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Small Water, Big Fun: Retention Ponds can be Great Places to Hone Your Fishing Skills

By Dan Smith

Photos by Dan Smith

My family moved from San Diego to Virginia Beach for military orders in the summer of 2020.  As providence would have it, we moved into a neighborhood with several retention ponds. My 8-year-old kept asking to go fishing, but I didn’t know the first thing about fishing.

My new coworkers all had great ideas on how to fix the problem. They mentioned places like Elizabeth River, Mt. Trashmore Lake, and North Landing River. Those locations, while wonderful, all required travel time, parking, and equipment. Standing on the edge of the cement bank of our HOA-owned retention pond, I wondered… could I teach my daughter to fish here? Would she catch anything? For that matter, could I improve enough to fish with my experienced friends in the larger Hampton Roads area?

Thankfully, I learned through this process that local retention ponds offered my family several advantages. The ponds were close to our house, so the time and travel commitment was more reasonable. They had a variety of hungry fish, so my daughter could apply basic skills for catching perch and other panfish while I could work on bass and catfish proficiency. Finally, fishing at our local retention ponds came with less pressure to catch a “whopper.” No one would judge me for bringing in a laughably small fish at one of our neighborhood ponds. Applying these ideas to your next outing can help you teach your little ones to fish and increase your skill level, too.

Getting Started

Before you or your child begins to fish, you will need three things. First, a Virginia fishing license is a must for anyone over the age of 16. These are easy to obtain at the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) website and are very affordable. While a private pond may not require a license, and some city and state locations are license-free, having one will make sure you are always in the clear by any city codes or state regulations. Also, make sure to read DWR’s Freshwater Fishing Regulations to make sure you comply with all the rules that may apply to your situation.

Second, I cannot overstate the importance of obtaining permission to access a pond. Before I started fishing my HOA’s retention ponds, I confirmed with the management company that I had approval. If the pond is the private property of an individual or a business, ensure you have permission from them before you go fishing. Alex McCrickard, DWR’s angling education coordinator, stressed this point by saying, “never fish private property without acquiring permission ahead of time—whether it’s a private pond, development property, or HOA—in order to avoid unlawful trespassing violations.”

The final thing a beginning angler needs before getting started is equipment. I bought rod and reel combo kits and bait from a big box store when my daughter and I got started. “Most of us learned on a closed face push button reel with a medium action spinning rod,” said McCrickard. “It’s easy to learn how to cast with [this rig], and you often don’t have to cast far on small ponds.”

These kits are often the least expensive units in the store. You do not need to break the bank to learn how to fish. Save the larger expenditures for when you are proficient enough to head to the big lakes and rivers.

Learning and Growing

McCrickard recommended keeping it as simple as possible at the start—a bobber, hook, and worm. “I recommend a basic floater rig with a bobber, one BB split shot, and a size 8 or 10 baitholder hook, and small piece of nightcrawler or a third of a red wiggler,” he said. This type of setup worked like magic for my daughter’s first attempts at fishing in our retention pond. We had some nice panfish jump on the line and that gave her all the confidence and joy she needed.

An image of a man and girl standing on the banks of a lake fishing in a local retention pond

Local retention ponds can be great places to get a beginner hooked on fishing!

For little ones especially, seeing the bobber dip is one of the most exciting things that can happen on a day out with mom or dad. Make sure you share in the excitement. It’s these moments that make fishing memorable for years to come.

Once you and your little one have started catching fish using McCrickard’s basic techniques, it’s hard not to want to go after largemouth bass. The good thing is that most of these ponds have healthy bass populations ready to give you all the fight you can manage.

“Artificial lures can be the best way to target larger bass in a small pond,” said McCrickard. “Look for structures such as woody debris, stumps, grass lines, or drop-offs to target habitat that bigger bass like to ambush prey from.”

Lure selection is also important and varies depending on the time of year. “Crankbaits, jerkbaits, and swimbaits can all be producers at different times of the year,” advised McCrickard. “Fishing topwater poppers and frog imitations can be great during the warmer months of the year in low light scenarios.”

“Now that you’re an expert…”

It is easy to think I’m ready to graduate to bigger and better things, like heading to one of Virginia’s larger rivers, estuaries, or lakes. An angler who has built some proficiency can fall into the trap of thinking he or she is a little further ahead than they really are, however. “It can be a big leap to move from fishing a small pond to a larger impoundment,” said McCrickard.

That isn’t to say it can’t be done. It just needs to be done gradually. McCrickard recommended two things when expanding into bigger bodies of water. First, “break big water down and fish it like its small,” he said. “Target structures along the banks, in flats, and along drop-offs.” DWR’s Fish Local program is a great way to find your next fishing spot near you, even if you’re in an urban area. DWR also has information about lakes, rivers, streams and urban waters to add to your list of destinations when you’re ready to start traveling to fish.

If you’re taking to the water in a boat, McCrickard recommended using a basic sonar unit. They are an added expense, but if you are ready for the cost, they are worth it. McCrickard said, “Utilizing electronics is a game-changer when fishing bigger water and is a crucial step for an angler to take in order to be successful at fishing larger lakes.”

If these suggestions for bigger bodies of water seem daunting, don’t get discouraged. Retention ponds of varied sizes are plentiful in many of our urban and suburban areas, so ample opportunities exist for further proficiency-building and family fun. The big advantages of short travel time and low-pressure family bonding opportunities make retention ponds excellent choices for anglers of any experience level. Grab a license and permission from the owner and have fun!

Dan Smith is a freelance writer living in Virginia Beach. He writes on a variety of topics at his website,

  • August 7, 2023