Most anglers have some favorite fishing buddies, but if you want to go on a special fishing trip, take the family. Here are some top family fishing spots in Virginia. (June 2009)
"Daddy, when are you going to catch some fish? Everybody's caught some except you," giggled my daughter Sarah. My wife Elaine's and my oldest child has always enjoyed sending light-hearted barbs our way, but now that she is 26, she is just as proficient at doing so, if not more so, than when she was a youngster.
This gibe took place as Sarah, her husband David Reynolds, and Elaine and I were on a family fishing trip to a Franklin County farm pond. We had been planning a group outing for several months and had hoped to go on an extended fishing trip somewhere. But when the gasoline crisis hit last summer, we modified our plans and went to the close-to-home Franklin mini-impoundment.
Gas crisis or not, farm ponds are an excellent destination for you and yours. Very few landowners, assuming you ask well in advance, are going to turn down a polite request from folks who want to take their kids fishing -- whether they are 26 like Sarah or tykes under 6.
And I would guess that the owners of most Old Dominion ponds stock these waters with largemouth bass, bluegills and channel catfish, which is the case with the Franklin one. Some proprietors will want all the bass released and all the bluegills caught, and some, as was the case of the owner of the Franklin pond, wanted largemouths under a certain length kept so that the larger bass would have less competition for food. Just do what the landowner requests, and likely, your family will be invited to return.
It does take a little effort to locate farm ponds. One of my favorite ways is to drive down country roads and stop at farms where ponds are visible. Another way is to drop by local farm bureaus and ask if officials can give you names of pond owners who might let a family fish. And there's always the option of knowing a friend of a friend who might give you some tips or grant permission.
Of course, besides farm ponds, numerous other family destinations exist around the Commonwealth. We'll look at some of the better family-fishing public waters in different parts of the state.
SOUTHWEST VIRGINIA PANFISH AND BONUS CATS
Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) biologist John Copeland maintains that 162-acre Gatewood Reservoir in Pulaski County is a dandy reservoir for folks looking to catch "nice quality bluegills and redear sunfish." The prime time to go is right now he says -- that is, between mid-May and mid-June -- as the fish are spawning. Copeland recommends that anglers use bottom-rigged night crawlers for jumbo bluegills and redears.
Claytor Lake State Park is very popular with families who visit the 4,475-acre impoundment in Pulaski County, and that's not the only reason people should go there.
"The best destination (in this region) for easily catchable bluegills is Claytor Lake," said Copeland. "Bluegills are abundant in this mountain reservoir and their sizes are decent. A day on Claytor Lake can produce a limit of 6- to 8-inch bluegills.
"At Claytor, I would try fishing 1/16- or 1/32-ounce white jigs tipped with a piece of night crawler, fished along the steep, rocky bluffs on the lake," Copeland advised. "Watch for especially intense bluegill feeding activity during the huge annual Hexagenia (burrowing mayfly) hatches that occur during late June into early July.
During these hatches, bluegills will strike almost anything that hits the water along these rocky bluffs. Look for mayfly adults dropping from shoreline vegetation. The best hatches are in the upper lake area, from Peak Creek to Lighthouse Bridge."
The biologist says that one underrated sunfish destination in his district is 90-acre Rural Retreat Lake in Wythe County. The focus of management has been on reducing the overabundant black crappie population in this highly productive impoundment. However, the lake does have some nice bluegills and redear sunfish. At Rural Retreat, the spawn will likely be over by early May, so expect the fish to be deeper.
Additionally, Copeland says that while anglers are dangling crawlers for sunfish, folks shouldn't be surprised if they tangle with a catfish or two. Channel catfish populations are good in Claytor Lake, especially in the upper lake area, specifically upstream from Lighthouse Bridge. Rural Retreat Lake, the biologist adds, is also a channel hotspot. Since the impoundment is state-owned, the VDGIF stocks it with 10- to 12-inch channel catfish every other year.
NORTHERN VIRGINIA CATFISH
Right now, catfish populations and interest in these creatures are both booming in the Commonwealth. VDGIF biologist John Odenkirk relates that three northern Virginia impoundments sport a quality channel cat fishery. The bodies of water are VDGIF-owned 218-acre Burke Lake in Fairfax County (with its 650-acre Burke Lake Park adding to the impoundment's appeal), 75-acre Mountain Run (a water supply lake for Culpepper), and VDGIF-owned 124-acre Lake Orange in Orange County.
Odenkirk reveals that Burke is very bank accessible (there is a trail around entire perimeter), plus has a very nice pier. Lots of amenities like toilets, picnic shelters, concession stand (seasonal) and playgrounds make a visit nice for families.
"Channel catfish are stocked every year, but we have had private religious groups donate large lots of channel catfish as part of prayer release," said Odenkirk. "Anglers at Burke benefit from this."
Although anglers will need a permit from the town of Culpepper to fish Mountain Run, this is just a formality and well worth the effort. Odenkirk relates that Mountain is a small but a good and overlooked destination.
"Channel catfish seem to do very well with the alternate year stocking, and our catch in samples (here are) among the highest that we have seen," said the Fredericksburg-based biologist. "There's good bank access with more limited shoreline amenities, but there are picnic areas and toilets."
Odenkirk notes that Lake Orange lies in a very rural area, has some bank access and possesses a nice new pier. Boat rentals, toilets and in-season concession stands exist at Angler's Landing.
"Channel catfish also do very well here with our annual stocking," said Odenkirk. "The VDGIF lakes are stocked at a higher rate than municipal lakes, so (other things being equal), channel catfish angling should be better.
"At all sites, I would use bottom tackle (no bobbers) with chicken livers or fresh-cut fish bait, weighted with a few split shot."
Regarding other northern Virginia lakes with solid populations of channel cats, Odenkirk lists 2,100-acre Occoquan, 160-acre Motts Run, 255-acre Pelham, 9,600-acre Anna, 185-acre Abel, 411-acre Ni and 477-acre Lunga.
"Basically, in reservoirs under 250 acres, there is little or no natural reproduction and/or recruitment of wild fish," said Odenkirk. "Populations are maintained by stocking."
PIEDMONT PANFISH<br.VDGIF biologist Dan Wilson works out of the Forest office and emphasizes that a number of small Piedmont impoundments offer family-friendly angling for panfish.
"If I had to pick a sunfish location in my district it would be the Amherst County lakes," said the biologist. "Stonehouse Lake is the best for numbers and size -- good numbers to 7 inches with a few up to the 9-inch range. Thrasher Lake is number two with decent numbers and good sizes, good numbers to 7 inches with a few in the 8-inch range."
The 41-acre Stonehouse offers such family-friendly amenities as picnic tables, grills, shelters, restroom and play area. Although bluegills and redear sunfish are often the primary target of youngsters, Stonehouse also contains largemouth bass and black crappie.
At 36 acres, Thrasher is similar in size to Stonehouse and provides facilities such as picnic tables, restroom, play area and boat ramp. The same game fish fin both bodies of water and both prohibit outboard motors, making canoes and johnboats good choices for craft.
Mill Creek Reservoir and its 189 acres easily surpass the other Amherst County lakes in size. Bluegills dominate the panfish lineup, but redears are available, too. At 7 acres, Otter Lake is at the other end of the size spectrum, but its small size is enhanced by its scenic nature -- Otter lies along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Interestingly, a catch-and-release regulation is now in effect for black bass, which should pay dividends in the years to come. Wilson offers tips for fishing the impoundments.
"They are very different waters even though they are located within a couple miles of each other," he said. "Stonehouse has the highest densities and sizes top out a little larger, but it is a shallow lake with lower visibility. Fish are located along the shoreline, but some of the better fishing may be in more open water away from the shoreline, since most of the shoreline is very shallow.
"I have had reports that Stonehouse is difficult to fish and catch rates are lower than Thrasher and Mill Creek even with the higher densities. I think this lake requires getting away from the typical shoreline habitat that sunfish anglers typically target. Thrasher Lake is steep sided and the water is clear. Most sunfish are concentrated around the shoreline and so are more accessible and produce better catches."
FAR WEST DESTINATIONS
Biologist Tom Hampton of the VDGIF's Marion office shows no hesitation when he is asked about a marvelous destination for folks in the western reaches of the Old Dominion.
"The number of species available and the amenities make Hungry Mother State Park one of the best family fishing destinations in southwest Virginia," he said.
Located just off Interstate 81 in Smyth County, Hungry Mother features swimming in the namesake lake, 12 miles of hiking trails, boating for non-gasoline-powered craft, nature and history programs, campgrounds, cabins, lodge and much more. Of course, the angling action on the 108-acre Hungry Mother Lake is the main attraction for sporting families.
Hampton says the impoundment contains largemouth, smallmouth, and spotted bass, as well as channel cats, crappie, rock bass and sunfish among other species. From my experience, I have found the lake to be a superlative place to paddle about in a canoe or johnboat, especially with children aboard. And Hungry Mother is not the only body of water that is a regional draw for families.
"Lake Witten in Tazewell County is a fantastic location for trophy bass, great bluegills and a chance at catfish," said Hampton. "The county operates a nice campground and some other facilities at the lake."
The 52-acre impoundment, continues Hampton, produces largemouths at about 100 per hour of sampling, which is well above average for other western mini-lakes. Bluegill and black crappie numbers are also quite good.
Finally, the biologist suggests anglers try the 154-acre North Fork of Pound Lake in Wise County, stating that it "is an excellent location for bass, catfish and sunfish." The size structure for the largemouths has really improved in recent years, and channel catfish catch rates are also on the upsurge.
SHENANDOAH VALLEY AND NORTHWEST MOUNTAIN PANFISH
VDGIF biologist Paul Bugas believes that the best bets for panfish action in his district are the Upper and Lower Recreation ponds in Bath County. They contain a dazzling variety of panfish: bluegill, redear, redbreast and green sunfish. Dominion Virginia Power created the 45-acre upper and the 27-acre lower ponds; the former offers especially good excellent bank access.
In the upper impoundment, bluegill numbers are very good, and these fish are easily caught. But don't be surprised to have a very healthy mix of redbreast and green sunfish on your stringers, too. Bugas emphasizes that the lower lake also features a number of bluegills, many of which grow to impressive sizes.
The biologist also says that a true sleeper panfish destination is Douthat State Park, as 50-acre Douthat Lake there features bluegill, redbreast, pumpkinseed and redear sunfish, with black crappie and yellow perch as bonus species. Interestingly, Douthat, which is a fee-fishing lake, is mostly known for its trout fishery -- it is stocked with rainbow, brown and brook trout twice a week during the fee season (from the first Saturday in April through June 15, and from Sept. 15 through Oct. 31).
My advice is to fish for trout during the early morning hours in the deep-water environs near the dam, then later cruise the shorelines for sunfish and the odd largemouth bass. Later in the day, you and yours can go swimming in the lake and perhaps even spend the night at one of the Civilian Conservation Corps cabins. Camping sites are also available. Two handicap accessible piers exist, as do 40 miles of hiking trails on the park, which lies in Alleghany and Bath counties, just outside of Clifton Forge.
THE TIDEWATER TWOSOME
Mary Norton, assistant manager for the Virginia Fishing Center in Virginia Beach, says that families with young children have two willing species to angle for this month.
"June is a great time for families with children as young as 6 or 7 to go after Spanish mackerel and Taylor blues," she said. "These fish are located only a few miles or less off the coast, so it doesn't take very long to find them. And the mackerel and blues aren't so big that they're a struggle to catch, but they're abundant enough so the action can be continuous."
Norton relates that both the mackerel and blues typically weigh between 1 and 5 pounds and that on a four-hour trip, several youngsters should be able to tangle with 12 to 30 or so fish. The standard method of going after the duo is trolling cut bait (finger mullet), so being proficient with a baitcaster is not required.
If a family has older children that would like more of a challenge, Norton states that June is an excellent time to chase after flounder, king mackerel, cobia, tuna or dolphin.
"June is one of those months where there is something for everybody who likes to fish, no matter what their skill level is," says Norton. "We can customize charters for families or groups."
A convenient place for families to stay near Virginia Beach is First Landing State Park, which, as Norton notes, is only a few miles from the Virginia Fishing Center. My family and I have stayed there and can recommend it.
In my opinion, the most amazing aspect of the park is the fact that it consists of 2,888 acres of undeveloped land in one of the most overdeveloped parts of the Old Dominion. The park features 19 miles of trails, and obviously as this is a Tidewater establishment, none of those trails feature steep inclines. One more interesting tidbit is that the park is where the Virginia Company individuals, the folks who went on to settle Jamestown in 1607, initially landed.
SARAH'S LAST JAB
After my family had fished at the Franklin County pond for several hours and after everyone except me had landed plenty of fish, Sarah spouted one last barb.
"I hope this is not going to be one of those trips where we can't go home until you've caught a fish," she chortled. "If that's so, we could be here all night."
Ah, there's nothing like going fishing with your offspring. Find out for yourself this summer.
IF YOU GO
For more information on fishing destinations, contact the VDGIF at www.dgif.virginia.gov.
For more on Hungry Mother: www. dcr.virginia.gov/state_parks/hun.shtml, or call (276) 781-7400.
For more information on Douthat: www.dcr.virginia.gov/state_parks/dou.shtml, (540) 862-8100.
For more on the Virginia Fishing Center: www.virginiafishing.com, (800) 725-0509.
For more information on the First Landing State Park, go to the Web site www.dcr.virginia.gov/state_ parks/fir.shtml or call (757) 412-2300.