2013 Smallmouth Bass River Fishing Forecast
The 2013 fishing outlook for the tidal James River and its tributaries is very good. This fishery compares favorably with some of the best lake fishing in the state. Boat electrofishing catch rates of largemouth bass have been stable over the last decade ranging from 54-89 fish/ hour. In 2012, overall catch rates of largemouth bass were 83 fish/hour. Favorable fishing conditions are based on (1) catch-per-unit-effort of preferred size bass (CPUE largemouth bass ≥ 15") and (2) an index of the proportion of largemouth bass ≥ 15" in the population (RSD-P). In 2012, catch rate of largemouth bass ≥ 15" was 12/ hour. This is a slight decrease from 2011; however, it is still very good compared to other fisheries around the Commonwealth. The proportion of preferred size bass in the James River was slightly lower in 2012 (RSD-P = 21) but should still provide good numbers of bass ≥ 15".
The Chickahominy River continues to be a popular destination for many anglers and has sufficient submerged aquatic vegetation to provide anglers with a great place to target largemouth bass. The 2012 electrofishing surveys yielded great diversity with 37 species and a bass catch rate of 66 fish/hr. The catch rate of preferred bass (≥ 15 inches) was 14 fish/hr, and several strong year classes of juveniles were observed. Threadfin shad provide a great forage base. The largest bass of the survey weighed 8 lbs., 5 ounces, and numerous 4 - 6 pound bass were collected. For action besides largemouth bass, a variety of other fish species are present. Many enjoy fishing for abundant blue catfish, and the river provides great black crappie and yellow perch action.
Largemouth bass fishing on the lower tidal Rappahannock River (east of Port Royal) may be slow in 2013. Electrofishing surveys in 2012 produced a catch rate of only 15 fish/hr. Bass abundance in certain tributaries such as Gingoteague Creek was higher (47 fish/hr). Submerged aquatic grass growth was limited to only a handful of the areas sampled - Hydrilla provided some habitat in Pee Dee Creek, Baylor's Creek and Drake's Marsh. Preferred-sized bass (≥ 15") were collected at 5 fish/hr. Anglers may want to target bluegill and pumpkinseed sunfish which were abundant in areas with a significant amount of flooded shoreline timber and yellow perch in Drake's Marsh. Many of the tidal tributaries provide exciting opportunities to catch a bowfin, as 157 were sampled mostly in the 20 - 24" range.
Anglers will find fewer smallmouth bass in most areas of the upper James River (Iron Gate to Scottsville) in 2013. Spawning success for smallmouth was poor 4 of the last 5 years. Anglers should expect to see reduced numbers of fish up to 13 inches. However, there should still be a few larger fish available from good year classes 6-9 years ago. The next few years are expected to be poor smallmouth fishing compared to recent history. The decline in smallmouth is linked to poor reproduction during multiple and successive years and not due to fish kills from disease outbreaks that began in 2007. There have been some fish lost to these outbreaks, but so far, not in catastrophic numbers; and there has been very little evidence of disease in 2011 or 2012. As for other species in the upper James, channel and flathead catfish numbers should be similar to last year - plentiful in places but not consistently abundant riverwide. Numbers of muskellunge appear stable (not increasing like during the past 10 years) and are found primarily upstream of Lynchburg. There are now adequate musky to provide a relatively good chance of a hookup. Sunfish (rock bass, redbreast, and bluegill) numbers should also be above average this year and continue to increase.
Angler fishing reports for the New River upstream of Claytor Lake in 2012 were good. Abundant young smallmouth bass will contribute to angler catches in 2013 with good numbers of 7-14" fish available. Look for walleye from Fries Dam to Claytor Lake due to the Department's stocking efforts. Tagging studies indicate anglers are catching good numbers of walleye from February - May. Anglers should focus walleye effort at Foster's Falls State Park. Rock bass and redbreast sunfish will continue to provide fun fishing opportunities. Anglers may also encounter an occasional channel or flathead catfish, and maybe even a musky.
The New River below Claytor Lake should produce good catches of smallmouth bass up to 15-16" in 2013. Bass fishing should be awesome in the near future with above average spawns during 4 of the last 6 years! Top locations for smallmouth are Parrott to Eggleston in Pulaski, Montgomery, and Giles counties, and Pembroke to Pearisburg in Giles. Fall 2012 electrofishing catches for redbreast sunfish and rock bass were good. Target panfish by downsizing lures to catch fish with smaller mouths. Good areas for panfish include Radford to Whitethorne in Montgomery County and Pembroke to Rich Creek in Giles. If you prefer big fish, why not really upsize your gear and target musky? Musky are abundant in certain sections with good numbers of 25-30" fish available. Throwing large spinnerbaits and stickbaits could result in hair-raising strikes. The next one could be a trophy musky pulling your line, so why not try? Remember, musky in the New River are regulated by a 42-inch minimum size with a 1 per day creel.
The Middle Fork Holston River will offer a variety of great fishing opportunities in 2013. The river has very good numbers of smallmouth bass, redbreast sunfish, rock bass and bluegill located throughout the navigable sections in Smyth and Washington Counties. Smallmouth bass are abundant and can grow to decent size, up to 18-20". Anglers may also catch a few largemouth bass, black crappie, channel catfish and pumpkinseed sunfish. There are no public access points on the 32 mile navigable portion of this river, so anglers are encouraged to obtain landowner permission when accessing from private lands. The upper portions in the Town of Marion, Town of Chilhowie, and Atkins provide excellent trout fishing, as these sections are part of the Department's stocked trout program. Remember when fishing stocked trout waters, a trout license is required in addition to a fishing license.
The North Fork Holston River should offer good smallmouth bass fishing opportunities in 2013. Anglers will find very good numbers of smallmouth bass between 14 and 18". About 33% exceeded 14", and 10% measured more than 17". The abundance of fish in this size range appears to be the result of high annual survival (79%) rather than strong year classes or fast growth. Smallmouth bass over 20" are not as common, but many are landed each year.
The Clinch River will provide good fishing in 2013. Most smallmouth bass collected during 2012 electrofishing samples were less than 14", but some larger fish are available. About 9% of adult smallmouth bass exceeded 14", 2% exceeded 17" and less than 1% exceeded 20". Rock bass and redbreast sunfish size and numbers are good, so they might fill in some of the time between smallmouth bites. Walleye fishing is improving, as the walleye population continues to be enhanced through stocking. Walleye collected in the 2012 samples ranged from 17-21". Late winter and early spring are the best times to target walleye. The Clinch has a wide range of species and makes for a great day out.
The South Fork Shenandoah River is known in angler circles as a "numbers" fishery, and 2013 should be consistent with these expectations for smallmouth bass and redbreast sunfish. Abundance of adult smallmouth bass remains well above the 17-year average. In 2012, biologists documented an increase in the number of adult smallmouth bass 11-20". The majority of quality fish come from two excellent spawns (2004 and 2007). Fish from 2004 are currently in the 18-20" range, while 2007 fish average 13-14". Spawning success was below average in 2008 and 2009, so anglers could see fewer 11-12" bass in 2013. Overall, smallmouth fishing in the South Fork and mainstem should be excellent in 2013. Anglers should also expect excellent catches of redbreast sunfish. Density of sunfish can vary by location and habitat, but there should be plenty of 6-7" fish available. Anglers should not overlook largemouth bass, as this river harbors a quality largemouth population, and finding good numbers 2-4 pound fish should not be difficult if deeper, slower sections with woody debris are targeted. Anglers also reported excellent musky catches and sightings in 2012 - mostly in the longest and deepest pools. Channel catfish in the 3-6 lb 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. Overall, 2013 anglers should encounter similar (to better) fish populations in most of the South Fork and mainstem compared to 2012.
Consistent spawning success and positive angler reports from 2012 indicate that the North Fork Shenandoah should be fishing well in 2013. Anglers should mostly encounter smallmouth bass in the 9-12" range. However, there is also always the possibility of encountering larger fish when fishing the best habitat. Fallfish are plentiful in some sections of the North Fork, can exceed 14", and should not be overlooked. Anglers should 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 anglers should seek out deeper water when seeking these species. If you plan a float here, stick to spring and early summer; as low flows and aquatic vegetation make fishing and navigation difficult later in the year.
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 2013. The Maury offers excellent habitat for smallmouth bass and sunfish throughout its 30 mile journey to the James River in Glasgow. The majority of smallmouth are generally <12", but there are adequate numbers of quality sized bass (12-20") lurking in the depths. 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.
Recent sampling suggests the Rivanna River contains good catfish and panfish fisheries and an excellent smallmouth bass fishery. Anglers should experience good to excellent catch rates for smallmouth bass up to 14", but there is potential for that often coveted trophy smallmouth (20"+). Smallmouth fishing should be good throughout the river, but best numbers will be found in the lower reaches (Palmyra to the James River). There are numerous public access sites that offer wade fishing and floats ranging from 2 - 16 miles. The lack of hazards and major rapids should allow a comfortable trip for even the novice boater.
Anglers should expect reduced numbers of smallmouth bass on the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers in 2013, as 2012 electrofishing surveys produced a record low catch rate of 19 fish/hour (despite 2007-2009 experimental stockings). Several recent poor year classes, excessive amounts of vegetation in sampling areas, and record catch/abundance of largemouth bass (36/hour at Motts Landing) are all believed to have contributed to reduced smallmouth abundance and/or sampling efficiency. If there's any good news, it's that average size of smallmouth bass is up slightly due to faster growth rates and the maturation of older, dominant year classes.
Conversely, largemouth bass abundance on the lower (tidal) Rappahannock was at a record level in 2012 (48/hour) and was composed of several recent, strong year classes. Size structure should be average in 2013 with plenty of 2- 3 pound fish but improve over the next two years as strong year classes mature. The reach of river from City Dock to Port Royal has not looked better since surveys began a decade ago. Northern snakeheads were first identified from the Rappahannock River in 2012. Fish captured in Ruffin's Mill Pond, in Massaponax Creek below the pond, near Hick's Landing on the mainstem and in creeks below Route 301 all suggest colonization occurred both from angler introduction (Ruffin's Mill Pond) and dispersion from the Potomac River.
Tidal Potomac River tributaries including Aquia, Occoquan and Pohick should produce excellent catches of largemouth bass and northern snakehead in 2013, as electrofishing surveys in 2012 produced high catch rates - 11 fish/hour for snakeheads (a record), and 80 fish/hour for bass (nearly a record). These creeks have recently experienced several years of good bass recruitment. Anglers seeking snakeheads should target natural wood and docks before vegetation emerges then shift to spatterdock, and hydrilla edges later in the season. Snakehead harvest is encouraged (they have excellent culinary value), but they may only be possessed if deceased and reported (804-367-2925).