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Exploring the Wild on Lake Moomaw

By John Page Williams

Photos by John Page Williams

Lake Moomaw is jewel of clear water nestled between Appalachian ridges. It was a bit gray on the winter day that we visited it with Jason Hallacher, the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) District Fisheries Biologist for this region, aboard the big electroshocking johnboat he uses for fish surveys. But during the summer months, this body of water is bright, sunlit, and full of activity.

An image of a biologist in a boat at the steering apparatus leading a tour of Lake Moomaw

Getting a tour of Lake Moomaw from DWR District Fisheries Biologist Jason Hallacher.

Twelve miles long with about 43 miles of shoreline (depending on water level), Lake Moomaw is an impoundment on the Jackson River in Alleghany and Bath Counties. Its Gathright Dam lies 19 miles north of Covington and 43 miles above the point where the Jackson joins the Cowpasture River to form the James. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the dam between 1967 and 1979, when the river began to fill the lake. It reached full pool in 1982. Maximum depth is 152 feet and average is 80, with a pronounced ancestral river channel that has sharp shoulders.

The dam’s original purpose was flood control in the Jackson River, but its design also provides tools for water quality benefits in the Jackson’s tailwaters and great recreational opportunities on and around the lake, including hiking, camping, boating, and fishing. The Corps of Engineers manages the water level in the lake, while DWR manages the fisheries. The land around the lake includes both DWR’s rich Gathright Wildlife Management Area and the Bolar Mountain Recreation Area of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests. The U.S. Forest Service manages the recreation facilities around the lake, including three boat launch facilities. There is no horsepower limit for powerboats on Lake Moomaw.

Lake Moomaw is certainly scenic enough to help anyone enjoy a boat ride in any vessel from a canoe or kayak to a pontoon boat. Numerous coves and points offer beaches for picnics and swimming. The Bolar Mountain Recreation Area also includes trails for day hiking and facilities for camping. Open from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend, it offers 140 family campsites, divided into three loops, including some sites with electric hookups. All offer picnic tables, lantern posts, and campfire rings with grills, plus bathhouses with drinking water, flush toilets, and showers. In addition, there are 33 recreational vehicle (RV) camping sites with dump stations and electric hookups.

The lake, however, is best known for its fishing, which DWR manages. To get some perspective, we talked with Justin Branch, the DWR District Fisheries Technician who works with Hallacher. Branch fishes Lake Moomaw extensively aboard his bass boat, especially for smallmouths.

First, Lake Moomaw offers a “two-tiered fishery.” In summer, it stratifies, with warm, less-dense water in the upper layer; a “thermocline” where the temperature drops abruptly but the water still contains plenty of dissolved oxygen; and a deep, cold layer with little oxygen. The summer thermocline, generally 15-30’ deep, is prime habitat for brown and rainbow trout, which feed on abundant alewives and a smaller population of gizzard shad. The alewives feed on plankton, tiny plants and animals drifting with wind and river current in the upper water column. They roam the lake, looking for areas with food concentration as well as comfortable water conditions. Alewives and gizzard shad are nutritious, so these trout eat well. Many browns reach 3-5 pounds, and some approach 10. Trout anglers watch their sonar screens for fish suspended around bait balls in “the bowls,” the two round areas in the lower lake, as Hallacher and I did on my visit. As the surface water cools in the fall, it becomes denser and sinks, causing the lake to “turn over” and mix the water column, so baitfish and trout could be anywhere then.

Branch reports that trouters troll 3″-6″ flutter spoons through the depths where they observe bait and trout, using Dipsey Divers and planer boards to keep the lines spread out at those levels. Some also fish live alewives deep under slip bobbers. They catch their bait in the evening or early morning, using black lights to attract the fish, then throwing fast-sinking cast nets over the schools. It might be worth working shiny, alewife-imitating jigs around the bait balls too.

The upper layer of the lake is where Branch concentrates his efforts. “Moomaw is seasonal and super-finessey,” he said when we talked. “You can power-fish upriver, but with the lake’s clarity, the most consistent fishing is for smallmouth on ledges along cliff faces at 25 to 30 feet.  I look for underwater landmarks, like a single little jut-out, especially with something like a log sticking off it  The ledges are narrow, so pinpoint presentation is important.” Over time, he has accumulated a list of his own waypoints and DWR fish attractors that he and Hallacher have placed along Moomaw’s channel edges.

“Electronics will get me into the ballpark, but lining up marks [visual ranges] is the final key,” said Branch. “Whatever you did today, you can go ahead and rule it out for tomorrow and keep searching. The bass are relating to bait all the time, mostly alewives, as we have verified by electro-fishing.” On the ledges, he carefully fishes shakey-head jigs dressed with natural-color trick worms and tubes, but he ALWAYS dips their tails in chartreuse-green, garlic-flavored Spike-It dye.

“The lake has loads of 13″-14″ smallmouths, with numerous fish over 2 to 3 lbs., and some to 4 lbs. At times, bass chase alewife schools to the surface early in the morning. Four- to five-inch soft plastic flukes work well then for imitating alewives. I use a spinning rig and rig the lure unweighted on a 4/0 offset worm hook. I retrieve it fast and never give fish time to observe it closely. I’m looking for reaction strikes.” Branch’s best on Lake Moomaw is a 5-lb., 13-oz. smallmouth he caught (and released) teasing a topwater spook one early morning around a surfacing school of baitfish. He knows of a few fish caught over 6 lbs.

As to other bass fishing opportunities, Branch suggests casting Texas-rigged plastic worms for largemouths around beaver huts along the narrow, more riverine upper lake. He also reports good numbers of chain pickerel in the 20″ to 25″ range “up the river” and in the backs of the creeks around the bowls, caught on spinnerbaits.

“Lake Moomaw also has some nice sunfish and black crappie here and there,” he continued. “Shore fishing with bait for yellow perch, channel catfish, and yellow bullheads can be good around the family campground, using worms, chicken livers, or cut bait. The problem is that the lake does not grow much underwater vegetation for fish cover.”

That’s where the DWR fish attractors come in. Hallacher and Branch place about 40 of them in the lake each winter, using wooden pallets arranged in pyramids with leftover Christmas trees attached vertically. “Bass love these structures,” said Hallacher as we looked at several using his sonar. “The trees form microhabitats for juvenile fish of all species.”

“We’re hoping that the attractors will help the panfish,” Branch added. “Largemouth bass and channel cats lurk inside the pallets, while smallmouths and panfish suspend up in the trees.” They publish the coordinates of the new attractors each year.

Whatever your interest, Lake Moomaw offers a wide range of outdoor pursuits in a lovely setting. You can even visit it virtually with this Terrain360 video to begin planning a stay there. What are you waiting for? Get going!

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John Page Williams is a noted writer, angler, educator, naturalist, and conservationist. In more than 40 years at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Virginia native John Page championed the Bay’s causes and educated countless people about its history and biology.

  • January 26, 2022