2016 Annual Virginia Rivers and Smallmouth Bass Fishing Outlook
Smallmouth Bass fishing in the Staunton River in 2016 should continue to be average to good. Strong year classes produced in 2007, and average year classes in 2008 and 2009 should provide anglers with good catch rates of Smallmouth Bass 14" and greater. Year class strength has been steadily increasing from a low level in 2013. The 2015 year class was very good, so catch rates should remain consistent in the short term and improve as the 2015 year class enters the fishery in a few years. Growth rates of Smallmouth Bass are above average, and survival is good which helps the Staunton River be a consistent producer of quality-size smallmouth. Population estimates performed late summer 2013 indicated Smallmouth Bass population size declined somewhat since surveys were last performed in 2006, but the population was still very healthy. The Staunton has excellent Smallmouth Bass habitat in the reach above Brookneal; anglers new to the river should concentrate on the abundant rocky habitat as well as submerged trees extending from banks. The river also holds a number of Spotted Bass, and the chance to catch a spot over 12 inches is very good; especially in the lower river below Brookneal. In addition to black bass, anglers in the Staunton River will find fishing for Channel and Flathead Catfish to be excellent. Catfish are well distributed throughout the river and should be available to anglers fishing from shore or boat. A Striped Bass spawning run from Kerr Reservoir provides a very popular and unique fishing opportunity in April and May.
Recruitment for Smallmouth Bass in the James River was less than average in 2015 but not alarmingly low. Highest catch rates of young fish were seen in the middle stretch between Bremo and Bent Creek. The 2014 year class was highly prolific especially in the upper river sections and should persist for the next three to five years. In 2016, anglers can expect high catch rates of 8" - 12" inch fish from Lick run to Scottsville. Fish in the lower section of the river below Scottsville are still present, but densities are lower because suitable habitat declines. Larger fish (16"+) are also common in the river especially above Lynchburg where fishing pressure is limited. If you want to catch big fish, take the path less followed, and target areas between long stretches of public access. Flathead and Channel Catfish remain abundant from Lynchburg to Richmond with large fish of 20+ pounds very abundant at the Lynchburg and Bremo sites. Sunfish densities remain intact for the most part on the River. Redbreast densities are consistent river wide, while Rock Bass are more common from Lick Run to Big Island. Muskellunge catch rates remained high from Lick Run to Lynchburg with most fish in the 36 - 44" range. The largest musky captured in the 2015 electrofishing survey was 49" near Eagle Rock. Biologists have reward-tagged muskies from Lick Run to Lynchburg. If you catch a muskellunge with one or two yellow tags, please mail them to the address on the tag for a $20-$40 reward. For more detailed information, please see 2015 James River report.
On the New River upstream from Claytor Lake (Upper New River), abundant young Smallmouth Bass will contribute to angler catches in 2016 with good numbers of 7" to 14" fish. The section from Buck Dam to Allisonia is the best area of the Upper New River for Smallmouth Bass fishing, with excellent numbers of 14" to 18" bass available. During spring 2015 electrofishing from Buck Dam to Allisonia, 16 percent of Smallmouth Bass collected by Department biologists over 7" were also over 14", and 6 percent were over 17"! Walleye fishing is best from Fries Dam to Allisonia where the Department concentrates its stocking efforts. Anglers catch good numbers of Walleye in this section from February to May, with Foster Falls a prime location. Rock Bass and Redbreast Sunfish provide fun fishing opportunities, particularly from Mouth of Wilson to Fries where these sunfish are more numerous. In pool areas from Ivanhoe to Allisonia, anglers can catch Channel and Flathead Catfish, which are more numerous upstream from Claytor Lake than downstream. Muskie populations have increased from Ivanhoe to Allisonia offering opportunities to catch a trophy that will light up your lure!
The New River below Claytor Lake should produce good catches of Smallmouth Bass up to 15" in 2016. Bass fishing should continue to improve during the next few years with above average Smallmouth Bass spawns during four of the last seven years! Top locations for Smallmouth Bass are Whitethorne to Eggleston in Montgomery and Giles counties and Pembroke to Pearisburg in Giles County. Good areas for panfish include Claytor Dam and Whitethorne in Montgomery County and Pembroke to Pearisburg in Giles County. If you prefer catching big fish, increase the size of your gear and target muskie. Muskie are abundant in all sections with good numbers of 35" to 42" fish available. Throwing large spinnerbaits and stickbaits could result in hair-raising strikes. Muskie in the New River are regulated by a 42" minimum size with a 1 per day creel. The Department and Virginia Tech are conducting a study of muskie food habits and growth. More information on this study will be available in the next year.
Fishing opportunities for Clinch River Smallmouth Bass in 2016 should be good. Electrofishing catch rate for Smallmouth Bass in 2015 (53 fish/hour) was down slightly from 2014 (63 fish/hour), but size distribution improved - 17% of the fish exceeded 14", and 5% measured 17" or more. Walleye numbers during spring sampling were the highest observed in 12 years and was likely the result of consistent stocking over the past few years and good survival of stocked fry. Additional surveys during summer revealed a healthy channel catfish population.
The fishing outlook for Smallmouth Bass on the North Fork Holston River is bright for 2016. Boat electrofishing catch in 2015 was 111 fish/hour which was very high. Size structure was good at the two sites sampled, but high spring flows limited access to Mendota and Weber City which traditionally offer some of the best smallmouth numbers the river has to offer. Six sport fish species were collected from Bridgeman Landing and Saltville with Smallmouth Bass, Rock Bass, and Redbreast Sunfish the most abundant.
Fishing the Maury River in beautiful Rockbridge County is always a good choice. Fish populations are extremely consistent from year to year, and anglers should expect high catch rates of Smallmouth Bass, Rock Bass, and Redbreast Sunfish when fishing in 2016. Biologists observed plentiful numbers of smallmouth in the 12-14" range during their spring 2015 surveys. Anglers also reported excellent catch rates of these bass last summer. In 2016, anglers should expect to encounter above-average numbers of smallmouth 12" and above. The Maury offers excellent habitat for Smallmouth Bass and sunfish throughout its 30-mile journey to the James River in Glasgow. Anglers may also find themselves "reeling in" a Green Sunfish, Pumpkinseed Sunfish, Fallfish, or Largemouth Bass, as these species are also quite common. Harboring high densities of scrappy fish, the Maury is a great place to take novice anglers or a child on their first fishing trip.
The South Fork and Mainstem Shenandoah River are known in angler circles as "numbers" fisheries, meaning anglers can expect to catch a reasonable amount of bass and sunfish on any given day. Based on the most recent DGIF 2015 fall sampling, it appeared the Smallmouth Bass fishery has begun to recover from the disease/mortality event in spring 2014. The number of adult Smallmouth Bass greater than 11" was once again above the 19-year average. The majority of these fish came from above average spawning success in 2010. The number of smallmouth greater than 14" also increased from 2014 to 2015 by 37 percent. During fall 2015 fish population monitoring, biologists documented a fair number of Smallmouth Bass in the 10 - 12" range. These 10 - 12" bass were from the 2010 spawning year and should grow into the 12 - 14" range throughout the 2016 summer. There was also good spawning success in 2012, and these fish (8 - 10") should start showing up to anglers using smaller baits. Spawning success was below average in 2008 and 2009, so even without the 2014 disease event; there would be low numbers of bass greater than 15" in 2016. Successful smallmouth spawning in 2010 and 2012 should improve fishing in upcoming years barring any future fish disease outbreaks. Spawning success of Smallmouth Bass in 2015 was again excellent and ranked fourth best over the last 19 years. These fish should really boost the smallmouth population in the future. Overall, smallmouth catch rates in the South Fork and Mainstem Shenandoah should be somewhat average to above average compared to recent years with a lack of larger (> 15") fish. Anglers should also expect average catches of Redbreast Sunfish. There are a lot of young smallmouth in the river, and barring any fish disease outbreaks; fishing should be excellent in coming years. Anglers should not overlook Largemouth Bass, as this river harbors a quality largemouth population, and finding good numbers of 2 - 4 pound fish should not be difficult if deeper, slower sections when woody debris is targeted. Anglers again reported fair musky catches and sightings in 2015, mostly in the longest and deepest pools. Channel catfish in the 2 - 6 pound range are common, and anglers should concentrate on the lower South Fork and Mainstem. There is always the strong possibility of a mixed bag on the Shenandoah. Don't be surprised if you catch quality-sized Pumpkinseed, Bluegill, Green Sunfish, Fallfish, Black Crappie, or even a Walleye (Mainstem). In spring 2014, VDGIF started stocking Walleye fry in the Shenandoah River annually to supplement natural reproduction and increase number of Walleye present. Sampling indicated very low survival of the 2014 stocking. However, the 2015 stocking seems to have survived well, and anglers should expect to see an increase in catch in 2016 and 2017. Most stocked fish will not reach legal harvest size until sometime in 2017. As future annual stockings are added to the Shenandoah River, population numbers should increase to offer an acceptable Walleye fishery. Anglers fishing for Walleye on the Shenandoah River should focus efforts in deeper pools during daylight. Walleye will move out of deeper pools into shallow bedrock ledge areas to feed after dark.
Consistent spawning success should also aid in the recovery of the North Fork Shenandoah in 2016. Anglers should mostly encounter smallmouth bass in the 9 - 12" range. However, there is always the possibility of encountering larger fish when fishing the best habitat. Fallfish are plentiful in some sections of the North Fork. They can exceed 14" and should not be overlooked. Anglers may also encounter adequate numbers of Redbreast Sunfish in most areas, Bluegill in deeper pools, and the opportunity to catch a quality-sized Largemouth Bass, Channel Catfish, or musky. Pool habitat is limited, so seek out deeper water when targeting these species. If you plan a float trip here, stick to spring and early summer; as low flows and dense underwater vegetation make fishing and navigation difficult later in the year.
Anglers should experience improved Smallmouth Bass catch rates in 2016 on the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers. Smallmouth Bass electrofishing catch rate was 46 fish/hour in fall 2015 which was above average. Big fish numbers were good, and several citations were collected in the wayside park within Fredericksburg city limits below the old dam site. Smallmouth Bass recruitment in 2015 appeared good which followed an excellent spawn in 2014 - the strongest since 2010. A trend of poor year classes was finally reversed after spring flows dictated below average year classes in five of seven years spanning 2008-2014. Back-to-back strong year classes should lead to improved fishing for years. There are plenty of Channel and small Blue Catfish to be caught for that camp dinner from well above the junction on both arms downstream to Fredericksburg.
Tidal Potomac River tributaries—including Aquia, Occoquan, and Pohick—should produce good catches of Largemouth Bass and Northern Snakehead in 2016. Electrofishing surveys in spring 2015 indicated bass numbers were below average despite several years of good bass recruitment. A late-winter fish kill of unknown origin took a portion of most fish populations in the region. However, an average year on the Potomac is usually equivalent to a good year on most waters. Northern Snakehead catch in most tributaries was reduced from recent years, as populations appeared to stabilize - creeks further south (e.g., Aquia) had higher densities. Anglers seeking snakeheads should target natural wood and docks before vegetation emerges then shift to spatterdock and Hydrilla edges later in the season, and fish very shallow. Snakehead harvest is encouraged (they have excellent culinary value), but they may only be possessed if deceased and reported to the Department at (804) 367-2925.