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Update on the Upper James River’s Smallmouth Populations

Fine smallmouth, like this one caught in the Botetourt County section of the James, are less common now.

By Bruce Ingram

Photos by Bruce Ingram

It’s no secret that the smallmouth fishing on the upper James River has declined in recent years and that Virginia’s river enthusiasts are concerned. DWR fisheries biologists George Palmer, Hunter Hatcher, and Scott Smith combined to answer the following questions that this writer has received from worried anglers.

Is stocking smallmouths viable on the upper river?

Biologists: Stocking is a potentially viable option, but not without a fair amount of additional research. For one, we do not know all of the population bottlenecks that influence spawning success. We do know river flows during and immediately after spawning can affect spawning success, but we don’t know what happens during the summer or early fall. It wouldn’t do us much good to stock fish in June, if they routinely experience problems leading to low survival in July and August.

So, first of all, we need to determine what exactly happens with these young fish—and when it happens—in order to make sure we wouldn’t be wasting limited resources on a stocking program. Additionally, given our current hatchery resources, we may not be able to raise enough smallmouth bass to make a difference. We need to do a lot more work perfecting fish culture techniques for smallmouths in order to even have an option for stocking.

Finally, even if we develop the methods to successfully raise smallmouth bass, we may not currently have the pond space to produce enough fish to matter. We need to invest a significant amount into our hatchery system in order to increase our production capabilities. As things currently stand, we probably could not produce fish in the numbers needed to have a measurable impact. We’re working to address these deficiencies, but some of them are several years away.

What would be the pros and cons, as well as the cost of such a venture?

Biologists: Cost is unknown, and will depend on many things. Until we get the culture component nailed down, it’s really impossible to even guess at cost. Since we don’t know if (a) stocking would even work, and (b) whether we can produce the fish; it’s really too early to think about pros and cons. We’d first have to determine if this is an issue that can be “fixed” with stocking, and if it was, could we produce the necessary number of fish to make that fix.

Our most immediate costs lie in research needs and hatchery renovations. Key research needs include culture methods and identifying the timing and life stage when high mortality periods occur that have created observed declines. Each of these components will inform one another; this means that until we start collecting more information we won’t have a firm grasp on the exact cost or potential benefits of stocking smallmouth bass.

What are likely success rates, based on past occurrences of stocking smallmouths in a river system?

Biologists: This is another big unknown. DWR attempted smallmouth bass stockings in the past with very marginal success. However, we couldn’t raise the number of fish that we wanted, so it’s hard to determine if that was a fair test or not. Since we don’t know where all the problems may lie, we really need to figure that part out first. If we get that information, we can then start trying to assess whether stocking might be a viable tool to use or not.

What was the 2021 spawn like on the upper river?

Biologists: The 2021 smallmouth bass (SMB) spawn on the upper James River from Lynchburg upstream was above the long-term average. The average of catch of age “0” SMB for the upper James measured from 1991-2021 is 25.2 fish per hours in fall electrofishing samples. In 2021 we averaged 37.8 fish per hour.

What are ideal conditions for a successful smallmouth spawn?

Biologists: Based on what we’ve seen in the past, the best conditions are normal flows for the months of April-June. Essentially, fairly high water (but not flooding) in April and early May, with a gradual decrease in late May through the end of June to normal summertime flows. Normal temperatures are also important, but seem to be less critical than flows.

In a river system such as the James, how long does it take for a year class to move up to that treasured 12-inch size?

Biologists: Our most recent age and growth data (2020) from the upper James showed age 3 bass averaged 317 mm, or 12 inches. See the chart below. This is faster growth than we saw 10-15 years ago, but we’re not entirely sure why. Individuals with fast growth can reach 12″ by age 2 and in rare cases by age 1 but the average fish reaches that size at age 3. Increased growth relative to historic samples is a product of a number of factors likely including decreased abundance and reduced competition.

Other topics?

Biologists: We want to really emphasize to anglers that they shouldn’t be moving any fish around on the James River. We have found Alabama bass in the Richmond area, and they could end up becoming established in other parts of the James. In other states, Alabama bass have interbred with smallmouth bass and essentially knocked smallmouths out of these systems. We really don’t want that to happen on the James.

The most important thing is not to move any fish around at all. Alabama bass readily hybridize with smallmouths, so a fish that looks like a smallie could easily be a hybrid. Once these get established, they can genetically swamp the smallmouths completely out of the system. Because you can’t always spot an Alabama bass by its appearance, the only real solution is not to move any fish around at all. Period.

Don’t move them from one part of the river to another. Don’t move them from the river to a farm pond. Don’t move them anywhere except to your frying pan or freezer. It’s also important to remember that smallmouth represent the best option amongst black bass species for a quality river fishery in a system like the James. Alabama bass are well adapted to lake environments and slower moving rivers. If introduced, they’ll not only negatively impact smallmouth but likely support a limited fishery of poor quality.

  • April 29, 2022