Virginia's Trout Cornucopia

In Virginia you can match your favorite kind of trout angling to a wide variety of lakes, rivers and creeks. Check these spots out during your next trip.

By Bruce Ingram

One of the great things about Virginia is the variety of places where trout anglers can seek their favorite gamefish. Impoundment, river and creek angling opportunities are all available, and fishermen have the option of seeking out wild, put-and-grow, or put-and-take fish. This month, we'll take a look at some good fisheries in all of these categories.

Last year in mid June, my wife Elaine, son Mark, and I traveled west from our home in Botetourt County to 60-acre Douthat Lake in Bath County for a day of picnicking, hiking and trout fishing. The impoundment, the namesake attraction of Douthat Lake State Park, has long been a favorite of the Ingram Family, as my parents would bring my sister Janice and me there when we were kids.

Although I would receive some satisfaction from splashing water into Janice's eyes when we were youngsters bopping about in the lake, my major focus was badgering my father to such a degree that he would agree to rent a boat from the concessionaire so that I could go fishing. One of the most vivid memories of my adolescence is casting a hair jig into 30 feet of water and, a short time later, hauling in a brightly colored rainbow. The fish wasn't very big, but my mom proportioned it so that each member of our family dined that evening on fried trout.

Today, Douthat Lake is still in the memory-making business for families who enjoy the outdoors and fishing together. Dave Collett, assistant park manager, told me that the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) stocks rainbows, browns and brooks twice a week from the first Saturday in April through June 15 and then again, conditions permitting, from September 15 through the end of October. These are the "fee fishing seasons" at Douthat, when a daily permit is required in addition to a regular fishing license. During the time in between these seasons, no trout are stocked and no daily permit or trout license is required.

"The fishing here is basically put-and-take, although there is some carryover in the summer," said Collett. "When the trout fisherman give up on the trout, individuals who like to go after bass, sunfish, black crappie, chain pickerel and catfish replace them. Douthat Lake is a great place to take kids fishing or to introduce them to the sport.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

"Coming here to fish is a real tradition for people living in nearby Clifton Forge and Covington as well as in Roanoke, Salem and Lexington. People come as kids and then years later take their own children."

The assistant park manager describes Douthat Lake as being like a big bowl. Midlake depths are often around 30 feet while water at the dam is approximately 40 feet deep. Underwater springs often draw trout and help survival rates. However, even the cool water from those springs has not been enough to overcome the intense heat of the summer droughts the past few years. Late summer angling for trout can be non-productive.

Collett relates that anglers adept at finesse fishing often do the best at Douthat. Light line is a necessity with 2- to 4-pound test being the choice of many fishermen. Effective baits include cheese, nightcrawlers, mealworms, and prepared trout bait. Anglers often place three splitshot about a foot above the hook. Since the fish often hug the bottom, fishermen have to employ weights to make the bait descend in a timely manner. Another tactic - and one that is effective and rarely utilized - is trolling ultralight spinners.

Another trout fishing option at Douthat Lake State Park involves Wilson Creek, the feeder stream for the lake. Below the dam, a small "children only" area has been established. In the lake and creek, children under 12 can fish without a permit as long as an adult with a permit accompanies them, and if their combined creel does not exceed the limit for an adult, which is six trout. Wilson Creek also offers trout fishing above the lake for some 4 miles.

For more information, contact Douthat Lake State Park at (540) 862-8100, or visit

The South Fork of the Holston River in Smyth County features two special regulation areas that help make the stream one of the premier trout fisheries in the Commonwealth. Part of the South Fork is under wild trout stream regulations, which require the release of all fish caught. Only single hook, artificial lures are permitted. The special regulation section lies within the boundaries of the game department's Buller Fish Hatchery from the concrete dam downstream to the lower boundary of the hatchery property

The other special regulation section of the South Fork is near Marion and Sugar Grove and is off Route 16, a major road for far western Virginia. The section itself includes 4 miles of stream extending from 500 feet above the dam at Buller Hatchery, upstream to the upper Jefferson National Forest boundary above the crossing of the Appalachian Trail (AT). In this portion of the river, only single hook, artificial lures are permitted, and the creel limit is two fish per day over 16 inches.

Bill Kittrell, a fisheries biologist for the VDGIF, raves about this stream, which is a popular destination for anglers living in the Bristol, Abington, Saltville and Wytheville areas.

"The South Fork Holston River is, without a doubt, the premier stream to fish in far Southwest Virginia if anglers want wild rainbow and brown trout," he said. "Although long sections of the stream are stocked, it is the wild trout fishery that is hard to believe. This is due in part to the excellent habitat conditions and cool water temperatures. This valley stream is spring fed near Sugar Grove in Smyth County, and many of the tributaries are on U.S. Forest Service property."

Kittrell also notes that the 4-mile section of trophy trout water upstream of the water intake dam at the Buller Fish Hatchery flows through a "nearly inaccessible gorge" and considerable private property before it "reappears" to the world at Highway 670 (Teas Road). A favorite access point for anglers is at the AT bridge mentioned above, but a few pull-offs also exist along the highway.

"The South Fork contains wild reproducing populations of rainbows, up to 11 inches, and browns, many well past 16 inches," said Kittrell. "The VDGIF also supplementally stocks fingerling browns, which grow up wild in this very productive stream."

Anglers may also encounter stocked catchable-size trout, for this arm of the Holston is also one of the state's most popular

put-and-take streams. Fishermen should take especial care that they do not bring trout creeled in the regular put-and-take sections into either of the two special regulation areas.

"The stocked sections receive a great deal of fishing pressure," said Kittrell. "However, an angler should find a peaceful, relaxing day fishing in the special regulation area. In places, the scenery can be phenomenal.

Also, between the catch-and-release section and the 16-inch, 2 per day section is a small put-and-take-section that has been provided for handicapped fishermen. A nice pier/deck is located there and parking is available for mobility-impaired anglers near the pool immediately downstream from the water intake dam.

For more information, Kittrell suggests that anglers access the game department's Website at The site has a special section on the South Fork.

I have fished both the special regulation and put-and-take sections of the South Fork, and they are indeed extremely beautiful. A friend of mine, Barry Loupe of Saltville, has fished much of the river, and he says that anglers should be able to catch quality trout in both of the special regulation sections and put-and-take water. For the latter, Loupe says one of the most effective tactics is to drift live, full-length nightcrawlers through deep pools. Another likely spot is any undercut bank on outside bends, of which the river has many.

Virginia's put-and-take streams, also known as the "catchable trout-stocking program" are the core of the state's trout fishing. Every year, approximately 1,250,000 catchable trout are released into rivers and creeks across western Virginia and into a few fisheries in the Piedmont region that will support coldwater fish. By January 1 every year, most streams will have received fish, and stockings are usually finished by late May. If water levels and temperatures are conducive to stocking, many of these streams will receive more trout after October 1. For daily trout stocking updates during the stocking period, call (804) 525-FISH, or dial up the VDGIF Website listed earlier.

The Commonwealth boasts 49 counties and cities that receive trout under this program, so Virginia anglers' where-to-go options are numerous. Here, then, are some of the well-known waters. In Botetourt County, just a 30-minute drive from downtown Roanoke lies Jennings Creek. I have fished Jennings off and on for over 30 years and have long been amazed at this stream's productivity.

Riffles, in-stream boulders, rocky substrate, and lush streamside vegetation, composed largely of river birch, speckled alder and rhododendron, characterize Jennings, which is near Arcadia and is a major tributary of the nearby James River. As teenagers at Andrew Lewis High School in Salem, my friends and I would make annual April and May pilgrimages to Jennings to angle for stocked trout. Then, as now, stocked rainbows were abundant in the stream and provided the bulk of the angling action.

Because of its popularity, Jennings receives a great deal of pressure on weekends. But a weekday visitor should be able to locate a stretch of water that he can have to himself and be able to creel several trout for dinner. Jennings receives stockings under the Category A designation. This means fish are released once in October, once in November or December, once in January or February, and twice in each of the months of March, April and May.

Another good, but more isolated, Category A stream is the Bullpasture River in Bath County. Given its location in very rural Bath County and that it is well over a 90-minute drive from urban areas such as Roanoke and Lexington, the Bullpasture usually receives little fishing pressure except on Saturdays in April.

Many of those sportsmen who check out the stream in April and early to mid May are spring gobbler hunters who have hunted in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest in the morning and have decided to try their luck for trout in the afternoon.

Yet another Category A stream is Potts Creek in Craig County. A number of years ago, I introduced my son Mark to trout fishing by taking him to Potts. Mark was able to land a stocked brookie - his first ever trout. In the past, anglers could access the creek from both private and public land. However, today, only that section of the stream that flows through the Jefferson National Forest receives fish.

One of my favorite aspects concerning the Potts' fishery is that I can still catch trout after stockings have ceased for the spring. I remember going fishing there one day after finishing work and catching several rainbows during the evening hours. Limits don't come easily in late May and June, but an angler should be able to creel several fish for a meal.

The Maury River is one of the better midsize smallmouth streams in the Old Dominion, but the Maury's upper reaches in Rockbridge County also offer quality springtime fishing for stocked trout. The Maury is another Category A waterway, and in the February through May period, the action can be excellent. Lexington and Staunton dwellers especially will find a trek to this waterway very worthwhile and fairly close to home.

I also have fished the upper Maury during the summer months but have caught many more rock bass and smallmouth than trout. Be sure to check out the Maury before summertime water temperatures make the trout lethargic or the fishing pressure severely depletes their numbers.

One of the least publicized Virginia trout streams is the South Branch of the Potomac River in Highland County. The South Branch of the Potomac, as it flows through the Potomac Highlands of West Virginia, is one of the Southeast's premier smallmouth bass waterways. In fact, it is my favorite place in the Mountain State to fish for brown bass. Few people seem to be aware, however, that the South Branch actually begins in Virginia, and in Virginia, it is a Category B trout water. This means that the South Branch receives trout once in November or December, once in January or February, once in March, and twice between April and May 15.

The South Branch is little more than a creek as it flows through the Old Dominion, and the stream often becomes quite low by late May. In those years, the water often won't support trout well, if at all, by early summer. But a springtime drive to this Highland County water could be very productive early in the season. Route 220 north runs along much of the upper South Branch.

Among the other stocked trout streams, many possibilities abound. Indeed, all of the following are Category A streams. The lower Pedlar River in Amherst County draws anglers from the Charlottesville area and other Piedmont cities and towns as well. Burkes Fork in Floyd County has a reputation as one of the more gorgeous trout streams in the state and the fishing is just as impressive. The Little River is another Floyd County stream with a good reputation.

Grayson County offers Big Wilson creek and Elk Creek, two tributaries of the New River. Northern Virginia anglers can check out Passage Creek and Stony Creek in Shenandoah County.

And in Smyth County, a different arm of the Holston - the Middle Fork Holston River in the Marion area - has legions of fans.

These are by no means the only destinations that trout fishermen can select for getaways. Whether you are fan of wild browns and rainbows or your tastes run more to stocked trout, the VDGIF has tried to meet your angling needs. Right now, the fishing action is at a peak on many of these bodies of water.

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