Tidal Rappahannock River

by Chris McCotter

  On a hot and humid July morning I found myself fishing with an old friend on the tidal Rappahannock. It had been a minute since I last fished the Rapp, and I had the feeling of anticipation one might have right before opening the door of a high school reunion – that the experience could be disappointing or amazing, but that the next few hours were going to be interesting. The weather and conditions were pretty much perfect for a summer tidal river visit. We fished from a Nitro Z20.

   My host was long-time Rappahannock River angler and bass fishing advocate Bruce Lee. Those of you with some age and a good memory will recall Lee was one of the driving forces behind the formation of the Concerned Bass Anglers of Virginia (CBAV). He, along with several others actively organized anglers into an effective lobbying force and fundraising group and actually stocked the tidal Chickahominy River with largemouth bass despite the then VDGIF disapproval. 

  Eventually the CBAV and VDGIF began to see eye-to-eye and VDGIF took over the stocking in year three. Five years after the stockings the Chickahominy River bass fishing was incredible, and a national precedent was set that stocking tidal rivers was a potential tool for fisheries managers.

   Lee went on to try the same thing for the tidal Rappahannock (just one year), where he resides riverside and has been fishing for over 50 years. The results weren’t as amazing but encouraging, and while bass fishing on the tidal Rapp isn’t as good as it is on other tidal rivers around the state, it’s pretty good, if you know what you are doing.

  I like Bruce. He’s a go-getter. I worked with him to set up CBAV. I always like fishing with him. I also wanted my son, Mitchell to meet him. Fishing with Lee is an honor. His knowledge of the Rappahannock is legendary. 

   We put in that morning at Port Royal Landing and headed down river, running a falling tide in search of feisty Rappahnnock bass and perhaps a northern snakehead. 

  “I’ve fished the river five times this year, four tournaments and won three of 

‘em,” Bruce told Mitchell and I, pointing out the plaques in his workshop prior to our launch. Lee is pretty-much THE expert on Rapp River fishing on the angling side. His knowledge and advocacy for the river is the stuff of legend.

   DWR Biologist John Odenkirk has been studying the tidal Rappahannock for years, but from a more scientific viewpoint. While he and Lee don’t always agree on the intricacies of fishery management, they have strong respect for one another.

   “The tidal Rappahannock is an interesting river because it really doesn’t have great largemouth bass habitat. Yes, there’s shallow wood and rocks, but the submerged aquatic vegetation that really revs up a tidal bass fishery has been lacking in many areas of the river. It does have good largemouth fishing, but I don’t think it will ever be another Chickahominy or tidal Potomac,” Odenkirk told W2. “Stockings in 2013 did show promise but not like those done in the Chickahominy.”

   Angling for freshwater species on the tidal Rappahannock is best from the head-of-tide at Fredericksburg downstream to Leedstown. This section of river is characterized by forested shorelines with large river bends cutting through high banks and cliffs, and below Route 301 the river opens up with broad expanses of tidal marsh. Anglers on the tidal Rappahannock can quite easily forget this river is just miles from densely populated sections of northern Virginia and Washington D.C. 

   The tidal Rappahannock offers an array of species, including blue catfish, largemouth bass, crappie, white perch and migratory anadromous species such as American shad, hickory shad, river herring (alewife and blueback herring), and striped bass.

   With slower growth and lower catch rates, this largemouth population has never had the national reputation the tidal Chickahominy and James largemouth fisheries have experienced. However recent angler reports of good catches of bass in the tidal Rappahannock match findings of VDWR biologists, which include improved electrofishing catch rates in recent years. 

    Above Route 301, highest bass catch rates in electrofishing surveys were recorded from Hick’s Landing downstream to near Port Royal. Largemouth bass in the lower Rappahannock River, below Portobago Bay, have limited areas where suitable habitat and forage are available; shorelines adjacent to side-channel drop-offs, marsh back channels, and in tidal tributaries. However, recent electrofishing surveys indicate good numbers of largemouth can be found in these pockets of habitat.

  As noted above, the tidal Rappahannock River was stocked with roughly 62,000 F-1 LMB on May 20, 2013. CBAV members were able to disperse these bass into 18 selected sites by way of aerated hatchery bags that held a desired weight of bass fingerlings. A DGIF fisheries biologist was present at the Wilmont Landing boat ramp to observe the stocking. Assistance was given in the weighing of the bass before each bag was sent out to the desired stocking location. The stocking sites ranged from Snowden Creek on the western edge to Otterburn Marsh on the eastern range. A large percentage of the bass were stocked within the Marsh Point to Horsehead Point section of the river.

   DGIF requested that all F-1 LMB fingerlings be marked by hatchery staff with OTC (Oxytetracycline) for use in determining the percentage of contribution to the 2013 year class as well as tracking the growth rate potential of the supplemental stocking. DGIF staff was able to grow out a subsample of the LMB fingerlings to determine if the fish were properly marked with the OTC dye. DGIF staff at the DGIF Age and Growth Lab detected the presence of the OTC mark on the extracted otoliths of the grow-out bass fingerlings. The majority of the stocked bass were around 1.75 to 2 inches in total length at the time of stocking. 

  The 2013 electrofishing survey of the tidal Rappahannock River covered the section of the river from just below Port Royal to Catpoint Creek. The 18 standardized sites provided 18,000 seconds (five hours) of electrofishing effort. The fall 2012 survey consisted of the sampling of 20 sites for a total effort of 19,200 seconds (5.33 hours) of pedal time. 

 The survey consisted of the sampling of 29 sites for the expanded effort of 30,800 seconds (8.56 hours), and it consisted of an expanded effort to cover additional sites that have not been historically sampled in the past. Eleven additional survey runs were conducted for an effort of 12,800 seconds (3.56 hrs). 

  The goal of this increased effort was to determine if the general areas stocked with supplemental largemouth bass fingerlings on May 20, 2013, would actually still hold fish four months later. Certain areas showed some promise while other areas revealed less than ideal results. 

   The 11 non-standardized sites provided the collection of 136 largemouth bass for CPUE of 38.25 bass/hr. Of the total of 136 bass, 118 of them fell into the YOY (Young of Year) category based upon using the total length of 250 mm as the cut-off size determination. The YOY CPUE was 33.2 bass/hr. A total of 18 adult-sized bass were collected from these sites. The adult bass CPUE was 5.06 bass/hr. 

   The 18 standardized sites yielded a total of 96 largemouth bass for a CPUE of 19.2 bass/hr. These sites showed the presence of 61 YOY largemouth bass for a YOY CPUE of 12.2/hr. The 35 adult-sized bass yielded a CPUE of 7 bass/hr. Six of the survey sites conducted in Cat Point Creek (2), Occupacia Creek (2) and Pee Dee Creek (2) were withheld from the analysis due to the fact that these areas were well outside of the stocked section of the river. These six sites yielded no YOY largemouth bass. Only one adult bass from the upper site on Cat Point Creek was collected over the course of these six surveys runs. The removal of this effort (6,000 seconds) from the total effort for standardized sites allows for the CPUE of YOY LMB to climb from 12.2/hr to 18.3/hr. 

  The surveys within the non-standardized sites provided insight into which stocked areas supplemental bass were able to survive in substantial abundance. The two sample sites of Troy Creek and the marsh edge and side creek across from Wilmont Landing were surveyed on September 11th. These areas had a substantial amount of hydrilla present during the time of sampling. The collection of 72 bass from these sites provided an impressive CPUE of 108 bass/hr and a high proportion (31%) of the total 232 largemouth bass collected during the entire survey. 

  These two sites yielded a total of 62 YOY (young of year) bass which was 34.6% of the total 179 YOY collected. The 2013 overall CPUE (catch per unit of effort) for largemouth bass was 27.1 bass/hr. The CPUE from the 2012 survey was 14.6 bass/hr. The 2013 CPUE for YOY bass was 20.9 bass/hr. The 2012 CPUE for YOY bass was 5.4 bass/hr. The increased sampling effort in areas where bass were stocked allowed for this favorable increase in CPUE.

    A total of 176 YOY bass were used for otolith analysis. Of these 176 fish, the DGIF Age and Growth Lab successfully read 172 of the otoliths for OTC mark verification. A total of 144 bass came back as positive for having OTC marked otoliths. This provided an 83.72% contribution of stocked bass to the 2013 year class. The remaining 28 bass did not have an OTC mark and have been classified as natural stock from the successful spawning behavior of the limited brood stock that is present in the river. The natural stock component of the year class based on the sample set collected was 16.28% contribution. 

  Some sample sites yielded a limited number of bass that were all from the supplemental stocking. A prime example would be the three YOY bass that were tested from Otterburn Marsh that came back as positive for having an OTC mark. The additional survey run that was conducted within the western branch of Lyons Creek provided 100% OTC mark verification of the 13 bass collected. The survival rate of stocked bass was clearly evident in areas such as Lyons Creek. The 21 YOY LMB from Lyons Creek provided a total of 20 OTC+ LMB for a 95.2% contribution to the 2013 year class. The marsh edge and side creek across from Wilmont Landing provided another high percentage contribution (91.49%) of stocked bass from the largest sample set of 47 YOY bass.

  The 2013 electrofishing surveys of the Rappahannock River yielded an increased CPUE of largemouth bass (27.1 LMB/hr) when compared to the 2012 survey (CPUE: 14.6 bass/hr). This increase was a direct reflection of the stocked bass that were still present within the areas that were targeted during the May 20th stocking. The catch rate of YOY LMB showed a favorable increase from 5.4/hr in 2012 to 20.9/hr in 2013.

    It appears that the higher concentrations of largemouth bass were found within defined tributaries that had lower concentrations of blue catfish and white perch present. The presence of a substantial amount of SAV (submerged aquatic vegetation), primarily in the form of hydrilla, provided great nursery habitat for young bass in tributaries such as Troy Creek, Piss Creek and the no name, side creek across from Wilmont Landing. The open, shallow water flats of Otterburn Marsh and Drakes Marsh provided limited numbers of stocked bass. 

   The slow growth of SAV due to the cold snap in April might be one of the determining factors that these areas did not support a higher survival rate of stocked bass. The fact that abundant white perch, yellow perch and blue catfish are present in these areas most likely added to the demise of a large percentage of stocked bass. 

  The collection of seven largemouth bass within Baylors Creek was rather disappointing. The abundance of blue catfish stacked along the pad line most likely took care of their share of stocked bass. The survey run within Baylors Creek collected a total of 253 blue catfish (CPUE: 910.8 fish/hr) along with 92 white perch (CPUE: 331.2 fish/hr). The survey yielded the collection of 8,615 total fish. 

  According to Odenkirk, “the overall contribution percentage of 83.72% of stocked bass to the 2013 year class should provide a substantial boost to the largemouth bass fishery for years to come. The abundance of forage fish (eastern silvery minnows, spottail shiners, threadfin shad) in most areas sampled will provide a great forage base for the bass.” 

    Four of the 18 stocked areas were not sampled during the electrofishing survey. These areas were Portobago Creek, Snowden Creek and the two small creeks on the southern edge of Green Bay. Portobago Creek and Snowden Creek were inaccessible during the low tide stages on the days sampled. 

   The density of hydrilla growth was closely observed during the survey. The protected water within Troy Creek provided the greatest hydrilla growth of any of the 29 sites sampled. The upper reach of Jetts Creek had flats covered with hydrilla growth. The upper flat within Piss Creek had a decent amount of hydrilla growth as well. All three of these sites showed a decent catch rate of juvenile largemouth bass from the 2013 stocking. 

   The results of the otolith analysis and the high percentage of contribution from the stocked fingerlings showed that the supplemental stocking can provide some improvements to a limited largemouth bass fishery. Whether or not some additional fish will be stocked in the future will be based upon further discussions and future decisions. Any additional bass stockings will be conducted in areas that have revealed successful survival of bass from the 2013 stocking. 

   A few of these areas would be Troy Creek, Lyons Creek, Piss Creek, the upper reaches of Jetts Creek, as well as the marsh edge and tributary across from Wilmont Landing. The full impact of the 2013 supplemental bass stocking may take some time for anglers to see a noticeable change in the abundance of adult-sized bass they catch. DWR fisheries staff will continue to monitor the largemouth bass fishery within the tidal Rappahannock River with the majority of data collected from fall electrofishing surveys. 

   There are smallmouth bass in the tidal Rappahannock, too. They are encountered rarely in biologists’ fisheries surveys, however, there have been verified reports of some very large (citation sized) smallmouth from the tidal section of the Rappahannock between City Dock and Little Falls. This species is more abundant the closer one gets to the fall line and occurs throughout the non-tidal upper Rappahannock.

   The two most sought-after catfish species in the tidal Rappahannock River, channel cats and blue cats, are not native to the river. Channel catfish were likely first stocked in the Rappahannock sometime between 1890 and the early 1900’s, and blue catfish were not introduced to the river until the mid-1970’s.

   Blue catfish are abundant in the river from Fredericksburg downstream to Carters Wharf. Fresh gizzard shad is the bait of choice. Angling for blue cats is best in river bends having deep channel drop-offs near steep banks and good submerged structure, such as old pier pilings or downed trees.

  My morning on the river with Bruce and my son yielded 24 largemouth bass up to four pounds and two eight-pound snakehead. We caught our bass using a weighted wacky rigged worm (Neko Rig), and a spinnerbait (one made by Dave Farrington and one made by Brian Green).

  I’m not sure how far we ran down river from Port Royal Landing, but I know we hit a bunch of holes on the way down before locking into a pattern that involved shallow hydrilla. We also caught a few fish along the edge of water lilies.

   Our host was happy with the amount of bass we caught and thought if a nasty thunderstorm hadn’t drove us off the water around noon, we’d have probably caught a couple five plus pounders.

  I was impressed with the amount of submerged aquatic vegetation in the river and water clarity around these weed beds. I had always thought of the tidal Rapp as a muddy river but, at times, we fished sections that had water as clear as Lake Anna.

  I highly recommend you put this often forgotten tidal river on your list this summer and fall so you, too can enjoy the current good largemouth bass fishing.

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