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Best Winter Options For Virginia Sportsmen

Best Winter Options For Virginia Sportsmen

Winter need not be a "down time" for Virginia hunters and anglers. Here are some top picks for fishing and hunting now.

Deer season peaked last month for many hunters and fishing seems to have slowed. Some outdoorsmen and women might tell you that there is not much going on outdoors. We have four suggestions for outings that will prove them wrong.



The James River is the nation's destination for trophy blue catfish, and for good reason. Each year anglers visit the historic waters of the James in search of a bruiser topping the 30-pound citation mark. Many don't go away disappointed. During 2009 there were 646 blue catfish citations issued. The first half of 2010 saw 254 blue catfish citations awarded.

Captain Kevin Salmon is a licensed guide who has fished on the James River since 1992 and usually does at least 100 trips per year.

Capt. Salmon says that the most productive time of the year for the biggest blue cats of 50 pounds or more is from around Thanksgiving until mid January. Once the water temperature sinks below 35 degrees the fishing slows down considerably. Capt. Salmon finds the best fishing in the Hopewell, Jordan Point, and power lines areas and he will also head down as far as the mouth of the Chickahominy River to fan out bait in deep water in the channel where he can find structure.

The James is unique in that there are plenty of wrecks, sunken barges and other odd structure in addition to blowdowns, rockpiles and ledges in the river. Our source pointed out that the bigger fish are found in the structure that is in the channel.

To catch one of the bigger fish over 50 pounds, the captain was adamant that you had to have fresh bait. In fact, if his bait is not bleeding he won't use it. You won't find frozen bait on Capt. Salmon's boat either. He catches gizzard shad with a cast net and then cuts them in chunks to put on his 10/0 circle hooks.

Author Mark Fike hefts a winter rabbit. Aside from being great fun to hunt, small game provide an excellent chance to introduce youngsters to the sport. Photo courtesy of Mark Fike.

Anyone who has fished the channel of any river knows that the current is rolling and a mere few ounces of weight is not going to keep a bait on the bottom. The James River guide uses a flat 12-ounce weight to ensure his baits don't roll into each other and pile up. When Capt. Salmon takes clients out fishing he puts out eight rods in a fan formation to cover as much water as he can. His Ambassadeur 7000 or 9000 reels are spooled with 40-pound mono line and a 2-foot, 80-pound leader and a 150-pound test swivel. The reels are mated with a 7-foot Tiger rod with stainless steel eyelets to prevent breakage from ice on them in the winter. The rods are medium action and rated for 20-50 pounds.

"You gotta have a rod with backbone but a soft tip when using circle hooks," he stated.

"When I put out my lines in the winter I give the bait 30-45 minutes and then if I don't get a good hit then I move. If the fish have not taken a bite by then, they are not feeding and I need to put my clients where the fish are feeding," he added.

Some readers may feel it is way too cold to fish during this time of year. However, for anglers who are dressed appropriately the weather is not an issue provided they are not fishing during a snowstorm, ice storm or down pour. Wearing windproof and waterproof clothing such as parkas and bibs is standard. Having a waterproof set of gloves and a backup pair of gloves is a good idea too. Our captain also keeps a portable propane header on his boat. Once he makes a run to a spot he fires the heater up when necessary to knock the chill off his clients and to thaw out any exposed parts or dry out gloves after handling a fish.

"A few other things that anglers should definitely do when fishing during the winter time is check the status of their boat battery and give their boats a good inspection before heading out on the water. There are not that many anglers or boaters out there in the winter and if you have a boat problem it is not likely you will see anyone and be able to flag them down for help. Carry a cell phone that has good reception too. Check those water pumps and be prepared to thaw out your water pump on your motor if it gets really cold. I also take a bag of salt along to scatter on my boat deck to keep clients from slipping on ice," he added. Capt. Salmon can be reached at (804) 691-1472. His website is


Every few years we do an update on striper fishing the Chesapeake Bay or the Atlantic Ocean. Undoubtedly the fishing is outstanding in the briny areas of Virginia's coastline. However, for mountain anglers and Southern Piedmont anglers the striped bass fishing is much closer to home.

Smith Mountain Lake has a striper fishery that has really come on in the past five years. Ten years ago the lake would be devoid of boats during December and January. Now there are plenty of anglers taking advantage of the great fishing on the lake. With a good striper population and plenty of forage, the opportunity to take decent fish home during the winter is very good.

Dan Wilson, the district fisheries biologist, gave us the biological scoop on the fishery at Smith Mountain.

"During the winter the fish roam all over the lake feeding on threadfin, alewives and gizzard shad," Wilson said. "There is a segment of the population that migrates to the lower end of the lake during the summer when oxygen levels are low and then they come back to the upper end, which is rich in forage, when the water cools down."

Wilson also noted that during years of very cold temperatures the threadfin will experience a die off and the stripers will gorge on the dying fish. Last winter was such a winter and that can make it tough on anglers as the fish have all the food that they want right in front of them. This year with fewer threadfin in the lake anglers won't have as much competition for their baits or lures.

The flooded impoundment at Phelps can give hunters a shot at ducks and geese. Try stalking the impoundment. Photo courtesy of Mark Fike.

Obviously with the striper feeding on sha

d the best bait is indeed shad. Use a cast net to collect bait. A fish finder is key to finding bait and then stripers, but birds often mark the way too. If you cannot catch your own bait then use lures that mimic shad. Crankbaits and spoons in flashy silver colors and swim baits or jerk baits all produce. Many anglers find the fish in shallower water in December and then move to deeper water and use jigging spoons or downline live bait as the water gets colder.

Again, the fish roam the entire lake so pay attention to the fish finder and watch for birds. A congregation of boats will also give you a heads up but please use courtesy and take care not to roar up to the fish. This will scatter them.

The average-sized fish creeled at Smith Mountain in December is 25 inches and in January the average size fish is 27 inches. Keep in mind that there is a slot limit of 26-36 inches. A great source of local info and fishing reports as well as tackle and bait is Mike Snead at The Outdoorsman. He can be reached at 540-721-4867.


Most late winter goose hunters hit the fields for geese. By January the geese have often grown very shy of fields and decoys and just keep on flying to find a field that is less suspicious.

What I have found is that small waters such as swamps and farm ponds are killer places for a surgical strike on geese. Invest a little time scouting them to see if the geese are using them and at what time. It is surprising how many small flocks of geese will take to a swamp during late afternoons to put down and feed.

Often you can find plenty of pass shooting opportunities. No more than a shotgun, waders and sometimes a good retriever to get the birds out of the water are needed to hunt any small pond or swamp. While this is not the traditional way to hunt geese, it has been very productive for me.

Farmers tend to be more receptive to having the goose population thinned than they are to granting permission to deer hunt. No matter where in the state you live you can enjoy great goose hunting on a small pond. Some of the ponds I have hunted are no more than an acre in size. The birds tend to come and go at designated times each day and rarely do you have to get up at the crack of dawn. A whole spread of decoys is normally unnecessary to do the job. I use a mere six decoys and hide next to the wood line or other cover to ambush the birds as they float in. A goose call can be employed to give the decoys some realism and have a little fun. Don't be surprised to see a few ducks come in to the water either.

One of the great things about hunting small waters is that almost anyone can find access. While the river is locked up with numerous stationary and floating blinds and a "You must be 500 yards away" rule, and the large farm fields that had crops on them always seem to be leased for a large sum of money, many swamps and ponds can be goose hunted for the asking. Use a good map, preferably an aerial map, many of which can be obtained online, and look for small waters.

Even if you don't have luck in gaining permission to hunt private swamps or ponds you can always scout military bases. Many bases do have small beaver ponds or swamps on them and those in the eastern half of the state have a number of such small waters. Very few hunters utilize such areas for waterfowl hunting.

Fort A. P. Hill in Caroline County has dozens of beaver ponds. Quantico Marine Base is another military reservation worth checking out. Keep in mind that each military reservation has their own set of rules for waterfowl hunters. Check the regs governing the military base you want to hunt well before the day you want to hunt it.


WMAs tend to get a lot of pressure from hunters but much of that pressure occurs on the weekends and holidays. What we found was that most of the WMAs are used for deer hunting on weekends and holidays and very few are used for small game. One WMA in particular is close enough to the urban areas of Northern Virginia and offers a mixed bag of hunting to warrant your attention here.

Phelps WMA at 4,539 acres and located in southern Fauquier County is less than an hour south of Northern Virginia. The WMA is a very good destination for a mixed bag of squirrel and rabbit and even offers the waterfowler a shot at geese and ducks at the lower end of the property in a flooded impoundment.

District Biologist Mike Dye explained that when he started hunting he often went into the woods to "hunt" and that included pretty much any legal game. I also grew up hunting in the same manner and a mixed bag of rabbit and squirrel or whatever else I brought home was welcomed at the dinner table. Dye pointed out that although the WMA does get pressure from rabbit hunters, there are plenty of fields to hunt. There are approximately 1,000 acres of open land left over from when the property was farmed. The squirrel population is healthy and with over 3,000 acres of habitat to choose from; squirrel hunters will have no problem finding game.

One of the most relaxing and enjoyable ways to hunt at this time of year is to take a day off midweek, grab a youngster and a dog (if you have one) and go to the rabbit fields and squirrel woods. Take a shotgun with some #4 and #6 shot and move slowly. The woods are more open and squirrels are able to see you from a distance. Stop regularly and sit. If you have a hunting partner with you walk separately. The first hunter will often "turn" the squirrels on a tree and the second hunter who watches the trees between will have good shooting. Switch after each squirrel and keep gun safety in mind.

Although we have focused on Phelps WMA here, biologists tell us that any WMA is a good bet for squirrel hunting and many have abandoned home sites and open areas where rabbits can be rousted. When you head to a WMA, take a mixed bag of shells with you just in case. (Keep in mind that when hunting waterfowl you may not have lead shot in your possession.) You never know what game you may bring home!

December and January are prime times to be afield. Fewer anglers and hunters are utilizing the woods and waters and the experience is therefore more enjoyable. Put our tips to the test and send us a picture of the results for the Camera Corner!

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