Virginia’s Best Striper Lakes

by Chris McCotter

By C.C. McCotter

June is an excellent month to catch your first freshwater striped bass or hybrid striped bass from one of Virginia’s many managed land-locked striper fisheries. 

  Now we are not talking about saltwater or tidal river rockfish. While this may be the same species, these freshwater dwellers are more furtive, less predictable, much pickier and more heavily pressured.

  Knowing where to target them is just the start of what many anglers accept as a lifelong passion. Here are our top waters around the Commonwealth to target these challenging residents and some tips on how to catch them in each.

Smith Mountain Lake

  Smith Mountain Lake is a 20,600-acre impoundment located near Roanoke in Bedford and Franklin counties constructed in the early 1960’s by American Power Company. This reservoir is one of Virginia’s premier fisheries, offering outstanding fishing and other recreational opportunities. Most of the shoreline is developed with residential homes but the fishing remains excellent.

  While largemouth and smallmouth bass are the most sought-after species by anglers at Smith Mountain Lake striper fishing is very popular with many guides operating on the lake.

    Striped bass have been stocked into this reservoir since impoundment in 1963. Limited spawning habitat in the lake for striped bass prevents natural reproduction so stocking is required to maintain the fishery. On average, more than 300,000 stripers are stocked into the lake every year, however stocking was reduced to 225,000 in 2023.

  There are a variety of factors involved in the decision by the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) to reduce the number of striped bass stocked, but the primary concern involves the growth and health of the striped bass population in the lake.

“Growth has slowed down the last two to three years,” said DWR fisheries biologist Dan Wilson.

  A primary factor affecting that growth rate is forage. Gizzard shad are a primary food source for stripers and research has shown a correlation between striped bass growth and gizzard shad numbers in Smith Mountain Lake.

   The slowdown in growth coincides with a drop in gizzard shad numbers at Smith Mountain Lake. There are a number of reasons for that drop and predation is one of them. By cutting the numbers of a predator like striped bass, gizzard shad would be given a chance to rebound.

   “We’ve been looking at the shad populations for probably the last 23-24 years,” Wilson said. “What we see is whenever gizzard shad numbers are really good, striped bass growth is also good.”

   The decision to cut stocking numbers, even just for one year, is not sitting well with many striped bass guides and fishing-related business owners on Smith Mountain Lake. They are concerned about the impact a reduction will have on fishing in the years to come. Those guides also point to other sources of forage like blueback herring, threadfin shad, and alewives which can be found in Smith Mountain Lake.

   However, the science indicates that stripers thrive when gizzard shad are more readily available.

   Stripers are distributed throughout the lake during most of the year but are concentrated in lower lake areas during the summer and early fall months. Coves are typically not very productive for striped bass during the summer months so anglers should concentrate their efforts on the main lake when water temperatures begin to rise.  

   Striped bass anglers utilize a variety of fishing methods such as drifting live bait, trolling plugs and bucktail jigs, or casting topwater lures. Anglers use live bait throughout the year, trolling is most popular during the warmer months, and casting top water or shallow running plugs is most productive in April – June at night. Jointed topwater plugs like a Berkley Surge Shad, Cotton Cordell Redfin and Storm Thunderstick are locally popular.

   Most striped bass are caught between the dams and buoy 64 of the Roanoke Arm and up to buoy 40 of the Blackwater Arm. Although these are the general areas most striped bass are caught, these fish are very mobile and may change locations continuously depending on forage availability, water temperatures, and spawning.

   There is a slot limit for striped bass from November through May to maintain the trophy aspect of this fishery. This slot limit requires all striped bass caught between 30-40 inches to be released. From June through October there is a two-fish limit with no minimum size.

For guided trips contact Spike’s Prime Time Fishin’ or Clint’s Striper Guide Service.

Lake Anna

   Lake Anna is a 9,600-acre impoundment located in Louisa, Orange, and Spotsylvania counties, owned by the Dominion Power Company. The impoundment was completed in 1972 and serves as cooling water for the North Anna Nuclear Power Station. This lake offers good striper fishing and excellent hybrid striper fishing.

  Annual stockings of striped bass and hybrid striped bass continue in order to maintain these fisheries (other species are self-sustaining). After years of study by DWR Biologist John Odenkirk and more recently Mike Isel, it has been determined that Anna has a carrying capacity for both predators based on the lake size and forage base. Currently around 46,000 of each species is stocked into the lake each year.

   Stripers grow well in Lake Anna, at least for the first few years, and quickly attain the legal size of 20 inches in about 30 months. However, growth of older fish slows due to the lack of good striped bass habitat (cool, well oxygenated water) during summer and early fall months. However, an excellent fishery has developed within the capacity of available habitat. A major winter fishery has developed when stripers can be observed feeding near the surface. These fish can be caught with lures like swimbaits, Redfins, bucktails or on live bait like gizzard shad or blueback herring. 

  Hybrid striper or wiper often school with the striper and will accept the same offerings. They tend to bite more readily during periods of hot water in shallower water, though, than the striper. In May 2023 a 14.33-pound hybrid striper was recorded and there is hope a new state record (15-13 from Claytor Lake) will be caught from Anna in the coming year.

  The limit is four fish (both species combined) over 20 inches per day, year-round. Anna’s striper are mostly 5-10 pounds with the occasional fish over 15 pounds. The lake record is 26 pounds caught in May 1993.

  For guided trips contact McCotter’s Lake Anna Guide Service at 540.894.3540

Claytor Lake

   Claytor Lake is a 4,363-acre impoundment of the New River, stretches northeastward across the Pulaski County countryside for 21 miles in southwest Virginia

    Striped bass and hybrid striped bass combine to create an important fishery at Claytor Lake.  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 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. While most anglers troll or float live gizzard shad and Alewife for stripers and hybrids, many are taken with topwater baits like Redfins and Thundersticks 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, holdiong the state record with a fish weighing 15 pounds, 13 ounces caught by local angler Don Jessie on March 16, 2016.

New size and creel limits for striped bass and hybrid striped bass were implemented on January 1, 2019. From September 16 to June 30, both 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.

Kerr Reservoir

     Buggs Island Lake is about 48,900 acres at full pool and provides excellent fisheries for a number of different species including striped bass. 

   While not outstanding, the striped bass population is in fair condition and should be similar to the last couple of years this season with good numbers of five to 10-pound fish. 

    Buggs Island is one of only a few lakes in the country where striped bass reproduce naturally. Each spring, adult fish migrate up the Staunton and Dan Rivers where they provide a popular fishery. 

   During the summer, striper congregate in the lower end of the lake where they can find the only cool, oxygenated water available at that time. Fall and winter find striper spread throughout the reservoir as fish begin actively feeding. 

  Kerr Lake striper feed on abundant supplies of gizzard shad, threadfin shad, alewife and blueback herring. Fisheries biologists monitor the striped bass population with gill nets set in the fall to get important information on abundance, size distribution, reproductive success, growth and survival. 

  According to their data, Kerr Lake striped bass reach 20 inches in 2 to 2½ years but growth of older fish is slower than Smith Mountain Lake stripers. 

  At Buggs Island, striped bass typically range between 5 and 10 pounds (22 – 30 inches). Striped bass growth rates have slowed in recent years due mostly to a parasitic copepod (“gill maggot”) infestation and reduced productivity of the Buggs Island system. 

   A split regulation season was implemented in 2006 to try to ameliorate the impacts of summertime mortality associated with fishing stress. From June to September there is no length limit and a four fish creel limit. Anglers are encouraged to quit fishing after catching those four stripers. In the cool season, October to May, there is currently a 20” length limit and two fish limit to protect some stripers to grow to a larger size.

     During spring and early summer, striped bass are found in the upper end of the lake and in the river above the lake as fish travel upstream to spawn. During summer, habitat (combination of temperature and dissolved oxygen) forces striped bass to be found in the lower end of the lake (the dam to about Buoy 9 and in the mouth of Nutbush Creek).    Fishing during the fall and winter is typically best from Goat Island to the Clarksville Bridge, although fish may be found throughout the lake. 

Little Creek Reservoir

  Little Creek Reservoir was constructed in 1981 just outside of Williamsburg and is owned by the City of Newport News. The watershed is relatively small, and pumping water from Chickahominy Reservoir primarily regulates the reservoir. On occasion, water is also pumped in from Diascund Reservoir. Water from Little Creek is then pumped to the terminal reservoirs of the Newport News water supply system.

This is a relatively deep, clear lake with little structure. Fishing success is usually best along points and drop-offs. Anglers will find a depth sounder extremely helpful. The majority of fishing action usually takes place on the deep side in depths of 15 to 20 feet. Anglers can find some shallow water action during the early spring period while fish are closer to the banks during the spawning season.

   DWR stocks Little Creek Reservoir annually with striped bass fingerlings. The reservoir is stocked at a rate of 25 striped bass fingerlings/acre for a total of 23,675 fingerlings each May. The fingerlings are stocked in a pelagic manner by way of boat to spread them out to roughly 25 different stocking locations. 

   Little Creek Reservoir has the capacity to produce some very large striped bass. The new reservoir record of 36 pounds was caught by an angler during the spring of 2019. The majority of the striped bass action comes from dedicated anglers that are willing to catch their own bait. These anglers use cast nets to catch their desired bait of blueback herring and gizzard shad. 

  The striped bass anglers that frequently fish the reservoir will slow troll live herring at the proper depth to catch their fair share of stripers. Little Creek Reservoir has a strong population of blueback herring in the 5 to 6-inch range.     

Waller Mill

  Waller Mill is a 360-acre reservoir owned by the City of Williamsburg. The reservoir is located within the boundaries of Waller Mill Park and a navigable tunnel connects the upper and lower portions of the reservoir. The reservoir shoreline topography is covered by numerous points and coves. The heavily wooded shoreline with the numerous creek arms provides for a very pleasing environment in which to fish for striped bass. This trolling motor only resource feels larger than 360-acres due to all of the coves and creek arms. 

   Anglers have caught some striped bass in the 20- to 30-pound range over the years. Recent DWR gill net surveys have shown a decent abundance of striped bass in the 8 to 12 pound range. The catch rate of larger bass (13–20-pound range) in the fall surveys has declined over the last few years. 

  Most anglers use gizzard shad for bait and find that cast netting for shad is the best way to catch them. The size distribution of the gizzard shad has historically been broken up into two groups. There is an abundance of shad in the five to eight-inch range and in the 13-16-inch range. Most anglers would probably prefer to get their hands on some of the seven- to eight-inch shad and use them to catch a striped bass. The reservoir is stocked with 9,000 striped bass fingerlings every May at a stocking rate of 25 fish/acre.

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