We've gathered information on some of the top fisheries for each month of the year in Virginia. Get out your calendars and start planning your fishing season now. (February 2010)
Many if not most of us have a favorite game fish. For me it's the smallmouth bass, with trout coming in second. But sometime during the year, I will also go after largemouths, stripers, catfish and various species of panfish. Virginia Game & Fish's annual fishing calendar tries to satisfy the angling needs of folks who have a favorite fish and those who are generalists. Here are some bodies of water that you may want to visit this year.
Panfish: Gardy's Millpond
Gardy's Millpond, a 75-acre impoundment in the Northern Neck, may just be the destination for those Tidewater anglers looking for some wintertime panfish action. Scott Herrmann, Region 1, District 1 fisheries biologist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), notes that over the last few electrofishing surveys biologists have conducted, the body of water has consistently produced redear sunfish up to 10 inches in length with the majority of fish in the 7- to 9-inch range.
Herrmann adds that the lake's bluegill population is making a slow comeback from the lake drawdown that occurred a few years back when repairs were made on the dam. A 2008 survey showed that the bluegills experienced a very successful spawn in 2007, and those are the fish that will be prime catching size this year. The same survey showed some larger bluegills still present, with some fish ranging in size up to 8.5 inches.
Chain Pickerel: Lake Moomaw
When I earned my driver's license, some childhood chums and I fanatically pursued chain pickerel in creeks in Roanoke and Craig counties. Then and -- unfortunately -- now, many people look upon chain pickerel as inferior game fish. Well, that attitude might change if you have the chance to tangle with the 3-pound-plus pickerel that lurk in 2,530-acre Lake Moomaw in the northwestern part of the state.
Last winter, Jerry Paitsel of Alleghany County and I went fishing on Moomaw, and Jerry landed one pickerel that easily topped 20 inches. Pickerel are one of the few species that consistently feed throughout the winter. And making them even more appealing is the fact that they will also move to shallow flats, even when the water temperature is less than 40 degrees.
Paitsel and I were targeting smallmouth bass that day, but few folks should complain about a game fish that strikes as savagely as a pickerel does or that slugs it out with such desperation. When the Jackson River was impounded to form Moomaw, many anglers felt that the river's native population of pickerel would not do well in making the transition to a new environment. Happily, that prediction has proved to be false.
Crappie: Lake Gaston
South-central Virginia's Lake Gaston is primarily known for two reasons: its big largemouth bass and omnipresent boat docks. For years, tournament anglers have conducted milk runs based on those two traits of the 20,300-acre impoundment.
But if you're neither a tournament angler nor interested in run-and-gun style fishing, then you might want to pick out several docks to camp out on this month and angle for crappie. Given its location in one of the warmer areas of the Old Dominion, Gaston is often one of the first lakes to turn on in the early spring. And a dock with a few sunken brushpiles or cedar bundles in the vicinity may just be magnets for the tasty crappie.
Drum : Chesapeake Bay
Carter Shewbridge of the Virginia Beach Fishing Center says that April of 2009 produced excellent numbers of black drum and very good numbers of red drum and that this spring should be another banner year.
"People caught black drum up to between 50 and 60 pounds and red drum (up to) 30 pounds," said Shewbridge. "Drum are usually the most popular fish this time of year. It's pretty much a catch-and-release fishery. But they make up for it in their fighting ability."
Shewbridge relates that the best drum fishing takes place from the shore out to about 30 miles and includes the Chesapeake Bay. For more information: Virginia Beach Fishing Center, www.virginiafishing.com, (800) 725-0509.
Largemouth Bass: Tidal James
Harry Byrd IV of Richmond admits to being a fishing generalist, as he travels over much of the state chasing after anything with fins. So. when I asked him for a hot tip about what to go after and where in May, I knew that the action for whatever he angles for this month has to be outstanding.
"In the spring, I've caught largemouth bass up to 7 pounds in the Tidal James," said Byrd. "A 2- to 3-pounder is a good fish, and there are good numbers of 12- to 15-inch bass. Some of the biggest bass are actually caught by fishermen baiting with live white perch for stripers. The striper fishermen hook them through the nose and usually free-line them.
"The white perch are often quite active this month, as they go on spawning runs, and the bass and stripers feed voraciously on them. Those white perch just seem to get the whole food chain going -- there are just so many of them."
Byrd relates that he often uses a kayak to go after tidal largemouths, but that many anglers use the bass-boat-friendly ramps at Ancarrow, Dutch Gap and Deep Bottom.
Panfish: Lee Hall Reservoir
Let's say you live in Tidewater, Virginia and are looking for a destination where your kids, or just yourself, can catch a lot of fish this spring and summer. If this is your situation, VDGIF biologist Scott Herrmann offers the perfect destination.
"Lee Hall Reservoir might be the ideal place for young anglers to catch a high number of medium-sized bluegills," he said. "It doesn't produce the largest panfish, but it provides a wide assortment of fish for children and anglers that are happy just catching fish on a consistent basis."
Lee Hall, which lies in Newport News, provided the "highest catch rate of bluegills from a public fishery" in his district, said Herrmann. The 2008 electrofishing survey collected 617 bluegills for a catch rate of 463 per hour. The majority of the bluegills were within the 4- to 5-inch range with a few fish up to 7 inches in length. The survey also revealed a decent population of redear sunfish, with 155 collected.
The catch rate of redear sunfish (116 per hour) showed an improvement from past samples. The majority of redear sunfish were in the 5- to 6- inch range with some fish up to 8 inches in length. The survey also resulted in the collection of a total of 126 pumpkinseed sunfish (95 per hour) and 85 yellow perch (64 p
Catfish: Upper New
John Copeland, VDGIF biologist for the New, reveals that one part of the New River is vastly superior for catfish.
"Cooler water temperatures downstream from Claytor Dam may provide optimal conditions for bass and sunfish and limit flathead and channel catfish populations, since catfish population estimates downstream from Claytor Dam are about 50 percent of what they are upstream from Claytor Lake," said the biologist.
It is not until the stream inches nearer to West Virginia that the percentage of catfish begins to match the fishery above Claytor, continued Copeland. Of course, another reason for the superior fishery may be that the New above Claytor receives far less fishing pressure than the lower section does.
In any event, look for the upper river channels and flatheads to lie in deeper pools during the day and to move shallower later in the evening, as the cats congregate in flats off the main channel and in cuts along the shoreline. Between 8 and 9 p.m. on a July evening is a golden time to catch these fish, although, of course, night-fishing can also be quite productive.
Bowfin: Chickahominy Lake
The bowfin is probably one of the least appreciated fish in the Old Dominion, but that's because of a flaw in us fishermen, not the fish itself says Harry Byrd.
"Bowfin strike viciously and are phenomenal fighters," he said. "One of the best places to fish for them is Chickahominy Lake, and the best time to go there is the whole month of August and the early part of September -- the hotter the weather the better. A citation is 30 inches, and my friends and I catch a lot of fish between 26 and 30 inches.
"Lots of times when I hear Chickahominy fishermen complaining about losing huge maybe state-record largemouths that fight so deep that they never see them, I am willing to bet what they really lost was a big bowfin. Another thing I like about bowfin is that they are one of the oldest fish on the planet and unlike a lot of popular Virginia fish are actually native to our state."
Byrd says that bowfin are extremely difficult to tire and, because of their teeth, can be treacherous to land. Harry either lands them under the belly or lips them while he is wearing heavy-duty gloves. But this species is not through fighting even when it arrives inside a boat.
"Bowfin have lungs, so they seem to become reinvigorated when they get inside your boat," continued Byrd. "They never seem to stop thrashing around, so don't bother to wait for them to become tired."
Because of those lungs, bowfin flourish even in hot, muddy water. On Chickahominy Lake, Byrd concentrates on sluggish, steamy backwaters in the back of creeks and also in main-lake coves. Watch for fish lazily finning about and "sipping air" he said.
Channel Catfish: Upper Potomac
James "Catfish" Apperson, a guide from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, maintains that late summer is an excellent time to duel with channel catfish on the Upper Potomac.
"The end of summer brings a burst of activity from the channel cats," he said. "I fish for them from near the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac downstream to Point of Rocks. During the day, I find the fish on long dropoffs along the main channel. At night, the cats move up close to the banks on gravel bars. Weedbeds can be good anytime.
"An average channel will run around 6 pounds, but I have caught them up to 12 pounds and 33 inches long. Rarely will I catch one under 4 pounds because of the size of the baits I use."
Interestingly, Apperson believes that anglers who employ light tackle will catch more and bigger catfish, a precept that he learned from his late father. So the guide uses medium-heavy spinning rods and 8-pound-test mono, which results in his baits finning about in a livelier manner. For guided trips with Apperson, contact him at (304) 724-7373, or e-mail email@example.com.
Roanoke Bass: Nottoway River
Can you imagine a rock bass on steroids? If you can, then you may be able to envision what it would be like to tangle with a Roanoke bass, which is a very close relative of the rock bass -- only bigger -- and feistier -- and a fighter with more staying power than a redeye. The knock on rock bass is that they strike hard but tire easily, but the same is not true with the Roanoke bass, which is able to put up sustained battles, says Harry Byrd.
"If you have never caught a Roanoke bass, I have the spot for you," he said. "The Nottoway River, upstream and down from Stony Creek in the Petersburg area is a great stream for them. Like their cousin the Northern rock bass, Roanoke bass love cold temps so the fall is a good time to fish for them."
Roanoke bass look very similar to redeyes, and even professional biologists have to closely examine the two species.
Like rock bass, Roanoke bass prefer moving water, especially eddies and current breaks. On the Nottoway, also look for them in riffle areas. On the Nottaway and Meherrin rivers, no Roanoke bass less than 8 inches can be kept, and the limit is five per day in the aggregate with rock bass.
Striped Bass: Chesapeake Bay
Harry Byrd notes that he and his friends catch monster stripers in November and December out in the Chesapeake Bay. The target areas are near the Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. Look for the fish to be orienting near some type of cover, such as pilings. However, there are times when the fish appear to be following the baitfish.
Of course, the presence, or absence, of gulls can be a key to where the striped bass are at any given time. Some anglers prefer to anchor near the tunnel, others opt to drift, and still other fishermen favor trolling. Whichever method you prefer, says Byrd, the action can be phenomenal and last for long periods at a time.
Muskies: Upper James River
Based on some recent electro-shocking data, VDGIF fisheries biologist Scott Smith reports two interesting tidbits regarding the upper James River.
"Muskies are much more abundant than they were at any time in the 1990s," he said. "We (VDGIF) are not really sure why, but we are working on this question."
But here is something that should be true for this wintertime. Muskie fishing can be excellent during the coldwater period, and these toothy creatures heavily prey on such species as fallfish, suckers and carp. Excellent, that is, for a species where one fish per day can be considered quite good sport.
Look for some of the best action to take place below Lynchburg and above Maidens, as this stretch of the river features a number of pools and backwaters.