I was expecting the sharp tap of a striper or the hard, stabbing strike of a smallmouth, but this bite felt different. The white jig I was inching back across the point simply stopped dead and a dull, throbbing weight telegraphed up the line.
Minutes later, my partner stretched the net out and a glistening 4-pound walleye came aboard!
No, we weren’t in the Midwest or Canada, or a big river in the West. Instead, we were in the geographic center of Virginia on sprawling Smith Mountain Lake.
Bring up the subject of walleye fishing and many anglers picture trips to the Midwest, Canada, Western waters, or fishing the Great Lakes. But the fact is Virginia has a thriving population of walleyes that is largely ignored by most of the state’s anglers who typically concentrate on bass, trout, crappies, and catfish.
How good is the walleye fishing in the Old Dominion? Well, the “historical” state record weighed 22 pounds! This fish was documented as authentic, but caught before new rules went into place that required a biologist to verify the catch. That’s just 3 ounces shy of the world record, which was caught in Arkansas in 1982, a 22-pound, 11-ounce fish.
Record Walleyes in New River
Even the newer “biologist verified” state record is no slouch, either, at just 1-ounce shy of 16 pounds. That fish, like the two previous records before it, and the “historical” record, were all caught in the New River.
That flowage is one of the few waters in Virginia that has a native walleye population. Most of the other walleye waters in the state have been established by stocking. Lots of rivers and lakes have seen walleye introductions, but Virginia has lately been scaling that back to focus on the very best waters to continue the program.
Biologists don’t require that walleyes reproduce in a particular body of water, just that they thrive and at least some anglers target them and have success catching them.
Thanks to these stocking efforts walleyes are now found in lakes and rivers throughout the state, from the tidal southeast to the mountainous northwest, even the suburbs of Washington, D.C.
Top walleye lakes in Virginia include: Leesville, Buggs Island, Smith Mountain, Claytor, Whitehurst, Smith, Philpott, South Holston, Gaston, Anna, Abel, Curtis, Beaver Creek, Chesdin, Cohoon, Lunga, Occoquan, Briery Creek, Manassas, Orange, Western Branch. and Trashmore.
Top rivers include the New, Roanoke, Staunton, Clinch, Mattaponi, Appomattox, and James rivers, as well as Swift Creek.
Making this angling especially alluring is the fact that some of the best walleye action of the year takes place in fall and winter. In fact, December and January are two of the top months for the New River. That’s when several of the recent state records were caught there.
Walleye start to swim up tributaries at this time and concentrate in headwaters of lakes, making them easier to locate.
Some of the rivers have dams on them, and those are especially good spots to find the fish stacked up with their migrations blocked. Good spots include the dams on the Roanoke and Staunton rivers, and the headwaters of Lake Gaston below Kerr Dam.
Spring and summer can also be very productive for Old Dominion walleyes. Once the fish migrate down into the lakes after the spawn, try for them early and late, as well as on low-light, overcast days. Concentrate on drop-offs, deep points and offshore structure. Night fishing can also be productive.
Lures and bait will both catch these tasty marble-eyed members of the perch family.
Minnows, leeches and worms are the top live bait offerings. Fish them with a size 2- to 6 short-shank bait hook and a few split-shots pinched 12- to 18 inches up the line. You can also use special walleye rigs if you prefer. Try casting and retrieving or slowly drifting over fish you’ve located on the depth finder or in deep holes and back eddies on rivers.
For lure fishing, thin-minnow plugs, crank baits and jigs are the top offerings for Virginia walleyes. Jigs can be fished either plain or adorned with a minnow or plastic tail. Best weights are 1/8- to 3/8-ounces, depending on the depth of water and speed of current if you’re fishing a river. Cast to islands, undercut banks, deep pools, rocks, bridge pilings, and eddies below riffles.
Tailwaters below dams are also hotspots. Let the jig drift down with the flow, then inch it back as slowly as you can. Twitch the lure if you like, but a slow steady retrieve is usually best. Expect a sudden dead weight on the line as your first tipoff that you’ve hooked into a jumbo walleye.
If jigs don’t produce, turn to thin minnow plugs if the light is low or the fish are shallow. Crank baits get the nod if the water is deeper or the sun is bright. Cast out and reel these back just like the jig—slow and steady. Besides the spots mentioned earlier in rivers, also cast to humps, points, reefs, and weed beds in lakes.
If you don’t know the exact location of the walleyes, trolling is a good way to search for them. Try jigs and crank baits for this tactic. Using “side planer boards” helps take the lures away from the noise of the boat, and downriggers also work well. Once you locate a fish, re-troll through that area or anchor and cast to it with jigs or live bait.
After you catch a few walleyes, fillet the fish and fry them up golden brown in lemon, garlic, and butter. Once you fork into a flaky walleye fillet, you’ll realize why this neglected gamefish is gradually gaining more and more converts among Virginia anglers.
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