by Alex McCrickard, Virginia DGIF Aquatic Education Coordinator
There might not be a finer season to explore our freshwater fisheries across Virginia than in fall. Maples, tulip poplars, oaks and sycamores turn red, orange, yellow and brown as air temperatures cool to a comfortable range in the 60s and 70s. The cool crisp air during this time of the year is a welcome change to anglers who have fished throughout the hot humid Virginia summer. The changing of the seasons creates excellent conditions for anglers targeting smallmouth bass across the state.
Smallmouth bass in Virginia
Smallmouth bass, frequently referred to as smallies or bronzebacks, are a freshwater member of the sunfish family: Centrarchidae. Their green and brown sides are often marked with vertical black bars. Some of these fish have war paint like markings extending horizontally and diagonally behind their eyes and across their gill plates. Smallmouth bass are native to the Great Lakes system and the Mississippi River Basin including the Tennessee and Big Sandy River Drainages of Southwest Virginia. However, these game fish have been introduced all across the Piedmont of Virginia and are truly a worthy opponent on rod and reel.
Because of the smallmouth’s widespread range in Virginia, they are readily available to anglers fishing west of the coastal plains above the fall lines of our major river systems. This allows anglers who reside in cities and large metropolitan areas to fish local as smallmouth opportunities are plentiful. The James River in Lynchburg and Richmond, Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg, Rivanna River in Charlottesville, Maury River near Lexington, and the New River in Blacksburg are fine examples of local opportunities.
The mainstem and larger tributaries of these rivers are full of smallmouth. Anglers in Northern Virginia can focus efforts on the Upper Potomac River as well as the Shenandoah mainstem, North Fork and South Fork. The North Fork of the Holston River and the Clinch River provide excellent smallmouth opportunities in Southwest Virginia. Floating these larger rivers in a canoe or raft can be a great way to cover water, just remember to wear your life jacket. You can also wade fish these rivers and their tributaries in lower water conditions.
Changing river conditions
Rivers and streams across Virginia are typically in low flow conditions on average years as summer moves to early fall. As the days get shorter and air temperatures drop, water temperatures are soon to follow. As water temperatures cool from the upper 80s down to the mid 70s and eventually upper 60s, smallmouth will become very active. While the smallmouth’s metabolism might be highest in warmer water temperatures, these conditions can sometimes make the fish a bit sluggish, especially on bright sunny days in the heat of the summer. Therefore, the cooling trends that occur in early to mid-fall can oftentimes put smallmouth on the feed.
Also, as water temperatures drop, dissolved oxygen will increase. During the hottest summer months, smallmouth often congregate at the heads of riffles in broken water where dissolved oxygen levels are highest. It’s the fall cooling of water temperatures that in turn can spread more smallmouth out evenly throughout various habitats from riffles and pocket water to long runs, pools and flats. Smallmouth can also disperse when large rain events occur throughout fall and river levels rise from typical low late summer and early fall flows.
As mid-fall progresses into late fall, water temperatures will drop even further. As water temperatures drop into the mid to low 50s, smallmouth will stage in transitionary water between their summer habitat and deep overwintering holes. In Virginia, this oftentimes happens from late October through the middle of November. Look for smallmouth to be on the edges of dropoffs as well as congregating around river points and bends. During this transitionary time smallmouth can also be found in the middle sections and tailouts of deep riffles holding around structure like log jams and big boulders.
Early fall – techniques and approach
Topwater lures and flies will continue to produce good numbers of smallmouth bass throughout the entire month of September and well into the month of October. Anglers should take advantage of this last opportunity to fish on the surface before winter kicks in. Popular topwater lures that anglers enjoy to fish in the summer will also prove to be productive in early to mid-Autumn. Make sure to keep buzzbaits, Whopper Ploppers, Zara Spooks, Heddon Tiny Torpedos and the Rebel Pop-R in your box of topwater lures.