Temperatures have dropped and icy weather has arrived, but grab your rod and tackle box because winter is a great time to go fishing in the Dan River Basin.
You can find fishable streams, rivers, and lakes all throughout the Dan River region. And the action on the water never stops, even during the winter. In fact, the chilly last and first months of the year present a great opportunity to explore the region’s waterways without the crowds of the warm season.
It doesn’t hurt that North Carolina and Virginia both stock trout throughout much of the year, including through the winter.
If you decide to go fishing, your first step should be to check the websites of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission for information on obtaining a fishing license, regulations, creel information, stocking times and locations, and special restrictions that apply in certain places.
Both agencies stock brown and rainbow trout on mountain streams in the western part of the Dan River Basin.
Virginia in particular offers a number of stocking sites in Franklin, Henry, and Patrick counties.
North Carolina also offers details on its stocking plan, as well as an interactive map that shows river access throughout the state.
We talked to Brian Williams of Smith River Outfitters for more tips about fishing in the winter. Here’s his breakdown of the Dan and the Smith rivers, both of which provide great fishing opportunities.
The Smith River
Types of access: canoe, kayak, raft, drift boats, wading
Types of equipment: waders, fly fishing, spin fishing.
The Smith River is a tail-race stream below Philpott lake and flow levels will vary with power and flood control demands from the USACE Philpott Lake project. Flows will determine if the river is suitable for wading or should be fished from a boat.
Fishing below Philpott Dam
When Philpott Dam is generating power or utilizing the flood gates, wading access is limited. Plan your trips there based on the generation schedule, which can be determined a week in advance by calling (276) 629-2432
You can determine actual flows and temps by checking the USGS gauges on its website or mobile app. If the river is 300 cubic feet per second (cfs) or higher at Philpott or Bassett, then wading is not possible anywhere downstream, and the river must be accessed via boat to fish. It’s always a good idea to call ahead and check the schedule. During wet periods, expect more generation and sluice gate operation with increased flows and longer duration’s. Average operation during generation will create 650-700 cfs flow.
The Smith’s trout waters
The primary trout waters on the Smith river are 30 miles of water from below Philpott dam to south of Martinsville dam. The water temps remain more stable than a freestone river, especially during the winter. as the flow comes from the depths of the lake at an average temp of 45 degrees. In the summer time the river heats up faster but in the winter months the temps remain stable further downstream. With prolonged cold temps, the Smith can drop down below 35 and it has been know to partially freeze during extreme cold snap, but for most of the winter, water temps remain around 40-45 degrees. Wild brown continue to actively feed, with rainbows and brook trout stocked from October through the end of April.
What to use
If fly-fishing on the upper Smith from Philpott dam to Fieldale you can expect to turn some heads with black, brown or green “wooly buggers” with a little flash, and other streamers in the size 6-10 range. On warmer days, a caddis dry with a bead-head dropper is a great combination. When all else fails, go for something with rubber legs like a girdle bug, or Pat’s stone fly. Downstream of Martinsville dam you can expect larger trout and you should be tying on bigger sculpin and crayfish patterns. It’s not unusual to get warm spells that produce some hatches of BWO’s or caddis and fishermen can see some top water action, but its mostly streamer season from November through March.
For spin fishing, any type of small spoon or spinner works year round from wild browns and the stocked Rainbows and Brookies will take just about any food item thrown at them including various powerbaits concoctions, corn and live bait such as worms.
Please practice gentle catch and release methods on Brown trout that are within the slot limit restriction. You may not take browns ranging between 10 inches to 24 inches from Philpott to the bridge on Mitchell Road.
The Dan River
Types of access: canoe kayak, wading
Types of equipment: waders, flyfishing spin fishing.
The Dan River in Kibler Valley down through Stokes County North Carolina is stocked with trout from October through May. Winter time water temps can vary from below 32 during cold snaps and up to 45-50 degrees.
If you want to catch wild trout on the Dan River, you can do that year round above the powerhouse at Kibler Valley. For anything below that, you’ll most likely target stocked browns and rainbows.
What to use
For fly fishermen, these fish will take a variety of streamers and flies year round and spin fishermen will find spoons, spinner baits, worms, corn and PowerBait effective. Check locations on the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission web sites for stocking times and locations along with license fees and creel information.
But wait … there’s more!
Lake fishing in the Dan River Region
The Dan River Basin’s lakes offer a different fishing experience than its rivers, with a different environment and often different species at play.
Smith Mountain Lake
Franklin County’s Smith Mountain Lake is a destination for anglers from around the world and has hosted major tournaments. Smith Mountain Lake is known mostly for its bass fishing, with striped bass, largemouth bass, and smallmouth bass all present in the lake. Sunfish and catfish also are popular game species.
Be aware of a slot limit for striped bass from November through May to maintain the trophy aspect of this fishery. This limit requires all striped bass caught between 30-40 inches to be released. Contact the VDGIF regional office in Forest, Virginia, for more details on how to practice effective catch-and-release for striped bass.
For more about how and where to fish Smith Mountain Lake, check out the Virginia DGIF’s webpage.
Buggs Island Lake (Kerr Reservoir)
Buggs Island Lake has one of the best largemouth bass fisheries in the country. You can catch striped bass there, as well as catfish, white bass, and white perch. Buggs Island Lake is also one of Virginia’s best places to catch crappie. Fishing for crappie is typically best from February through April (pre-spawn and spawn); however, many anglers enjoy high catch rates year-round.
For more details and information, check the DGIF’s page.
Tucked away in the mountains and touching Franklin, Henry, and Patrick counties, Philpott Lake is a hidden jewel. Black bass (largemouth and smallmouth bass) are the most popular species for anglers but the lake is also one of Virginia’s premier walleye destinations. Both of these species provide excellent fishing opportunities.
For more, check the DGIF’s Philpott page.