Dedicated to the Conservation of Southeastern Fishes
Rappahannock Bass Numbers Back On Rise
February 2, 2005
During the summer months we hear from many readers who are concerned about fishing for smallmouth bass in the upper Rappahannock River — anywhere upstream of Fredericksburg. Quite a few complained last year was less than memorable.
Here, then, is some good news. John Odenkirk, the ranking state fisheries biologist for Northern Virginia, says Rappahannock River smallmouth bass anglers will be thankful for the perfect environmental conditions of spring 2004 for years to come.
"A record smallmouth bass year class was produced," he said, pointing out that during various electrofishing samples of young-of-the-year smallmouth bass last autumn, the catch rate was an amazing 43 per hour — triple the normal take and the highest documented since record keeping began in 1995.
"These fish will show up most noticeably in creels beginning next spring ," Odenkirk said. "However, 2005 should bring marginally fewer quality fish than 2004, as trophies from the excellent 1997 year class continue to dwindle from the population. [But] if the persistence of the 1997 [year class fish] was any indicator, 2004 fish should be with us for years to come. Average spawns through the late 1990s and early 2000s resulted in modest numbers and size structure during the past few years, but the near spawning failure of 2003 will be fully felt this and next year."
Odenkirk also said forage (food) increases because of shad migration above Embrey Dam should result in increased growth and higher biomass at upstream sites.
For the tidal Rappahannock River's largemouth bass, 2004 research highlights include a mean electrofishing catch rate that increased 79 percent (7.8 to 14 bass an hour) since 2003. It is noteworthy that 51 percent of the entire 2004 catch was a year old or younger, which means excellent spawns apparently occurred in 2003 and 2004.
Odenkirk said an analysis of length frequency and age structure indicated recurring poor and even missing year classes before 2003. Five of the year classes between 1996 and 2002 were categorized as "failure" or "below average."
The poor year classes for largemouth bass appeared to be related to flow extremes (droughts or floods), of which several records were established during this period. The best spawns occurred when mean annual flows were moderate.
Bass growth rates lagged behind those from the James and Chickahominy rivers, following a pattern established with other species. But survival appeared relatively high (24 percent total annual mortality).
The Rappahannock's tidal water bass population is suffering (e.g., reduced abundance of quality fish) because of inadequate recruitment from 1996 to 2002, but recent spawns should quickly reinvigorate it, Odenkirk said.
"Reasons for slow growth are unclear, but overharvest does not seem to be occurring based on low mortality rate," he added.
Odenkirk also mentioned stocking of marked bass fingerlings should be considered if consecutive year class failures are documented in the future.
A shad fishing evening — At its Feb. 9 meeting, the National Capital Chapter of Trout Unlimited will do some heavy-duty shad talking. The meeting will feature two Potomac River legends, Joe Fletcher and Mike Alper. Fletcher, who recently retired as the co-proprietor of Fletcher's Boat House on the Potomac off Canal Road, is a well-known local shad expert. Alper is an all-species fishing veteran on this section of the river. The two have much to share concerning springtime Potomac River shad fishing.
Also on hand for the 8 p.m. meeting that day will be Mike Critzer and Tim Shaw who will provide directions and shad fishing updates for Maryland's Deer Creek and Virginia's Rappannock River. In addition, data from the Potomac River Commission will be presented with the latest on the white shad restoration and prospects for the coming season. The pre-meeting social hour begins at 7 p.m., and it will feature shad fly-tying and lure displays, as well as sales of Boyd Pfeiffer's 2002 book, "Shad Fishing: A Complete Guide to Species, Gear & Tactics."