Gerald Almy

Gerald Almy

Here’s a look at one of Virginia’s best fishing lakes, only a two-three-hour drive south on Interstate 81 for most Shenandoah Valley residents.

Trout were swirling on the surface chasing alewives as we cruised along the lower waters of Virginia’s Lake Moomaw. Suddenly a rod bowed deep. After a raucous battle, a 3-pound brown trout came thrashing aboard.

As my partner unhooked that fish, another rod began bouncing in its holder. I quickly snatched it and found out this fish was even larger. The brown trout peeled line from the reel several times before I could work the 22-incher into the boat, a plump 5-pounder.

We had been fishing for less than an hour and already had two hefty trout in the boat with a combined weight just shy of 8 pounds. That catch verified that this is by far the most outstanding lake in the Old Dominion, and perhaps the entire Mid-Atlantic region for catching exceptionally large trout. Besides trout, the lake also offers high-quality smallmouths, largemouth, crappie, and bluegill fishing as a bonus.

Situated in the west-central part of the state, Moomaw Lake reached full pool stage in 1981, covering 2,600 acres. Building the lake also improved the trout fishing in the Jackson River where it flows out of the dam by offering stable year-round feeding conditions. The lake was controversial when it was built because it flooded some prime public hunting land. But most sportsmen now embrace it for the quality fishing it offers.

Located in the mountains, Lake Moomaw is cold, clear and deep — perfect habitat for both rainbows and browns. The rainbows are of the Nebraska McConaughy strain, known for their hard-fighting ability. Moomaw regular Ira Ginger says “you don’t catch as many of them as you do browns. But when you hook one, you know it immediately because they rocket out of the water like a launched missile.”

Another Moomaw regular, Larry Andrews, says brown trout are their bread and butter catch, but the rainbows are an exciting bonus. Fishing starts heating up in spring and is consistent right through fall. Trout grow fast here, with a 2-year-old fish weighing 3 pounds.

Anglers like Andrews use a variety of lures to sample what the trout want on any given day. They employ flat lines, downriggers, planning devices such as the Pink Lady, and lead-core lines to cover as many presentation angles as possible on a given day.

Top lures include spoons such as the Renosky, Hus, and Luhr-Jensen Alpena Diamond. Thin-minnow plugs like the Rapala and Cordell Redfin also score. The real key to success most of the year is getting these lures down into the thermocline. “That’s usually at around 40-45 feet,” says Andrews. “The temperature there is about 55 degrees.”

If you head for Moomaw, the lower part of the lake is the most productive for trolling. This is where regulars cruise in lazy-S and wide circular patterns until the draw strikes, also searching for fish on their depth finders. Andrews likes light 4-6 pound line because the fish can be quite skittish.

Moomaw’s trout can also be caught in other ways, such as live bait fishing at night. Anglers drift over fish located on the depth finder and use lanterns hung over the side of the boat to draw in baitfish.

Another approach for Moomaw’s trout is to sight cast with flies for fish you spot near the surface or just ahead of rises they make sipping in insects or small baitfish. I’ve used this tactic many times on Moomaw and it’s very rewarding. You basically watch for a dimple or slurp of a fish on top and try to see which direction it’s heading.

Once you determine that, you can cast a small streamer or a dry fly such as an Elk Hair Caddis, Stimulator or Royal Coachman ahead of the cruising trout. Strip the streamer back in short spurts. Twitch the dry flies gently to make sure the trout sees them.

If you don’t fly fish, very small thin-minnow plugs cast ahead of the fish and inched back slowly can also produce jarring strikes from Moomaw’s fat browns and sassy rainbows. This fishing is particularly good in the fall and can hold up right into November or December in mild years. Once again, a light 4-6 pound test line is best for the wary trout.

Details on fishing conditions and guided trips can be obtained from The Bait Place on Route 666, 540-965-0633. For boating and camping information, contact the Bolar Mountain Area at 540-279-4144, or the Morris Hill Area at 877-444-6777. Motel accommodations are available in nearby Covington.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident