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Piankatank, and bass, to the rescue

What we came for: Mike Seal took this big bowfin, our target species.
What we came for: Mike Seal took this big bowfin, our target species. (Bill May photo)

We made the classic mistake of trying to dictate what the fish would do based on our past success. So we received the classic rebuke of the fish doing things their way in the present. Fortunately for us, Virginia's Pianktank River has such plentiful and diverse fish populations it can accommodate anglers' blunders.

Since our fishing group first sampled the Piankatank in 2011 a September weekend trip has become an annual event. And no wonder. This 24.4-mile river east of Richmond originates in the blackwater tupelo and bald cyprus-lined swamp of Dragon Run and terminates in Chesapeake Bay. The diversity of waters leads to a diversity of fish populations. Bass, chain pickerel, bowfin, snakehead, several catfish and sunfish species predominate in the upper reaches; stripers, spotted trout, redfish, bluefish and flounder predominate at the mouth. Bass, bowfin, white and yellow perch and shad (in spring) are the most common species in the middle, brackish water sections.

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The cast was the same as last year: Mike Seal and Joe Bruce fishing with guide, Mike Starrett, Alan Feikin and me fishing with guide, Dave Snellings. We hoped to repeat last year's incredible fishing for 15 species. Our first day numbers included a half-dozen snakeheads up to 8 pounds, a couple of dozen bowfin between 2 and 4 pounds and a like number of bass between 2 and 5 ½ pounds.

Staying in the main river, Alan and I did even better the next day, taking bowfin on about every third cast for several hours plus three nice bass.

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Again we fished from 16-foot aluminum jon boats, using mostly medium and medium-heavy spinning tackle with braided lines.

But nature had other plans on this trip: a cold snap, high winds and low tides gave the bowfin and snakeheads lockjaw.

"You'd think species that existed millions of years would be more adaptable," Joe Bruce groused.

But his sarcasm was as effective as our lures. Surface lures, including frogs, proved largely ineffective. Flukes, spinnerbaits, plastic worms and fly rod streamers, fished by Alan, and produced perhaps a dozen 2 to 4-pound bass, one bowfin and numerous white perch amongst us, but we really had to work at it.

That evening Mike, Joe, Alan and I joined Mike Starrett in his 22-foot boat fishing for saltwater species downriver. Again it wasn't as good as last year, but we still had plenty of action fishing small jigheads and Berkley Gulp grubs. We took white perch, small redfish and spotted (speckled) trout and several stripers over 18 inches.

What we “settled for”: Joe Bruce displays one of our better bass.
What we “settled for”: Joe Bruce displays one of our better bass. (Bill May photo)

Weather continued the same through Sunday, but we were more focused and decided to keep count of fish taken. Like last year, Mike and Joe headed for the Dragon, still hoping for bowfin and snakeheads. Alan and I stayed in the main river, but Dave took us to a new section, a stone wall where the bottom quickly sloped down to eight feet, a deep channel for the Piankatank.

There wasn’t a neon sign flashing “spinnerbait,” but there might as well have been.

I took one of Dave’s rods rigged with a ¼-ounce spinnerbait, dropped it within a few inches of the wall, let it drop, kicked the blades into action and immediately hooked and boated a 3-pound bass. We had our pattern for the day.

Dave slowly took us along the wall with the electric motor and we peppered the rocks, cypress tree bases and knees and downed shoreline trees. Action wasn't fast, but it was steady. Casts had to be deep into cover or kissing off the rock wall or trees to produce action.

We made three passes down the wall, taking two or three bass each on every pass. I decided to try my homemade redfish spinnerbait that had done so well on the river last year. It isn’t subtle — a half-once unpainted lead body, heavy wire frame, hammered copper #6 Colorado blade and big plastic chartreuse skirt. It produced bass at the same rate, including my top, 4-pound bass, and a like-sized blue catfish.

We moved to work bushy points with gradually sloping bottoms off a channel. Casting was still critical here, but offshore stumps also held bass, so longer retrieves were called for. I kept alternating Dave's rod and lure with mine and finally took a bowfin of about 2 pounds.

Meanwhile, Alan, an excellent fly caster, broke out his 8-weight rod rigged with an intermediate line and home-tied streamer. He was accurate despite the wind, and it paid off, taking several good bass by shooting the streamer under shoreline shrubbery.

At the end of the short, get-away day, Alan and I boated 19 bass, two bowfin and one blue catfish on spinnerbaits and streamer flies and at least a dozen white perch that swarmed my Super Zara Spook, Jr. before I gave up on surface lures. I actually hooked two on one cast.

In the Dragon, Mike and Joe stuck with flukes and reported 22 bass, two snakeheads, a yellow perch, a blue catfish, seven pickerel and numerous white perch.

Even on slow days the Piankatank and the Dragon can provide good fishing.

There is a public ramp roughly in the middle of the south shore of the Piankatank. A freshwater license, available online from Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fishing, is required, and you can expect to be checked.

A jon boat is probably the best choice for fishing the upper river and you must pay attention to channel markers and low tides. GPS is helpful, especially in the meandering arms of The Dragon.

410-857-7896

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