Thursday, February 24, 2011

Bill Cochran's Outdoors: Walleye is first fish to shake winter doldrums, and here’s where to find them

Bill Cochran Bill Cochran is a Roanoke Times outdoors columnist.

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One of the first freshwater fish to shake off the winter doldrums and start sparring with anglers as early as February is the walleye.

Virginia isn’t the greatest of the walleye states, but in recent years biologists of the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries have been working to determine where this good-eating species fits in. Using stocking and fishing regulations as a tool, fish officials have given up on some water and concentrated on areas that hold the most promise.

Here’s a look at some of the better walleye fishing spots for 2011. I have compiled this ranking after consulting with the DGIF walleye fishing forecast, talking with fishing guides and studying citation results. Be aware there are a number of new walleye regulations this season that can be found on HuntFishVA.com.

CLAYTOR LAKE: According to the 2009 citation count, the most recent available, 4,475-acre Claytor Lake is the top producer of trophy walleye in Virginia with 20 citations that year. Never mind that the DGIF doesn’t include it in its 2011 walleye fishing forecast. The minimum size for a citation is 5 pounds or 25 inches.

Early season fishing can be found in the lake’s headwaters in the Allisonia area where walleye gather from late February into April, according to guide Mike Smith.

“The lake fish usually spawn below the rapids at the very top of the lake,” said Smith. “I have caught many good walleye there in the spring.”

UPPER NEW RIVER: The New River accounted for 14 citations. The best action normally is February through April where the river flows into Claytor Lake, but walleye inhabit the Foster Falls to Buck Dam section year round. The 15-pound, 15-ounce state record is a New River catch taken more than 10 years ago.

PHILPOTT RESERVOIR: Look for a very good walleye season in this 2,880-acres Army Corps of Engineers lake near Bassett. When biologists sampled the population with gill nets last fall their catch rate was the highest ever recorded for the lake. Most of the fish were in the 18- to 20-inch bracket, which means they are keepers under the state’s new 18-inch minimum length limit. This fishery isn’t known for its early season prowess. It is at its best May through September. Top-water night fishing is very popular and productive in May and June during the alewife spawn. Philpott is poised to become Virginia’s No. 1 walleye fishery.

SOUTH HOLSTON RESERVOR: Sampling in 2009 and 2010 revealed a good population of walleyes capable of providing year-round fishing. A highlight is the run that takes place up the South Fork of the Holston River February through April with the peak action around mid-March. Early season anglers zero in on the run and often overlook opportunities to fish for good numbers of walleye along the shoreline in less than 10 feet of water. Big females can be found moving around the lake late February.

FLANNAGAN RESERVOIR: The walleye population has bounced back form a fish kill in 2004. Stockings since 2006 have had excellent survival and this has rebuilt the population to the point there are good numbers of fish over 18 inches. Walleye move into the Pound and Cranesneck rivers during the early spring, providing exciting fishing opportunities.

STAUNTON RIVER: Fish the tailrace of Leesville Dam late winter and early spring, then probe downstream from the dam to Brookneal concentrating on fallen trees and other cover. This fishing is rated good for 2011 by the DGIF.

LAKE BRITTLE: Anglers targeting walleye report good success at this small, northern Virginia impoundment. Stockings have enjoyed good survival developing a strong population of walleye up to age 5. Fishing success is highest late spring and early summer.

LAKE ANNA: Like Claytor, Anna isn’t mentioned in the DGIF walleye fishing forecast, mostly because it is viewed as a declining fishery. Not to be overlooked is the fact that it was the third producer of citations at last count.

Walleye fishing here gets an early start when the fish hang around the warmer water produced by power operations. A good place to look for them in this 9,600-acre lake is off the rip-rap along the dikes and bridge crossings.

HUNGRY MOTHER LAKE: Best known as a state park destination for families, the walleye population has seen steady increase and is offering good numbers of fish up to 20 inches. A few walleye are caught late February, but March generally sees the action begin in earnest. Night fishing is productive April through June when the walleye forage for spawning alewives.

LITTLE CREEK RESERVOIR: This is up and coming walleye habitat. Last year the 947-acre lake in James City County received a hefty stocking of 60,500 walleye fingerlings. The growth rate has been excellent, thanks to a blue-black herring population. Officials hope to boost the stocking rate this year. This is an up and coming fishery.

OTHER LAKES: Lake Orange and Lake Robertson are a couple small impoundments where there is an opportunity to catch a walleye incidentally while casting for largemouth bass or catfish. Both lakes have been stocked with walleye for a number of years. Survival and growth has been good; still, these aren’t places to go strictly for walleye fishing. Orange is a 124-acre lake in Orange County; Lake Robertson is a 26-acre impoundment in Rockbridge County.

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