Thursday, May 29, 2008

Bill Cochran's Outdoors: The best smallmouth bass streams in Virginia

Bill Cochran Bill Cochran is a Roanoke Times outdoors columnist.

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Stream fishing for smallmouth bass in Virginia has been plagued by recurring fish kills and low water during recent seasons, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some fine opportunities to catch a trophy or have a delightful time float-fishing for scrappy 10- to 15-inch bass. Here is my current pick of the state’s top five smallmouth stream. My choice isn’t based entirely on the number of citations produced, although that counts big, but also the success of recent year classes and the health of the stream:

New River

No question, the New River is Virginia’s premiere smallmouth bass stream. It is big, beautiful and garnished with trophy bass. Just ask Zack Cangiano, who landed a 7-pound, 2-ounce giant on a July 4th outing last year. An 8-pound, 1-ounce New River smallmouth taken March 12, 2003 by Donald Eaton, Jr. is a longstanding state record.

The past season, the New produced 146 citation smallmouth bass, nearly twice as many as its nearest rival, the James River. That pace can be expected to continue in the future, considering that the 2004 and 2005 spawns in the New below Claytor Dam were the best in more than a decade. The river is packed with 7-to 14-inch bass, which are great targets for lightweight spin-tackle and fly anglers. The 2007 spawn wasn’t bad, either, so the good news keeps coming.

Many of this season’s trophy bass will be the 20-inchers coming from the 1996 and 1997 spawns, which were decent.

The New is a different river above Claytor Lake; smaller, mostly pastoral and, during dry weather, more difficult to float. In the upper stream, you can expect good numbers of 12- to 18-inch bass, with bigger ones always a possibility.

TIP: Top locations for bass, according to Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, include the Radford to McCoy Falls section of Montgomery County and the Pembroke to Pearisburg section of Giles County. A key to success is to be on the stream when a big-fish blitz occurs, like during a four-day period last spring when 16 citation fish were registered. John Thomas III got three of them.

James River

A few years back, the James River would have been at the top of my list, but no longer. This once king of smallmouth bass fishing in Virginia now plays second fiddle to the New.

The last year or so, the James, especially the upper river, has been troubled by fish kills. Officials really don’t know what is causing the bass and sunfish to go belly up. There is a good bet this will continue; in fact, dead fish have been spotted this season.

Even so, the James continues to produce, yielding about 75 trophy bass last season that were registered with the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. That included the state’s biggest smallmouth of the season, a 7-pound, 8-ounce early September giant by Mary Barksdale, of Rustburg.

The number of trophy fish will be down this season, but there are plenty of 10-to 12-inch bass, the makings of fun-filled float trips. These fish, along with the exceptional spawn of 2007 bode well for the future. Last fall, when DGIF biologists sampled the Piedmont section of the James, from Scottsville to Richmond, 62 percent of the fish examined were spawned in the spring of 2007. That should mean good fishing through at least 2010.

TIP: Don’t be surprised to catch bass that have lesions. A survey earlier this month in the Buchanan area revealed that about 40 percent of the fish had sores. Biologists are baffled over what factors are stressing fish.. State officials have made finding the cause and cure a top priority

North Folk Holston

If you are looking for a place where you can spend the day catching rod-bowing 14-to 18-inch bass, then make the North Fork of the Holston River your destination. According to DGIF samples, about 30 percent of the river’s adult bass exceed 15 inches and 10 percent measure more than 17 inches.

Last season, 20 citation-size smallmouths from the North Fork were registered with the DGIF. Only the New and James topped that. A smallmouth citation must measure a minimum of 20 inches or weigh a minimum of 5 pounds.

A few years ago, the North Fork would not have made my list. That’s because it hadn’t been discovered outside the Southwest Virginia hills and hollows it drains. In this age, no river remains lost forever, but the North Fork still has a long way to go to be as popular as the New, James and Shenandoah. You’ve got to believe that Bradford Starky and Bill Sargent are happy about the stream’s obscurity. The two accounted for nearly half of the river’s citation smallmouth last year. Starkey got five; Sargent, four. Most of the big fish last season were caught in July and August.

TIP: Be aware that from Saltville downstream to the Tennessee state line the stream is under has a mercury contamination advisory, which means catch-and-release should be practiced.

Rappahannock

Few have said it better than writer Dan Levin: “Only two important things ever happened to the Rappahannock: the Civil War and the smallmouth bass.”

The war is history, but the bass continue to come on strong. A record year class occurred in 2004. That year, DGIF biologists monitored 43 bass per hour when conducting electrofishing sampling. The previous record occurred in 1997 when the count was 28-per hour. That class has provided excellent fishing for years.

The record class of 2004 was followed by excellent reproduction and survival in 2005 average spawns in 2006 and 2007.

“This four-year string links together the strongest consecutive year class grouping documented to date in this river system,” said Biologist John Odenkirk.

The Rappahannock currently has the highest ratio of trophy fish ever documented. Look for last year's 15 citations to be surpassed with good spring and fall fishing. Keller Brooks registered eight citations last season, three of them the same day.

With all this in mind, I probably am making a mistake by not putting the river higher on my list.

TIP: The upper river should have a higher forage-fish base now that Embrey Dam has been breached.

Staunton River

First came trophy striped bass in the Staunton River, then trophy walleye and more recently, trophy smallmouth bass and flathead catfish. Let’s talk bass.

The growth rate of the bass is exceptional, and is resulting in trophy catches in recent years. Last year the river produced eight citation bass. Claude Shelton got two of them. The big-fish catches were spread across the calendar from March through September, but Brookneal angler Bill Herndon says his best success occurs during warm spells December through February.

If you are happy catching smaller bass, fish 14 inches and less, the current season is destined to be a vintage year. The 2005 and 2007 year classes were exceptional.

The Staunton isn’t an easy stream to fish. Access points are few, and the river meanders like a curving ribbon through private property. Once you gain access, fish the rocky areas and the submerged trees extending from the river bank.

TIP: When casting for smallmouth, there is a good chance you will hook a spotted bass. Most anglers probably identify them as a smallmouth. The stream also contains Roanoke bass, a larger cousin of the rock bass. And don’t be confused by the river’s name. From Leesville Dam to Kerr Lake, it is the Staunton River. Above and below that it is the Roanoke River.


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