Thursday, May 04, 2006

Bill Cochran's Outdoors: A second look at Virginia's top fishing holes

Bill Cochran Bill Cochran is a Roanoke Times outdoors columnist.

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Where do you go in Virginia to catch a trophy freshwater fish, one that will earn you a Department of Game and Inland Fisheries’ citation and maybe even send you trotting to a taxidermist shop?

In a previous column, I listed the top five spots. They were, in order, (1) Private ponds, (2) Cripple Creek, (3) James River, (4) Lake Moomaw, and (5) Kerr Lake. They were chosen because last season they produced the highest number of trophy fish registered with the DGIF. I don’t expect that to change much this year.

Now, as promised, here is the second five to round out my top-10 list:

5. NEW RIVER

The New River accounted for 108 smallmouth bass citations last season, three times more than any other body of water in Virginia. It had four times more muskie than its nearest rival.

The river enjoyed excellent smallmouth hatches in 2004 and 2005, the best since the strong classes of 1996 and 1997. This should mean impressive number of small fish up to 10 inches and good numbers of fish 14 to 20 inches, said John Copeland, DGIF biologist. Next year could be an even better trophy bass season, with the 1996 and 1997 year classes having additional time to grow under a productive slot limit.

The New, which flows northward across the western end of Virginia, is one of the few spots in Virginia where anglers go to target muskie. Catches elsewhere are mostly incidental to other fishing. The New accounted for 31 muskie citations in 2005, but the actual take likely was much more because many muskie experts tend to release their catches unheralded.

In addition to smallmouth and muskie citations, the New yielded citations in seven other categories, posting a total of 185. Its 14 channel catfish citations led the state for that category, and it was third in the walleye standing, with 14.

TIP: For a long time, the peak of the muskie season on the New was considered the winter months. In recent years, anglers have discovered even better action in the middle of the summer.

6. NOTTOWAY RIVER

The 130-mile Nottoway River isn’t as famous as the storied James, New, Shenandoah and Rappahannock rivers, but local anglers know it holds a treasure of “rock bass” and sunfish.

Forming in Prince Edward and Luenburg counties and flowing toward the North Carolina line, the Nottoway produced 95 rock bass citations last year. That’s 91 more than its nearest rival, Little River. It also was second to Lake Prince in sunfish citations, accounting for 45. Lake Prince had 63. The river posted a total of 160 citations in eight categories.

The fish registered as rock bass in reality are Roanoke bass. The two species are so similar that the average angler can’t distinguish between them and the DGIF does not try.

The Roanoke bass has one of the smallest native ranges of any North American game fish, and its habitat is declining, according to Dr. Robert Jenkins, author of “Freshwater Fishes of Virginia.” The Nottoway is a rare stronghold for this species, which makes the river and the fish very special.

The character of the Nottoway changes at the Virginia 630 Bridge on the Greenville-Sussex County line. Upstream from the bridge, it generally is shallow, clear and fast flowing to the point that there are numerous small rapids. This is the section that produces an abundance of redbreast sunfish.

Below the bridge, the river slows, deepens and darkens in color due to the influence of swamps. Here’s where you find bluegills. As a rule, the Roanoke bass are located upstream in the summer and downstream in the winter.

TIP: A world record Roanoke bass probably is lurking in the Nottoway River. The current record is a 1-pound, 5-ounce Nottoway catch taken in 1991. Anglers doubtlessly catch world record candidates and throw them back or eat them because of the difficulty of identifying and registering them. For anyone bent on seeing their name in the world record book, this is an obvious place to do it.

7. SMITH MOUNTAIN LAKE

The striped bass citation count is on the rebound at 20,000-acre Smith Mountain Lake, following a die-off that virtually eliminated the lake’s big fish and its big fish reputation. Striper citations reached 25 in 2005. That’s a far cry from the pre-crash days, when well over 100 citations annually were registered, but it is an improvement over recent seasons.

The question: will Smith Mountain regain its glory days as a big striped bass producer? It is too early to tell, according to Dan Wilson, a DGIF biologist.

“Our fall gill net sampling produced good number of young fish so it looks pretty good,” Wilson said. Anglers have been enjoying decent fishing for smaller stripers this spring.

New regulations that become law July 1 are designed to give big striped bass more protection; however, there are major uncertainties for the species. A scarcity of baitfish in the lower lake is one, and the impact of parasites is another. The parasites that have been a problem during recent years are still attached to many fish, especially young ones, Wilson said.

Smith Mountain Lake produced 113 citations in 13 categories last season. It was first in striped bass citations; second in crappie (22); fourth in largemouth bass (21); fourth in smallmouth bass (11) and fifth in yellow perch (15).

TIP: Most anglers don’t consider Smith Mountain Lake yellow perch habitat, but this species has become more prevalent as the lake has aged. Keep in mind that a 12-inch or 1-pound, 4-ounce yellow perch will qualify for a citation. One better than 2 pounds, 7 ounces is a state record candidate.

8. BRIERY CREEK LAKE

Briery Creek Lake is enjoying another outstanding largemouth bass trophy season. Last year, it accounted for 102 largemouth citations. That was more than three times its nearest rival. Look for a similar count this year.

This 845-acre DGIF impoundment doesn’t just dominate the state’s trophy largemouth fishery, but it produces the biggest of the best. Bass over 13 pounds have been caught this spring.

Normally by now the big fish action is about over, but in 2004 and 2005 huge largemouths were caught throughout the years.

“I don’t know why that is the case; perhaps, the intense fishing pressure in the spring has them a little more wary now,” said Vic DiCenzo, DGIF fish biologist.

Every year, anglers wonder if Briery will suffer a decline in big-bass production, but it hasn’t happened. A string of three poor year classes are about to kick in, and they could impact the fishery in the future. A major study is under way. Two coves have been closed to fishing so researchers can compare bass survival, abundance and growth in a fished and un-fished area.

Briery had a total of 107 citations, including four for crappie and one for chain pickerel.

TIP: Briery Creek grabs most of the attention as a big-bass habitat, but not to be overlooked is the nearby, smaller Sandy River Reservoir. Fishermen there registered 30 citation largemouths last season, which was second only to Briery Creek. The lake has given up some trophy catches this spring.

9. CHICKAHOMINY RIVER

The 69 blue catfish citations taken last year from this cypress-studded stream kept the river in the Top-10 of Virginia’s trophy fish hotspots; however, its once nationally known largemouth bass fishing has been on the skids. And that hurts.

Bass production was a failure in 1999 and 2000, and it was below average several other years, according to Bob Greenlee, DGIF fish biologist. Drought was the foe, Greenlee said.

The drought broke in a big way in 2002, and the result has been good recruitment, especially in 2004 and 2005.

“Anglers should see continued improvement in the fisheries in the short-term, with increased catches of 12-to 15-inch largemouth likely,” said Greenlee. Big fish won’t be abundant until these new classes have a chance to mature. Until then, anglers will have to be content with smaller fish and release enough of them to grow to trophy size.

The Chickahominy River tallied a total of 101 citations in eight categories. Its blue catfish count was second only to the James River, but well behind the 742 tally for the James.

TIP: If you are a bass fishermen who delights in catching scrappy largemouths up to 15 inches in length now is the time for a date with the “Chick.”

10. LAKE PRINCE

Even with its production less than half what it once was, Lake Prince remains Virginia’s best trophy sunfish hot spot. It accounted for 63 sunfish citations last season. Most of were redear sunfish, commonly called shellcrackers, because of their grinding teeth that can smash the shells of snails and small mussels. The lake also contains bluegills.

The big panfish aren’t a pushover. Shellcrackers are bottom feeders, meaning they often are caught by anglers using light tackle to put a worm or nymph on the bottom of the 777-acre lake. Many of the trophy fish are caught by a handful of experts.

Prince had a total of 101 citations in eight species last season, which placed it in a tie with the Chickahominy River. Its modest size probably means that it yields more citation fish per acre of water than any other spot in the state. It registered seven largemouth bass, three striped bass, 10 yellow perch and 14 gar citations.

TIP: For anglers who set a goal of catching as many different kinds of citations as possible, Lake Prince should not be overlooked as the place to search for a gar. It yielded 14 gar citations last season, second to the James River, which had 32. Catching gar in Prince is less of a “needle in a haystack” affair than it is in the James.

BEST OF THE REST

STAUNTON RIVER: 100 citations. It was the top walleye (30) and white perch (19) producer, and placed fourth in flathead catfish citations (22. Get this: it accounted for six smallmouth bass citations.

LITTLE CREEK RESERVOIR: 99 citations. Its 44 yellow perch citations placed it second to Lake Moomaw.

SWIFT CREEK RESERVOIR: 70 citations. Virginia’s leading chain pickerel trophy water, with 50 citations for the species last season.

CLAYTOR LAKE: 65 citations. One of the oldest impoundments in the state, it still turns out impressive numbers of trophy catches, including 16 smallmouth bass and 20 yellow perch citations last year.

WESTERN BRANCH: 64 citations. Was in the top five best places to catch citation sunfish.

LAKE ANNA: 54 citations, including 20 crappie and 18 largemouths.

LAKE GASTON: 53 citations. This once was a leading largemouth impoundment, but its top category now is blue catfish (22).

MATTAPONI RIVER: 48 citations. Thirty-three blue catfish.

PAMUNKEY RIVER: 45 citations. Blue catfish accounted for 31.

LAKE FREDERICK: 44 citations. This is little known largemouth country, accounting for 29 bass citations last season.

POTOMAC RIVER: 44 citations. Good fishing, especially for blue catfish, in sight of the Nation’s Capitol.

RAPPAHANNOCK RIVER: 44 citations. Blue catfish country.

CHICKAHOMINY LAKE: 41 citations. This is one of Virginia’s best, all-round fisheries, especially for largemouth bass and chain pickerel.

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