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Let Out Some Line at Burke Lake

By Peter Brookes

Photos by Peter Brookes

“It’s a real hidden gem,” Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) fisheries biologist John Odenkirk told me when we spoke about it recently on the phone. “It’s a unique resource, right in the middle of the most populous county in Virginia.”

We, of course, were talking about Burke Lake in Fairfax County.

DWR owns the 218-acre lake and dam, but Fairfax County runs the nearly 900-acre Burke Lake Park that surrounds it, creating both space for a variety of activities and state and county access to the water. It makes for a great partnership—and a great place to visit. Burke Lake is just one of the fishing destinations featured in DWR’s FishLocalVA initiative, which highlights great water bodies within easy reach of Virginia’s urban areas.

But while many locals use the lake and park for picnicking on the grass, walking—with or without Fido—or biking on the nearly 5 miles of trails that go around the Lake, Odenkirk remarked that this body of water exists essentially for fishing.

And the fishing is pretty darn good.

With lots of forage, Burke Lake is, without a doubt, a top-notch largemouth bass fishery.  Besides largemouth bass, DWR stocks walleye and musky. The lake also has black crappie, channel catfish, grass carp, and, of course, those super aggressive bluegill and pumpkin seed panfish.

And if you want a real battle on the business end of your fishing line, the lake is also known to have its share of northern snakeheads, an invasive species to Virginia that has become a favorite target of both fly and spin fishers. Anglers are encouraged to harvest snakehead; they make excellent table fare. Keep in mind that it’s illegal to possess a live snakehead.

Another thing about fishing Burke Lake is its accessibility. On the county side, you can rent canoes or rowboats for fishing or bring your own fishing kayak. The lake has plenty of places to launch watercraft from including the county marina and the state’s 24/7 boat ramp.

More of a landlubber?

Burke Lake has plenty of shore access for fishing, including a fishing pier and several concrete “bulkheads” to cast a spin or fly line from after your favorite fish. The paths around the lake are for the most part paved, making it easy to get around. Just be careful with that backcast! Passerbys’ frown on getting hooked.

Besides renting rowboats and canoes, when open, the county marina also sells a variety of baits from clam snouts and chicken liver to bait shrimp and night crawlers for anglers fishing with a conventional or spin-fishing setup.

Another thing: While the days are getting shorter and the temperatures are dropping as we approach winter when fishing can fall off a bit, fall fishing at Burke Lake is great—at least through about mid-November, according to Odenkirk.

With the colder weather coming, the fish are putting the proverbial “feed-bag” on to fatten up before the winter. Indeed, the walleye and musky are very active and just waiting to see if you can fool them with your lure or fly.

Of course, the toothy musky can be a fish of a 1,000 casts—even 10,000 casts—so alongside line, hooks, and bait/flies, put an ample supply of patience in your tackle box or your fishing vest if you are going to chase one of them.

Without a doubt, the changing foliage in the fall will lift your spirits even if a tough bite does not. You will need a Virginia fishing license for those over 16 years of age or older to fish here, but, fortunately, no other permits are needed to angle in this jewel of a lake. It is also a good idea to check the state and county websites for the latest and greatest on rules and regulations before you go.

I ended my chat with Odenkirk telling me that he knew of a top-flight angler who drove a couple of hours from big bass territory in central Virginia to Burke Lake a few times a week during the peak season to try to catch a local lunker.

That says a lot about the quality of the fishing, with the DWR biologist adding that this essentially urban fishery in a county of more than one million inhabitants provides, “Better fishing than most realize.”

But more than that, with the great amenities and activities available at this state-county cooperative project—from jogging and camping to fishing and boating—a visit to Burke Lake to “sling some string” should be on your fall to-do list.

Dr. Peter Brookes is a DC foreign policy geek by day and a award-winning Virginia outdoor writer by night.

  • October 13, 2021