This article provides an overview of freshwater fish species that are found in lakes, ponds, rivers, streams, and creeks of Hampton Roads – Tidewater Virginia.
Most freshwater and slightly brackish bodies of water in the Hampton Roads area contain members of the sunfish family (Centrarchidae).
This popular group of fish includes largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, black crappie, white crappie, bluegill, pumpkinseed, and other species.
The largemouth bass is one of the most familiar freshwater fish of Hampton Roads Virginia. This species is instantly recognizable by its enormous mouth, mottled green sides, and plump belly.
Largemouth bass live in shallow water habitats, among reeds, water lilies, and other vegetation, sharing habitats with species such as sunfish, yellow perch, and catfish. Largemouth bass eat minnows and practically any other available fish species including their own.
The smallmouth bass is shaped similar to largemouth but tend to be smaller and favor slightly different habitats. The smallmouth bass derives its name from the fact that the rear end of the lower jaw does not extend past the eye, while that of a largemouth does. The usual smallmouth seen by Virginia anglers is 8 to 15 inches long, and weighs less than three pounds.
The bluegill is the most common sunfish found in the Hampton Roads -Tidewater area. This colorful species is well adapted to living in ponds, lakes, streams, and even brackish water.
The bluegill can be identified by a black flexible tip on the gill cover. The gill cover is bright blue, giving the species its name. The back and sides are dark green or brownish which is contrasted by a yellow, red or orange breast. Males in the breeding season have a dark red to mahogany colored breast. A series of vertical bars usually appear along the flanks. Bluegills typically reach 7-9 inches in length.
The pumpkinseed is another sunfish that is found in freshwater lakes, ponds, and reservoirs of the area. The pumpkinseed is one of Virginia’s most colorful freshwater fish, with males during the breeding season being the most colorful of all.
Pumpkinseed have an orange or reddish breast and belly and its back and sides are brown to olive green, speckled with orange, yellow, blue, and green spots. The speckling of the flanks is interspersed with 7-8 dark vertical bands and narrow wavy stripes.
Pumpkinseed are found in several local reservoirs. They associate with cover such as aquatic vegetation or submerged brush and are seldom found in open water. Pumpkinseed sometimes show a preference for a home range. When fish are captured and moved to a different part of a pond or lake, a significant percentage of them will return to their original location.
Black crappie and white crappie are found throughout Virginia. The two fish are similar, with bodies having patterns of speckled black, silver, green and white. Crappie are typically pan sized, although they sometimes exceed 12 inches.
Both species of crappie are well adapted to living in ponds, lakes, streams and non-tidal reaches of rivers. Crappie are strong fighters, beautiful fish and delicious as table fare. Maribou jigs are an old school favorite lure for crappie. They also bite readily on live minnows and other small baits.
Yellow perch are a popular fresh and brackish water fish of the region. Yellow perch are members of the perch family, which have a dorsal fin that is divided into separate spiny and soft-rayed portions. They are easily recognized by their orange fins and a body marked with vertical bars of alternating brown and yellow.
Anglers target perch in the early spring when the fish school up before spawning. Yellow perch are caught all season, even in the winter. Anglers use bait including minnows, grass shrimp, nightcrawlers, or grubs or fish with a variety of small artificial jigs and lures.
The blue catfish is the largest of Virginia’s catfish. They grow faster and live longer than channel catfish. Blue catfish grow to over 55 inches long and can weigh over than 100 pounds, living 20-25 years.
Adult blue catfish have stout bodies with prominently humped back in front of the dorsal fin. They have deeply forked tails similar to channel catfish, but lack spots and have a large straight edged anal fin. The back and upper sides are blue to slate gray, and the lower sides and belly are white.
Blue catfish are primarily large-river fish, occurring in the James and Rappahannock river systems. When fishing for trophy catfish anglers use live baits including herring, perch, large shiners, or other bait fish.
The channel catfish is also found near Hampton Roads. Channel cats typically weigh 2-4 pounds but, occasionally reach weights of 40 pounds or more.
Channel catfish are easily distinguished from other species, except blue catfish, by their deeply forked tail fin. They are olive-brown to slate-blue on the back and sides, with silvery-white on the belly.
Channel cats can be caught using a variety of natural and prepared baits including crickets, nightcrawlers, minnows, shad, crawfish, frogs, sunfish, suckers, and “stinkbaits”.
Bullheads are smaller members of the catfish family. Several similar species occur along the Atlantic Seaboard, with the brown bullhead being the most common around Hampton Roads. Like other catfish, bullheads readily take live or cut baits, especially those that have a strong smell.
Longnose gar are found in several of the region’s brackish rivers and freshwater impoundments. Although difficult to hook, gar have a reputation for putting up a fight. In some areas, gar are taken by bowfishing or other alternative fishing techniques.
The bowfin is another unusual species that is sometimes encountered while fishing around Hampton Roads -Tidewater. Bowfins are top-level predators, eating practically anything they can catch.
A newcomer to the region is the northern snakehead. Similar in appearance to bowfins, snakeheads are an invasive species that has become established in several local waterways.
Snakeheads are brown in color with have a pattern of dark stripes and blotches. Their eyes are set forward and close together. They have a large mouth which is equipped with sharp teeth.
A few snakehead hot spots include the Rappahannock and York rivers above the fall line and several reservoirs along the middle James River.