Article written by Jeff Banko
When December rolls around many of us in Virginia just pack up the fishing equipment, winterize the boat, and hunker down to hide from the cold but that can be a mistake. One of the great things about our state is that there are some great opportunities for fishing through the winter, and I don’t mean through a hole in the ice like some of our neighbors to the north. This article is intended to point out some of the more prevalent winter fishing opportunities out there in our state and maybe inspire you to try and get out and catch yourself some fish rather than sit on the couch waiting for spring.
The Lower James River
The tidal portion of the James River below Richmond offers excellent prospects for those fishermen that venture out on winter days. Available species to catch are Blue Catfish, Striped Bass, Largemouth Bass, Crappie, Bream, and even the occasional Smallmouth Bass.
These months are the time to catch the giants. On most bearable days you are sure to see the catfish guides and catfish die-hards cruising the river around the Dutch Gap area, barge pits, spray pond, and all the way down to the Appomattox looking for one of those giants. Preferred tactics are to find deep holes or deeper areas with cover in them and fish live or fresh cut eels, shad, or herring on a large circle hook rigged below a fish finder rig and heavy (4 – 8 oz) weight.
Fishermen will hit most of the same areas the cat-fishermen will be in, even using most of the same baits. There are two major differences in the tactics though. First for Stripers most of the fishermen seem to like to suspend the bait below a float rather than pin it to the bottom with a heavy weight like in cat fishing. Second while cat-fishermen will anchor in a spot, fish it for around a half hour, and then move on to their next spot, those fishing for stripers will often drift fish to cover a lot of water in search of their quarry.
The key for largemouth bass is to look for areas of the river where the current is slower then anywhere else or look for places that have warmer water then the bulk of the river. Popular spots are the barge pits near Dutch Gap, and the Spray Pond at the end of the old River Channel in Dutch Gap. These areas are warmed by the discharge from the Dominion Virginia Power Plant so they stay a lot warmer than the main river areas. Also check out any of the many “pits” areas on the river, you can find them on any good map of the river. These “pit” areas are not nearly as warm as the first two areas but due to the openness of them and their relatively shallow, slow flowing waters, they tend to warm from the Sun more then the rest of the river so they can be good place to target, especially on sunny days. Many tactics will take fish in the areas mentioned, try slow rolling a Spinner-bait around deeper structure and cover, or fish the same with a crank-bait. My personal favorite is to pitch a jig or creature bait into cover and work it real slow.
Crappie are found in most of the same areas the large mouths are. I have actually caught several near citation and citation class fish on my offerings to the largemouth. Other than that use typical crappie baits, small shiners on floats, small jigs and spoons, etc…
Buggs Island can mean good wintertime fishing for Blue Catfish, and Striped Bass, also Largemouth Bass and Crappie can be had if you can locate the deep-water haunts they are in right now.
For Blue Catfish, try fishing fresh cut bait around channel drops near the middle portion of the lake. Also channel drops on some of the bigger creeks like Rudds, Grassy, and Bluestone can be good areas to look. The fish will concentrate on deep holes in these areas so use your fish finder or graph to look for them. When you do locate concentrations of fish drop your baits down on fish-finder rigs with 2 – 3 oz weights and 7/0 or 8/0 circle hooks, remember Buggs is where the current 94 ½ pound state record Blue comes from so be prepared for big fish.
For Buggs winter Stripers, the area around Clarksville seems to be where good concentrations of the line siders will roam. Trolling live bait rigs or buck-tails around the mouths of some of the creeks can work well or you can always use the time proven method of looking for a flock of birds feeding on the water surface. If you do encounter birds feeding try to approach the area as stealthily as possible, you can then cast buck-tails into the area where the feeding is going on. Allow the buck-tail to sink a few feet and then use a jigging retrieve and hang on.
Largemouth and Crappie
Look for deep-water structure along main river channel bends where there are quick changes in depths or on some of the various bridge piles. Fish these areas with bait or small jigs for crappie or with Jigging Spoons or C-rigs for bass. This action will be sporadic so don’t get discouraged if you don’t catch fish every trip.
Wintertime on Lake Anna means two things. Great striped bass fishing on the main lake and very good largemouth fishing on the “warm side” of the lake.
On Lake Anna your tactics are going to be basically the same as they are on any of the lakes in our state where you can catch stripers. You can drift live bait on float rigs in areas you have found schools of baitfish or you can look for the tell-tale feeding birds and then cast buck-tails or swim-baits to the area to try and pick off a few of the feeders. Look for stripers to be in the upper end of the main lake around the “splits”.
On Lake Anna you can catch them on the main lake during the winter if you target structure on areas where there are good quick drops like along old channel edges. Fish these areas with slow presentations like a jigging spoon or c-rig and be prepared to not catch anything as this is some tough fishing. That said you can catch good numbers of fish on Lake Anna if you are lucky enough to have access to the private “warm side” of the lake. The warm side of the lake is comprised of 3 cooling lagoons that are used to cool the heated water that is discharged from the Dominion Power North Anna Nuclear Plant’s reactors. The water in these lagoons is significantly warmer then in the rest of the lake, which can make for some awesome wintertime fishing. For example a friend of mine and his partner, on a recent January outing, caught 40 largemouth in the 1 ½ to 2-pound range. That is just awesome. As for tactics a lot of things will work on these fish as the water is so warm so don’t be afraid to try out your favorite tactic.
Virginia Smallmouth Rivers
Many of the Old Dominions smallmouth rivers can provide good smallmouth fishing in the winter. The James, New, and Shenandoah, are good places to try out. Keys to this winter fishing are to first try to get to them after we have had a several day warming trend. The warming does not need to be huge, just a few days of slightly warmer weather can have an impact on the water temp and put the fish on the feed. Second look for areas of the rivers that are deeper. There are many pools on these rivers that will run 10 feet or more deep and these are where the fish will concentrate. When you do have the right conditions and find the right spot try slow rolling a spinner-bait, or working a tube or jig on around and available structure.
Virginia’s Tidal Rivers
The James is not Virginia’s only Tidal River that can have some good winter fishing although it is the best. You can also try the Pamunkey, Mattaponi, Rappahannock, Nottoway and Potomac for wintertime bass and catfish.
For catfish fish the same as you would the James, look for deep holes, especially those with structure or cover and drop your lines.
For bass fishing on the Pamunkey, Mattaponi, and Nottoway try to get to the river after a few day warming trend then fish slow with jigs, c-rigged ringworms, and slow rolled spinner baits. You will usually be able to pick up a few largemouths on these rivers. Also if you fish up closer to the fall lines on these rivers you can catch smallmouth bass that have moved down from the upper reaches of the river for the winter. On the Potomac and the Rappahannock fish them just like the James. Look for back areas, bays and flats that have warmer water then the main river and then fish them slow.
Hopefully this article has shed some light on the many opportunities that await the Virginia fishermen during the winter. Now go out there and try some of them out and as always be safe and tight lines.