May: Rainy, flooded Piankatank still produces

May: Rainy, flooded Piankatank still produces
This 9-pound blue catfish, a runt for the species, took a super fluke and fought stubbornly on medium spin tackle. (Bill May photo)

“Bring rain gear,” Joe Bruce advised.

Like he had to tell us. This email conveyed the third set of changes in the itinerary for our seventh annual weekend trip to the Piankatank River in Virginia. By the time of this message we had changed cars, drivers, dinner plans, departure times and plans for fishing afterward.


And all for one reason — weather.

It’s been the story of the summer. If temperatures aren’t in the mid-90’s, then there are predicted thunderstorms. Some days you can get both. These are terrible conditions for most fishermen but especially for reservoir and kayak fishermen, because of the exertion required on the water and the inability to escape from bad weather conditions quickly.

But for some adventurous — or foolhardy but lucky — fishermen it’s actually been a good year. The trick has been to find windows of opportunity, fishing before the peak heat of the day and around storms.

A key enabler has been carrying on the water a smart phone loaded with detailed, timely and very localized weather apps that show the paths of storms and warn of impending dangerous conditions. Even with all preparations, precautions and experience some friends of mine have been caught this summer in predicted showers that turned into downpours and reached the edge of heat exhaustion when hit with multipliers of heat, humidity, no winds.

So we knew we would encounter pre-Florence “weather” all weekend for our trip, but …

We had set up this trip a year in advance.

We had trusted and reliable guides with boats that could take us quickly the short distances back to camp when things blew up.

We had a very comfortable camp that always provided plenty of food (and drink, if desired).

Most of us were so fed up with not fishing, we would go out in almost any conditions.

Hey, this was the Piankatank, and we had memories of great fishing in prior trips.

The top of the Piankatank is a primordial cypress swamp known as “The Dragon.” As the river widens and meanders 24.4 miles to Chesapeake Bay it features shoreline marshes and intermittent cypress on both banks gradually changing to higher banks and shoreline properties. Largemouth bass, bowfin, snakeheads, bluegill/sunfish, crappie, channel catfish and pickerel are the dominant species in the upper section mixing with white perch, yellow perch, blue catfish, stripers and redfish further down then adding bluefish, flounder and spot among other species in the lower, saltier areas.

We’ve taken as many as a dozen of these species in one day in some prior trips.

Joe Bruce took this 4½-pound largemouth bass on a 3 ½-inch swimming fluke.
Joe Bruce took this 4½-pound largemouth bass on a 3 ½-inch swimming fluke. (Bill May photo)

The Piankatank is one of those “you can always catch something” places, sometimes, as in 2016 and 2017, a lot of fish and good quality, too.

Our crew included Joe Bruce and his cousin Chuck Thompson, a first timer for this trip, fishing with guide Mike Starrett and Alan Feikin and me fishing with guide Dave Snellings. We left a few hours early on our 4-hour drive Friday afternoon successfully avoiding the evening rains and arrived at the Starrett family compound in time for the first of the delicious meals prepared by Mike Starrett and his daughter, Heather.


After dinner, we prepared tackle and plotted strategy to deal with the forecast intermittent storms and unusually high tides, checking smart phone updates every half-hour or so.

The next morning we set out upriver with rain gear stowed in near identical 16-foot center console jon boats powered by 60-horsepower outboards. Fishing was tough, but we did get some quality. Alan caught an 8 ½-pound bowfin, and I caught a 9-pound blue catfish and 3 ½-pound largemouth. Joe took a bass of about 4 ½-pounds and Chuck achieved his goal of catching a bowfin with an average size 5-pounder.

The most consistent lures were 4-inch white super flukes and 3 1/2-inch swimming flukes. We caught a number of smaller bass on small flukes and Senko types pitched up against Cypress knobs and trunks. We could have filled both boats with eating-size white perch, which hit anything small.

Spinnerbaits, which produced banner catches of bowfin, bass and stripers in past years, caught nothing. Most fish were buried back in the flooded marshes and could only be tempted by slowly retrieved plastics, although one channel edge yielded a half-dozen midsize bowfin.

We fished late, enduring afternoon showers. With more rain we skipped our usual post-dinner expedition down river in Mike’s 22-foot center console for saltwater species.

Sunday morning began with dark gray skies that eventually turned to black and ended in an early afternoon downpour. “It can’t rain any harder, can it?” Alan asked. I swear the weather responded to the challenge. The predicted ultra high tides developed.

Piers that were 5 feet above the water on Saturday were now several feet under water.

But until the rains it was a day of interesting futility. Mike’s boat discovered a patch of flooded marsh grass with fish working occasionally. We kept count: 20 “blowups” (more like pecks and slaps) resulted in two bass and one bowfin boated. Fish ignored flukes and just nipped at the frog lure legs.

I wondered if the three hooked fish were nearsighted.

So one could definitely say it was the worst of our seven trips. But there was no whining from this group of veteran fishermen. “We got to go fishing, and we caught fish” was a common summary. Joe immediately booked a trip for the same weekend in 2019.

We drove back in light traffic with little rain. Considering the weather we did O.K.

“We were lucky,” Joe Bruce summarized.