Fish Identification and Information
Virginia Freshwater Fishing
Fish illustrations by Duane Raver/USFWS
Common Names: Black bass, bigmouth.
Identification: Sunfish family. Basically dark greenish above fading to a whitish belly, but variable depending on the water it lives in. Shows a series of dark blotches that form a dark horizontal band along its midline to its tail. Named because of its big mouth. Upper jaw extends well beyond the eye. Dorsal fin deeply notched. Average weight is 2 to 4 lbs., with up to 10 lbs. occurring in some waters.
Best Fishing: Lakes: Anna, Gaston, Buggs Island, Chickahominy, Chesdin, Smith Mountain, Prince, Briery Creek, Sandy River, Western Branch, Witten, and Flannagan. Rivers: Chickahominy (below Walkers Dam), and James (below the fall line).
Fishing Techniques: Fly, medium spincasting, spinning or baitcasting rods and reels can all be used. Plastic worms and other plastic imitations, crankbaits, spinner baits, surface lures, jigs and other lures imitating minnows, crayfish, frogs, salamanders and nightcrawlers. For flyrodders, streamer flies, bucktails and large poppers. Live bait includes small bluegills, minnows of many kinds, crayfish, nightcrawlers, frogs, etc.
Common Name: Kentucky bass.
Identification: Sunfish family. Much like the largemouth and the smallmouth, it is called the “in-between” species. It is distinguished from the smallmouth by the dark, blotchy lateral band from head to tail. The back of spotted bass’ upper jaw lines up with the middle rear of the eye, while largemouth jaws extends past the eye. It derives its name from the black spots on its belly scales. Most are about 1 lb. or less.
Best Fishing: Lakes: Claytor, Hungry Mother, and North Fork Pound. Rivers: Appomattox, New, Pamunkey, and South and North Anna.
Fishing Techniques: Light to medium spin-casting and spinning outfits and medium bait casting rods and reels. Similar baits as for largemouth, but smaller. Spinnerbaits, top water plugs, crankbaits and fly rod popping bugs.
Common Names: Bream, bluegill sunfish, sun perch.
Identification: Sunfish family. Colors are variable. Dark green, olive-green, olive brown, or bluish-black on its back, fading to yellowish-green or silvery. Normally has five to seven vertical bars extending down on each side. Lower parts of its cheek and gill cover are bluish. Its “throat” is yellow on females to bright orange on the male, brighter during spawning. Has a black, ear-like flap on its opercle (gill cover) and a black blotch at the back base of its spiny dorsal fin. Typically under 1lb. in Virginia.
Best Fishing: Lakes: Western Branch, Prince, Cohoon, Chickahominy, Robertson, Gatewood, Briery Creek, Burke, and many others.
Fishing Techniques: A number 8 or 10 hook baited with soft crickets, small nymphs, garden worms, red wigglers, pieces of night crawlers, other grubs and caterpillars on an ultralight spinning or spincasting outfit, fly rod or cane pole provides a lot of fun. Toward evening, in summer, when the shallows cool, bluegills come into shore to feed. When using bait, fish shallow with a small, light bobber in spring, deep near structure in hot summer with no bobber and lightly weighted. Effective artificials include poppers, nymphs, wet and dry flies of many types, rubber spiders, grasshoppers and crickets, and tiny jigs. Flyrodding for bluegills is especially rewarding.
Common Names: Black bass, bronzeback.
Identification: Sunfish family. Coppery-brown above, with greenish-brown sides with darker vertical bars. Three dark bars radiate from the eye on the cheek and gill cover. Dorsal fin is not as deeply notched as the largemouth. Upper jaw extends back only in line with the middle of the eye. A fish in the 4 or 5 lb. range is considered a trophy.
Best Fishing: Lakes: Claytor, Smith Mountain, Philpott, Moomaw, and South Holston. Rivers: James (above the fall line), New, South Fork, North Fork and mainstem Shenandoah, Rappahannock (above the fall line), Maury, North Fork Holston, and Clinch.
Fishing Techniques: Fly, spinning, spincasting and baitcasting rods and reels with 4 to 8 pound test line are all suitable for taking this scrappiest of freshwater gamefish. Live crayfish, hellgrammites, “spring lizards” (salamanders), madtoms, and minnows are best live baits. Artificials include jigs, small crankbaits, small spinner-bucktail combos, minnow and crayfish imitations. For fly rodding, hair bugs, poppers, and streamers are good.
Common Names: papermouth, Calico bass, specks, speckled perch.
Identification: Sunfish family. There are two species of crappie—the black and the white. The black crappie is covered with dark, irregular blotches and has seven—rarely eight—dorsal spines. It shows more yellow and green on its sides and its caudal (tail) and anal fins are heavily flecked. The white crappie has six dorsal spines—rarely five—and it has noticeable vertical bars on its silvery sides as well as a light pearlescent color or iridescent blue and lavendar. Both have protruding lower jaws.
Best Fishing: Lakes: Buggs Island, Chesdin, Chickahominy, Cohoon, Anna, Smith Mountain, Prince, Gaston, Claytor, Brittle, Moomaw, Orange, Burke, South Holston, and Western Branch. Rivers: tidal Chickahominy and its tributaries, tidal James, and South Fork Shenandoah.
Fishing Techniques: Light spinning or spincasting rods and reels with tiny jigs, doll flies, streamers, small crankbaits that imitate minnows, small spoons and spinner-bucktail combinations, and spinner-grubs. Best live baits are small to medium minnows.
Common Name: Shellcracker.
Identification: Sunfish family. Yellow-green or olive, with faint vertical bars and random dark spots. During spawning, the margin of the male’s gill cover flap turns bright red. Body is rounded like other sunfish and has a relatively small mouth. Pectoral fins are long and pointed. They grow faster and larger than other sunfish; 1 lb. fish not uncommon.
Best Fishing: Lakes: Cohoon, Meade, Prince, Little Creek, Chickahominy, Robertson, Western Branch, Lone Star, and Briery Creek. Rivers: Nottoway.
Fishing Techniques: Best time to catch redears is in the spring when they come up to the spawning beds. Being bottom feeders, most redears are caught by letting live nymphs, red wigglers or garden worms lie on the bottom near shore. Artificial jigs and grubs fished slowly and near the bottom will work as well.
Common Names: Yellowbreast sunfish, redbelly, red throat.
Identification: Sunfish family. Basically olive to brownish gray along the back, merging to blue with a golden cast along its sides and a bright orange to yellow underside. Has several irregular bluish stripes on its cheek and gill cover. Identifiable by a long, black opercular(gill) flap. Reaches about 8 inches.
Best Fishing: South Fork Shenandoah, Nottoway, Rapidan, Rappahannock, Maury and Cowpasture rivers.
Fishing Techniques: Small spinner baits, spinner bucktails, grubs and tiny crankbaits. Spring and fall are the best times, but they are active throughout the summer.
Common Name: Blue sunfish.
Identification: Sunfish family. Basically bluish green in color, with faint, alternating blue, brown and brassy gold stripes. Olive colored on its head with pale blue spots and wavy lines on its upper lip. Has a dark opercle (gill flap) spot and some orange and yellow-olive on its lower fins. Is a stocky, thick fish with a large head and large mouth.
Best Fishing: Small lakes, pond or quiet coves on large reservoirs where they have been introduced.
Fishing Techniques: A ready striker of any small crankbait, spinnerbait, wet or dry flies as well as live nymphs, minnows and worms. Fish close up against the shore, often under the smallest of overhanging banks, or small dugout areas along a shallow shore.
Common Names: Redeye, rock bass.
Identification: Sunfish family. Robust body much like the rock bass but with dark, olive-green to olive-brown back, fading to grayish sides and white belly. Has smaller scale spots than the rock bass and lighter, small whitish or yellowish spots on its upper body. Has a slightly concave outline over the eyes. Cheeks scaleless or nearly so.
Best Fishing: Lakes: Leesville and Smith Mountain. Most of the trophy “rock bass” registered by anglers are really Roanoke bass. Rivers: Nottoway, Roanoke/Staunton, and Blackwater and Pigg of the Roanoke drainage.
Fishing Techniques: Spinning and spincasting with small to medium spinner baits, small spoons and crankbaits. Live baits include minnows, crayfish, and worms.
Common Names: Pond perch, sun perch, sunny.
Identification: Sunfish family. Dark, olive-green on its back, with mottled sides. Base color of sides, yellowish, spotted with orange, red and blue. Its belly is yellow to bright orange. Cheeks and gill covers marked with alternate worm-shaped bands of blue-green and yellow. Bluish-black gill cover flaps are edged with white, yellow, orange or blue, with a small half moon spot of red. Average 4 to 6 inches.
Best Fishing: Most lakes, ponds and rivers. Best time to catch them is in spring and early summer when they move into the shallows to spawn, but are cooperative even in the hot summertime and is commonly caught near shore throughout the warmer months.
Fishing Techniques: Relatively easy to catch. Small garden worms, red wigglers, various grubs and crickets are good live baits. An ultralight spinning or spincast rod and reel is ideal rigged with 4 to 6 lb. line, lightly weighted and fitted with a small bobber is the best outfit for sunfish. Simply cast to openings in aquatic vegetation, the edges of aquatic vegetation or gravel clearings near shore. They will hit artificials, such as wet flies and nymphs, but fish them a little slower than other sunfish species.
Common Names: Redeye, goggle eye and rock sunfish.
Identification: Sunfish family. Short, robust body and fairly large mouth. Lower jaw protrudes slightly. Back is olive-green with sides tarnished gold or brassy colored. Each scale has a dark central spot. Large spots on its lower body forms a striped-like appearance. Has a discernable dark outline on its anal fin. Has wide vertical blotches on its sides and a dark spot on its cheek. Average 6 to 8 inches, but will reach 12 to 14 inches and 1.5 to 2 lbs. Cheeks with obvious scales.
Best Fishing: Lakes: Smith Mountain, Moomaw, and Laurel Bed. Rivers: Roanoke, New, Jackson, Maury, James, Bullpasture, Calfpasture, Buffalo, North Fork Shenandoah and Clinch.
Fishing Techniques: Voracious feeders that readily strike spinners, jigs, small crankbaits and flies. Favored live baits include minnows, crayfish, nightcrawlers, mayfly nymphs and hellgrammites.
Common Names: Round sunfish, millpond flier.
Identification: Sunfish family. A deep-bodied, almost round fish, with many spines on both dorsal and anal fins. Color is a yellow-green or brassy-olive to brownish-gold, with a dark brown to black spot on each scale, appearing as rows of spots. A dark vertical streak extends downward from the eye to the lower edge of its cheek. It has large, rounded fins, much like a crappie, with a head and mouth similar in shape to a bluegill’s. Slow growing, they reach up to 10 inches in length.
Best Fishing: Lakes: Drummond, Airfield, Kilby, Cohoon, Meade, Lee Hall, and Motts Run. Rivers: Dismal Swamp Canal, Nottoway, and Blackwater.
Fishing Techniques: Most are probably caught incidentally by fishermen fishing for crappies in early spring. They will hit dry and wet flies, as well as small minnows and worms using typical small panfish rigs. Fish around stumps, sunken brush, cypress trunks and knees, and near or under bridges.
Common Names: Openmouth, warmouth bass, Indian fish.
Identification: Sunfish family. A large- mouthed, robust fish with mottled sides and wavy lines on its cheek. Basically dark brownish above, with mottled and barred sides, and mottled or spotted fins. Can be olive-brown colored with greenish cast. Seldom gets larger than 8 or 9 inches.
Best Fishing: Numerous small lakes, ponds such as lakes Orange, Lee Hall, and Airfield; and slow-moving, swampy rivers and streams, such as Dragon Run and Nottoway.
Fishing Techniques: Caught incidental to other fishing activities. Will take a variety of small artificials, as well as worms, small crayfish and minnows.
Common Names: Striper, rockfish.
Identification: True bass family. Streamlined, elongated body; coloration shades from dark olive above through silvery sides to a white belly; 7 to 8 prominent unbroken black stripes originate behind the head and extend to the tail; more prominent than on the white bass. Two spines on the gill cover; two patches of teeth on tongue. Ten to 15 lb. fish are common with 30 to 40 +lb. fish landed each season.
Best Fishing: Lakes: Smith Mountain, Buggs Island, Anna, Claytor, Gaston, Leesville and Western Branch. Rivers: Staunton/Roanoke, Dan, and all tidal rivers.
Fishing Techniques: Heavy baitcasting, spincasting or spinning outfits with a good backbone and 15 to 25 pound test line. Live bait includes large minnows or gizzard or threadfin shad. Large feathered or plastic jig combinations, spoons, crankbaits that imitate shad or other fish and bucktails. Trolling, drift fishing, jump fishing or deep jigging are usual fishing methods.
Common Names: Stiffback, silver perch.
Identification: Not really a perch, but a member of the temperate bass family along with white and striped bass. Averages 8 to 10 inches but reaches up to 2 lbs. Silver gray above, fading to silvery-white below with no longitudinal lines. Has a deep notch between spiny dorsal and soft-rayed dorsal. No teeth on tongue.
Best Fishing: Lakes: Western Branch, Gaston, Buggs Island, Motts Run, Occoquan, Anna, Smith Mountain, Waller Mill Reservoir, Harwoods Mill Reservoir, and Back Bay. Rivers: Tidal rivers (Pamunkey, James, Rappahannock, Chickahominy, Mattaponi, North Landing, Northwest and Potomac) and most of their tributary creeks.
Fishing Techniques: Live bait such as minnows, grass shrimp and blood worms, plus artificials such as small spinner baits and jigs. Fish near structure such as old wharves, pilings, and sunken logs on a falling tide, which moves baitfish and shrimp out of cover.
Common Names: Silver bass, linesides.
Identification: Temperate “true” bass family. Light greenish back, light yellowish-green to silver sides to a silvery-white below, 6 to 8 horizontal faint stripes; stripes below lateral line are broken; the first stripe below the lateral line is not complete to tail. Deep-bodied with distinctively arched back, considerably smaller than its striped bass cousin. Single spine on gill cover; variable patch of teeth on tongue. Commonly reaches 0.5 to 2 lbs.
Best Fishing: Lakes: Buggs Island, Smith Mountain, Claytor, and Leesville. Rivers: New, and the Dan and Staunton (during spawning).
Fishing Techniques: Spinning or spincasting outfits with live minnows, or artificials imitating minnows, including jigs, spinner baits, streamers, spinner-bucktails, crankbaits and spoons. Caught during the spawning runs, also below dams in the tailraces, and by jump fishing schools in open water.
Hybrid Striped Bass
Common Names: Hybrid, hybrid striper.
Identification: This is a striped bass x white bass cross, with a body shape between that of striper and white bass. Silvery-white with up to 8 dark broken stripes; first stripe below lateral line complete to tail. Tongue tooth patches are intermediate between white and striped bass. Typically less than 10 lbs.
Best Fishing: Claytor and Flannagan lakes.
Fishing Techniques: Tackle and techniques very similar to striped bass, but often with a little lighter tackle. Shiners and a variety of spoons, crankbaits, and jigs are favorite baits.
Common Names: Ringed perch, raccoon perch, striped perch.
Identification: Member of the perch family, which includes the walleye, sauger and numerous small darters. Generally olive-green above, fading down the sides to green or yellow-green, to yellow or golden yellow. Has eight vertical dusky bars on its side and a silvery underside. Dorsal fins have a distinctive dusky blotch. Ventral and anal fins are yellow to orange, turning a bright orange on breeding males. Average 6 to 8 inches, but commonly reach 14 to 15 inches and 1.5 to 2 lbs.
Best Fishing: Brackish-water tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. Top waters here include Machodoc, Maddox, Aquia and Occoquan creeks. Lakes: Western Branch, Prince, Waller Mill, Little Creek, Holliday, Moomaw and Claytor. Rivers: Potomac, Rappahannock, Chickahominy, Nottoway and New.
Fishing Techniques: Ready feeders, but cautious biters and slow movers. Locate schools of fish by drift fishing or use deep jigging methods. Small minnows are the best overall bait. Other popular live baits include mummichogs, mayfly nymphs, worms and grubs. They’ll also hit fish eyes, cut bait and pork rind, as well as artificials tipped with some of the above, including small spoons, spoon hooks, spinners, bucktails, spinner baits and streamers.
Common Names: Walleyed pike, jack.
Identification: Largest member of the perch family (Percidae). Grows up to 21 inches, 3 and 4 lbs. by age three. Brassy-olive sides flecked with green and gold, and mottled by 6 to 8 obscure markings on top, white belly. Dorsal fins completely separate and unmarked, except for a distinct dark blotch at the rear base of the front dorsal fin. White blotch on tip of lower tail fin. The eye has a milky cornea, hence the name walleye.
Best Fishing: Lakes: Flannagan, South Holston, Gaston (especially below Kerr Dam), Philpott, Whitehurst, Hungry Mother, and Brittle. Rivers: New, Staunton/Roanoke, South Holston, Clinch and Dan.
Fishing Techniques: Jigs dressed with plastic grubs or tipped with live bait work well, especially in cold water. Three- to five-inch minnow plugs are very effective when walleyes move into shallow water. Crankbaits and jigging spoons work well when walleyes are deep. Trolling with nightcrawler harnesses (spinner rigs) is the preferred method in reservoirs during the summer months. Live baits such as minnows, shad or nightcrawlers are always a good option for walleye.
Common Names: Pike, pickerel, jackfish.
Identification: Member of the pike family (Esocidae). A long, lean body, generally olive or dark green above fading to a light olive or gray-green to yellowish-green then to white on its belly. Its sides have light yellowish bean-shaped spots the length of its body. Strongly toothed jaws have teeth arranged in rows, plus rows of teeth located on its tongue and palate; they angle inward so its prey cannot get loose. Cheek is fully scaled, gill cover is only half scaled.
Best Fishing: Lakes: Occoquan, Motts Run, and Arrowhead (Page County).
Fishing Techniques: Still-fishing with large minnows or other baitfish, or casting or trolling with large spoons, spinner-bucktails or crankbaits.
Common Names: Musky, muskie.
Identification: Largest member of the pike family. Normally olive to dark gray on its back, with grayish to bluish to yellowish sides. Sides may have faint vertical bars, spots or blotches.
Feeding Habits: Muskies eat mainly other fishes, especially soft-rayed species such as suckers, carp and shad, but also frogs, ducklings, muskrats and other mammals.
Best Fishing: Lakes: Rural Retreat, Hungry Mother, and Burke. Rivers: James, Clinch, Shenandoah and New.
Fishing Techniques: River fishermen use small boats with electric motors or small outboards to float larger pools and fish shoreline snags and submerged brush. Heavy bait casting rods and reels with 30+ lb. test line is used. Using large hooks, 4/0 or larger, some anglers simply allow 8- or 12-inch suckers, shad or carp to swim free. Muskies are commonly caught in lakes by trolling deep water with large crankbaits, spoons and spinner-bucktail combinations. Early in the year, try trolling across shallow points.
Common Names: Sand pike, jack salmon.
Identification: A member of the perch family, very similar to walleye. Its best identifying marks are its spotted spiny dorsal. Its body colors are more of a dusky-brown to yellowish-olive, with large, irregular patches on its side, peppered in between with smaller dark markings and a white underside. Very slim build in comparison to walleye. Has a silvery, reflective eye similar to the walleye’s, and a mouth full of canine teeth. When handled, it flares out its gills, flattens its head and shivers as if bracing itself for the hook removal. Typically 10 to 19 inches.
Best Fishing: Clinch and Powell rivers.
Fishing Techniques: Minnows are the best bait. Sauger tend to feed on or near the bottom. Some of the best fishing is below dams in the tailwaters. Early morning and evening are best times. They will hit fairly large minnows and are “lazy” hitters. Are quite adept at “stealing” bait. Will hit spoons, jigs or spinners, especially if tipped with a minnow.
Common Names: Chainsides, jackpike, pike.
Identification: A member of the pike family, it is named for its chain-like markings on its sides. Also has a black vertical mark under its eye. Normally its fin is unmarked. Averages 1.5 to 3 lbs. Fully scaled on both cheek and gill cover.
Best Fishing: Lakes: Chickahominy, Gaston, Western Branch, Diascund, Burnt Mills, Prince, Anna, Cohoon, Little Creek, Moomaw, Douthat and many other rivers, ponds and lakes. Rivers: Nottoway, Blackwater, Chickahominy, and Dragon Run.
Fishing Techniques: Best time is from October through March. Most active when water temperatures are 55° to 70°F. Spinners, spoons, bucktails, jigs, pork rind baits, and a variety of crankbaits will take pickerel. Minnows are the best live bait. Fish the edges of weed beds, lily pad beds, sunken brush, or tree stumps.
Common Names: Native, brookie, mountain trout, speckled trout.
Identification: Most colorful of our trout. Back is a dark olive-green with light wavy or wormy markings. Sides are lighter, sometimes with a bluish cast, yellowish spots and red spots with a light blue halo around them. Belly is white with bright orange fins. Fins have outer edges of white with a black line separating it from the orange. Ten to 16 inches and 1 to 2 lbs. is a good-sized brookie. Native brookies seldom grow beyond 12 inches in Virginia streams.
Best Fishing: Over 400 streams or portions of streams contain brook trout. Many of the streams and ponds in the Shenandoah National Park and the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest have native brook trout. Lakes: Laurel Bed, Coles Creek and Mill Creek reservoirs, Lexington City Reservoir and Switzer Lake. Rivers and Streams: Crooked Creek, Little Stoney Creek, Rapidan River, Rose River, Hughes River, Jeremy’s Run, Laurel Fork and Dry River.
Fishing Techniques: For the purist, dry flies, wet flies, streamers and nymphs are used. Nymphs early in the season, dry flies when the natural insects hatch. Live bait anglers use garden worms and caddis, mayfly and stonefly nymphs also early in the year when these aquatic larvae are available naturally. In deep pools, small minnows may be effective year round.
Common Name: Rainbow.
Identification: The variety of rainbows has resulted in a variety of colors, hues and markings. Normally the back is olive-green with a silvery cast on its sides fading to a silvery-white belly. A pinkish or light rosy red band extends from its cheek to near its tail. Normally, they are well spotted with black spots, but vary from large spots to tiny specks to no markings at all.
Best Fishing: Well established in streams of the southwestern region of the state and are found in a myriad of mountain streams in western Virginia. Lakes: Moomaw. Rivers and Streams: Smith River, Elk Creek, Dan River, Potts Creek, Cripple Creek, Roanoke River, Little Reed Island Creek, Jackson River, Crooked Creek and Big Tumbling Creek, and many others on both sides of the Blue Ridge. Some good wild streams are Whitetop Laurel, Fox Creek, and the South Fork Holston River.
Fishing Techniques: Hits dry flies, wet flies, streamers, nymphs, small spinners and spinner-bucktails, spoons, as well as worms, live nymphs, minnows and salmon eggs. Hatchery trout readily take kernel corn and colored marshmallows. Berkeley Power Baits that give off a scent and can be shaped on the hook are used extensively by anglers.
Common Names: Mud cat, shovelhead cat, yellow cat.
Identification: Broadly flattened head with a lower jaw that projects beyond the upper jaw. Tail only slightly notched and adipose fin is relatively large. Body is yellowish or cream-colored with black, dark brown or olive-brown mottling on back and sides, fading to dirty white or yellow. Younger fish have darker, bolder markings and the upper tip of the tails have white, triangular patches.
Best Fishing: Lakes: Occoquan, Claytor, Flannagan, Smith Mountain, and Buggs Island. Rivers: James, New, Staunton/Roanoke rivers and Occoquan Creek.
Fishing Techniques: Use live bait since they aren’t easily attracted to catfish baits normally used for other catfish, although chicken entrails, nightcrawlers, and minnows work well. Usually caught on the bottom of deep pools or in tailraces below dams.
Common Names: Spotted-catfish,speckled catfish, silver catfish, fork-tailed catfish.
Identification: Deeply forked tail. Upper jaw is longer than, and overlaps the lower. When small, its smooth-skinned body is usually spotted; however, these spots disappear in older fish (can be confused with blue catfish, see identification of blue catfish). Has a small dorsal fin with stiff spine standing high on its back. Varies in color, although generally dark brownish to slate-gray on top, fading to light brownish-gray on the sides. Has 25 to 29 rays in its anal fin.
Best Fishing: Lakes: Buggs Island, Gaston, South Holston, Claytor, Anna, Chesdin, Flannagan, and most small public lakes. Rivers: Appomattox, Chickahominy, Dan, Mattaponi, Pamunkey, New, Rappahannock, Shenandoah, Staunton, and North Landing.
Fishing Techniques: Rod and reel anglers catch them on clam snouts, peeler crabs, large minnows, nightcrawlers, cut herring, chicken livers or entrails, shrimp, and a variety of stink or dough baits. They take a variety of artificials including crankbaits, jigs and spinners. Best at night or low-light conditions.
Common Names: English brown trout, German brown trout, European trout.
Identification: Colors vary widely. Natural wild browns are olive-brown on the back, lighter on the sides, brilliant yellow-gold on their underside, with yellowish-green, unspotted fins. They have numerous black or dark brown spots on their sides, along with a sprinkling of red spots encircled with light blue rings. Hatchery-reared browns tend to be more silvery with dark brownish above with light yellow undersides and spots of a lighter shade.
Best Fishing: Lakes: Moomaw. Rivers and Streams: Little River, Mossy Creek, Potts Creek, Back Creek, Jackson River, Smith River and a wide array of others on either side of the Blue Ridge and in southwestern Virginia.
Fishing Techniques: Will rise to dry flies as well as hitting wet flies, streamers and nymphs. Worms, live nymphs, minnows and salmon eggs are good too. Brown trout tend to be bigger “meat eaters” in that they’ll take larger live baits more readily and will hit spinners, spinner bucktail combinations, as well as small crankbaits and spoons. Live baits and wet flies are normally fished downstream while dry flies are fished upstream.
Common Names: Forked-tailed cat, humpback blue, chucklehead.
Identification: Heavy-bodied with a wide head and high spot forward of center near the head called the dorsal hump. Upper jaw projects well beyond the lower. Bluish-gray body above, fading to white on sides and belly. No spots and a deeply forked tail. Blue cats are often confused with channel catfish. Small channel cats typically will have spots lacking in small blue cats. However, large channel cats and medium-sized blue cats can be more difficult to tell apart, often having similar coloration and general body shape. The margin, or edge, of the anal fin can be used to identify these fish: blue cats have an anal fin with a very straight margin; in channel cats the anal fin has a rounded margin. Biologists and anglers can definitively distinguish between the two species by counting anal fin rays; 30-35 rays in the blue cat’s anal fin versus the channel cat’s 25 to 29 rays.
Best Fishing: Lakes: Buggs Island. Rivers: James, Mattaponi, Pamunkey, Rappahannock, Staunton, Appomattox, and Potomac tributaries in Virginia.
Fishing Techniques: March through May are the best months, but they are caught year round. Use heavy tackle with cut bait, live herring, shad, or peeler crabs. Best at night or low-light conditions.
Common Name: Forked-tailed cat.
Identification: Has a moderately forked tail, a stocky body with its upper jaw extending slightly beyond lower. Color is basically blue-gray above, fading to gray on its sides with a white underside. Occasionally mottled light gray on its sides. Average 8 to 18 inches, rarely 20.
Best Fishing: Tidal rivers such as the Potomac, Rappahannock, James, and York and numerous lakes in southeast and central Virginia.
Fishing Techniques: Many of the same methods used for other catfish. Worms, minnows and scented baits fished on or near the bottom.
Common Names: White shad, roe shad.
Identification: Largest of the river herring family, American shad average around 3 lbs., with fish up to 5 lbs. common. Silver-sided with greenish-blue back; deep bodied from the side, narrow and symmetrical top to bottom head-on; row of dark spots on the sides, running back from the gill cover; the upper and lower jaws are equal length when the mouth is closed.
Best Fishing: Rivers: James (Richmond fall line area), Mattaponi, Pamunkey, Meherrin, and Nottoway.
Fishing Techniques: Best time from mid-March to early May in fall line areas of tidal rivers as adults return to spawn. Light spincasting rods and reels, with 1/32 to 1/8 oz., brightly colored shad darts, spoons, jigs, or small minnow imitation lures. Fly fishing with darts, gold or white soft-bodied streamers, and other wet flies. Increased success in deeper water; do not usually jump but give a good fight; need to be carefully played to avoid tearing delicate mouth. Check current regulations for restrictions.
Common Names: Billy gar, billfish, garfish, garpike.
Identification: Living relic of prehistoric past; family dates back 245 million years. Nothing in Virginia is even remotely similar to the gar. The long narrow beak-like jaw, laden with sharp teeth, is the unmistakable feature. Very long, cylindrical fish withdorsal and anal fins set well back on the body, and a large rounded tail fin; note the armament of very large, hard, sharp, bony scales. Brownish-olive on its back, fading to yellowish- or olive-green to white on its belly; 2 to 3 ft in length is not uncommon.
Best Fishing: Lakes: Western Branch, Prince, Chickahominy and Buggs Island. Rivers: Chickahominy, Pamunkey, James and Rappahannock.
Fishing Techniques: Large minnows are best on medium to heavy casting and spinning tackle. They are adept at stripping bait from hooks and difficult to hook in their bony jaw. Feed at night, especially moonlit nights.
Common Names: German carp, European carp, mud bass, buglemouth bass.
Identification: Largest member of the minnow family. Thick bodied, with a brassy sheen, humped back, very large scales, large lips, barbles extending from lips, and spines on the front of dorsal and anal fins. Commonly attain 15 to 20 lbs.
Best Fishing: Lakes: Western Branch, Claytor and Prince. Rivers: Rappahannock, Pamunkey, Chickahominy, Potomac, Shenandoah and James and Kerr Reservoir.
Fishing Techniques: Common carp have acute senses of hearing, smell and taste, and are very skittish in clear water. They will bite in hot summer when other fish are not very active, but are a challenge to catch on hook and line. Carp often go on feeding sprees after a rain. Sometimes it pays to chum an area with kernel corn, oatmeal, cooked vegetables or similar materials. Baits include bread dough balls, canned corn or peas, marshmallows, cheese mixed with cotton to keep it on the hook, and worms. Baits must lie on unobstructed bottom. Tackle is usually a spinning, spincasting or casting rod at least 6 feet long with plenty of backbone; reels should be fitted with at least 100 yds. of 12 to 30 lb. test line. Hooks from #2 down to #10 are favored, and a sliding sinker should be used because of the carp’s wariness.
Common Names: Grindle, grinnel.
Identification: Bowfin are living relics, with primitive roots back 70 million years ago. Has a long, soft-rayed dorsal which arches in a bow over most of the length of its body. Tail is rounded, with distinct black spot rimmed with orange on males; black spot on females faint or absent and no orange rim. Its back and sides are brownish-green or olive-green, with mottled sides fading to yellowish or white. During spawning, its underside turns a bright yellow-green. Has a cylindrical body and a wide flattened head, almost snake-like, with deep-set dark eyes. Snout is rounded with short nasal barbels. Mouth is large and has conical-shaped teeth. Note: While the bowfin shares similar coloration and body shape with the northern snakehead (recently introduced to the Potomac River), the anal fin of a bowfin is much shorter than that of the snakehead, and snakeheads will not have the spot found on bowfin.
Best Fishing: Lakes: Chickahominy, Little Creek and Diascund. Rivers: Chickahominy, Mattaponi, Pamunkey, Nottoway and Blackwater.
Fishing Techniques: They are strong, muscular fighters and strike at all manner of live bait and many artificials. Often fools an angler into thinking it’s whipped, and then suddenly explodes back to life. Minnows and a variety of jigs are best baits. Spinner baits and bass jigs work well for summertime bowfin; in winter, vertical jigging spoons and blade baits can be effective. Use a good stiff rod with at least 15-lb test line. Steel leaders may be necessary and don’t try to lip hold these fish! Food value is generally considered poor.
Common Names: Hickory, silver shad.
Identification: River herring family, averaging around 1 lb., with fish up to 2 lbs. common. Silver-sided with grayish-green back and a prominent dark spot, followed by a row of lighter spots (especially when fresh) on the upper part of the side just behind the gill cover; body long but compressed, asymmetrical top to bottom and in cross section it is wedge-shaped; the lower jaw protrudes significantly beyond the upper jaw when the mouth is closed. Each scale on the sides has a small dark spot.
Best Fishing: Rivers: Rappahannock (fall line area in Fredericksburg), James (Richmond fall line area), Appomattox, Chickahominy (below Walker’s Dam), Mattaponi, Pamunkey, and Nottoway.
Fishing Techniques: Mid-March into May with spring spawning run, arriving earlier than American shad. Light spin casting using very small, brightly colored shad darts, spoons, jigs, or minnow imitation lures. Fly fishing with darts, gold or white streamers, and other wet flies. Often taken near the surface, will “tail-walk” and sometimes jump. Check current regulations for restrictions.
Blueback Herring & Alewife
Common Name: River herring.
Identification: Blueback herring and alewife are almost identical looking; the best way to tell them apart is an internal difference, blueback have a black membrane that lines the abdominal cavity and alewife have a light colored one with few, scattered spots. Blueback are bluish along the back with a silvery head; alewife is grayish-blue above, with a bronze head. Maximum length is 12 to 15 inches and less than 1 lb.
Fishing: Because stocks are depressed there is no harvest permitted in the waters flowing into North Carolina (Meherrin, Nottoway, Blackwater, North Landing and Northwest rivers and their tributaries plus Back Bay). The Virginia Marine Resources Commission enacted a ban on the possession of river herring, effective January 1, 2012, due to the collapse of the stock over the past 40 years and in order to comply with an Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission fishery management plan directive.
Common Names: Drum, sheepshead.
Identification: Freshwater drum have a humped back, stout body and large scales. The fins and body are silvery brown. The trailing edge of the caudal fin is rounded or almost triangular.
Best Fishing: Rivers: Clinch and Powell. Lakes: Buggs Island.
Fishing Techniques: Most anglers use live bait (crayfish and small minnows), but drum will hit artificial lures that imitate their preferred prey. Light or medium tackle is best. Fish on the bottom in deeper pools in rivers or on drop-offs and points in Buggs Island Lake.