Virginia anglers have one tried-and-true fish they can count on around the state this year: the crappie. (April 2007)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
April is a month where outdoorsmen find themselves trying to figure out what they should do. Spring gobblers are calling in the big woods, bass are in the pre-spawn mode and crappie are thick in the shallows just waiting for a minnow to cross them as they do their procreation ritual. Each portion of the state has its own honeyhole just full of specks waiting to be tugged into boats and loaded into coolers. We have the latest creel and sampling data that will help point the way to the more productive waters this season.
Anglers in the Tidewater Region know that there are a slew of good crappie destinations here. The tough part is to find out which ones are shining from year to year. For this information, we turned to Region 1's fisheries biologist Bob Greenlee. Greenlee spends quite a bit of his time surveying the tidal rivers in the region. In our conversation, he noted that during his fall electrofishing surveys, he saw some great black crappie in the tidal tributaries of the James River. Specifically, the tributaries that enter the James from Hopewell to the mouth of the Chickahominy River showed some real nice fish.
"The black crappie in these tidal streams are in outstanding condition -- real slabsides," he said. "The abundance of fish are in the 10- to 13-inch range, with many weighing over 1 pound."
Greenlee went on to say that most fish top out around a pound and a half.
So where do anglers go to find these slabs in April? According to our source, the fish position themselves near structure such as downed trees and old pier pilings. Downed trees over channel dropoffs are particularly productive. While not every piece of structure will hold fish, the structure where the fish are found will hold loads of them averaging a pound or better. Most of the crappie are feeding on shiners in the tributaries, so minnows dunked or jigged vertically in front of the fish will be effective.
Warmer waters will hold the fish in the early spring. Such areas include backwaters and marsh channels. These areas are productive as early as February for a variety of species of fish.
In a final note, the fisheries Greenlee said he would like to see more anglers target are tidal crappie. The fishery is underutilized. While the fish are not monsters like the ones found in Buggs Island, they are fat, 12- to 13-inch fish.
To cover landlocked waters within the district, we turned to the other fisheries biologist from VDGIF, Scott Herrmann. Herrmann gave the nod to Diascund Reservoir as his choice crappie destination.
Diascund Reservoir was very productive when Herrmann sampled it this past year. The catch rate was 228 black crappie in two nights of work. The survey showed that there is an abundance of fish in the 9- to 11-inch range. The largest crappie collected during the survey was 13 inches and weighed 1 1/3 pounds. The sampling was done in March.
While on the water, the biologists found that the best area to target fish was outside the mouth of Timber Swamp Creek on the western side. Most of the fish caught during this time were schooling in 4 to 5 feet of water. Another area that was loaded with crappie was the area just across from the boat ramp. The points here and along the Wahrani Swamp Creek arm were also productive.
Herrmann reported that the action in Diascund heats up early beginning in middle to late March. These speckled panfish will be found near the shoreline from late March to late April and possibly into early May as they complete spawning. Additionally, Herrmann reminded anglers to try various points to narrow down the search for the largest concentration of crappie.
The Diascund Reservoir is the water supply reservoir for Newport News. The ramp is free and open to the public, but there are no outboard motors permitted here, a regulation that is typical of water supply lakes. Anglers may use the reservoir one hour before sunrise to one hour after sunset. Contact VDGIF at (804) 843-5968 for more information.
Two very famous bass waters, Buggs Island and Briery Creek Lake, always dominate the Southern Piedmont news. When it comes to crappie fishing, the same is true. Both waters are great crappie destinations, though for different reasons.
While Buggs Island is humongous at 48,900 acres, Briery Creek is much smaller and chock-full of vertical structure, which is great for crappie but makes it tough on anglers to find the fish. The result for the crappie in Briery is that their longevity is better and the population is very stable despite the smaller size impoundment and high fishing pressure.
Vic DiCenzo is the source we turn to for the latest news on both waters. DiCenzo studies the waters intensely each year and knows them both like his back yard.
"Buggs has a great catch rate for black crappie. In fact, it is almost 10 times what Briery is and Briery is considered an excellent crappie lake."
Both waters have a very stable crappie fishery. Anglers have counted on both locations to produce nice fish in the 12-inch range for quite some time. These two waters stand out from other crappie destinations for this reason.
At Buggs Island, the forage is shad, particularly threadfin shad. Successful anglers that fish Buggs in March and April target coves with shallow water and cover. Brushpiles, fallen trees and even docks make good places for crappie to congregate.
According to DiCenzo, the average black crappie at Buggs is nearly 1 pound and measures 12 inches. White crappie, which account for only five percent of the population, grow a bit larger, averaging between 1 pound and 2 pounds. Anglers who fish Buggs (and know where to go) will find that catching a few dozen fish each day is not unusual.
DiCenzo wanted anglers to understand that they should take home fish that measure 9 to 11 inches. There seems to be two groups of crappie that thrive in Buggs Island. One group of fish tends to grow very slowly. In other words, while one 9-inch fish may be a few years old, another 9-inch crappie may be 9 years old! Don't toss back an eating-sized fish thinking it will grow a little larger in a few years. Anglers would be doing the lake and population a favor to harvest eating-sized fish.
As noted above, Briery is tougher to fish because of the abundance of vertical structure. This structure makes the lake one big hideout for
fish. Anglers should get to know their fish-finder, consult a map (which can be picked up from Wersham Grocery located just down the road from the boat ramp), and find shallow flats located near deeper water.
The black crappie feed on sunfish and insects at Briery but occasionally will prey on herring fry, too. Anglers may keep up to 25 fish a day at Briery. For more information on fishing this region, call (434) 392-9645.
The mountain regions of Virginia can be very tough areas to fish, particularly for warmwater species, such as bream or crappie. While no water within the two mountain regions will ever be like Buggs Island, there are still some decent locales to fish for speckled perch.
John Copeland, VDGIF fisheries biologist for the region, pointed out that the best bet in his region is Rural Retreat Lake. This 90-acre impoundment is located near the town of Rural Retreat in Wythe County. Catch rates at Rural Retreat Lake have stabilized at 162 fish per hour of sampling. After conducting sampling in April of 2005, Copeland noted that the quality of the fish has improved at Rural Retreat. In the late 1990s, the catch rate for quality fish was between 22 and 31 fish. Now that rate has increased and stabilized at around 58 quality fish per hour of electrofishing. The age structure of the fish at Rural Retreat is well balanced, too, which bodes well for the future of the fishery at the lake.
The lake has a boat ramp with good shoreline access, picnic areas, a campground and a concession. For information on facilities at the lake, call the Wythe County Parks and Recreation Department at (540) 686-4331 or (540) 223-6022.
As with the fishing in the Southern Mountain Region, the Northern Mountain Region's fishing is something of a poor cousin when compared with the eastern region of the state. The good news is that there are a few hidden gems in this region that make the fishing not only fun but also productive. Two lesser-known lakes that crappie enthusiasts may want to visit include Douthat Lake and the Upper Rec Pond.
Douthat Lake is a 50-acre fee-fishing lake located within Douthat State Park. The daily fee to fish the lake is $4. There are two fishing piers and fish attractors that offer good angling from the shoreline. Crappie are typically found near the brushy piles and debris found scattered around the lake.
Upper Rec Pond is another small 45-acre gem that will entertain crappie anglers with fish in the 8- to 10-inch range. The fish are caught from the bank or from small johnboats or canoes. There is also a handicapped-accessible fishing pier.
Arguably, the best crappie lake in the region, however, is Moomaw Lake. The 12-mile-long impoundment of the Jackson River covers 2,530 surface acres. It has abundant standing timber in the lower end, which is where the best crappie angling can be had. During the month of April, anglers do well to focus on the standing timber to catch the fat fish that thrive there.
VDIGF fisheries biologist Paul Bugas tells us that it is not unreasonable to catch fish between 11 and 12 inches that weigh a whopping 2 to 3 pounds. The original stock of these fish were transplants from Rural Retreat Lake some 25 years ago; today, the fish get fat by feeding primarily on alewives and spottail shiners. Jigging and dipping minnows amid the cover at the lower end of the lake is where the gravy is for crappie anglers.
Bugas also added that anglers fishing for crappie will often take yellow perch to round out their stringers of fine eating fish.
For more information on fishing opportunities in the Northern Mountain Region, please call (540) 248-9360.
In the Northern Piedmont, there are a number of solid crappie destinations that bear serious consideration. We spoke to three of the fisheries biologists that manage the waters in the region.
Steve Owens, who works out of the Fredericksburg office of VDGIF, pointed out that he has two destinations that he would send anglers to for crappie. Lake Orange is at the top of his list. Since the inception of the 9-inch minimum size limit on crappie in 2004, the fishery has really responded.
Owens told us, "Crappie have responded impressively, with most fish harvested by anglers measuring 10 inches or longer. Crappie grow very fast in this impoundment and reach a legal size in three years. Every season, angler catches have included a number of fish in the 12- to 13-inch range. Most anglers spoken with at Lake Orange are very supportive of the minimum size limit as their catch rates of larger fish has taken off."
Owens suggests that anglers head uplake in April where the water is warmer. Find a beaver lodge or felled tree and begin fishing.
Another good fishery, Curtis Lake in Stafford County, is one of those quiet places that does not get much attention. The population of crappie at Curtis, however, averages 9 to 11 inches in size and there are fish up to 14 inches present.
There are still plenty of standing trees in the lake and plenty of blowdowns, which offer crappie good ambush sites and anglers good fishing spots.
As with many crappie lakes that have a good deal of cover, though, finding out which piece of cover on the lake is currently holding fish can be tough. It is this writer's experience that the far side of the lake away from the boat ramp is the better area to begin probing for specks. The fish like the points and coves where the trees are both standing and felled.
John Odenkirk is the chief fisheries biologist in the Fredericksburg office. Odenkirk said that although he has not been able to survey Occoquan lately, he knows that it holds some very nice white crappie. That gives northern Virginia anglers a good local water to fish, especially since Lake Manassas has been closed to the public.
Of course, we mentioned Lake Anna in several recent crappie articles, and for good reason. Anna has always been a top destination for crappie in the Northern Piedmont and it remains stable. Odenkirk reported that although the gill net catch rate was down a bit last year, the populations seem to be on the rebound from several years ago.
Popular locations to fish in the spring at Anna include the bridge pilings, the Splits and points where there are boulders or submerged brush in the uplake area.
Dean Fowler is the third fisheries biologist that we were able to catch up with and he offered several destinations for anglers residing the Richmond area.
Lake Chesdin was his first pick. The 3,100-acre Lake Chesdin has a load of fish in the 8- to 10-inch range, so while fish may be a tad on the small size, the catch rates for anglers will be higher. Fowler recalled that anglers are reporting more fish over 10 inches this year than last year, so things are looking up.
er springtime hotspots are uplake at Chesdin and the feeder creeks. Fishing pressure is light, according to Fowler, and he would not be unhappy if more anglers harvested more crappie. Anglers will find that there are three private ramps at Chesdin and one public ramp. The public ramp is on the Dinwiddie side of the lake.
Lake Gordonsville is a pretty 75-acre lake in Louisa County seven miles south of Gordonsville. It has light fishing pressure and is fished mostly by local anglers. Crappie are abundant at Gordonsville, yet 10-inch fish are caught regularly. There are no known shad in the lake, so bluegills and sunfish are the primary forage. Woody structures in coves are the primary locations to catch spawning fish in April. Fowler also suggests checking main points on the lake.
For more information on the previous two lakes or other waters in the area, call (804) 367-6796.
As this issue hits the stands, the crappie fishing is really taking off. Get a bucket of minnows and head to the nearest crappie water to get your specks while the fishing is fun, fast and easy!