Longtime bass anglers Virginia's tidal Rappahannock recently asked Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources fisheries biologists to share what their electrofishing surveys are showing on the river. The received a presentation by agency fisheries biologists John Odenkirk and Margaret Whitmore in mid-December 2022.
For management purposes, the river is divided into sections. The lower tidal section begins at Port Royal and flows to the Chesapeake Bay. The upper tidal section begins in Port Royal and reaches the fall line in Fredericksburg. The lower tidal section, especially between Port Royal and Leedstown used to have excellent bass fishing. Fishing quality eroded along with the habitat. Anglers asked for and received multiple stocking of fingerling bass. Results were not impressive.
Bruce Lee, a Caroline County resident, asked for the presentation. Lee says he left with a sense that the tidal Rappahannock is “two very different rivers.”
Fisheries Biologist John Odenkirk provided me recent electrofishing “catch per unit of effort” numbers. Basically, that’s an average of how many fish you catch (classified as adult or juvenile) over an hour. Results for the river from Port Royal to Fredericksburg are “fantastic,” he says, “better than I’ve ever seen it.”
The CPUE for that section is about 60 big bass an hour and Odenkirk says the recent numbers are often showing better than many Potomac River tributaries. “And the Potomac has been good,” Odenkirk says.
“If the habitat is there, the fish should be too.”
Lee said the numbers reported below Port Royal pale in comparison – an average of about 21 big fish per hour over the last two years. Anglers have been fretting about Rappahannock bass populations, especially below Port Royal, for several years. Many anglers point the finger of blame at the devastating drought in 2002 when saltwater took over and decimated much of the traditional underwater habitat. Fish were stocked in the lower Rappahannock twice over the last decade. See previous article.
Now, some people (like me) might wonder if fish previously stocked downstream migrated toward Fredericksburg and better habitat. Odenkirk says that’s unlikely. The stocked fish had unique genetic markers, something better than micro tags, he explains. None of the fish tested had these markers. Neither did they catch any fish with physical tags.
A bass tagging project to assess movement and tributary populations began in 2
022. Electrofishing samples showed a strong year 2022 class of fingerling bass in the lower Rappahannock. Biologists will be tracking to see how these young fish fare.
For now, though, we may be smack in the middle of the good old days for largemouth bass fishing on the river just below Fredericksburg.
One thing is certain. Rivers are dynamic, living systems. A host of conditions contribute to some species thriving and other species struggling. We’ll try to keep up with this as new information develops.