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Top Family Fishing Spots In Virginia

Top Family Fishing Spots In Virginia

Going fishing solo or with your buddies is fun -- but so is going fishing with the family. Here are some great places to family fish in Virginia. (June 2007)

The author, Bruce Ingram, and his son, Mark Ingram, admire a 22-pound flathead that Mark caught last July on the James River. The father and son fishing trip was guided by Richmond guide Mike Ostrander.
Photo courtesy of Bruce Ingram.

When many people think of family fishing expeditions, they imagine a trip with Mom, Dad and cute, cuddly tykes between 4 and 8 years of age. Obviously, kids of those ages are prime ones to introduce to this pastime. However, there's nothing wrong with bringing an older child, or young man, on an angling junket.

My son, Mark, is 21 and is busy in life with college, a girlfriend and two part-time jobs, but going fishing with him is still a rewarding experience and a marvelous way to share time together. Last July, for example, we arranged an excursion for catfish with Richmond guide Mike Ostrander, who operates James River Fishing School.

On the drive from our Botetourt County home to the Virginia Cliffe Inn in Glen Allen, where we spent the night, we talked politics, religion, women and sports, just about curing most of the problems the world faces. That night, we sat around, watched sports shows, and conversed some more.

After Margaret Clifton, who operates the B&B with her husband, James, fixed us a breakfast highlighted by cranberry nut bread, cheese omelets and biscuits, we met Ostrander at one of the access points below Boshers Dam on river right off Riverside Drive.

"I love working with kids and also taking older young people and their parents fishing," Ostrander told us. "I feel I have the patience to work with and train someone how to catch fish. It's especially fun to show someone how to catch catfish, because many folks have never seen or caught fish these big."

And, indeed, the freshwater James in Richmond between Boshers Dam and the fall line (which is sometimes called the City Section) is known for its super-sized flathead catfish, which Ostrander said often run between 7 and 35 pounds. Channel catfish also fin these waters and often weigh between 2 and 5 pounds (with fish up to 18 pounds having been caught), as do blue catfish, which can tip the scales between 5 and 10 pounds but many times go between 10 and 20 and sometimes surpass the 30-pound mark.


The entire game plan that Ostrander has set up is fun for both kids and adults. For example, we began the day by Mike and Mark employing 2-pound-test line, 1 1/2-inch grubs, and ultralight spinning outfits to catch bluegills and redbreast sunfish for bait. My son managed to hook a 1-pound channel cat while fishing for panfish, a cat that gave him quite a tussle on the light tackle.

Next, we anchored in a rock-laden pool, and the guide's choice of tackle changed considerably. For these monster cats, Ostrander opts for heavy-duty baitcasters, spooled with 30-pound-test main line and a leader of fluorocarbon line that has a breaking rating of 50-pound-test. Rounding out the setup is a 90-weight swivel, a 1- or 2-ounce weight, and an 8/0 circle hook. If anglers really want a challenge, the Richmonder will give them the option of fishing with medium spinning gear and 6-pound-test.

Mike places the hook between the sunfish's lateral line and above the anal fin. Doing so enables the sunfish to more easily swim upright. Sunfish will often survive three casts before needing to be replaced, but will usually need to be replaced after a catfish has hit them once. Then they become cut bait, which sometimes will outperform the live versions.

"When a catfish hits the bait, the rod clicks into free spool as the catfish takes line," the guide explained. "A cat will often bang the bait, bang it, bang it, and then move steadily away. After a cat has done that and moved away about 6 feet, that's when you should engage the reel, load the rod at a 45-degree angle, and make a big sweeping hookset."

Mark and I lost the first few we had on, mostly because of poor hooksets. Then, we started to perform better, thanks to Ostrander's tutelage. I managed to land a 6-pound flathead and then Mike asked Mark, near the end of our outing, if he wanted to try dueling with a flathead on light tackle.

The young man was agreeable, and soon after, he was playing one of the flatheads that the James is noted for. After a battle of well over five minutes and with much coaching from Ostrander, Mark managed to land a flathead that weighed just over 22 pounds, by far the biggest fish he had ever caught. The episode was the perfect way to end a father/son outing.

For guided trips with Mike Ostrander, contact him at (804) 938-2350 or or Readers may also enjoy staying at the Virginia Cliffe Inn. The inn features a pond filled with bass and bluegills in the back yard and such breakfasts as French toast with strawberries, croissants, waffles and pancakes. Interestingly, the inn is styled like the establishment that was George Washington's headquarters in New York City.

Nearby is the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, the Meadow Farm living history museum, and, of course, Richmond is just 12 miles south. For more information, contact the inn at (877) 254-3346 or For more information on planning a stay in Richmond, contact the Richmond Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau at (888)-Richmond or


Obviously, there are many types of family fishing, but the bread-and-butter family fishing trip usually involves panfish.

There can be little doubt that the Tidewater region offers the best and most varied family fishing opportunities for panfish in the entire Commonwealth. Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) biologist Chad Boyce said that such lakes as Prince and Western Branch garner much of the attention, but impoundments such as Lake Airfield, a VDGIF-owned body of water in Wakefield, and Meade, a Portsmouth water supply reservoir, deserve attention, too.

"Meade has a lot of variety when it comes to panfish, although the lake doesn't produce the number of trophy panfish like Western Branch and Prince," Boyce said. "Meade has relatively undeveloped shorelines on the majority of the lake and shoreline cover is excellent, and the lake has an abundance of sandy points and shallow coves for spawning, too. Also, Meade has good macro invertebrate and snail populations due to its good water quality, making it a great lake to catch quality shellcrackers (redear)."

Anglers can expect to encounter bluegill, redear, red breast and pumpkinseed sunfish all in the same trip. The typical bobber, split shot and crickets or red wigglers combo is hard to beat, Boyce said. He advises anglers to concentrate on shallow, sunny shorelines early in the summer and look for the redears to be found off the points and ledges in 8 to 10 feet as the water warms in the summer. Sometimes just finding the right shoreline will produce good numbers of panfish early in the season."

The biologist added that Meade does have a convenient bait and tackle shop at the ramp. The business sells licenses/permits, bait and tackle and drinks/snacks. Also, Meade is a perfect lake as far as access goes, since it is located near the city of Suffolk and is right off Route 58; gas motors up to 10 horsepower are allowed.

Regarding Airfield, Boyce confirms that bluegills, pumpkinseeds, and fliers are the premier panfish attractions for children.

"Constructed in 1947, Airfield is an old lake with tannin-stained waters and abundant aquatic grasses as the water warms in summer," Boyce said. "The fish in Airfield tend to be larger when compared to other lakes in southeast Virginia, but are less abundant.

"Bluegills and pumpkinseeds are most abundant, but fliers are found there in good numbers as well. Fliers are very tolerant of low pH water and do very well in the tannin-stained water, but they don't usually get as large as bluegills. However, fliers to almost a pound have been collected in Airfield during our spring electrofishing samples. The pumpkinseeds do very well in Airfield, too."

Boyce said that timing is very important at the 105-acre Airfield. Come too early and you will not catch many sunfish, as they will be in the deeper portions. Venture forth too late and the submerged aquatic vegetation will make shoreline fishing difficult: Eurasian milfoil growth can be prolific in the summer months. Airfield is electric motor only, no gas motors are allowed. For more information, visit the VDGIF Web site at


Northern and central Virginia families should consider Lake Anna this spring and summer. Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) biologist John Odenkirk said that bluegills here are lightly pressured.

"Anglers who fish for bluegills are almost nonexistent," Odenkirk said. "I am sure there are some kids/families on lakefront docks that fish for bluegills, but they were not captured in our access point creel surveys. On the other hand, black crappie anglers compose a substantial portion of lake anglers, annually about 15 percent, but seasonally, for example, in March, up to about 50 percent.

"Bluegills, as is typical in a large reservoir with many competitors -- for example, white perch, yellow perch, gizzard shad, threadfin shad, blueback herring, redears and pumpkinseeds also live in Anna -- have poor size structure, and it is rare to see one 7 inches. Again, on the other hand, black crappie grow well and get quite large, up to citation size (15 inches or 2 pounds). We often see 10-to 12-inch black crappie in our surveys, which is a nice fish by anybody's standards."

In the spring, Odenkirk suggests that anglers look for black crappie in the upper arms of Anna. Target natural wood and beaver lodges near the main channel and fish mostly in the North Anna River arm around Christopher Run. Later in the spring and perhaps into even early summer, parents and their offspring should fish shallow vegetation, such as water willow beds that lie near 3 to 5 feet of water. Finally, after about mid-May, check out deeper spots along bridge piles and the ends of docks.

"If anglers do want to fish the lower lake, I would normally recommend the upper lake in almost any case, target the marked fish reefs constructed by (guide) C.C. McCotter and the VDGIF," Odenkirk continued. "The reefs hold excellent numbers of black crappie through the summer months in a portion of the lake with limited structure. Especially good spots, specifically reefs, are in the mouth of Hairfield Creek, and at Dike II and Boggs Point."


When Jerry Paitsel called me to go to Lake Moomaw with his wife, Linda, and friend Dave Ralston of Rockbridge County, the Alleghany County angler could have offered to take me fishing for the 2,530-acre impoundment's largemouths, smallmouths or trout. After all, many if not most of the lake's anglers consider those species to be the signature game fish there.

Instead, the professional trucker told me that our target species would be yellow perch: a fish that is not native to the area and that was not stocked when the lake came into existence over 25 years ago. However, this panfish did come to inhabit this northwest Virginia body of water, one thing is now obvious -- ringtails have become a major presence in Moomaw. The state record was even caught there, a 2-pound, 7-ounce giant that Tim Austin landed on March 20, 1999. What's more, yellow perch are a very kid-friendly fish, more than willing to bite a variety of live baits and lures.

The fact that yellow perch thrive in this highland reservoir borders more than a little on the unusual. Found mainly in Piedmont and Tidewater bodies of water, these perch (which count the walleye as a close relative) thrive in still, murky, brackish water -- an environment that is about as far away from the cold, clear water of Moomaw and the mountain streams that make up its watershed as is possible. What is beyond doubt is that the lake produces a great many fish that meet or exceed the state's citation requirement of 12 inches or 1 pound, 4 ounces.

When I asked Jerry Paitsel why we were going to target yellow perch, his response was simple -- and typical, he said, of those who pursue this game fish on Moomaw.

"They are one of the best tasting freshwater fish I have ever eaten," he told me.

Upon our arrival, Jerry motored us to a flat that extends out from one of the lake's many rock banks and instructed me to tie on a 1/4-ounce Silver Buddy, a well-known drop bait.

"Cast out the Buddy, let it drop to the bottom, then jig it up and down as you bring it back, all the time keeping a tight line," tutored the fisherman. "We may catch bass or trout, but mostly I hope we catch perch."

In various trips over the years, I had seen Paitsel catch plenty of largemouths and smallmouths on the Silver Buddy, and I knew the bait has quite a following on Moomaw but was unaware that it was effective for perch, too.

"The best lures for yellow perch are a Silver Buddy, a Silver Buddy, and a Silver Buddy," laughed Paitsel. "Just kidding, but it is the best. Perch are aggressive feeders and will hit grubs, small jerkbaits, small crankbaits, and I hear they like live minnows. I also like the Lucky Craft Pointer 78 in Ghost Minnow and Bill Norman Little N in violet illusion, my favorite color in clear water."

About five minutes after we arrived

at the flat, Jerry landed our first perch of the day and placed the 10-incher in the livewell. Catch-and-release is generally not practiced by perch chasers. From a conservation point of view, there really is little need to release them: The fish are abundant already and reproduce in large numbers. Over the course of the morning, Paitsel landed a half dozen or so fish.

About three weeks after our trip, Dave Ralston and Paitsel caught around 15 citation yellow perch in the area we fished, all on Silver Buddies. Besides yellow perch, Moomaw offers these other panfish opportunities for fishing families.

"Crappie on Moomaw are pretty much hit or miss, if you hit it right you can load the boat, if not . . . ," Paitsel said. "This spring, Dave and I caught 26 between 1 and 2 pounds on 1/16-ounce grubs in smoke with black flecks. We went back the next weekend and caught none. There are some nice bluegills in Moomaw. When I used to guide, I would always carry night crawlers and a few ultralight rods. My clients for the most part were inexperienced fishermen and the lowly worm put smiles on many faces."


Of course, the bodies of water mentioned here are not the only ones worth you and yours visiting this summer. Impoundments such as Smith Mountain, Claytor and Buggs Island feature considerable populations of bluegills, although not necessarily large ones, and also offer the distinction of having state parks on their shores. A Virginia state park is a wonderful place for a family to use as a base while on vacation.

As for me, the catfish excursion on the James with my son and Mike Ostrander was truly the angling highpoint of my year. Consider spending fishing time with your family members this year.

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