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Top Ideas For Family Fishing In Virginia

Top Ideas For Family Fishing In Virginia

Looking for something fun to do with your kids this summer? Then load them into the family vehicle and head for one of these waters.

On the Burners Ford float on the South Fork of the Shenandoah, Luray's Caleb Goebel shows off a fine redbreast he caught to his dad, Christian. The South Fork offers a number of family-friendly fishing trips.
Photo by Bruce Ingram

Christian Goebel, his son Caleb and I hadn't been on the South Fork of the Shenandoah but a few minutes when the lad shouted that he had a "big one" on. Sure enough, the fish was, by all accounts, a very impressive one for its species -- an 8-inch redbreast sunfish. The panfish had come charging out from a rock and mauled a shallow-running crankbait. Caleb wrestled the fish aboard and we had our first "picture fish" of the day.

The three of us were floating from Burners Ford to Bentonville (7 miles), a junket that the elder Goebel considers one of the best on the waterway for sunfish. Indeed, perhaps no other western Virginia river sports such a superb sunfish fishery as this stream -- one that the Native Americans called Daughter of the Stars.

Parents who are looking for a family outdoors trip with their kids might well want to consider this junket, as well as several others, this year.

The Burners Ford float is especially appealing in that it only contains riffles and a few easy Class Is. At Burners Ford in Page County, the river-right put-in is off Route 664 via Route 340. The first mile features riffles, ledges, and plenty of backwaters -- the latter are often filled with redbreasts. Overall Eddy is the next major feature, and the shorelines in this area contain some jumbo sunnies. At about the two-mile point, you will drift through several Class Is; look for the sunfish to be well downstream from these drops.

At the three-mile point, you will come to Culler's Bottom, which has George Washington National Forest land on river left. Canoe camping is possible in this area should you wish to undertake a combo fishing and camping excursion with your loved ones.

Another easy Class I appears at the four-mile marker. The river dramatically slows for the rest of this excursion, which makes this stretch excellent for both numbers and size of sunfish. The take-out is on river left at Indian Hollow Road Bridge, a low water structure. Caution: Don't attempt to sail under this bridge.


The Bentonville to Karo junket (8 miles) is also a marvelous one for families. The first mile of this trip is ideal for sunfish fans. Fields and pastures characterize the shorelines, and the bank cover, which consists mostly of submerged brush and downed trees, is splendid sunfish habitat. In the second mile, the river's pace picks up, but no major rapids exist. Another major feature in the first half of this float is the Andy Guest State Park, which lies on river right. Families may want to combine a day on the water with a sojourn at this establishment.

At the five-mile point, you will come to a long Class I rapid and series of riffles, known as McCoy's Falls. Though this section is called a falls, this term is something of a misnomer as the stream bottom actually drops very little. A few Class Is and riffles characterize the rest of this float. The take-out is on river right at a gravel ramp on Gooney Run. Chapman Farm Road, via Route 340, leads to the access point.

The Karo to Front Royal (six miles) float is one I have taken numerous times. The Class II Karo Rapid lies at the very beginning of this trip and should be portaged on its right side. The South Fork meanders along very lazily for the next two miles, which means that the bank action for redbreasts can be outstanding. The occasional riffle and island can also indicate that sunfish are nearby downstream.

The next major feature is the half-mile-long Kings Eddy, another summertime sunfish hotspot. The only major rapid on the remainder of the junket is the Class I Three Chute Rapid; take the middle pathway. At Front Royal, the river-right take-out is at a concrete ramp off Criser Road, via Route 340.

For more information, contact the Andy Guest Shenandoah River State Park, (540) 622-6840); Shenandoah River Outfitters,, (800) 6CANOE2; Shenandoah River Trips, which can be found at, or by calling (800) RAPIDS-1; Front Royal Visitor's Center, (800) 338-2576; and the Luray-Page County Chamber of Commerce,, (888) 743-3915.


Captain Ferrell McLain of Bayfish Sport Fishing Charters in Reedsville maintains that the warm-weather period is an excellent time for families and their offspring to come to the Chesapeake Bay.

"During the summer months, the bay has three species of fish that are extremely easy to catch -- croakers, flounder and gray trout," McLain said. "And the best way to go about catching those three species is by bottom-fishing. Kids who know how to use a bobber in freshwater ponds can quickly learn how to bottom-fish because the concept is the same.

"All a kid has to do is toss out a 2-to 4-ounce weight, let it fall to the bottom, and wait for something to thump the bait, which usually consists of pieces of squid. Even kids with short attention spans will enjoy this type of fishing because they usually won't have to wait more than 45 seconds or so between bites. Little kids especially like the nonstop hits."

The captain comments that the croaker typically runs between 1 and 3 pounds, flounder around 15 inches or so and gray trout 12 to 15 inches. This past summer was below par for 17-inch and larger flounder, continues McLain, although on one trip a 22-incher was landed. The minimum size for flounder is 17 inches. The best places to fish include channel edges near Smith Point and the flats south of Tangier Island.

McClain guides only a maximum of six people at a time on his boat, so some parents may want to bring along another adult and his or her offspring. For more information, contact (888) BAYFISH.


Although 20,000-acre Smith Mountain Lake is primarily known as a striped bass destination and second as a largemouth bass hotspot, this Roanoke-Lynchburg-area body of water also boasts an enticing crappie fishery. Chris Blankenship, a 15-year-old sophomore at Lord Botetourt High School in Daleville, enjoys visiting the impoundment with his father, James.

"It's fun to go to with my dad to Smith Mountain and fish for crappie," Chris said. "We get to spend time together, talk about stuff an

d fish. We've caught some big crappie with our biggest one being 14 1/2 inches that Dad caught. We like to fish the Blackwater River arm and the area around Smith Mountain Lake State Park. I personally prefer the Blackwater arm because it doesn't get the boat traffic that a lot of areas on the lake do."

The younger Blankenship recommends that anglers concentrate on docks that lie low to the water, that is, less than a foot above the waterline, as they seem to attract more and larger papermouths. Of course, docks in various states of disrepair also fetch fish, as do brushpiles. The magic depth for all these forms of wood cover? Chris says 15 feet. Blankenship favors 1 1/2-inch-long minnows for bait or the "smallest ones swimming in your minnow bucket."

Micro jigs are also good, specifically ones that feature a green body and a pink head or a white body and a pink head. Yo-yo the jigs as slowly as possible, never moving the lure more than a foot at a time. Finally, says the high-schooler, employing a 4-pound-test will result in more bites.


In southwest Virginia, Gatewood Lake presents some family friendly fishing, maintained John Copeland, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) biologist.

"Gatewood offers some good bluegill and redear sunfish fishing with the opportunity to catch some nice largemouth bass and black crappie and an occasional smallmouth bass," he said. "In the last few years, yellow perch have been introduced by anglers and have taken off in a big way. I have no data on their population, due to a lack of sampling there in the past three years, but I understand that anglers are catching numerous perch of decent sizes.

"The only drawback for Gatewood concerning family fishing is that the lake is best fished by anglers using a boat. The shoreline fishing opportunities are limited at this lake due to a lack of habitat at the areas where there is some bank access."

Gatewood Reservoir is owned by Pulaski County and is operated by Pulaski County Parks and Recreation Department (PCPRD). The 162-acre body of water is managed cooperatively for fishing, but the PCPRD sets the hours of operation. Various restrictions exist. For more information, call the PCPRD at (540) 994-8624.


VDGIF biologist John Odenkirk said that families should enjoy a visit to Lake Anna State Park, especially those living between Fredericksburg and Richmond.

"The state park is a beautiful destination with ample and usually very uncrowded picnic areas, bank-fishing on the main reservoir, and a 3-acre pond for children and for disabled angling," said Odenkirk. "The reservoir can provide good catfish (white and channel) but the bluegill population (like in most large reservoirs) is modest and of poor size structure. Because the bottom profile is very silty, if shore-anglers seek out (and find) blowdowns and other woody debris, crappie can be caught from the bank.

"The pond has good bank access with several fishing platforms and bulkheads constructed by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR). The pond was renovated and restocked with bass, bluegills, redear and channel catfish in the early 1990s."

The biologist strongly suggests that families concentrate their efforts in the state park area and at the pond, especially if they do not have a boat. Anna, as a whole, has relatively poor bank access, and Odenkirk says that families would likely experience very little success if they merely wandered around the shoreline looking for a place to wet a line.

For reservations at Lake Anna State Park or at any other similar establishment, dial (800) 933-PARK.

Lake Anna and the aforementioned Smith Mountain State Park are not the only major Commonwealth impoundments that have state parks on their shorelines. Occoneechee State Park lies on the shoreline of Buggs Island Lake, and Claytor Lake State Park rests on the banks of its namesake impoundment. Both of these establishments offer cabins, camping, hiking and picnicking. Buggs, especially, sports an excellent population of crappie, and Claytor features all three major species of black bass: largemouths, smallmouths and spots.

Of course, some smaller lakes also feature state parks along their shores. For years, my parents took my sister Janice and me to Douthat State Park outside of Clifton Forge. There we used a rowboat to go trout fishing on the 50-acre lake.

For the past several years, my sister, who now lives in New York City, has come to her home state to vacation at Fairy Stone State Park near Martinsville. Fairy Stone offers a campground, cabins, picnicking, swimming and a 168-acre impoundment that drains into Philpott Lake.

In far Western Virginia, Hungry Mother State Park has been a favorite family destination for generations. The 108-acre lake contains bluegills and largemouths, and the impoundment's mountain setting and wooded shoreline make it as scenic as any mini-impoundment in the Old Dominion. My family has stayed at the cabins there, and a campground, restaurant, gift shop and hiking and biking trails are also part of the package.

In Central Virginia, Holliday Lake State Park, which lies within the Appomattox-Buckingham State Forest, is an eye-catching destination for sporting families dwelling in that region of Virginia. The 150-acre lake contains largemouths, crappie and bluegills. Canoe, rowboat and paddleboat rentals are available, as are swimming, playgrounds and hiking, biking and horse trails.

Richmonders seeking a close to home weekend getaway need travel no farther than 20 miles from downtown to arrive at Pocahontas State Park. The 200-acre Swift Creek Lake and two other smaller impoundments contain largemouths, bluegills, crappie and catfish.

Other parks with notable impoundment angling opportunities include Staunton River State Park on Buggs Island, Twin Lakes State Park and its Goodwin Lake in central Virginia, and First Landing State Park and Natural Area on the Chesapeake Bay. Several years ago, my family spent a pleasant sojourn at this state park. Our lunches and dinners consisted of fresh fish that I had caught earlier in the day from the bay. We loved the climate-controlled cabin where we stayed; campsites, picnic areas, boat ramps, bicycle trail, and kayak rental are among the other amenities.


River enthusiasts are not left out of the state park equation either. In addition to the earlier mentioned Andy Guest State Park on the South Fork of the Shenandoah, the James River State Park lies just off Route 60 in Buckingham County. This 1,500-acre establishment is one of our newest state parks and proffers an environmental education center, boat launches, two primitive campgrounds, equestrian camping, a 1/4-mile-long wheelchair accessible trail, and a universally accessible fishing pier.

Obviously, the James River and its smallmouth bass, rock bass and redbreast sunfish are major draws for the sporting family. The closest is Bent Creek to Win

gina (12 1/2 miles) with the park lying on river right about halfway through the excursion. The Bent Creek put-in is on river right at the Route 60 bridge.

In the bridge area, wade-fishermen can work the water willow beds and the underwater rock cover. If you and your offspring decide to wade-fish this area, please wear lifejackets. The James flows very gently through here, but, as is true on any river, dropoffs do exist. Topwater baits, in-line spinners, and ultra light crankbaits should produce plenty of action for good numbers of rock bass, redbreasts and maybe even a smallie or two.

Another plus for the Bent Creek getaway is that no major rapids exist, just Class I rapids. The first of these is Freeland's Falls, which occurs about a mile into the float. Next comes a backwards S-curve for about 1 1/2 miles. I have never had much luck for smallmouths in this area, but redbreasts are fairly abundant.

Then comes a mile-long straight stretch that is followed by Mixon's Falls -- another very easy Class I rapid. A major highlight of the Bent Creek trip comes next -- Tod's Shoals. Sycamores crowd both banks, rock cover abounds, an outside bend exists, and smallmouth bass and redeyes thrive in solid numbers.

For the next three miles, the best chance for fish comes in the form of redbreast sunfish. Target bank cover and the occasional shoreline eddy. You then will come to the Buffalo Station area at the midway point of the float. The state park rests on river right.

A multitude of riffles characterize much of the rest of the float. In order, you will course through or by Welch Rock Shoals, the entrance of the Tye River on river left, the remains of the Tye River Dam, and Cunningham Island. Shallow runs and pools describe much of the last two miles, and though jumbo smallmouth bass are uncommon, panfish can be found in pleasing numbers. The Wingina take-out is on river left where the Route 56 bridge crosses the James.

The warm weather period is a great time to spend fishing with loved ones. Try some of these family getaways this summer.

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