January 22, 2018
It's important to know not only where to go fishing for Virginia smallmouth bass fishing this year, but also when to go.
Jamie Gold, Tommy Cundiff, and I, admittedly, were confused last May on the New River. We were on not only Virginia's premier smallmouth river but also arguably on the Mid-Atlantic's best. However, we simply were not doing well probing the main channel of the river — usually the best strategy on the waterway. The New was swift and high, and it occurred to us that maybe with the rising water, we should head for the banks.
Gold and I started tossing tubes tight to the bank and the quality smallmouths started coming in rapid succession. Gold, a member of the Potomac River Smallmouth Club from Sterling, landed the fish of the day, a football-shaped 19-incher while I was happy with a 17 1/2-inch brown bass — though I also lost a 20-incher, which still rankles. The key to catching those fine fish was Cundiff, who operates River Monsters Guide Service in Bluefield, maintaining the boat close to the rocks and laydowns where the fish were.
Let's take a look at where and when can readers experience similar action this year.
THE UPPER NEW
The New from the North Carolina line to the backwaters of Claytor Lake certainly has to be on smallmouth anlgers' where-to-go list for 2018.
"I would say May is the perfect time to come to the upper New," said Cundiff. "Sometime during the month, smallmouths start to come off their beds and that means surface action and heavy feeding. The three topwater lures that work best for me then are buzzbaits, Heddon Tiny Torpedoes, and River2Sea Whopper Ploppers. The Whopper Plopper 90 especially has been a great bait for me — it's more than just a lake largemouth lure."
Cundiff rates a number of excursions as superlative destinations for this May and on into the summer: Ivanhoe to Austinville (6 miles), Jackson Ferry to Allisonia (13 1/2 miles), and Bridle Creek to Independence (10 miles). The guide relates that the Ivanhoe stretch features some of the rockiest banks on the New and classic pocket water behind boulders. The Jackson Ferry float requires a full day to navigate but the numerous rapids and swift runs keep boats floating at an accelerated pace. Bridle Creek has the Class III Penitentiary Falls, a wicked rapid where I once took a bad spill, plus three Class II's and many Class I's. Though river runners will have to pay considerable attention to those rapids, the push water above these drops and the eddies below them hold jumbo smallies. For more information: www.rivermonsterguideservice.com.
NORTH FORK OF THE HOLSTON
Cundiff also guides on the North Fork of the Holston, often regarded as the second-best trophy bronzeback river behind only the New. Tommy has an interesting opinion on when to go.
"Late summer is my favorite time on the North Fork," he said. "But concentrate your fishing early and late and forget about the middle of the day unless the Holston has some stain to it. During low light, those big bass will be on mid-river ledges and behind boulders and downed trees in at least 2 1/2 feet of water. Those places have to have current, though, or they won't hold big smallmouths."
Once again, Cundiff relies on surface baits.
"I'll churn a Whopper Plopper just as fast as a buzzbait through shallow water holding areas," he said. "Sometimes I'll slow it down a little where the Plopper moves more like a prop bait that is running quickly but is not quite ripped across the surface. Throw in a few quick, erratic pauses every now and then."
Cundiff's three favorite trips are Saltville to Route 80 Bridge (6 miles), Mendotta to Swinging Bridge Road (5 miles), and Weber City to Gate City (6 miles). All of these excursions feature the current, rocks, and woody cover that Cundiff requires for big bass prospecting. Cundiff often works with the folks at Adventure Mendota, www.adventuremendota.com.
Jamie Gold prefers to fish the Potomac River at a time when many state sportsmen are hunting.
"Early to mid-fall is the ideal time to fish the Potomac," he said. "In the spring, we often have high, muddy water and the river isn't safe to be on. In the summer, it's so hot and muggy here, plus there's a lot of pleasure boaters and tubers. All that changes in the fall.
"I'll use a Case Salty Sinkin' Shad or a Jack's worm, both rigged weed-less and weightless. Concentrate on eddies below rocks and points at the ends of islands, which the Potomac has a lot of. Stay away from the banks; generally, the smallmouths are not there — the fish seem to hold more in deeper water."
Gold offers a trio of superlative trips to sample come autumn. Those trips include Potomac Wayside to Brunswick (5 miles), Brunswick to Lander (4 miles) and Lander to Point of Rocks (2 1/2 miles). These excursions are short enough that you could combine them together and implement a run-and-gun fishing strategy or take them separately and work every bit of quality cover.
The Potomac Wayside float is known for its large islands and three Class II rapids. Brunswick features riffles, a few Class I rapids, and lots of ledges. Lander is characterized mostly by riffles and numerous water willow covered islets. Elodea and star grass can also be abundant. For more information on the Potomac River Smallmouth Club, www.prsc.org.
Virginia fisheries biologist John Odenkirk weighs in on when to visit the upper Rappahannock.
"Personally, I prefer to fish late summer into fall, as I like to fish surface baits," he said. "I'm not sure it's the best time, but with low, clear water, fish are bunched up. As long as you're a bit stealthy and make long casts, you can own the day."
Odenkirk believes that in 2018, the "Rap should be fishing average to slightly above average for quantity and quality."
The good news is that three consecutive excellent year classes appear to have been produced from 2014 through 2016, reversing a string of marginal to poor year classes over the previous decade. It is likely, continues the biologist, that anglers will experience increased smallmouth catch rates for the next few years on the Rappahannock and Rapidan (the major tributary) as the dominant 2014 through 2016 year classes fully recruit to the fishery and mature.
River runners don't have many trips to choose from on the upper Rap, but the ones available are outstanding. A true bucket-list trip is the Kelly's Ford to Motts Run Landing (24 1/2 miles). Plan on spending two or three days taking this excursion and camping out several nights. Several Class II rapids punctuate this float and the heavily wooded shorelines offer lots of cover. To cruise through the Fredericksburg area, take the Motts Run to Old Mill Park (6 miles) getaway. This float includes numerous major rapids, but the smallmouth bass action can be fantastic. For more information, contact the Virginia Outdoor Center at www.playva.com.
SOUTH FORK AND MAIN STEM
Mark Frondorf is the Shenandoah Riverkeeper and also a guide, so he is on the South Fork and Main Stem a great deal.
"In 2017, I saw a lot of 8- to 12-inch smallmouths as well as some fish 15 and 16 inches," he said. "I also didn't find many fish with lesions, and the star grass and water celery have really come back, so that's lots of good news, with the last fish kill being in 2014. If we don't have another fish kill, a lot of those 8- to 12-inch bass will be 12- to 16-inchers in 2018."
Frondorf maintains that early spring is the best time to visit the South Fork and Main Stem, and the best bait then by far is a jig and pig. One of his favorite trips is Island Ford to Elkton (7 miles) known for its abundance of riffles and Class I and II rapids. Another recommended one is Hazard Mill to Bentonville (4 miles) which offers good water depth in the spring but many times not in the summer. Rounding out Mark's trio of favorites is Karo to Front Royal (6 miles) which hosts numerous riffles and Class I rapids.
And don't forget the Main Stem for jumbo early spring brown bass. Frondorf recommends Berry's Ferry to Lockes (10 miles) for its riffles, Class I rapids, and a lone Class II which combine to produce plenty of eddies and pocket water; and Lockes to Castleman's Ferry (5 miles) for its rocky cover. For more information on the Shenandoah Riverkeeper program, www.potomacriverkeepernetwork.org; for guided trips, email@example.com.
DGIF fisheries biologist Steve Reeser keeps tabs on Lake Moomaw, and the forecast is quite positive.
"Smallmouth fishing was good in 2017 based on reports I received from anglers, and I predict that 2018 should be no different," he said. "Moomaw can still produce 4- to 5-pound bass per angling trip!
"In recent years the smallmouth bass population has taken over as the dominant black bass species. Biologists theorize that this could be a result of reservoir aging that has increased habitat conditions preferred by smallmouth bass. The black bass population has remained relatively stable over the years."
Reeser shares some ideas about the fishery and where and when to go.
Smallmouth reach 12 inches by age 4. However, growth slows considerably and it may take 8 to 10 years for a smallmouth to reach 18 inches.
Expect excellent numbers of smallmouth between 12 and 18 inches in 2018. The head of Lake Moomaw where Back Creek and the Jackson River converge is a place to target large smallmouths in late April to early May. Anglers can also find smallmouths shallow a little earlier than largemouths starting in mid-April. The steeper banks off the cliff wall areas or shale banks are also good then.
LOWER NEW RIVER
Britt Stoudenmire operates the New River Outdoor Company and says all 11 floats on the lower New possess trophy smallmouth potential, especially in March during the pre-spawn.
"That time period consistently produces some of the heaviest fish of the season," he said. "Large female smallmouths are normally transitioning from their wintering areas to their spawning areas, feeding heavily during intervals throughout this transition. I prefer to target current seams near spawning flats. Large females will stage on these seams and gorge on crayfish and minnows.
"Water temps are critical, and I prefer the river warming from 42 degrees to 52 degrees. I have found that as the water reaches 52 degrees and above, the large female smallmouths immediately begin thinking more about spawning and less about feeding. Often this warming happens quickly, leaving a very narrow window to catch the largest fish."
Britt's favorite lures include spinnerbaits, crankbaits, jerkbaits, tubes, and jig 'n pigs. For guided trips: www.newriveroutdoorco.com.
Stoudenmire guides on the upper James only during its prime big bronzeback period.
"I only guide on the James when the water temperature is less than 50 degrees, because that is the best time to catch trophy smallmouths on that river," said Stoudenmire. "That period might come in December and might be as late as March. At that temperature, the James's smallmouths will be in their wintering holes, and sometimes they will have traveled for miles to arrive there."
Every trip on the James has a potential wintering hole, and obviously, ethically, I can't mention the specific spots where these places exist. But what anglers should look for, says Stoudenmire, are places that provide sanctuaries from high water, cover in the form of submerged wood and large rocks, and food (typically in the form of minnows).
These locales could be on outside bends, mid-river ledges, or inside bends with eddies. A spring entering any of these places will enhance them.
I try to visit most of Virginia's premier smallmouth destinations every year in preparation for this story. It's a hard job but somebody has to do it. Hopefully, you can find time to put these destinations on your 2018 itinerary.
Editor's Note: Bruce Ingram is the author of books on the James, New, Potomac, and Shenandoah and Rappahannock. For more information, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.