Destination Lake Moomaw

by Chris McCotter

It had been over 20 years since I last visited Lake Moomaw and the hollows of the Gathright Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in Bath County, Virginia. My wife and I spent a couple chilly nights camping along the banks of the lake in early November back before we had children. I can still remember waking up one morning and looking out of the then on a fog-enshrouded lake, debating whether to leave the warmth of a shared sleeping bag, then hopping in the boat and catching a nearly five-pound smallmouth bass.

With my son now 17 and the clock ticking until he’s off to college next fall I made plans to return to this forgotten fishery, again in early November, and see if there was still some brown bass magic left in the lake. On this visit we’d fish two days and hunt grouse one, so my 12-year-old Brittany spaniel Kate was in tow.

On Day 1 we came up through Covington off I-64 and accessed the lake at the Fortney Branch boat ramp on the southern end of Moomaw. Although I never saw a sign that said so, it seemed like there was a $5 fee to launch using an honor box, so just to be safe we slipped a $5 bill in an envelope and loaded up the Anna’s Marine Center TRACKER Grizzly 2072.

Kate curled up in her bed on the back deck while Mitchell and I had free range over the rest of the 21’ rig. I looked forward to identifying deep structure using my Humminbird Helix 10 (Down Imaging and Side Imaging) and Helix 7 units networked to a Minn Kota Ulterra.

Moomaw is fairly typical highland reservoir at 1,280 above sea level. It’s mostly clear and deep, especially in the fall once a 13-foot winter drawn down is complete. During our visit the drawdown was just about finished exposing vast flats and the backs of most creeks were dry.

The lake was impounded in the early 80’s, when the gates of Gathright Dam closed on the Jackson River in a canyon once called Kincaid Gorge. A massive earthen dam backed up the Jackson River for over 12 miles, forming the lake and another U. S. Army Corps of Engineers project intended to provide flood control and recreation.

The backwater of the Jackson River flooded acres of bottomland once owned by Thomas Gathright, thus the name of the dam. The project was pushed forward by a Covington businessman named Benjamin Moomaw; after which the lake was named.

Moomaw is the second largest impoundment in western Virginia. It covers 2,530 surface acres and has a maximum depth of 152 feet. There are 43 miles of undeveloped, wooded shoreline.

Before it was completed, fisheries biologists determined that Lake Moomaw had the potential for a “two-story” sport fishery. This means that the reservoir would be deep enough for both warm water fish (bass, catfish, sunfish, crappie) and coldwater fish (trout).

With this in mind, the lake was stocked with thousands of largemouth bass, bluegill, redear sunfish, and channel catfish in 1980. The Jackson River was already home to wild populations of smallmouth bass, rock bass, and chain pickerel, so it was understood that these species would acclimate to their new surroundings. Black crappie and yellow perch were later additions to the fishery.

Lake Moomaw is also known for its trout fishery. A layer of cold, oxygenated water lies 15 feet below the surface. It is in this zone that stocked rainbow, brown, and brook trout thrive.  

Alewives, members of the herring family, were stocked in the early 1980’s in order to establish a plentiful food base for both trout and other predators. These small, silvery fish are truly the “backbone” of the lake’s sport fishery. They are abundant, ubiquitous, and, seemingly the prey of choice for trophy fish here.  

On our first day on the lake we hit the water around 10 am and marveled at the lack of wind. We were able to fish many main lake points using classic deep water tactics like a drop shotted Berkley Drop Shot Minnow, the Fitt Premium Lures Shiner swimbait on a belly spinner head, NED rig and a Capt. Mack’s Super Spoon.

Fishing pressure was present but minimal for a beautiful Saturday. We figured we were doing something right when we noticed locals fishing far offshore. We also caught some fish.

On the second point we tried I caught two largemouth bass –one on the drop shot and the other using the spoon. The point broke from seven feet into 70’ and the fish were up and down with alewives.

We fished our way up lake, stopping on various points and scanning them with the Helix 10 for structure, never lingering more than 15 minutes. Off an island point we found a rocky outcropping about 10 feet below the surface and extending down to 25 feet. I caught a couple smallmouth from this spot using the drop shot.

We had worked all the way up to the Bolar Flats boat ramp in the upper end of the lake when Kate let me know it was time for a walk. When I pulled into the dock the Humminbird just lit up with fish so I told my son to try a crappie jig while I walked the dog.

Upon my return he was making a sandwich. He told me, “Those fish aren’t biting.”

With the Humminbird still showing the school I lowered the jig down to 20’ and quivered it like we do on Anna. The rod loaded up and I had a fish on. After quite a battle, my son netted me a 2-4, 15” crappie that looked like a Russian power lifter. This was the largest crappie I’d caught in years and from a lake not known for big crappie!

 We fished around that dock a bit more pulling up two smallmouth, a pickerel, a couple more smaller crappie and a giant bluegill. I think that two-inch Baby Shad crappie jig looked just like an alewife.

As the sun began approach Coles Mountain top level we made our way back to the ramp so we could check in to the motel before dark.

Our base camp for the visit was the Roseloe Motel in Warm Springs. The room was basic but clean. The location convenient to fishing from the Bolar Flats boat ramp and hunting the Gathright WMA.

We ate pizza and salad at the nearby Cucci’s for dinner. I don’t think I made it through even the first half of the college football game my son had on the TV. My only consolation was that the dog was snoring before me.

Day 2 was Sunday and we had planned on hunting grouse on the WMA until we drove 20 miles to it and realized there’s no hunting on Sunday’s in that WMA. So then it was back to Roseloe to hitch up the Grizzly and fish on what was predicted as the windiest of our three-day visit.

We launched this time from Bolar Flats. There was only one other boat there but there were more boats fishing than the day before.

We fished the dock again but only caught small crappie. Next, we found a submerged rockpile just above the ramp in 5-18’ of water and both of us caught a fish from it. Mitchell pulled in a nice smallmouth. I caught a small largemouth.

The entire time we are watching a number of boats running past us into the extreme upper end of the lake where the Jackson River flows. The temperature was 59 degrees so we headed up, too.

While the Humminbird showed a number of schools of what looked to be some kind of game fish on points we really didn’t catch much. Mitchell caught a pickerel and a bass and I caught a bass. There was certainly something there the locals knew that we never figured out.

With the wind dying down in the afternoon and the first day of falling back after daylight savings was removed, we knew we’d need to load the boat by 4 pm.

I revisited several of the spots from Day 1 and Mitchell caught a nice largemouth bass from the rockpile off the island again using a NED rig. I landed another small fish on the drop shot before it was time to head back to the motel.

After two days, I was impressed with the lake. Its mountain landscape is very different from Lake Anna, Buggs Island or Back Bay. The variety of fish available make Moomaw an interesting destination.

Just about all the restaurants we could afford were closed on a Sunday night so we ate at the Bacova Brewing Co. They were out of everything but you guessed it: pizza and beer. I had another salad, too. We closed the place down, then it was back to Roseloe to crash hard. I think the Sunday night NFL game was Patriots vs. Baltimore. Sorry I missed that one.

Day 3 was our day to finally hunt the WMA. The total land accessible is 13,428 acres so we had our work cut out for us. Moomaw separates two tracts of land so a fishing and hunting trip is perfect for outdoor enthusiasts looking for the total adventure.

Kate had endured two days on the boat and she was ready despite being 12 now and deaf. We explored some amazing covers on Back Creek Mountain and Bolar Mountain including the High Top Fire Road. We also drove to the top of the lake, crossed the Jackson River and hunted the north end of Coles Mountain, always pushing just a little further to see what lay around the corner.

Sadly, we moved no birds despite finding numerous enticing tangles of wild grapes and other soft mast that still remained prior to the arrival of truly cold, winter weather. 

We did see two bears and some mighty healthy looking fox squirrels, but the sought-after Virginia grouse remained elusive regardless of a state forester and several others telling me they regularly see birds in these areas. 27 degrees never felt so toasty as we walked briskly mile after mile along logging roads and through the woods.

When we drove along the calm, deserted and inviting lake we definitely wished we had the Grizzly in tow or at least cached it at the boat ramp.

I will say fishing with a 17-year-old is different than fishing with a 15-year-old or a 12-year-old or if you can remember, an eight-year-old. At 17 your mind is on many things, so when I see my son smiling and focused on fishing or hunting with me I can still remember those early days fondly and hope for more to come. Soon he’ll be a man with his own life and I hope he remembers those days, too, and want to spend some more time with me exploring what’s around the next bend.

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