General Freshwater Fishing Regulations

Fishing in inland waters must be by angling with a hook and line or rod and reel. (See exceptions for nongame fish.)

  • All fishing on inland waters requires a freshwater fishing license, unless license exempt.
  • A hand landing net may be used to land fish legally hooked in all waters.
  • It is unlawful to have more than the daily creel limit of any fish in possession while afield or on the waters. The daily creel limit includes live possession of fish.
  • Any person who fishes on another’s property must have the landowner’s permission to do so except on designated stocked trout waters along which signs have been placed indicating that the waters are open to public fishing.
  • It shall be unlawful for any person, while fishing, to remove the head or tail or otherwise change the appearance of any game fish (except bluegill sunfish and bream of the sunfish family) having a daily creel or size limit so as to obscure its species or render it impracticable to measure its total original length or count the number of such fish in possession. In addition, it shall be unlawful for any person to possess or transport such altered game fish while on the water. However, the prohibition against possession and transportation in the previous sentence shall not apply to the preparation of lawfully obtained fish for immediate use as food or any lawful commercial use of such fish.
  • It is unlawful to use lime, dynamite, or any other substances to destroy fish, or to cast or allow noxious matter to pass into watercourses that might destroy fish or fish spawn, or to deposit trash in streams or lakes or along their banks.
  • It is illegal to use SCUBA (Self-contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) gear to take or attempt to take fish.
  • Remove all trotlines, juglines, or set poles from public waters when not in use.
  • Marking fish with tagging equipment for personal information or research requires agency permission.
  • No species of fish, freshwater mussel, or mollusk may be taken in inland waters to be sold, except under special permits provided by law.
  • It is unlawful to take, kill, capture, or possess any threatened or endangered species.

Virginia Game Fish

Includes the following: trout, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, spotted bass, rock bass, roanoke bass, bream, bluegill, crappie, walleye, sauger, saugeye, chain pickerel, muskellunge, northern pike, striped bass, and white bass.

Seasons

There is a continuous, year-round season for all freshwater fish, with the following exceptions:

  • Special times and limited closures for trout (Designated Stocked Trout Waters, Youth-only Stocked Trout Waters, Trout Heritage Waters, Urban Program Waters, Blue Ridge Parkway, and Fee Fishing trout waters—see Trout section for details); and
  • Certain seasons for special methods to take nongame fish.

Regulations for anadromous (coastal) striped bass, alewife and blueback herring above and below the fall line, in tidal rivers of the Chesapeake Bay; and anadromous (coastal) American shad and hickory shad, and all other saltwater fish below the fall line, in tidal rivers of the Chesapeake Bay, are set by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. For more information call 757-247-2200 or visit the VMRC website.

Stocking Fish

It is unlawful to stock any species of fish into the inland waters of Virginia without first obtaining written approval from the Department (private ponds excepted). Also, blue catfish and their hybrids, as well as spotted bass, Alabama bass, and Northern snakehead cannot be stocked in privately owned ponds and lakes.

Fish Bait Information

Trout As Bait

Artificially raised rainbow trout may be sold as bait for use in the James and New rivers, and in impoundments (ponds, lakes, reservoirs), except impoundments listed as designated stocked trout waters and Lake Moomaw. Persons possessing purchased rainbow trout for bait must have a valid invoice or bill of sale, specifying date of purchase, the number of trout purchased, and name of an individual or business permitted to sell trout.

Special Regulations

Lick Creek, Bear Creek, Susong Branch, Mumpower Creek, Timbertree Branch, and Streams and Their Tributaries That Flow Into Hungry Mother Lake

It shall be unlawful to use fish as bait in Lick Creek in Smyth and Bland counties, Bear Creek in Smyth County, Laurel Creek in Tazewell and Bland counties (North Fork Holston River drainage), Big Stony Creek in Giles County, Dismal Creek in Bland and Giles counties, Laurel Creek in Bland County (Wolf Creek drainage) and Cripple Creek in Smyth and Wythe counties.

It shall be unlawful to use seines, nets, or traps to take fish in Lick Creek in Smyth and Bland counties, Bear Creek in Smyth County, and streams and their tributaries that flow into Hungry Mother Lake in Smyth County, Laurel Creek and tributaries upstream of the Highway 16 Bridge in Tazewell and Bland counties, Susong Branch and Mumpower Creek in Washington County and the City of Bristol, and in Timbertree Branch in Scott County.

Dam Regulations

Buggs Island

Mechanical lure launchers may not be used within 600 yards below Buggs Island Dam.

Walkers Dam

Only rod and reel and hand lines permitted within 500 yards below dam. It is illegal to snag fish at Walkers Dam.

Leesville Dam

It shall be unlawful to fish, attempt to fish, assist others in fishing, collect or attempt to collect bait while wading, or operating, or anchoring any vessel in the waters of the Roanoke River from Leesville Dam downstream 840 feet to a permanent overhead cable. The Leesville Tailrace Bank Fishing Area is closed to all access until further notice. No fishing and/or trespassing in this area is currently allowed. The canoe launch immediately downstream from the bank fishing access is still open for use.

Fishways

It shall be unlawful to fish or to collect bait from March 1 through June 15 within 300 feet of Boshers Dam Fishway on the north bank of the James River.

Department-owned Lakes, Ponds, Streams, or Boat Access Sites

Motors and boats

Unless otherwise posted, the use of boats propelled by gasoline motors or sail is prohibited at Department-owned lakes, ponds, or streams. However, in Department-owned water bodies that prohibit the use of gasoline motors, it is permissible to use a boat equipped with such a motor provided the motor is turned off at all times (including launch and retrieval).

Method of fishing

Taking any fish at any Department-owned lake, pond, or stream by any means other than by use of one or more attended poles with hook and line attached is prohibited unless otherwise posted.

Hours for fishing

Fishing is permitted 24 hours a day unless otherwise posted at Department-owned lakes, ponds, streams, or boat access sites.

Seasons, hours and methods of fishing, size and creel limits, hunting

The open seasons for fishing, as well as fishing hours, methods of taking fish, and the size, possession and creel limits, and hunting and trapping on Department-owned lakes, ponds, streams, or boat access sites shall conform to the regulations of the board unless otherwise excepted by posted rules by the director or his designee. Such posted rules shall be displayed at each lake, pond, stream, or boat access site, in which case the posted rules shall be in effect. Failure to comply with posted rules concerning seasons, hours, methods of taking, bag limits, and size, possession, and creel limits shall constitute a violation of this regulation.

Other uses

Camping overnight or building fires (except in developed and designated areas), swimming, or wading in Department-owned lakes, ponds, or streams (except by anglers, hunters, and trappers actively engaged in fishing, hunting, or trapping), is prohibited. All other uses shall conform to the regulations of the board unless excepted by posted rules.

Fishing tournaments & boat ramp special use

A boat ramp special use permit is required to organize, conduct, supervise or solicit entries for fishing tournaments, rodeos or other fishing events on lakes, ponds, or streams owned by the department, for which prizes are offered, awarded or accepted based on size or numbers of fish caught, either in money or other valuable considerations. Any fish captured and entered for scoring or consideration during a permitted fishing tournament, rodeo, or other fishing event on lakes, ponds or streams owned by the department must be immediately released at the capture site. A boat ramp special use permit is not required for tournaments, rodeos or other fishing events that occur on a statewide or nationwide basis and that do not have a designated meeting or gathering location.

Best Practices for Catch-and-Release Fishing

  • Always wet your hands before handling a fish. Never handle a fish with dry hands. Handling a fish with dry hands can take the protective slime coating off of a fish.
  • Use a net when landing a fish. A large net will allow you to keep the fish wet while you prepare to remove the lure, fly, or hook. This also allows you to keep the fish wet if you’re preparing to take photos. A soft rubber net is preferable to knotted nylon nets. Cradle nets are best used for larger species of fish like musky.
  • When photographing a fish, keep it quick and get the fish back into the water as soon as you can.
  • Avoid contact with boat surfaces such as carpet and metal when handling a fish.
  • Make sure you have a pair of long pliers such as needlenose for unhooking fish, especially for those fish that are hooked in hard to reach places. Heavy wire cutters and jaw spreaders are essential for toothy critters like musky.
  • If the hook is too deep, it is best to cut the line as close to the hook eye as you can. Most non-stainless hooks will rust out and dissolve over time and this will give the fish a much better chance of survival than the stress that comes with attempting to remove the hook with pliers.
  • When handling a fish out of the water, make sure to keep your hands and fingers away from the gills and gill arches. Don’t hold the fish too tightly and never hold a fish by the eyeball sockets
  • When releasing a fish, it’s important to let the fish recover on its own terms; the fish will swim out of your hands when it’s ready. To help revive the fish, it is best to hold the fish upright and move the fish gently forward so water runs over the gills. When fishing in rivers and moving water, always face a fish upstream during a release.
  • Make sure you have the correct size rod and reel for the species of fish you are targeting and don’t fight a fish longer than you need to which can cause additional stress.
  • Carry a thermometer with you and consider water temperatures when targeting coldwater oriented species like trout, musky, and striped bass during the summer months in Virginia. Plan to fish in the early morning hours as this is when the coolest water temperatures of the day will occur. Catching a trout in water temperatures of 70 degrees or warmer is often lethal to the fish. In the summer months, it can be beneficial to focus your efforts on fishing for trout in tailwaters and spring creeks that provide cooler and stable temperatures. Anglers are encouraged to be extra careful when handling trout, musky, and striped bass in the summer months to reduce delayed mortality.
  • If you are a tournament angler, make sure you have an aerator running to keep your livewell oxygenated for the fish. Having an inflow of freshwater into your livewell can prevent ammonia spikes. In the warmer summer months, consider adding a frozen water bottle to your livewell to keep temperatures cooler. Also consider using non-penetrating culling tags for the fish.
  • Anglers who enjoy mounting fish and reliving the memories of a trophy can consider fiberglass mounts. All you need is a good photo of the fish with a length and girth measurement. Fiberglass mounts last longer than traditional skin mounts and are oftentimes even more realistic.
  • See the “Qualifying a Trophy Fish by Length and Photo” option for Trophy Fish Awards.

Attention Anglers: Transfer and Unauthorized Release of Fish into Virginia’s Rivers and Lakes is Illegal!

Unauthorized introduction (i.e., stocking) of fish or wildlife, including game, bait, and aquarium species, into new waters can harm the environment and destroy public fisheries.

Releasing exotic or potentially harmful species is illegal:

  • Alabama Bass, an invasive species that out-competes largemouth bass and hybridizes with smallmouth bass, directly harming these important and popular resources;
  • Blue Catfish, which are overabundant in our tidal rivers, with ongoing efforts to reduce their abundance;
  • Flathead Catfish, native to the Upper Tennessee River, Big Sandy River, and New River drainages in Virginia, prey on other fish species almost from the time they hatch;
  • Northern Snakeheads, which are exotics from Asia, with unknown impacts on other species;
  • Minnows released from bait buckets, which can out-compete native species and/or disrupt spawning of important species;
  • Rusty Crayfish, which can destroy aquatic vegetation used as nursery habitat by game fish;
  • Zebra or Quagga Mussels, and New Zealand Mud Snails; all invasive exotic mollusks that may be easily and accidentally transported on or in boats, trailers, bait buckets, waders, or other fishing equipment; and
  • Hydrilla, Eurasian Milfoil, and Water Chestnut; many exotic invasive aquatic plants are easily transported on boats and trailers.

Many introduced species cause significant and irreversible damage, but their long-term impacts may not be recognized until the population is established and eradication is impossible.

You can help by:

  • Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers! Carefully inspect your boat, trailer and equipment every time you launch or retrieve your boat, and every time you fish a new waterbody.
  • Clean, Drain, and Dry! When leaving a waterbody, it is required that all aquatic vegetation be removed from the vessel, trailer, and equipment. Water drain plugs from bilges must be removed when leaving a waterbody, and boat operators should take reasonable measures to dry livewells, baitwells, and ballast tanks.
  • Remember that some of the most destructive invasive species (e.g., zebra mussels or didymo) can survive and spread from INSIDE your boat engine, live wells, bilge, coolers, waders, or other recreational gear.
  • Destroy, or hold for future use, any unused live bait.
  • Remember that blue catfish and their hybrids, as well as spotted bass, Alabama bass, and Northern snakehead cannot be stocked into privately-owned ponds and lakes.
  • Report suspicious and illegal activity to 1-800-237-5712.
  • Report suspected new populations of invasive plants or animals.