An Angler’s Guide to the Fishing Scene at Philpott Lake
Tuesday June 12, 2018
Nestled in the rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains just 30 miles off the Blue Ridge Parkway, Philpott Lake is an idyllic place for fishing. The 3,000-acre lake offers anglers a consummate slice of serenity and a number of highly sought species of fish, from the deep-dwelling walleye to the largemouth bass lurking along the craggy shoreline.
“I’d say its biggest draw is the lack of development on the lake,” says George Palmer, a biologist at the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. “It’s a very pleasing place to fish. It’s almost completely surrounded by forest, and you get a sense of really being away from it all. It’s an escape from the crowds.”
Created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help reduce flooding and provide recreational opportunities in the region, Philpott Lake celebrates its 65th anniversary this year. While it harbors a number of enticing options for freshwater anglers, beefy largemouth bass are by far the most plentiful species in the lake. The bulk of largemouths weigh in at two to three pounds, according to Department of Game and Inland Fisheries surveys, but you’ll find some five pounders loitering beneath the surface, just waiting to be hooked.
“It’s a pretty stable population,” Palmer says. “You’ll regularly catch those in the 15- to 17-inch range.” Although outnumbered by largemouths, Philpott Lake also supports a sizeable population of scrappy smallmouth bass, most topping out at two to three pounds.
In addition to the bass, the lake is renowned as one of the premier walleye fisheries in Virginia, stocked with 144,000 fingerlings every year. During the spring spawn, which typically begins in March, walleye congregate in shallow spots near the lake’s headwaters and along slender arms like the Runnet Bag branch. “For walleye, it really is one of the best options in the state,” Palmer says.
Although not as abundant, anglers can hook sizeable black crappie, which can grow to be more than a foot long in Philpott Lake’s pristine waters. Both white catfish and channel catfish can also be hooked throughout the lake.
Largemouth bass are abundant throughout the lake, regularly congregating around fish concealing structures likes fallen tree limbs and rock ledges. Classic crankbaits, spinners, and surface lures are often successful, in addition to lifelike imitations, and live bait like nightcrawlers, bluegills, and minnows. Meanwhile, the lake’s less aggressive smallmouths gather in the clearest water, seeking shelter in riffles and rocky ledges along the lake’s main channel, especially toward the Philpott Dam. In the summer, the smallmouths seek out cooler water, and they can be found lurking deeper within the lake’s crystalline corners. Try catching them with live bait, especially crayfish, minnows, or madtoms.
The spring spawn—usually lasting from March until early April—is undoubtedly the most thrilling season for anglers interested in catching walleye, with most adult walleye in the lake average 17-21 inches, with some reaching 6 to 8 pounds.
“If you want to catch walleye, this is the time to come,” Palmer says.
The fish flock to the lake’s headwaters, gathering along the narrow Runnet Bag branch in the northwestern corner of the lake, and in the southern portion of the lake, between the Salthouse Branch Recreation Area and the Philpott Dam. After the spawn, walleye are still easy to hook through August, although the light-sensitive fish typically seek out shade and murky water, so try leafy locations like the Ryans Branch Recreation Area. Use shiny minnow plugs when fishing the lake’s shallow-water coves—and in a pinch, try live bait like nightcrawlers or minnows.
One of the best times to fish Philpott Lake is in the moonlight. Walleye head into shallower water to feed on sporadically spawning alewife after sunset through late spring, when temperatures are still cool. Try lures that mimic the movements of the alewife coveted by the grazing walleye, or use live bait like shad. In the moonlight, the largemouth and smallmouth bass also convene in the lake’s shallow-water coves. On serene, still-water evenings, try engaging largemouth and smallmouth bass with eye-catching surface lures, playing to the fish’s predatory instincts.
Of course, night time is also ideal for hooking Philpott Lake’s catfish. Both white catfish and scarcer channel catfish are active at night, and often peckish enough to be hooked with aromatic stink or dough baits, chicken livers, herring, and classic nightcrawlers.
From seasoned pros with countless tales of hooking lake monsters to tots casting a line for the first time, the array of angling experiences at Philpott Lake means there is a something for everyone. The easily accessible boat launches and family-friendly campgrounds edging the water also make Philpott Lake ideal for first-time anglers of all ages, especially kids. Plus, for kids who may lose interest in fishing for trophy bass, there are also plenty of hiking trails and swimming beaches at the nearly dozen parks and recreation areas surrounding Philpott Lake, including Salthouse Branch, Horseshoe Point, and Jamison Mill. Both Twin Ridge Recreation Area and Goose Point Park feature excellent piers, which are ADA-compliant if a family member needs special accommodations.
For those new to fishing, the Fishing Tackle Loaner Program provides 24-hour rentals of rods and tackle boxes free of charge, with equipment available from several of the recreation areas edging the lake, and at Fairy Stone State Park.
Get the lay of the land with the handy map of the Philpott Lake Blueway, a 25-mile water trail linking the lake’s nine boat launches, 10 recreation areas, and scenic wonders like Calico Rock and Bowens Creek Falls.
One of the highlights of fishing Philpott Lake is the vast array of waterside accommodations. There are nearly a dozen parks and recreation areas scattered along the shores of Philpott Lake, most offering both primitive campsites and sites with electrical and water hookups for recreational vehicles. Anglers can camp on the water—in the middle of the lake—on Deer Island, which is sprinkled with 21 primitive tent sites, accessible only by boat.
On the mainland, anglers can also snag lake-adjacent campsites at Horseshoe Point, Salthouse Branch, and Goose Point recreation areas, which also offer amenities like hot showers.
Adjacent to Philpott Lake, Fairy Stone State Park also offers overnight options like waterfront cabins, cozy yurts, and the five-bedroom Fairy Stone Lodge, perfect for epic angling trips with friends and family.
Fairy Stone State Park is known for its trout fishing, and it’s open to anyone with a valid Virginia Freshwater Fishing License (a trout stamp is not required). Parking fees are $5 daily, and annual passes are available at the park office. For more information, call the park office 276-930-2424.. Each year, an estimated 1,300 pounds of rainbow trout are added to Fairy Stone Lake.
The annual Children’s Fishing Clinic is held the first week in June at 967 Fairystone Lake Drive, Stuart, Va., at shelters 3 and 4 from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. Children from ages 4 to 12 are welcome to join in on the fun. The program is sponsored by Fairy Stone State Park and local fishermen. A hotdog/cookie lunch is provided. A safety program is provided, with special prizes to be won. For more information contact 276-930-2424.
Before hitting the lake, pick up fishing gear and bait at Dunham’s Sports in Martinsville and at the Philpott Marina, located at the southern end of the lake, near the Philpott Dam. Angling guides and rental kayaks and canoes can be arranged by Smith River Outfitters in Bassett. And if you’re looking to purchase a boat, Angler’s Choice in Martinsville offers plenty of options. If you are traveling from the Floyd direction, stop off at On the Water Outfitter’s for kayak, canoe or tube rentals.
No matter how you like to fish, you’ll find something to love at Philpott Lake.
Written by Malee Baker Oot for RootsRated Media in partnership with Martinsville County.