School is in session, and across the state some of the best fishing of the year can be had on uncrowded waters. (September 2008)
Fall is by far my favorite time to fish, for many reasons. First of all something magical seems to happen after Labor Day. Most of the boats that were screaming up and down the lake or river have disappeared. All of a sudden, the water is yours to enjoy with few interruptions.
The author's brother, Chris Fike, hoists a late-season saltwater striper from the lower Chesapeake Bay. Late-season striper fishing is just one of the many great fisheries available in Virginia between now and the end of the year.
Photo by Mark Fike.
Second, as the water cools, the fishing seems to heat up. This fact is true for all the species of fish in our state. Some say they are feeding for the upcoming winter. Others note that after a summer of hot temperatures the fish are finally moving again. Fall turnover certainly does get the water mixing again and the fish respond.
Last, the scenery is beautiful as the leaves change colors and begin to fall. Catching a tasty fish from cool water while the red, orange and yellow leaves dance around you is what memories are made of. The trick is to find that spot where you can either make your stringer heavy with numbers of fish or where you can catch that trophy of a lifetime.
The Tidewater Region is so full of fishing opportunities it was tough to pick just two for this article. Before Indian summer is over, anglers will still endure very warm days with a few scattered cold fronts tossed in for good measure. The cooler nights and cold fronts will begin to bring down the water temperature, which tends to turn on the largemouth bass in the Chickahominy River. Although the river is a good bet most of the year, the fall is when it tends to be overlooked and when the bass are aggressively feeding.
District fisheries biologist Bob Greenlee noted that the fishery has really improved with the aid of two very strong year-classes, which are now becoming old enough that anglers will begin catching them with regularity. Greenlee also pointed out that there is a fair number of 4- to 6-pound fish in the river too. Try the edges of dying vegetation, old duck blinds and the tidal tributaries of the river.
Focus on points in creeks on a moving tide. Anglers should find the river best to fish before a front blows through or anytime the weather is stable during the fall. Once October begins, fishing for bass will be good all day long -- particularly on cloudy days. The fish are still chasing minnows and baitfish but will readily take anything that moves past them. Fall is a good time to try a few casts with topwater baits in addition to cranks or spinnerbaits. A Mann's Phat Rat tossed back into the lily pads, which are beginning to recede a bit, will get explosive attention.
When November arrives, anglers would do well to refocus their efforts on blue catfish on the James River. By that time in this part of Virginia, most anglers have traded their rods for smokepoles and shotguns. However, the blue catfish will be aggressively chasing gizzard shad and other baitfish.
Many local catmen will agree that the bite for trophy blue cats seems to really pick up when the water cools in November. In fact, guides have found that the best time to put clients on large blue cats is from late fall to early spring. Finding bait is key to finding large fish. Use a cast net to catch your own bait and use the fish finder to locate submerged structure, sharp dropoffs and backwater eddies. Dunk your bait near structure in deeper water, 20 feet or better.
In the Southern Piedmont, there is plenty of water to choose from, but we know how much anglers like Buggs Island. The reservoir is so large that there are countless opportunities for many species of fish year 'round.
For September and October, we found that the blue catfish bite at Buggs is outstanding. The nice thing about the fall fishing opportunity for blue catfish at Buggs is that both boat- and bank-anglers will score, and score big if they want to. We checked with Vic DiCenzo on the catch rate from a recent creel survey at Buggs and he reports that anglers will average four nice fish a day.
Blue catfish range tremendously in size in this mammoth impoundment. Anglers can target smaller eating-sized fish with night crawlers or small pieces of cut shad -- or they can focus on a real trophy weighing upwards of 80 pounds by catching herring or gizzard shad with a cast net and using a small, whole shad or slabbing a large bait with a filet knife and tying on a fish-finder rig. Both tactics provide a very realistic chance of catching nice catfish in the fall at Buggs.
Anglers will find fish weighing over 30 pounds are not uncommon. During September and October, focus on the upper end of the lake near Clarksville and, if you have any chance to time your fishing trip, fish before a front passes through. Low-light periods are best until the water cools in October. Probe around structure and along ledges near old channels in the reservoir. Bank-anglers will find good opportunities in the state parks, such as Stanton View Park. Don't forget that only one catfish over 32 inches may be creeled per day.
Once November shows on the calendar, the striped bass fishing really takes off in a big way. This is the draw during the holiday months. Fish the midlake areas at the mouths of creeks, such as Island, Mill and Grassy. Look for birds circling and diving on the water, which indicate bait being busted by the stripers. Anglers who use live bait will do quite well. Once again, live herring or shad are dynamite baits that can be caught with a cast net. Throwing jigs or spoons will net nice fish too. A recent creel survey showed that on average anglers take a fish nearly every hour.
During September, the Southern Mountain Region is a gorgeous place to fish. Tom Hampton, district fisheries biologist, shared that the South Holston Reservoir is hot for walleyes during September. The submerged islands are great places to drag a jigging spoon or harnessed night crawler. Look for abrupt changes in the bottom and troll slowly around those areas. Because the lake is normally down 10 feet or more in the fall, anglers need to find structure that is away from the shoreline.
The walleyes are also very deep, say 20 to 40 feet down, during the fall. Hampton advised that leadcore line could be used to get to the right depth. Also used are bottom-bouncing sinkers that weigh 4 to 6 ounces. Walleyes are a real treat in the pan at home and are great fun to catch.
In November and December, anglers love to switch over to stripers at Claytor Lake. J
ohn Copeland, fisheries biologist for the region, told us that the angler effort jumps to 70 percent for stripers in the late fall. Many anglers find the fish dispersed at that time of year, but even dispersed stripers can be found by anglers watching the sky for birds (and the fish finder for bait).
Follow the alewives or shad to find the fish. The great thing about late fall stripers is that once you find them, you will likely catch more than one. These tasty fish average between 6 to 8 pounds. Hybrid striped bass are also very common. Copeland noted that they outnumber striped bass two-to-one and average 4 to 6 pounds.
Striped bass anglers at Claytor use a variety of techniques to bag a limit of fish. Trolling live bait is probably the top choice. However, Redfins or even umbrella rigs are used regularly. If the birds are working bait, surface lures will work well. The key to choosing the right day to fish for stripers at Claytor is to watch the weather. Stable weather conditions before a front passes through are the best times to launch the boat. Anglers might want to check online at www.rockhousemarina.comfor information on the fishing conditions before loading up the boat.
Fishermen residing in the higher elevations of the Northern Mountain Region should look to Lake Moomaw in October for brown trout. This is the month that the lake cools sufficiently to bring the fish up in the water column, where they are more easily caught. Larry Mohn, fisheries biologist with the VDGIF, told us that the fish spawn in November and are particularly susceptible to being caught after a rain near creeks or other inflows.
In the upper end of the lake, the Jackson River or Back Creek are good locations to try. In the midlake area, Mill Creek is a spot to check out; in the evening hours, look around the dam where the fish might be chasing shad.
Troll shad imitations or spoons in at least 10 feet of water or cast shad-colored crankbaits. The fish average 2 to 3 pounds, but a larger fish is not out of the question. During the fall, cold fronts put the fish down deep. Watch the fronts and be sure to check the lake levels before heading out and burning a hunting day.
December fishing is well spent on the South Fork of the Shenandoah. Many anglers are a bit surprised to find out how good the muskie fishery is in the river. Mohn pointed out that in the last four to five years the fishery has really stood on its own.
Successful anglers find that drifting and casting large spoons, spinners or plugs in deep holes is one way to hook one of these predators. However, the guy with a live chub or sucker on his line who drags it through an eddy or pool will have an even greater chance to sink a hook in one of these trophies.
A 12- to 15-pound fish is common, but a fish weighing more is definitely possible. There is a health advisory on eating these toothy fish, so be sure to check www.dgif.virginia.govbefore putting one in the oven or on the grill.
The rolling hills of the Northern Piedmont are home to the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers. While many outdoorsmen are perched in trees holding bows in the early fall, some are busy enjoying a drift down the river, casting for smallmouth bass. The river upstream from Fredericksburg to Remington is rarely used at this time of year, and it is a shame because the smallmouth bite is hot. It is not uncommon to catch a number of fish over 12 inches with some besting 16 inches in the deeper pools during fall. Check the water level before planning a float to be sure there is plenty of water. Otherwise, you can wade the river with a set of waders where it is too shallow to use a canoe. Minnows, crayfish and hellgrammites free-lined in pools are deadly, but jerkbaits and spinners work too.
November and December are good months to striper fish statewide and this region is no different. Lake Anna is the destination anglers should keep in mind if they take a break from hunting. The power plant where the water discharge keeps things warmer is a hotspot for some.
The midlake or "Splits" area should not be overlooked, though. On sunny days, hit the water early and fish live bait and then switch over to trolling with deep-diving cranks. Use your fish finder to locate schools of bait to find the fish. On cloudy days, they can be had with poppers as they slam bait on the surface in this area. Watch for birds and be sure to check out the mouths of creeks too. Fish sizes vary, but fish weighing at least 3 pounds are common.
I would be remiss if I did not mention two great fall saltwater adventures in Virginia. Each September and October, I begin teaching school again. My time on the water is very limited and with hunting season now beginning, I have to choose when I go out on the water so that I make the most of my time. I find that the lower Potomac River offers anglers tremendous opportunities to catch pan-sized bluefish, which taste even better than the 5- or 6-pound fish.
From September to mid-October, pan-sized bluefish are feeding heavily on small baitfish from the Route 301 bridge all the way to the bay. Anglers need only have a boat and a decent fish finder to locate the fish.
On calm days, birds work baitfish that are pushed to the surface and are a dead giveaway to the blues feeding under them. Sometimes a keeper rockfish can be hauled in from the outside edges of the feeding frenzy. On windy days, a fish finder is useful in locating the schools of bait, which are not as easily seen on the surface. Consult a chart to find shoals or bars, and then run over the edges of the two looking for bait.
One of my favorite ways to take advantage of these fish is to get uptide of the school and then float back through the feeding mass casting small spoons on ultralight rods to them. They hit furiously and immediately and sometimes can be caught two at a time. I recommend using a single hook on the spoons to make unhooking them easier.
This fishing opportunity is by far the best one to acquaint a young angler with casting lures to fish. The action stays hot until you drift out of the school. Simply move back into position and go at it again. Severe wind and rain seems to be the only negative factors for the fishing other than a hard cold snap, which sends the fish into the ocean.
Finally, the November and December Chesapeake Bay striper season has been incredible the last two years. In fact, last season was the best in many years. For quite some time, charter boats in the middle bay area were heading to Virginia Beach to find trophy rockfish.
Now the trophy fish are frequenting the bay to feed for a longer period of time and many captains were sticking around through at least Thanksgiving to take advantage of the fishery. This is good news for anglers who use their own boats. With great fishing opportunities from Point Lookout, Maryland, all the way to the CBBT, there are countless ramps for anglers to launch and chase big rockfish.
Trolling is the preferred method for striper anglers here, with umbrellas, parachutes and even Stretch Lures taking plenty of fish. Don't discount casting to fish either. Large Hopkins spoons and jigs with bucktails are plenty of fun. One word of caution though: The bay can turn rough in a hurry and with the cold weather coming in, the combination can be deadly. Be sure to monitor the wind and weather reports before and during your fishing trip.
This fall, make a point to take a few days off from the hunting woods to enjoy a quiet day on the water. The fishing is incredible as is the scenery. Bent rods and heavy stringers to you!