The Old Dominion offers a number of fishing hotspots for families. One of the destinations below is bound to suit the needs of you and yours. (June 2006)
It was June of 1987 and my wife, Elaine, and I were on our first excursion to northern Virginia's Rappahannock River. At the time, we had two children, both of whom were too young to bring on an overnight float trip -- combining diaper changing and camping out were not something we were ready for. Still, we were curious about how such a family fishing affair might unfold, so it was only natural that when we happened to drift by a Boy Scout leader and his son, Elaine and I observed closely how the man and his offspring were making do.
As matters evolved, our respective groups even managed to share a campsite that night. And the scout leader told us that every year he and some other parents took the Boy Scouts on a two-day float down the Rappahannock, giving the youngsters a chance to experience the wilderness that defines the upper river and the opportunity to earn a number of merit badges.
That encounter was inspiring to Elaine and me, for as the years passed by and our former toddlers became old enough to go float-fishing, our daughter, Sarah, annually went to "canoe camps" on the James and New rivers, and our son, Mark, accompanied me on a trip to the Rappahannock, as well as on treks to the James and other state rivers and lakes.
Virginia features a number of family-friendly fishing opportunities on its upland and tidal rivers, major and minor impoundments and trout streams. Here are some possible destinations for you and yours.
Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) biologist John Odenkirk has good news concerning the upper Rappahannock. First, the 2004 year-class of smallmouths was epic in its abundance and the biologist expresses great optimism for a major improvement in the fishery in the near future. Second, the elimination of Embrey Dam several years ago should continue to be a major plus.
"The removal of Embrey could not have come at a more opportune time, as the additional clupeid forage should boost the biomass and growth rates to new heights," Odenkirk said. "We have not directly monitored post-dam removal growth rates yet. We have a nice pre-data set but want to wait for several years before fully assessing the impacts of the dam's demise."
The removal of Embrey Dam is a real boon for parents and their children. Mark and I once portaged around this obstruction and it was a long and arduous affair for the youngster and me.
Peter Pfotenhauer, a public school teacher and angler from Fredericksburg, agrees with Odenkirk about the positive effects of Embrey's demise.
"Removing Embrey Dam returned the Rappahannock to its natural free-flowing state," he said. "What used to be two rivers in a biological sense is now one, as species such as hickory shad, American shad, herring and striped bass now can return to their historical spawning areas. The extra biomass the shad fry will create will add significantly to the forage base for smallmouths.
"Already gizzard shad are much more plentiful above the dam site than previously, and the smallies seem to be taking advantage of the extra food. In the past, smallmouth growth on the Rappahannock was the slowest of any major river in Virginia, and the lack of forage was the prime reason. Now, with new potential food sources, biologists hope the smallmouths will show faster growth."
Pfotenhauer relates that the dam breach has also allowed numbers of catfish to move upstream. He has observed cats finning around in schools of 20 to 40. Catfish were not present in numbers above Embrey Dam before the breach, and Peter considers their presence now a sure sign that the dam breach is working. Additionally, several sources indicate that 12- to 14-inch stripers were caught last summer above the confluence on the Rappahannock, including an 18- or 19-incher the Fredericksburg angler himself landed. Channel cats are a great species for youngsters to angle for, especially the fish in the 1- to 2-pound range.
However, Pfotenhauer is very worried about the continuing development of northern Virginia.
"All these good signs are potentially threatened by the impact future development may have on the Rappahannock," he said. "The Rap is unique among Virginia rivers, as there is very little streamside development, as the city of Fredericksburg owns the riparian buffer zone along the river because they bought the land from Virginia Power after that company abandoned plans to dam the Rappahannock. Truly, a river in such a pristine wilderness setting so close to the hordes of people living in the D.C. metro area is a treasure.
"But growth is starting to show impacts. Several property owners have made 'improvements' to their homes: illegally cutting trees that are on city property to improve their view of the river, creating a private boat launch on city property, and in one case attempting to divert the channel of the river to stop natural erosion on an outside river bend in order to preserve crop land. The latter involved millions of tons of rock and sediment deposited in the river, which has increased the amount and duration of turbid water downstream after rains. It now takes a good week after a significant rain event for the river to clear up for fishermen, which is longer than it used to," Pfotenhauer said.
Many Rappahannock enthusiasts are advocating Conservation Easements, to be held by such organizations as the Virginia Outdoor Foundation or The Nature Conservancy. Enforcement of city ordinances on the property, continued Pfotenhauer, is all but impossible for Fredericksburg, but an easement would create a river steward position to do so.
For more information on a trip to the Rapp, contact Fredericksburg Area Tourism at (800) 654-4118, www.fredericksburgvirginia.net. For canoe rental and guided trips, contact the Virginia Outdoor Center at (877) PLAY-VA2, www.playva.com.
NORTH-CENTRAL VIRGINIA MINI-IMPOUNDMENTS
Odenkirk proclaims that a number of smaller north-central Virginia lakes offer quality fishing for families.
"Our best panfish waters, I mean bluegills and redears by this, are Mountain Run in Culpepper and Curtis in Stafford, a DGIF lake," Odenkirk said. "Germantown in Fauquier County is good and probably Orange, a DGIF lake, despite all the shad. The others have no shad, as is typical for good panfish lakes. Catch rates for quality redears are probably highest at Mountain Run, and for bluegills at Curtis or Germantown. I'd pick Curtis for better bank access and habitat."
A town permit is needed in order to fish 75-
acre Mountain Run. Contact the town of Culpepper at (540) 727-3423. Mountain Run offers such family-pleasing amenities as a picnic shelter and playground.
SOUTHWEST VIRGINIA CHOICES
For family fishing in southwest Virginia, DGIF fisheries biologist John Copeland recommends two impoundments: 4,475-acre Claytor and 162-acre Gatewood.
Copeland noted that Claytor features a number of panfish species guaranteed to please kids. Available are yellow perch in the 1-pound range, bluegills of 1/2-pound, and plenty of black crappie around the lake's docks, beaver lodges and brushpiles. A quality place for families to visit is Claytor Lake State Park; for information, call (540) 643-2500. Claytor is especially convenient for those living between Roanoke and Pulaski.
Copeland said that nearby Gatewood has jumbo bluegills and redear sunfish, as well as good numbers of crappie and channel catfish. The Pulaski County impoundment also offers a picnic area, nature trail and wilderness camping. For more information, contact Gatewood Park at (540) 980-2561.
CHESAPEAKE BAY BLUES AND MACKEREL
Captain Ferrell McLain operates Bayfish Sport Fishing Charters in Reedsville. He said that in June, numerous bluefish from 12 to 18 inches long and from 1 to 4 pounds flood into the Chesapeake Bay, providing great angling for families. I have taken my son, Mark, fishing for blues this size, and they were super fun for the two of us.
McLain added that the Spanish mackerel action heats up in July and continues on through Labor Day and maybe beyond until the water temperature begins to drop and the fish vacate the bay. The mackerel run 18 to 26 inches.
The guide stated that during the summer he likes to visit the Smith Point Bar area and the flats on the west side of Tangier Island. At those locales, he looks for 28- to 35-foot water at the edges of shipping channels. The precise location is determined by the presence of birds.
"When I see ring-billed and herring gulls, pelicans and other diving birds flying along the surface, I know that I have found a place to fish," McLain said. "Those birds flocking together and being very active is exciting for anyone to see, and especially for kids. Predatory fish are driving baitfish to the surface, and the birds want to get in on that action.
"When all this commotion is going on, I will have my clients troll with small 1 1/2- to 3-inch Clark spoons. The best colors are silver or gold, plus some multicolored versions."
For guided trips with McLain, contact him at www.bayfish.net, (888) BAYFISH.
OUR NATION'S CAPITAL
Every Virginian needs to learn more about our nation's founding by way of taking a visit to Washington, D.C. While there, why not a side trip to a waterway billed as "the nation's river"? Guide Teddy Carr raves about the Tidal Potomac.
"The fishing on the Tidal Potomac is as awesome as it has ever been," he said. "We had a large algae bloom in 2004, but the effect on the bass fishing was zero."
Carr looks for the bass action to be superb during the late spring and summer period this year. He suggests that anglers concentrate their efforts in the Washington, D.C. area, on midriver structure and cover, and in the following creeks: Quantico, Chopawamsic, Chickamuxen, Aquia, Potomac and Mattawoman. The latter especially has the potential to hold better than average size largemouths. Of course, the lower Potomac as a whole is not known for coughing up bass over 5 and 6 pounds. What the river does produce, though, is a great many bass in the 2- to 4-pound range with the occasional larger fish.
The guide lists the major forms of cover at this time of year as spatterdock, rocks, barges, laydowns, marsh arrowhead, submerged vegetation and docks.
"As far as the most productive patterns go, I recommend that fishermen target main-river grassbeds as well as rocky points extending off the banks," said Carr, who hails from Locust Grove. "Also, I target gravel bays, shell beds, around barges and docks, plus dropoffs in the creeks and on the main channel."
Carr said another possibility is to take the kids crappie fishing. The river boasts a substantial papermouth population in the D.C. area, as does Aquia Creek. For other family activities, Carr suggests the Mall in D.C. with its monuments, museums, plus the Capitol and the White House; to the south is George Washington's Mount Vernon.
CENTRAL VIRGINIA'S LAKE ANNA
Fishing families in the Richmond area might want to make the short drive north to Lake Anna. Teddy Carr recommends that they check out the following locales: Sturgeon Creek, Levy Creek, Blounts Cove, Ware Creek, Terry's Run, Duck-In-Hole Creek and the midlake region. All have the potential to produce largemouth bass.
Interestingly, one of the most productive places to fish now is around water willow beds -- an extremely important type of vegetation on the state's rivers. The downlake or deeper sides of water willow can especially entice fish to hold. Also good are rocky areas, stumpfields and boat docks.
"One of my favorite patterns is to work those water willow beds," Carr said. "The vegetation in the midlake region can hold some big largemouths at this stage of the season. Another really good pattern now is a point, and on Anna, it doesn't matter if that point is predominantly clay or rocks. I especially like points in the Pamunkey arm.
"Another good midlake pattern involves stumps, and stumps also can draw fish in the downlake area. And on Anna, creek channel and dock patterns both can produce in the late spring and early summer."
Anna also features a good crappie population. For parent/child trips, Carr likes to set up with small jigs and live minnows either on manmade sunken brush, beaver huts, docks or shallow rockpiles.
For guided trips with Teddy Carr, contact him at (540) 854-4271, firstname.lastname@example.org. For reservations at Lake Anna State Park or any other state park, call (800) 933-Park.
TROUT FEE FISHING AREAS
Certainly some of the best places to take kids trout fishing in the summer are our three fee fishing areas at Clinch Mountain, Crooked Creek and Douthat Lake. The Clinch Mountain Fee Fishing Area lies seven miles west of Saltville and consists of seven miles of Big Tumbling Creek, as well as two of its tributaries: Briar Cove and Laurel Bed creeks. Fishing begins daily at 6 a.m., the streams are stocked daily except Sundays, and camping is available. In my opinion, Big Tumbling is the classic example of a Virginia mountain rill, as the stream cascades down through deep hollows, forming waterfalls and plunge pools.
Crooked Creek is an entirely different stream as it meanders through flat land and old fields. Located five miles east of Galax, this fee fishing area offers five miles of stocked water. The fishing stops at 7 p.m. each day for restocking. If you want
to introduce kids to trout fishing, Crooked Creek is a wonderful place to do so.
I have been traveling to Douthat Lake for over 40 years and it remains a superlative family destination. The 60-acre lake and four miles of its main tributary, Wilson Creek, are part of the fee fishing area. A great place to bring younger anglers is the "children-only" area of Wilson Creek, just below the dam.
Children 12 and under can fish without a permit, just as long as they are accompanied by a permitted adult, and their combined creel does not exceed that of the adult. Fee fishing season is from the first Saturday in April through June 15 and from Sept. 15 through Oct. 31. In between, no trout are stocked and no fee need be paid, although trout are still quite abundant in the lake. Bass, bluegills, chain pickerel and catfish are also available to tug on lines. For more information, go online to www.dgif.virginia.gov/fishing/TroutGuide. Fees are $4, and the daily trout limit is six.