W2’s 2024 Top Smallmouth Bass Waters

by Chris McCotter

W2’s top waters for smallmouth bass vary from upland reservoirs to mountain rivers. Each fishery offers the challenge of figuring out the fishing puzzle for your visit. Each offers outstanding scenery. Our predictions are based on Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) Angler Recognition Program data as well as the overall enjoyment factor of the fishery.

  The DWR is tasked with managing freshwater fisheries across the state of Virginia using best available science. Our biologists utilize a variety of fisheries methodology to collect information on the health of our fisheries. Data derived from scientific fisheries methodology is known as fishery-independent data and is key to managing our fisheries for the best interest of the public. Examples of fishery-independent surveys include electrofishing, gill netting, and trap netting surveys that our biologists implement to manage these public resources. Additionally, angler-derived data or fishery-dependent data is data that is collected from recreational and or commercial sources. Fishery-dependent data can also play a role in the management of our fisheries.

    Brown bass anglers have a number of good fisheries to target a trophy (five pounds or 20”). Leading the way in DWR “citations” 2023 was the New River with 53 citations, the largest of which was 5-2 pounds and caught May 17. The James River holds the runner up spot with 41 smallmouth bass in 2023, the largest at 6-3 pounds and caught May 10. All of the Shenandoah River gave up 15 trophy smallmouth, including the main stem, South Fork and North Fork. The Staunton River produced 14 citation smallies. The little Maury showed well with 10 trophy smallmouth bass.

    The New River draws anglers from all over the country to its trophy smallmouth bass fishery. A visit is special as it’s an ancient river system that happens to be the oldest on the North American continent. 

   “Similar to some other rivers in Virginia, the New River has experienced some below-average smallmouth bass spawns in the last several years, which has resulted in a slight reduction in the abundance of adult fish,” said Jeff Williams, DWR regional fisheries manager. “However, good numbers of quality fish still remain for anglers to target. And recent above-average spawning classes, especially on the upper New, bode well for anglers as these fish grow to adult size.”

Floating the New River is the best way to cover ground when fishing for smallmouth bass. Late winter and early spring give the angler opportunities at catching trophy smallmouth bass 

   “On the upper New River, anglers should target the reach immediately above Claytor Lake, from Allisonia upstream to the Route 100 bridge near Barren Springs,” Williams noted. “Below Claytor Lake, anglers would do best to target the reach from Claytor Dam downstream to Radford.  Further down, the areas near Narrows and Rich Creek consistently produce good numbers of fish.”

    The James River is perhaps the most well-known smallmouth bass fishery in the state and holds fish from its headwaters at the confluence of the Jackson and Cowpasture rivers all the way to the fall line in downtown Richmond.

  However, recent reductions in smallmouth bass abundance have many anglers concerned. “The non-tidal James River has experienced noticeable reductions in smallmouth bass abundance in recent years,” said Hunter Hatcher, DWR fisheries biologist. “This certainly isn’t ideal, but the result is an abundance of forage for the fish that remain, leading to rapid growth rates and excellent potential for a trophy catch on your next outing. For best success, anglers should target transition areas where deep runs and pools meet shallow rocky riffles.

  Long time upper James River guide Brian Bodine of Razorback Guide Service notes he has fished the river for over 25 years and the last couple have been about average. Low flow rates throughout the late summer last year hampered efforts to fish from his jet drive boat but spring catch rates were good. So far this year the flow rate in the James has been well above average so Bodine is thinking May and June are going to be much better months to fish.

Smith Mountain Lake might be best known for its trophy striped bass fishery, but anglers searching for trophy smallmouth bass should not overlook this top destination. This scenic, upland fishery is large, at 20,600 acres located in Bedford and Franklin counties. Smith Mountain Lake provides excellent deeper water habitat for smallmouth in addition to rock shoals, submerged brush piles, fallen trees, coves and numerous big points.

  Smallmouth spawn here early – usually done by the end of April. That means they are aggressively feeding by May into June. Anglers should use soft plastic stick baits, Ned rigs and topwaters for the best smallmouth action this month on SML.

The Staunton River is an 81-mile segment of the Roanoke River between Leesville Dam and John H. Kerr Reservoir. Specifically, the section of the Staunton between the Dam and Brookneal is an underrated trophy smallmouth bass fishery. 

   “The Staunton River provides an excellent opportunity to catch quality smallmouth bass,” said Dan Michaelson, DWR fisheries biologist. “Excellent habitat, especially from Leesville Dam to Brookneal, provide anglers ample opportunity to catch big smallmouth. While Staunton River bass density isn’t as high as some other rivers in Virginia, growth rates are among the best in the state. Manageable float trips are available, especially in the upper river, but plan ahead and enjoy the experience.”

The Staunton is a beautiful river that provides the float angler a variety of opportunities from targeting smallmouth bass to walleye, saugeye, largemouth bass, Kentucky spotted bass, white bass and even striped bass. Habitat varies, but long deep pools, shallow choppy riffles, and shelves are all good places to prospect for smallmouth bass. Small crankbaits and spinners are local favorite lures.

  Other waters not to be over-looked by trophy smallmouth seekers include Lake Moomaw and South Holston Reservoir. Moomaw is located near the Virginia/West Virginia line in Hot Springs (northwest of Lexington). South Holston Reservoir is in the extreme southwest corner of Virginia and is partially located in Tennessee.

  Moomaw is was formed when an area of Alleghany Highlands called Kincaid Gorge was flooded by the Gathright Dam and backed up 2,530 acres of the Jackson River creating 43 miles of mostly undeveloped, wooded shoreline. This lake is unique in that it harbors both trout and warmwater species like smallmouth bass. 

 Alewives form the base of the food chain for mature fish here. They group up to seven inches long but most are four to fish inches or smaller. They inhabit open water so savvy Moomaw anglers have learned to target offshore smallmouth using topwaters, jerkbaits and forward-facing sonar type lures.

  South Holston Reservoir is a 7,580-acre highland reservoir operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority. The lake is different from many other Virginia smallmouth fisheries with abundant rock bluffs, shale banks and flat clay points. Since there is scant vegetation and flow the lake will often remain muddy and stained until May. You’ll find more smallmouth in the Tennessee portion of the lake than the Virginia section. In the summer, many anglers fish at night. Bass up to 21 inches are not uncommon.

  Though not in Virginia, the Susquehanna River is one of the best smallmouth fisheries with a few hours’ drive from most of the state.

  Guide Chris Gorsuch of Reel Fishing Adventures goal each year is to have he and his clients catch 100 bass over 20 inches and they usually do!

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.