Virginia's Best Freshwater Fall Fishing
September 30, 2010
If you can sneak away from work for a day or two this fall, you can get into some good fishing at any of these angling destinations. (September 2009)
Fall is a gorgeous time to be on the water. Although the hunting is surely in full swing, so is the bite on a number of waters in the readership area. We found the best bets for a day on the water in each of three states -- Virginia, Maryland and Delaware.
Fishing in the Tidewater Region is full of surprises, particularly in the fall. This year we want to clue anglers in on a little-known fall fishery that is always a jackpot of variety. Try fishing the headwaters of small tributaries throughout the region from a small canoe or johnboat. Some of the best bream and pickerel fishing that can be had takes place in these areas in late September and October when the water begins to cool off. Small spoons, spinners and beetle spins on light tackle make for thrilling runs, amazing fun and good eating. Everyone knows that fish from cool or cold water are delicious. Live bait, such as red wigglers, crickets and shiners, are dynamite bait for both species of fish. Use little or no weight and a stick float if necessary to let the current carry the bait past fish.
Make casts to bends, around duck blinds, treetops and logs to draw strikes. Don't be surprised if you hook up with a fat largemouth or slab crappie either. Great places to fish for bream and pickerel in the early fall include Chickahominy River tributaries, sloughs off the Rappahannock above Port Royal, and the little rivers such as the Mattaponi or Pamunkey headwaters. Don't overlook beaver swamps either. The coloration of the fish at this time of year is amazing, so take a camera and a long stringer!
Our nod this year for an October fishing trip in the Southern Piedmont would have to go to the James River from Lick Run to Richmond for smallmouth bass. Dan Wilson, one of the fisheries biologists in the region, noted that until the water temperatures hit the upper 40s, the bite is very good. Above Lynchburg, the fishery was slightly affected by the fish kill, but the fish kills have not affected fishing below Lynchburg. Action is very good with fish up to 16 inches being common with a few larger than that in the river too.
Tube jigs, crankbaits and live bait, such as crayfish, are particularly effective. Fish eddies behind rocks just below riffles and sunny spots and deeper water on cooler days. Make longer casts to avoid spooking fish. If we don't have much rain during the late summer, the water levels may be low, so keep that in mind.
Once November rolls around, anglers should consider taking a day off from hunting deer or small game and hit Smith Mountain Lake for striped bass. Wilson commented that the population is good with numbers of fish in the 10- to 15-pound range. The average striper caught at Smith Mountain is between 25 and 27 inches. The stripers take advantage of the shad population at Smith Mountain, so any lure that imitates a shad or even a live shad free-lined is a good bet for fishing at Smith Mountain.
Mike Snead operates The Virginia Outdoorsman a few miles from Smith Mountain Lake. Snead pointed out that the striper location and bite is very dependent on the water temperature. Once the water temperature dips below 50 degrees, the alewives go deep and the stripers go with them. At that point, umbrella rigs are the best bet or ¾-ounce jigs with flukes. Hopkins spoons and Kastmaster spoons will do the job too. Use your fish finder to find bait.
If the water temperature is warmer, the fish will be scattered in the uplake or midlake area in the shallower water. Look for birds and breaking fish near points and creek mouths. Topwater action can be crazy when the fish are feeding, so keep a rod rigged for topwater.
Shad colors, pearl and light blue seem to work very well for all rigs and lures. For up-to-date fishing conditions, give Snead a call or stop by his shop, which is just off Rt. 122, 3 1/2 miles from Hales Bridge and the public ramp.
The beauty of the Southern Mountain Region of Virginia in the months of September and October is only surpassed if you have a bent rod and a large fish on the line at Laurel Bed Lake in Russell County. Smallmouth bass and trout are king during the early fall on this water.
Tom Hampton, fisheries biologist for the area, stated that topwater action for smallmouths is excellent in shallow waters late and early in the day. The larger smallmouths come inshore to feed on rockbass and sunfish. Shallow-running lures or topwater lures during these times will draw explosive strikes.
Hampton suggested that anglers fishing the daytime hours try floating or drifting a minnow or crayfish through 8 to 12 feet of water for those trophy fish in the 15- to 20-inch range. Fly-rodders and trout anglers with ultralight tackle will also be able to connect with brook or rainbow trout that begin feeding on insects on the surface during September. The bite can really turn on for trout at times, so it pays to be prepared with small spinners or spoons. Flies that work well include size 16 to 20 dry flies in dark patterns, ants, hoppers or crickets. According to Hampton, anglers will regularly encounter trout 9 to 11 inches, with some up to 20 inches.
Joe Williams, also a fisheries biologist with the VDGIF, had a great recommendation for anglers who can sneak out for a day or two during November and December. He suggested casting for muskies on the lower New River between Claytor Lake and the West Virginia line. While most anglers are used to targeting structure for fish, Williams says that the muskies, which he regularly fishes for, don't necessarily orient themselves to structure all the time. In fact, his preferred method to catch these elusive and toothy monsters is to drift through slow, deep pools dragging a live sucker, casting an 8- to 10-inch-long Suick Jerkbait or Shallow Raider or trolling those same lures. Liver suckers are particularly effective in colder water.
Williams noted that just about every pool on the New has muskies in it and anglers can enjoy great muskie fishing not far from popular put-ins up and down the river these days. Anglers are encouraged to consider catch-and-release fishing for these game fish to preserve what is turning out to be an outstanding fishery. Be sure you have a stout rod to handle their muscle and sizzling runs. A 42-inch fish is a handful, and it is not unusual to hook up with one that large!
The Northern Mountain Region has very little pressure come fall, which makes it a great time to be on the water. Not only is the fall foliage beautiful, but the fishing can be outstanding.
In September and October, dry weather really cuts down on stream and river flows. Steve Reeser, fisheries biologist, shared a secret with me about some of the great fishing he discovered one fall day. After a decent rainstorm, he quickly hiked to a mountain stream and began fishing for the native brookies. The rainstorm briefly filled the streams and turned the fish on. These streams coming out of the Shenandoah National Park and the George Washington National Forest have decent numbers of brook trout at 7 to 8 inches, but Reeser caught some fish 9 to 10 inches in length. The key was to be stealthy, make pinpoint casts and go immediately after a good rain.
A second trout fishery that often gets overlooked is four mountain reservoirs. Skidmore (118 acres and 120 feet deep), Lexington (22 acres), Mils (14 acres), and Coles reservoirs (11 acres) all are stocked annually with brook trout. Reeser explained that the fish grow very quickly from 11 inches to what some consider a trophy fish at 17 inches. This occurs in two years.
"These fish are not only beautiful with full coloration and look native, but they will readily hit once you find the fish," Reeser explained.
Because brook trout and brown trout spawn in the fall, it may be a good idea to find creeks that dump into these reservoirs. Trout will head up to these waters after a rain to spawn. Because there is not a lot of food other than crayfish in the reservoirs, the trout will eat whatever they can find.
Another tip that Reeser shared was that the fish will congregate in the cooler water levels. Find the area where the fish are and stick with it, as more fish are very likely to be in the same spot.
Anglers can use a boat on Skidmore, so trolling is an option. However, the other three reservoirs require anglers to hike in; so unless an angler wants to carry a kayak or canoe, the fishing will be from the bank. Popular baits include PowerBait, spinners, mealworms and minnows.
In the foothills of the Blue Ridge many anglers are thinking about floating the upper Rappahannock for smallmouths (see September 2008 issue), which is certainly a great choice for an early fall outing. However, there is one really hot trip that will make a day off work in September or October a real bonanza.
The tidal Potomac River from Fairview Beach up to the Quantico area is incredibly productive for largemouth bass. Local tournament bass angler Jason Sanders hits the river every chance he gets. He tells us that the grassbeds along the river edge or even the creeks such as Aquia are incredible for bass angling during early fall. Once the water temperatures begin to drop back into the 70s, he ties on a white buzzbait and burns it over the grass, or he fishes the edges with a shad-colored crankbait. Spinnerbaits in white are very effective too. One of his go-to spots is the Arkandale Flats, which is a local name for the miles of grassbeds that stretch from south of Quantico to Aquia Creek. A Mann's Hardnose Swim Toad is an effective bait to drop into pockets of the grass.
Sanders told us that he often has 50-fish days with most of the bass averaging 2 to 3 pounds, but it is not uncommon to boat a fish upward of 6 pounds either.
There are a number of private launch facilities on Aquia Creek. Leesylvania has a ramp too.
We spoke to Craig Shirey, Program Manager for Delaware Fisheries. Shirey pointed out that there is excellent largemouth bass fishing to be found in the upper Nanticoke River during the early fall. The water is cooling off, and the fish are very active in chasing down prey.
Many anglers find jigs to be productive, particularly in crayfish color patterns. Bait-anglers should try large shiners. It is not uncommon for anglers to catch bass in the 2- to 4-pound range on this beautiful river. Using a good fish finder will help anglers locate bass along edges and dropoffs.
Shirey pointed out that the better stretches of the river include the mouth of Broad Creek and the lower Broad Creek.
"Try the outside bends that have hard bottoms and steeper dropoffs right next to the shoreline," our expert said.
Two nearby boat-launching facilities are at Phillips Landing on Broad Creek, and at Seaford on the Nanticoke.
Anglers fishing in eastern Maryland will find that the Pocomoke River on the lower Eastern Shore off Rt. 13 is a largemouth hotspot. Here it is not unusual to boat 2- to 3-pound bass with many tipping the scales at 4 1/2 pounds.
Rick Shaefer, fisheries biologist with Maryland DNR, told us that a great place to stay or put in is the Shad Landing State Park. The park has cabins, camping and a marina. Wind is of little issue here because the tree line along the river protects the fishing area for anglers.
Anglers should try hitting pads and timber such as cypress trees with jigging tubes and plastics. The limit on bass on this river is five per day at least 12 inches in length.
A November and December trip for anglers in Maryland's western mountain region would have to be at Deep Creek Lake in Garrett County. The 3,900-acre lake is home to outstanding walleye and trout fishing. We went to Alan Klotz of Maryland DNR for the scoop on fishing this reservoir.
"Walleyes are really enticed by a trolled No. 7 Rapala, particularly if you troll next to the celery beds."
The fish cruise the outside edges fattening up on bait for the winter, according to Klotz. Walleyes are very common in the 15- to 18-inch range and are quite tasty too.
Brown trout fishermen will find these fish staging at the mouths of tributary streams waiting for a good rain to bring up water levels for spawning runs. Rapalas and Rooster Tails, Panther Martins or other flashy spinners work very well for your next trout dinner.
There is a great ramp for launching your boat at Deep Creek Lake State Park not 15 minutes off I-68.
We would be remiss if we did not give a brief overview of the great saltwater action found off the coast of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. Late fall brings monster striped bass and bluefish migrating south from New England to feed and stage off the Chesapeake Bay for the spring spawn. These fish will give any angler a real test in fighting ability. Striped bass up to 60 pounds are a real possibility and bluefish up to 20 pounds are possible as well.
There are two ways to fish. The tried-and-true method is to troll parachute rigs, umbrellas or Stretch lures after finding the fish. The second method involves finding the fish and casting large bucktail jigs or spoons to them. If they are feeding on top, a large Zara Spook or Chucklehead lure will really do the trick, and casting to willing fish is much more fun than trolling.
Finding the fish is the same no matter if you are in Delaware waters or Virginia waters. Look for birds that are diving or watch y
our fish finder closely. Balls of bait mark the spot. Be sure to the get a variety of trolled lines overboard to cover the water column. Once the fish are found (or if they are feeding like mad), do yourself a favor and stop the boat and cast to them. You will never forget the thrill of hanging a 30-, 40- or even a 50-pound rock or a 20-pound bluefish on a medium-action rod.
This fall, be sure to take a day or two from work and hit the water or trade your gun for a rod. Take a camera and send us a photo of your catch!