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Spawnin’ and Stockin’ Stripers

Let’s face it, while some fish species in the Commonwealth do a pretty good job of procreating (e.g., the ubiquitous panfish), others of our fishy friends can use some help in keeping their numbers up—or even being introduced to new waters.

The goal, of course, is better fishing for you, the intrepid angler.

It’s also the case that providing better fishing in the Old Dominion through a breeding and stocking program takes some serious time, effort and science on the part of Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries (DGIF) biologists, aquaculturists and hatchery personnel.

At this time of year, DGIF personnel are “hatching” (what else?!) plans for collecting near-spawning striped bass (aka stripers) from local rivers for the purposes of bringing male and female striped bass to Virginia’s two striper hatcheries.

The King and Queen Hatchery near Stevensville reproduces the Chesapeake (or marine) strain of stripers. These fish are harvested in brackish water from such Chesapeake drainage rivers as the Pamunkey, Mattaponi, James and Rappahannock, Chris Dahlem, manager at the hatchery, told me.

The Vic Thomas Hatchery near Brookneal, run by Mike Gafford, annually spawns and hatches the Roanoke (or landlocked) strain of  striped bass, which are collected from Roanoke drainage freshwater systems such as the Roanoke, Staunton and Dan Rivers.

After catching, examining and selecting the striper brood stock, the fish are allowed to spawn naturally at the hatcheries. The eggs are then incubated before being released into culture ponds. When the fingerlings reach about 1-2 inches in length, they are collected, transported and stocked around the state.

Every year, DGIF stocks more than one million Roanoke and Chesapeake striped bass juveniles into as many as 20 water systems through 30 separate stockings in the Old Dominion.

About 70 percent of the stripers that DGIF stocks are Roanoke, while 30 percent are Chesapeake—and only freshwater impoundments such as lakes and reservoirs are stocked. No stripers are returned to tidal Chesapeake rivers.

This Chesapeake-Roanoke stocking mix, like any of the stocking numbers and stocked impoundments may change from year to year, of course, depending on circumstances and recommendation of fisheries biologists.

Smith Mountain Lake, a 20,600-acre impoundment, near Roanoke, is considered one of the finest striped fisheries in the state–and one of the top freshwater striped bass fisheries in the country–due to its clear water and plentiful forage.

According to Dan Wilson, a DGIF fisheries biologist, Smith Mountain Lake offers some of the most challenging fishing for stripers, too, due to the changing techniques required to land one across the seasons.

For instance, in the spring, you may be able to find these fish in the shallows. But as the water warms into the summer months, you’ll need to go deep for them as the stripers head for cooler, more comfortable waters.

Virginia’s freshwater stripers aren’t really a warm-water species like largemouth bass nor really a cold-water species like trout, but more of a temperate or “cool” water fish, Wilson told me.

Beyond Smith Mountain, Buggs Island, Anna, Claytor, Gaston, Leesville and Western Branch Lakes and the Staunton and Roanoke Rivers are all fine fisheries for one of Virginia’s biggest game fish—keeping in mind our musky and catfish anglers.

Stripers weighing 10-15 pounds are common in Virginia, with fish weighing 30-40 pounds landed each season. The state record for striped bass is in Virginia is 54 pounds. Land a 20-pounder and you’ve caught a Virginia citation fish.

The fact is you don’t have to go to the Chesapeake Bay or Virginia’s Atlantic coast to catch this incredible game fish. Thanks to DGIF’s hatcheries, all you may have to do is hop in your vehicle and drive to a local lake to land a trophy.

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Dr. Peter Brookes is a DC foreign policy geek by day and a Virginia outdoor scribbler by night. Brookesoutdoors@gmail.com

  • March 11th, 2019

Jackpot Bassin’ for Springtime Largemouth

Pssssst! Here’s a dirty little secret for you:  If you want to catch your biggest largemouth bass of the year, this month—March—may be your best bet to net “basszilla.”

That may sound a bit odd, but, according to John Odenkirk, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) biologist, a lot of very big largemouth bass are caught this time of year as Mother Nature moves us from winter to spring.

As water temperatures increase, largemouth bass will shake off the cold and become increasingly active.  In the pre-spawn, they’ll fatten up; while spawning, largemouth bass will become more aggressive, protecting against threats to their eggs.

Lake Anna is considered one of the top large mouth bass fisheries in Virginia. Photo by Meghan Marchetti/DGIF.

As Virginians, we’re really blessed with some incredible largemouth bass fisheries right here in the state.  Indeed, anglers are known to travel big distances from across our great land to throw a lure at an Old Dominion “lunker.”

If you didn’t already know from the number of largemouth bass fishing tournaments that take place there, Lake Anna is considered one of the top “bucketmouth” fisheries in Virginia.

One of the largest reservoirs in the state, Lake Anna is easily reachable from Northern Virginia, Fredericksburg, Richmond and Charlottesville. You just can’t argue with that sort of accessibility—or fishing.

And then, of course, there’s the powerful and plentiful Potomac River. It turns out that our beloved Potomac and its tidal creeks aren’t only an incredible fish factory, but one of the—if not the—top largemouth bass fisheries in the United States.

Nice.

The other awesome thing about these two water systems is that, as Odenkirk wisely pointed out to me, if the Potomac River is looking unfishable, Lake Anna may well be totally fishable or at least fishable in spots.

That means if we have a really rainy year like last year—which, I understand, was one for the record books—when the Potomac River is high and off-color, it’s likely, that as a reservoir, most parts of Lake Anna could be eagerly awaiting your fly, lure or bait.

The mid-lake region along Rose Valley, Ware Creek and the State Park along the outside edge of water willow beds can produce outstanding spring angling, Odenkirk told me.

In other words, while we all need to heed Mother Nature (e.g., thunderstorms, high water, etc.), there may be no good excuse for leaving your bass tackle box and rods at the back of the gear closet if the weather has been on the wet side.

Photo: Shutterstock.

Of course, these fabulous fish are available in Virginia beyond the Potomac River and Lake Anna—don’t get me wrong.

DGIF notes that Gaston, Buggs Island, Chickahominy, Chesdin, Smith Mountain, Prince, Briery Creek, Western Branch and Flannagan Lakes are all top-notch largemouth fisheries. For rivers, hit the Chickahominy (below Walkers Dam) and James (below the fall line).

Of course, bass can be caught using fly or spin tackle.

According to DGIF, plastic worms and other plastic imitations, crankbaits, spinner baits, surface lures, jigs and other artificials, imitating minnows, crayfish, frogs, salamanders and nightcrawlers are good bets for the spin rodder.

Live bait options recommended by DGIF include jumbo shiners, small bluegills, minnows, crayfish, nightcrawlers and frogs. For the fly guys and gals, streamers and large poppers on the end of an 8-pound to 10-pound leader can be productive.

Nothing quite like the thrill of seeing a largemouth slam an artificial on the surface.

In terms of where to find largemouths this time of year, target horizontal and vertical structure (e.g., down wood and docks) and southern exposed flats near drop-offs late in the afternoon to bag these early season bass.

With an average weight of 2 – 4 pounds—with monsters tipping the scales at up to 10 pounds—there’s no question that the hard-fighting Micropterus salmoides is arguably America’s greatest freshwater game fish.

And, even better, this month would be an opportune time to bring a Virginia “bassquatch” to hand.

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Dr. Peter Brookes is a DC foreign policy geek by day and a Virginia outdoor scribbler by night. Brookesoutdoors@gmail.com

  • March 7th, 2019

Tips for Wintertime River Smallmouths

Angling for Virginia’s wintertime river smallmouths is a paradox. The cold weather period is perhaps both the best time to catch trophy bronzebacks and the most likely time for fishermen not to even receive one bite. Here are tips from three well-known state anglers on how to experience more of the former and less of the latter.

Willis’ Mike Smith operates New River Fly Fishing and offers this advice.

“Fly fishermen should wait until we’ve had 50-degree-plus air temperatures for three or four days, which typically cause the water temperature to rise from, say, 40 to 44-45 degrees,” he says. “Then use sink tip lines and big streamers like my Articulated Fish Skull pattern to probe winter holes.”

Guides Scott Guilliams and Britt Stoudenmire of New River Outdoor Company work a winter hole on the New River.

Pembroke’s Britt Stoudenmire, who operates the New River Outdoor Company, gives an example of a “winter hole.”

“My favorite winter holes are pronounced ledges that run the width of the river within deeper pools,” he says. “The ledges provide breaks that protect fish in higher flows and are great structure to attract baitfish and crayfish. These are also excellent places to try jig and pigs, tubes or suspended jerk baits.

Deep rocky pools are good places to prospect for trophy cold season bronzebacks.

“I like to position my boat on the bottom side of the ledge and quarter my casts towards the ledge letting the broken current do all the work as the bait drifts slowly downriver with the current. The breaks, also called eddies, have current seams on the outer edges. Smallmouths will stage on these seams when they are feeding or will position more in the protected pocket when they are in a holding pattern.”

Britt Stoudenmire with a trophy New River smallmouth that he caught on a jig and pig.

Tommy Cundiff runs River Monster Guide Service and also targets those same winter holding areas but with a different lure.

“I used to do the big bait on heavy line thing for winter smallmouths, but now I’ve mostly gone to finesse fishing for them,” he says. “I use six-pound-test mono on a 6 ½-foot rod and tie on 2 ½-inch Berkley Gulp Minnows. Make short casts to the bank and retrieve so that the bait sort of slowly pendulums back to the boat. Twitch the Gulp Minnows just a tad as you bring them back.”

The Old Dominion’s top wintertime destination?

All three guides rate the New River as the best, but the James, Shenandoah (South Fork, North Fork, and mainstem), Rappahannock, Potomac, and Maury are quality destinations as well.

Scott Guilliams landing a fine New River smallmouth for Britt Stoudenmire.

“The New is an excellent destination for winter smallies because it has such diversified habitat and plenty of it,” Stoudenmire says. “Fish don’t have to move long distances to winter. I typically locate new winter holes on the New during the low water months when you can see the content of these areas better. Then I will go to them in the winter and check them out. Some work out, some don’t. Only time on the water will tell.”

Lastly, please be sure to always wear a lifejacket while wintertime fishing and check river gauges to make sure water levels are safe.

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  • January 7th, 2019

Catch your Limit: Lake Merriweather Fall Fishing

If you’re looking to catch a limit of sportfish this fall, Lake Merriweather in Rockbridge County is this year’s premier destination fishery for new and seasoned anglers. Lake Merriweather is owned by the Boy Scouts of America, but in 2018, DGIF established a partnership with the Goshen Scout Reservation and National Wild Turkey Federation to open the lake and surrounding land to the public.

Lake Merriweather is 450 acres and is the second-largest lake in the district. Fishing at this lake is prime because the fish are not accustomed to heavy pressure from anglers. Largemouth bass and black crappies are the most common fish to catch here.

“It has a really good black crappie population that people are just in love with,” says, Jason Hallacher, Region 4 Assistant Fisheries Biologist.

Crappie fishing is great for apprentice anglers because there is constant action of catching fish that can be a lot of fun for someone new to fishing.

“It’s great for new or young anglers because it’s easy to catch limits. The average size of the black crappie is 11 inches,” he says. “The largemouth average 15 inches, but bass up to 10 pounds have been reported.”

Lake Merriweather has been privatized for so long that it hasn’t seen many skilled anglers to cover the water. People that fish there are rewarded with great success. The lake also has sunfish, sucker fish, catfish and a lot of carp.

Largemouth Bass captured during spring electrofishing surveys.

DGIF just started sampling the fish populations, so the lake has not been stocked. Biologists conduct annual boat electrofishing and trap netting surveys in the spring targeting bass, sunfish, crappie, and catfish. DGIF is also conducting a Creel survey for anglers who fish the lake. Anglers are encouraged to report their catch after they are finished fishing for the day. Fishing survey cards are located at the boat launch and the shore fishing area. Accurately completing these surveys assist DGIF biologists with evaluating the fishery.

“We are fortunate to have it open and we are getting great feedback from the public,” says Hallacher. “People are happy! They’ve been waiting to fish there for a long time.”

In addition to fishing, Lake Merriweather has a lot of bald eagle nests on the eastern shore of the lake, and eagles are seen on a regular basis. This offers a great opportunity for bird watching from a boat or kayak. Other wildlife watching opportunities are present as deer, bear, turkey, and other birds are commonly seen, too.

Fishing starts to heat up in the fall when the temperature of the water cools and fish are moving around the surface more. The lake is also less crowded during the fall because people are switching from fishing to hunting. If you want to try a new Virginia hot-spot this fall, don’t miss the chance to easily catch your limit here.

Fishing from a boat or kayak is the best way to cover the water at Lake Merriweather. Bank fishing is available, but it is minimal. The bank fishing area is only about 200-yards long located in the lake’s emergency spillway. No gas motors are allowed on the lake, but battery-powered trolling motors are permitted.

PALS permit is required to hunt, fish, view wildlife or access the public portions of the property, in addition to all other applicable hunting or fishing licenses.

Visit the Lake Merriweather page for maps, directions, and more details on lake regulations.

  • September 10th, 2018