VA’s Best Striper Fisheries

by Chris McCotter

Hooking into what is known as white lightning with fins on a Virginia lake or river is one of the best thrills an angler could hope to experience.

Luckily Old Dominion anglers have a number of well-managed fisheries that offer a decent chance of checking the striper or wiper box – the latter being a sporty cross between a striper and a white bass fast gaining popularity around the state.

The lakes that harbor these striped denizens vary, from deep, cool and clear mountain hydro sources to Piedmont power plant lakes, even smaller water supply reservoirs.

With limited time to try and catch striper you certainly want to target them in the best possible waters. Examining Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources trophy fish numbers reveals one lake that’s far and away your best bet to land a striper and a big one at that.

Smith Mountain Lake is easily the best land-locked striper fishery in the state. It produced 18 recorded trophy fish last year according to records kept by the VDWR Trophy Angler Recognition Progam, with the largest topping out at 23-2 pounds!

Smith Mountain Lake has gained national attention for its striped bass fishery which is the lake’s second most popular sport fish (lots of bass fishermen). Striped bass have been stocked into this reservoir since impoundment in 1963. Limited spawning habitat for striped bass prevents successful natural reproduction. Stocking is required to maintain the fishery unlike other species such as bass, crappie, catfish, and shad.

SML striper are distributed throughout the lake during most of the year but are concentrated in lower lake areas during the summer and early fall months.

Spike and Kathy Francescini have been guiding on the 20,000-acre lake near Roanoke for the past 30 years. They say that currently the lake is fishing better than it has in 15 years with 10-14 pound fish common and fish up to 20 pounds becoming more and more common. They will use live bait for striper on most of their guided trips.

Spoon fishing for striper has become more popular at Smith Mountain Lake in recent years. A soft plastic jerkbait on jighead is a good bait to use in the fall as is a topwater bait when you encounter striper feeding on the surface in this clear water lake.

The Roanoke River produced five trophy class striper last year. This river flows into Smith Mountain Lake, then Leesville Lake, then Buggs Island, Lake Gaston and Roanoke Rapids Reservoir. It’s one of the most dammed rivers in the state and creates over 500,000 acres of impoundments, but there’s more.

Anglers fishing the river below Roanoke Rapids every spring catch big rockfish each year as they migrate up the river out of the Albemarle Sound.

Claytor Lake, not far from Smith Mountain, was a notable past top striper fishery that did not produce a single trophy rockfish in 2021.

This 4,475-acre impoundment of the New River also offers the trophy wiper option. Striped bass and hybrid striped bass combine to create an important fishery at Claytor Lake, with nearly 60% of anglers fishing for these two species.

Poor habitat conditions (low dissolved oxygen levels at their preferred temperature at depth) for striped bass in summer 2016 caused a striper kill, but, with six good habitat years since then, the striped bass population is recovering.

Claytor Lake bait populations (alewife and gizzard shad) are high, aiding in the restoration of the striped bass fishery. Water temperatures below 70 degrees produce the best striped bass and hybrid striper.

While most anglers troll or float live gizzard shad and alewife for stripers and hybrids, many are taken with topwater baits (Redfins, Rapalas, etc.) and bucktails in the spring and fall. Trolling bucktails and umbrella rigs in 20–60 feet of water can produce good catches. Since they can tolerate higher water temperatures, hybrids often chase schools of shad at the lake’s surface at night in the summer months.

Claytor Lake is the top destination for hybrids in Virginia, setting a new state record with a hybrid weighing 15 pounds, 13 ounces caught by local angler Don Jessie on March 16, 2016. However, it’s possible that Lake Anna could exceed this record in the coming years.

New size and creel limits for striped bass and hybrid striped bass were implemented on January 1, 2019. From September 16 to June 30, striped bass and hybrid striped bass must be 20 inches long to be harvested and anglers are allowed to keep two per day combined. From July 1 to September 15, there is no minimum size limit for striped bass and hybrid striped bass and anglers are allowed to keep four per day combined.

C.C. McCotter has guided on Lake Anna for the past 27 years. He’s monitored the striper fishery in the 13,000-acre lake and guided clients to thousands of fish. While the lake does harbor a good amount of five to seven pound striper and the occasional “teenager” and the unicorn-rare 20 pounder, it has become more known recently for another hybrid striper.

“The wiper originally stocked in 2015 reached the 24”, eight-pound citation size in 2020. These fish are pound-for-pound a better fight, fare better over Anna’s hot summer and tend to accommodate anglers better than striper overall,” McCotter told W2.

After a three-year observation period, the VDGIF began stocking the hybrid striper into Anna each year at the rate of 100,000 fish – same as the amount of striper. There is hope they can attend state record proportions and the lake record, caught this spring stands at 12-6.

Striper and wiper on Anna are often schooled together. Anglers can troll deep diving plugs or umbrella-rigs for them during the summer or soak live bait. Casting aficionados seek out early morning breaking fish or vertically jig spoons.

Little Creek Reservoir near Williamsburg was stocked with striper a while back and some still remain in this deep, clear lake with little structure and blue back herring. The largest striper in recent history was pulled from Little Creek in 2019 and weighed 34-15.

Buggs Island/Kerr Reservoir on the Virginia/North Carolina border has striper. It’s a 50,000-acre lake so finding them can be a little tricky in the summer. Buggs Island striper rarely reach 15 pounds for whatever reason.

Lake Gaston, also shared by Virginia and North Carolina has striper and does produce 20 pounders each year. Most serious striper anglers on Gaston either troll or use live bait.

Carvin’s Cove Reservior near Roanoke harbors a good population of wiper.

This is a 630-acre impoundment located just north of the city of Roanoke. This reservoir supplies drinking water for the city of Roanoke and is part of a nearly 12,500-acre nature reserve.

Hybrid striped bass were stocked in 2013-2015 & 2017-2021 and striped bass were stocked in 2017 to diversify fishing opportunities.

Hybrid striped bass collected

in 2021 by DWR biologists ranged in size from 14-22 inches and striped bass ranged in size from 25-29 inches. The fishing regulations for hybrid striped bass and striped bass are; (4 per day creel limit with no fish less than 20 inches).

Other honorable mentions for Virginia’s top striper fisheries include the tidal James River, the tidal Mattaponi River and Leesville Lake (just below Smith Mountain Lake dam)

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