain a copy, send a check to Ingram at P.O. Box 429, Fincastle, VA 24090.
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