Small Waters that Fish Big

by Chris McCotter

Remember when you went off to college? You packed up the truck and Mom and Dad helped you move in and then you were free. It was a rite of passage that hundreds of thousands of high schoolers look forward to all over the country.

Well, this year is different. My son and most frequent fishing partner was all ready to head off to Virginia Tech when he found out all his classes would be online. After an agonizing week of back and forth, he decided to stick around home for the fall semester and hope our wi-fi kept up with Tech’s.

“Look on the bright side, son, we can plan some good fishing and hunting trips,” I said hoping to cheer him up.

Our first expedition was last month to a nearby reservoir we’d been told was “hot” by Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (VDWR) District Biologist John Odenkirk.

Now I’ve known John for some time and when he says something is good fishing he’s right, in a way. Biologists don’t fish with rods and reels; they electroshock and do so when the fish are at their most vulnerable – in the spring when they are shallow.

“We got the second best bass sample of my career there this year,” he texted me when I was asking him to help us make our choice where to fish for our next Small Waters That Fish Big destination.

It was Mooney Reservoir versus Lake Pelham. Clear and over-abundant with small bass, versus green and reputedly full of good-sized bass. Pelham was the lake Odenkirk was crowing about, once again advising us to wait another year on Mooney. We fished Mooney the year it opened and caught a bazillion five to six-inch bass that schooled that shad.

Pelham has a new ramp in an area that really doesn’t look like it should have one. You drive through extensive residential development until you reach the access turnoff and all of sudden there’s a lake.
Pelham was created in 1972 by Culpeper town planners by damming Mountain Run and Hungry Run and backing up 255 acres. It’s a fairly typical reservoir for the north central Virginia region with shallow tributaries and about a 20’ maximum depth and a mix of forested and open land along the shoreline.

There is some residential development in the form of single family homes scattered around the lake and the Country Club of Culpeper touches the lake at the dam.

Access to Lake Pelham is good; there’s the public ramp we used at the dam end and another on the upper end, just off Rt. 29 at a place known as Lake Pelham Outdoor Adventures at the Ole Country Store location. Both ramps are free, however you are required to purchase an annual $10 fishing permit. These can be most easily bought at Lake Pelham Outdoor Adventures but are also available from the Culpeper Treasurer’s Office on Main Street.

The lake during our visit was hot as Odenkirk noted – literally 89-92 degrees and it had a soupy green tint probably due to algae. Air temperature was 93. With a thunderstorm booming in the distance, we slipped the Anna’s Marine Center TRACKER Grizzly 2072 off the trailer (beware this ramp’s grade is close to flat) and dropped the Minn Kota Ulterra and powered up our Humminbirds.

With absolutely no idea how or where to fish we headed directly across the lake from the ramp and started on a point and worked our way back into the right branch using a MES Lures Wobble Jig (like a Chatterbait), a Dave’s Tournament Tackle Tiger Shad with twin willow leaf hologram blades and a Dave’s Tournament Tackle Finesse Jig.

Well we fished for about a half hour tossing to lily pads and downed trees with zero action except for a gizzard shad that jumped out of the water trying to get away from us in the upper end of that hot, green flat.

A light rain began to fall as I turned the Grizzly around with the iPilot Link wireless and began to quickly fish our way up lake. Gheez, I thought to myself, if all our expeditions go like this my son is not going to want to go any more!

We worked the shoreline toward the Rt. 29 end of the lake saying hello to a homeowner bank fishing and asking him, “What’s it take to catch a bass outta this lake?”

He laughed and said the heat probably had the bass pretty sluggish.

We found an old boathouse (I think the only one on the lake) on the opposite shoreline with rocks and fallen trees around it in about 4-8’ that looked pretty good but couldn’t buy a bite.

I decided to stop power fishing and finesse fish even though the water had about 6” of visibility. I tied on a 1/8-ounce Ned rig head and threaded on a Berkley Flatworm hoping to at least entice a small bass. I was using a 6’6” Berkley Lightning Rod and an ABU Garcia Elite spinning reel spooled with Berkley X9 10-lb. test and an 8-lb. Berkley XL leader.

Pushing still further up lake we hit a point that held back the northwest breeze and marked the halfway point of the lake. We could see kayakers from the outfitter on Rt. 29 and hear the cars. Here I started to get some bites right on the bank from what I thought to be bluegills as the telltale “peck-peck” would indicate. I figured this was a sign of life and something to build on.

With the sweat dripping down my back and time running out (we only had two hours to fish) I was wondering how difficult could it be to score a bass on a lake where we hadn’t seen a single boat and the state biologist told us was loaded. I redoubled my effort from the back of the boat and started fishing the little worm a little longer before reeling it back in.

Halfway back to the boat in about 8’ of water as my worm was coming through some gravel, I felt the line get mushy, and I instinctively dropped the rod tip to let what I hoped was a fish run with the bait. When I lifted gently to double check it definitely felt like a fish so I set the hook.

I think hot water fish fight harder or maybe I was just worried I’d loose the 3+ pounder now battling me. I called for my son to net the bass and after a few tense moments he slipped it under the fish and our trip because a success.

Did we fish after we caught that bass? Nope. Mitch had to be back at 5:15 pm to meet his buddies for a workout so we had to hustle back to LKA.

I pretty much forced him to pose with my fish for the pic but I considered it a co-catch as he did a great job with the net.

So would I return to Pelham and see if we could hook a few more of Odenkirk’s samples? Absolutely, however I would not use the ramp we did again. The ramp on Rt. 29 is also free, you can purchase the permits at the store there and it appears that the upper end of the lake fishes better. I’ll bet it’s awesome in the spring when the fish are shallow. Keep in mind this is a trolling motor only lake. You can bring your boat with a gasoline-powered motor but you cannot run it. Other fish you might encounter at Pelham include redear sunfish, black crappie, yellow perch and catfish.

Related Posts

Woods & Waters Magazine contains monthly features on awesome destinations, new techniques, outdoor personalities, tide charts, our Regional Focus Reports, monthly columns from our staff experts and more. If you want to receive the best hunting and fishing magazine for Virginia, consider subscribing today!

Woods & Waters Magazine is Virginia’s source for hunting and fishing information featuring award-winning articles and photographs by top regional experts intended to inspire you to get out and enjoy life outdoors! Pick up a copy today at over 100 retailers or subscribe here.

Featured Articles

Latest Articles

©2022 Woods & Waters Magazine, LC. All Rights Reserved.