Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Smallmouth Bass Outlook for 2012

    If you read this publication, you live within short driving distance of some of the best smallmouth fishing in the country.  The James and Shenandoah Rivers in particular, along with the Rappahannock and New Rivers, all provide excellent angling for these feisty game fish.  Here’s what you can expect on the river this year.

The James and Rivanna
    Anglers fishing our country’s founding river this year can expect solid average to slightly above-average catch rates.  Biologists predict fair numbers of fish less than 12 inches and greater than 15 inches, but a weak middle-age class of 12-15-inch fish.
    For this anglers should be thankful; for the disease associated with the fish kills that appeared in 2007 was non-existent in the 2011 Department electrofishing sampling.  The source of these fish kills has not yet been identified; but any noticeable decline in numbers of bass in the river can be optimistically attributed to bad spawning successes in recent years.
    You’ll find the Rivanna smallmouth in a similar state.  Though there has been no formal population study done on the Rivanna, I have noticed no noticeable change in fish numbers or quality from years past in my daily outings.  Statistics aside, the key to finding and catching both numbers and quality of fish is on-the-water research—for which there is no substitute.

The Shenandoah                                                                                                                                   
    Talk to any Virginian smallmouth enthusiast and “The ‘Doah” is sure to be mentioned.  Many anglers consider the Shenandoah River to be the premier smallmouth fishery of the commonwealth; and there are numbers to back up their statements.
    2004 and 2007 both produced exceptional spawns; and studies show that it takes about five years for a bass to reach a respectable 14 inches in the south fork.  Therefore, the number of fish 11-20 inches has been increasing since 2010.  2012 will be an above-average year for trophy smallmouth on the ‘Doah.
                The smaller north fork will not host the same fishing as the south fork.  It has seen low water in the past few years; but has nevertheless held successful spawns.  Fishing will be fair, but don’t look for the same numbers or quality of fish as can be found on the south fork or the main stem of the river.
    The first wave of fish kills that plagued the river in 2005 had a minimal effect on the adult-age class that fins the river in 2012.  So don’t let bad press prevent you from enjoying the sport the Shenandoah fish can provide.

The Rappahannock
    Both the Rappahannock and its major tributary, the Rapidan, can produce excellent smallmouth fishing under good conditions.  Both rivers, however, have experienced drought conditions in recent years, hindering spawning activity, and resulting in weak age classes.  Nevertheless, 2007 was an exceptional spawning year on the Rap’; and big fish are present in the river.

Adventures Beyond
    While central Virginia hosts plenty of quality smallmouth fishing, there are more options for those with an appetite for adventure and perhaps a bit more time.  From the remote Holston River, to the most accessible river in Virginia, the New River, exceptional bronzeback fishing exists in the far corner of our beautiful state.
    While the legendary New River is considered healthy as a whole, anglers who frequent the water know that smallmouth populations have been less-than-anticipated in the past few years.  12-inch fish are readily available in the river this year; but smallmouth-specific anglers will be disappointed to learn that 14-20-inch fish will be few and far between.
    The cause, biologists say, of the mortality of slot-sized fish is unknown.  Suggested causes include increased tournament pressure, an increase in musky populations, the introduction of hydrilla (a non-native aquatic plant) on the lower river, and a possible adult-specific disease problem.  Whatever the cause, biologists are certain that the renowned New River smallmouth will return soon.
    The Clinch River will also hold many fish smaller than 14 inches this year.  About 15 percent of the bass in the river exceed the 14-inch mark.
    If fishing pressure is the reason for the affected New River population, then the remote and rough-access Holston River system should be thriving.  The Holston smallmouth enjoyed a 79 percent survival rate this year.  More than 30-percent of adult fish are longer than 14 inches.  10 percent measure longer than 17 inches.  A float trip is the best way to enjoy the fishing the Holston has to offer.

    The hard-fighting smallmouth bass inhabits most of the Old Dominion's blue ribbons.  They are the bad bikers of our state's true scenic highways.  So whether you are targeting your next citation smallie, or day-tripping, enjoy your time on the water matching wits with these fierce-fighting fish.

First published in The Rural Virginian.

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