Lake Chickahominy’s crappie tend to average between 9 and 11 inches, with larger fish often found. It is more of a “fun fishery” than a “trophy fishery,” a trophy crappie in Virginia being any fish longer than 15 inches or weighing more than 2 pounds. (Photo: Ken Perrotte)
Crappie of the Chickahominy
Stories Flow in the Winds Moving Through the Cypresses Along the Chickahominy
by Ken Perrotte
In early afternoon a rising barometer and warming temperature inspired countless frogs nestled in cypress trees fronting Virginia’s Lake Chickahominy to break forth in loud, spirited song. Gently slipping along the ancient waterway, free from any human development for miles, it is easy to imagine the moment in 1607 when Capt. John Smith of Jamestown Colony fame encountered an Indian hunting party and was taken captive to Powhatan, the powerful chief of several area tribes.
The “Chick,” as many locals call it, is a storied, scenic piece of water. The blackwater feel is reminiscent of rivers such as the Nottoway and Meherrin, both of which flow from Virginia into coastal North Carolina.
Few people today have studied Lake Chickahominy as well as Capt. Art Conway, a guide who has fished there for nearly 45 years. A retired university biology professor, he began his River Rat Guide Service in 2003 and now averages three or four days a week on the lake over a 10-month period. Nearly 80 percent of his clients want panfish, especially crappie.
“It’s just a really cool ecosystem. The more time I spend here, the more I see and learn,” Conway said.
Gesturing toward a small island of cypress protecting a swampy pool in back of a creek, he mused, “Add some Spanish moss and a few alligators and a person might think he’s fishing in Louisiana.”
Conway also fishes the Chickahominy River, but said he prefers the lake because it has less boat traffic and isn’t tidal water. Tidal movement ends at Walkers Dam, a low-head structure built in 1943. The dam creates a 1,230-acre impoundment used as a water source for the nearby city of Newport News. A fish ladder constructed into the dam allows for the passage of anadromous fish such as blueback herring and striped bass.
A variety of panfish are possible when targeting Chickahominy crappie. White perch, yellow perch, redear sunfish and fliers, some better than one pound, all like crappie baits.
The lake also has an abundant supply of small bluegill, a favored treat of Chickahominy’s largemouth bass. Bass exceeding 10 pounds are regularly caught by anglers throwing big baits.
The amount of forage fish, coupled with the cypress trees, water lilies and submerged aquatic vegetation results in excellent habitat for predator species such as bass and pickerel. Biologists at Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries call the lake, “one of the best all round fisheries in Virginia.”
The state regularly surveys the lake’s fish populations. Black crappie populations are good, with a high percentage fish in the 9- to 12-inch range. Trophy citation size in Virginia is 15 inches or two pounds. Those fish are in the Chickahominy, but not in a disproportionate number.
Conway fishes out of an 18-foot Lowe Roughneck equipped with an 80-horsepower Mercury jet drive motor. The boat has a camouflage pattern, not because he hunts duck but because his wife thought it looked better.
Similar to the spawning and movement patterns in many other bodies of water, crappie tend to head toward the creeks as spring spawning begins. Most of the Chick’s creeks are on its northern shoreline, abutting a wildlife management area.
Conway said spring weather in recent years is confounding crappie anglers, messing with the usual patterns of fish reliably moving into creeks to spawn.
“Apparently, a lot of fish give up on the creeks and instead spawn on the cypress trees out on the lake. That is increasingly common in the last couple years,” he said.
Swimming a jig around a cypress tree has long been a reliable tactic in many southern lakes and Conway is finding it productive on Chickahominy. He will regularly check out cypresses near creeks as spawning nears, quietly edging in and then gently pitching a jig or other small bait around the tree’s base and “knees” looking for a strike.
Conway rigged two options on our pre-spawn trip. Water temperatures varied between 46 and 49 degrees at the surface. In a couple of creeks, the temperatures down at the trolling motor transducer registered as warm as 52, better but still a long way from that which drives the crappies to the creek for spawning.
One, a slow trolling rig, was what Conway called a “simple down-line.” Our 12-foot Shakespeare rods were paired with small baitcaster reels spooled with 10-pount high-vis monofilament line. A three-way swivel connects a sinker and an 18-inch, 8-pound leader.
“That way if I get hung up and have to break off, I just lose the hook,” Conway explained.
Conway favors small circle hooks, noting an angler needs to look at each circle hook brand to assess the gap between the barb and the shank, making sure it’s about twice the thickness of a crappie’s lip. We used number 6 hooks, baited with a live minnow.
“I like the circle hooks because you catch them in the mouth,” Conway said, pointing out that a pickerel that took the minnow bait was hooked perfectly in the corner of its mouth. “You don’t get cut off as much with the circle hooks, plus you don’t injure any crappie that you may want to release.”
Our other set-up was a small, medium-light spinning rig.
Conway said Chickahominy crappie seem to like an artificial bait in the 2-inch range, although sometimes they’ll hit bigger offerings, as well as small bladed offerings, such as Road Runners. Conway said Road Runners work particularly well post-spawn when he trolls faster than the 1-to-2 miles-per-hour speed he’ll typically use pre-spawn.
Conway keeps a variety of small soft plastics ready to slip on the light jig heads.
“Some days, the fish want a lot of vibration, others days, no vibration; that’s when we’ll use a straight-tail minnow bait,” Conway said.
He said a nice midrange, subtle vibration option is a Bobby Garland Baby Shad Swim’R. We used 2-inch pearl-colored Bass Pro Shops Speed Shads, which offered moderate vibration on our trip.
We were early in the season, but still managed to get a few nice fish to hit the bait, including a chunky 13-incher. That fish came in a little oxbow toward the lake’s western end. Fish were clustered in a cut in the river bottom that created a hole nearly five feet deep below the regular channel.
The betting was two sustained weeks of warming weather would trigger rock and roll time.
Capt. Conway said, “Post-spawn, the crappies in Chickahominy Lake gradually filter out of the spawning creeks through late April and May. As they move out, the channel border hydrilla flats and cypress trees near or at the mouths of the creeks are good areas to try. Live minnows or jigs under a bobber allow fishing slowly when the fish are tentative, and long-line trolling with jigs covers water quickly when the fish are more active.”
As summer months begin, Conway switches to casting jigs or jig and bobber rigs over hydrilla flats at first light. For the rest of the day, he focuses on channel edges, ideally those with brush piles or other wood cover. His basic down-line setup or simple bobber rigs are the preferred options.
Lake Chickahominy can see considerable crappie fishing pressure, especially when the jungle drums start banging out notices that “the bite is on,” during the spring spawning season.
At other times, it can almost seem like you have the lake to yourself, with the exception of a few bass fisherman. Unless you’re a diehard, “gotta load the boat with fish every time” angler, that is when the place is most magical. A quiet journey along the solitude of the scenic Chick, casually picking up a couple crappie here and there, can be soothing balm for the soul.
To reach Capt. Art Conway’s River Rat Guide Service, call 804-746-2475 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.