By Bruce Ingram
Photos by Bruce Ingram
The New River below Claytor Lake Dam has traditionally been the state’s best waterway for smallmouth bass, and both good and bad news exists concerning smallmouths and other gamefish. Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) Fisheries Biologist John Copeland said smallmouth bass year class production has been poor in three of the last five years, driving adult bass numbers to their lowest level since the 2004 to 2006 period.
Additionally, the 2021 catch rate for adult smallmouths (>18cm or about 7 inches) of 47 per hour was below the long-term average rate of 60 per hour since fall 1996. Adult bass catch rates were lower (68 per hour) in the Giles County section of the river and higher (86 per hour) in the Montgomery County section. The smallmouth bass length-frequency distribution in fall 2021 electrofishing was composed primarily of bass up to 45cm or about 17¾ inches.
Copeland explained that rock bass densities are beginning to rebound, but are much lower than they were before 2013. For example, 42 were collected per hour via electrofishing in fall of 2021, whereas 22 were captured per hour in 2020. Only 19 redbreast sunfish were collected per hour of electrofishing and this sunfish’s densities are at the second-lowest level since fall of 1996. Redbreast sunfish densities have not rebounded to levels seen prior to 2013 in the lower New.
The good news is that the lower New hosts some larger bronzebacks.
“My technician Brooke Carver told me earlier this spring he was seeing many nice smallmouth bass when he and regional manager Jeff Williams were shocking for musky,” Copeland said. “It is likely that these big smallmouths are coming from the 2014 year class, which was an excellent one that is now in its eighth year.”
Copeland added that the 2016 smallie year class was average, which is also good news—compared to the poor spawns previously mentioned. A persistent misconception is that muskies are “eating all the smallmouths.” The biologist tried to put this falsehood to rest.
“Over the years, there have been two Virginia Tech studies about musky diets,” he said. “Neither found a potential impact of muskies on smallmouths regarding predation. The studies showed that up to 20 inches, muskies primarily eat minnows. From 20 to 30 inches, there is more diversity in their diets, but those diets primarily contain a lot of sunfish and bluegill. Muskies over 30 inches primarily consume suckers.”
Jeff Wingate, manager of Center Woods for Virginia Tech’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation, is an administrator for the Facebook page, the Whitethorne River Tournament. He says that anglers participating in the weekly Tuesday tournaments this spring and summer have been catching some smallies in the 17- to 19-inch range. In fact, Wingate himself caught 19-inchers on consecutive casts.
Like Copeland, Wingate believes these brown bass are likely from the 2014 year class. He also reports that the number of smallmouths caught in recent years has been down, although the number of bass caught so far this year has increased somewhat. And like Copeland, Wingate believes the major issue currently negatively impacting the New is the high-water events during recent spawns.
Britt Stoudenmire, who operates the New River Outdoor Company, traces the woes to 2008-09 when an extreme winter kill took place with some 90 percent of the adult bass perishing—an event corroborated by Copeland and fellow state fisheries biologist Bill Kitrell in shocking data.
“We are now 14 years past this event, and the recovery has been like a roller coaster with variables like poor spawns, polar vortexes, and increased fishing pressure slowing the recovery,” Stoudenmire said. “But believe me, we have seen the worst of it, and our fishing results are much, much better than in the years directly after the kill. Also, 2020 and 2022 were two of the three best years we have on record for five-pound-plus fish in the last 19 years.
“With the plethora of great smallmouth habitat that the New has, even with lower numbers, it is still the best river smallmouth fishery in Virginia and quite possibly in the Southeast.”
The reason for this lofty ranking, continued the guide, is the available habitat.
“The New River is unlike most other smallmouth rivers in that quality habitat in the form of rock ledges, boulders, rocks, riffles, and rapids span side to side and most of the length of the river. In turn, quality habitat produces quality forage. The New River could lose 50 percent of its smallmouth and still have more fish than most other rivers,” Stoudenmire said.
“Unfortunately, reduced fish numbers make the remaining fish harder to target and catch, which has been the case, but they are still there.”
Additionally, added Stoudenmire, because the New River is so vast and has so much quality habitat and forage, there are still some hard to get places that have less pressured fish. The guide emphasized that fishermen who want to be successful go the proverbial extra mile—fish less pressured areas, fish at less pressured times, avoid busy holidays, understand the effects of high/low water, and pick your seasons wisely when targeting large fish.
Last, said the Giles County resident, subtle changes like color, weight, and profile make huge differences in catches.
“When the river was struggling the most, I sought and fished many different rivers across multiple states, and still do so. By doing this, I was forced to change my tactics to catch fish on these rivers due to the intricacies of each flow. In turn, this helped me tremendously on the New River as I brought some of these tactics back here,” said Stoudenmire.
“One of these tactics was a simple weight change on my bottom bouncing soft plastic baits in the spring. I couldn’t believe how many fish were actually there that I was missing because of not varying my weights,” he noted.
This July, I met Stoudenmire and one of his guides, Ethan Stone, for a 3-mile float on the lower New. Our goal was to fish early in the day before the oppressive heat and thunderstorms struck. Early in the morning, a strong topwater bite existed with both Britt and me battling good-size smallies that savaged Rebel Pop-Rs and buzzbaits. But our best smallmouths of the morning came later when Stoudenmire caught a 17 ½-incher and I landed a 15 ½-incher by drifting plastic baits across the bottom as Stone kept us in prime fishing spots.
Equally encouraging were the bronzebacks we dueled with between 13 and 14 inches, and the number of sub 10-inch that we shook off or didn’t set the hook on. In short, it was a satisfying morning of fishing.