Smith Mountain Lake Fishing: Complete Angler’s Guide

Sharing is caring!

Known as much for its arresting scenery as for its world-class fishing, Smith Mountain Lake is a vast, sprawling reservoir in south-central Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

Smith Mountain is a legendary striped bass fishery as well as one of Virginia’s best largemouth lakes. Or, if you’re coming for catfish, crappie, or other panfish, we have fishing tips for you, too.

At 20,600 acres, Smith Mountain Lake is the second-largest lake in Virginia and the largest to lie entirely within the state lines. The lake was created in 1963 with the construction of the Smith Mountain Dam on the Roanoke River.

The Roanoke River, along with the Blackwater River, form Smith Mountain Lake’s two major arms. But the reservoir also features innumerable creeks and coves, enough to keep any angler busy for a lifetime. 

Smith Mountain Lake has an average depth of about 55 feet, and the deepest part of the lake near the dam plummets to 250 feet. In addition to abundant deep, rocky structure, the lake also offers ample weed beds, brush piles and stands of timber. 

Fishing artificial cover like docks and boathouses can also be productive. Much of Smith Mountain Lake’s shoreline is highly developed, though there’s still plenty of public access through state and local parks. 

Smith Mountain Lake Bass Fishing

Smith Mountain Lake offers excellent bass fishing, though catching big bass here isn’t always easy.

The lake regularly hosts bass tournaments and has been ranked by Bassmaster as one of the best lakes in the country, but it doesn’t always give up its secrets willingly.

Largemouth bass and smallmouth bass are both available, though largemouths are far and away the more dominant black bass species.

Smallmouths are most common at the lower, rocky end of the lake, while largemouths are widespread throughout both river arms and most coves.

The population density of largemouth bass is highest in the Roanoke River Arm above Hale’s Ford Bridge and in the Blackwater River Arm above buoy B26. 

Even so, many bass anglers favor the lower end of the lake because its abundance of docks, riprap and other shoreline cover make it easier to fish. Ultimately, this lake supports a wide range of fishing methods. 

Bass fishing gets going in March each year as the water starts to warm into the 50s, encouraging bass to head toward shallow coves. The spawn generally takes place from April into May, with April’s full moon generally aligning with the first big wave of spawning bass. 

During the spawn, sight fishing for largemouths can be excellent using tube jigs and wacky worms. Look for bedding bass near fallen trees, stumps and other shallow cover. After spawning, most bass transition to deeper water from May into June. 

Outside of the spawning cycle, as a general rule, the best bass fishing will be found in 10 to 20 feet of water. But like most rules, this one should be taken with a grain of salt. 

Bluegill spawn just after largemouths on Smith Mountain Lake, and some of the biggest post-spawn bass are known to stay in shallow water and hunt bedding bluegills. Others will key in on spawning alewives.

The lake is known for excellent night fishing for bass in summer. Try a topwater at first light, and look for bass on main lake points just outside of the coves during summer days. Jigs and Carolina rigs often get the call this time of year.  

For smallmouths, rocky points, reefs and ledges are among the best fishing spots at Smith Mountain Lake. Soft jerkbaits and swimbaits are great bets for smallmouths when they key in on shad, but a jig or drop-shot also works well around rocky structure.

Some of the best smallie action often takes place in fall. 

There can be great action for both species in winter too. Shad often become stunned when water dips down into the 40s, and bass will gorge on the weakened baitfish.

Striper Fishing

The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources has been stocking striped bass in Smith Mountain Lake since 1963. The lake has developed into one of America’s great landlocked striper lakes, though trophy stripers are arguably not as common as they once were.

DWR surveys typically show great numbers of stripers measuring 18 to 28 inches. Fish in that range typically weigh 3 to 8 pounds, but Smith Mountain Lake also harbors bigger, older fish in the 25-pound class. 

Striped bass populations in Smith Mountain Lake are entirely dependent on stocking due to insufficient spawning habitat. But stripers still follow spring spawn patterns, heading up the lake and into the coves.

As a general rule, spring and fall are the best times to fish for stripers in relatively shallow water in the river arms and creeks. In summer and winter, your energy is better spent looking for them in the deep waters of the main lake.

Spring is many anglers’ favorite striper season as the fish disperse throughout the lake. Fishing around timber in some of the major creeks like Craddock or Strawberry Banks can be excellent, especially in and around the tops of submerged timber.

Gizzard shad are the number one forage for stripers in Smith Mountain Lake. During May, when gizzard shad spawn, stripers feed heavily on points, often chasing schools of shad into surprisingly shallow water. 

It’s common to spot the commotion of stripers blowing up on shad at the surface, and a Zoom Fluke or other shad imitation that can be fished high in the water column should be highly effective. The best fishing is typically during low-light hours. 

June is when stripers start to move back down the reservoir and into deep, cool waters. Look for stripers deeper down main lake points and humps. Stripers are highly mobile and are likely to be in completely different places from one day to the next.

Stripers become stressed in waters warmer than 70 degrees. During summer, the DWR encourages anglers not to catch and release stripers due to high mortality rates in warmer waters. In particular, they suggest summertime anglers not target larger fish, which are least likely to survive.

Winter is a bit of a wild card, as anglers may find striped bass in deep areas of the main lake as well as the river arms.

Try the Roanoke River Arm as far up as Hardy Bridge, focusing on timber in 40 to 60 feet of water.

Catfish Fishing

With so much attention turned toward Smith Mountain Lake’s black bass and stripers, catfish often go unnoticed. But this lake offers excellent catfish opportunities, and local anglers who fish for them often do so with little competition. 

Channel catfish, flathead catfish and white catfish are all available in Smith Mountain Lake, with channel cats being the most often-caught species. A seemingly endless supply of 2- to 5-pound channel cats is available, along with occasional fish over 10 pounds.

Flathead catfish are not quite as common, but they’re capable of topping 50 pounds. It’s rare to catch one that big in Smith Mountain Lake, but it’s not unusual to catch flatheads over 20 pounds. 

Both flathead and channel catfish are widely caught from April to November, though the summer months are considered best. Many local striper guides switch to catfish fishing during the hottest part of the year. 

The river arms consistently offer better catfish fishing than the main lake. The Roanoke River and Blackwater River arms of Smith Mountain Lake are both excellent, thanks to water that typically has a noticeable current and is more turbid.

In May, while the gizzard shad are spawning, look for catfish feeding on shad along points and in the creeks that feed the two river arms.

Catfish themselves spawn in early summer, and riprap areas and log jams are prime targets. 

It’s usually not too hard to catch cats from the bank during summer, with night fishing usually being the most productive.

Prime fishing spots include Hale’s Ford and Hardy Ford on the Roanoke River Arm and the Scruggs #8 Boat Ramp and Horseshoe Bend areas on the Blackwater River Arm. 

Chicken livers are good bait for smaller, eating-size channel cats. But anglers looking to connect with bigger catfish favor cut bait, often made from the lake’s resident gizzard shad.

Live shad and bluegill are also likely to tempt flatheads, which are more active hunters than channel cats.

Casting your bait from the bank and letting it soak can usually attract some catfish. But if you have a boat, drifting can help you cover more water and find more fish. Try to keep your bait close to the bottom and let it drift across points at 10 to 15 feet.

White catfish, smaller and less often targeted than flatheads or channel cats, are the only catfish species that are more abundant in the main lake.

Favoring clearer water and rockier habitat, white catfish weighing a pound or two often bite worms or chicken livers on the bottom.

Crappie Fishing

Smith Mountain Lake has a mixed reputation for crappie fishing. It has somewhat limited crappie habitat, resulting in a reduced crappie population compared to other large Virginia reservoirs like Kerr Lake. 

The other side of that coin is that Smith Mountain Lake produces big, healthy crappies. Fish over 9 inches make up a large share of the population, and it’s not unusual to walk away with a hefty stringer of fish measuring 12 inches and up. 

The key is finding them. Crappies in Smith Mountain Lake almost always relate to some sort of woody cover, and the best months for crappie fishing are March through May and October to November.

The best bets for crappies in Smith Mountain Lake are the river arms. While some of the creeks and coves farther down on the main lake do support crappies, there’s simply a greater abundance of suitable habitat and cover in the Roanoke and Blackwater arms.

The Roanoke River Arm generally has a reputation as being the better of the two. The Moorman’s Marina and Hardy Ford areas can be excellent. Creeks off the Roanoke River Arm, like Beaverdam Creek and Grimes Creek, are always worth checking out in spring and fall. 

That being said, there are also plenty of good areas on the Blackwater River Arm. Gills Creek is a very productive area just a short motor away from the Scruggs #8 launch.

Crappies start the year in deep timber and brush, often biting at depths ranging from 10 to 20 feet in February. A good string of warm days can push them shallow at any time, so be prepared to fish a wide range of depths in early spring. 

In March, look for brush and trees just off the secondary creek channels, which provide easy transitions from deep to shallow.

Vertical jigging is usually the most effective tactic, with high-visibility colors like white and chartreuse being best more often than not.

April is the month when anglers catch most crappies in very shallow water at the backs of creeks and coves, and the bite can be nonstop if you locate a good spot.

Docks are also important, and it’s a good idea to practice skipping your lure under docks to reach crappies that hide in their shade.

Other Fish Species

Smith Mountain Lake is a well-rounded fishing lake that offers a little something for everyone. Keep an eye out for these additional fish species that might show up at the end of your line.

Bluegill & Sunfish

Bluegill, redbreast sunfish and green sunfish are all available in Smith Mountain Lake. All three are abundant, though competition from other species generally prevents them from reaching impressive sizes. 

Still, sunfish provide endless enjoyment for kids on family fishing trips. Green sunfish, in particular, are numerous around riprap banks, where they readily gobble up red worms and bits of nightcrawler beneath a bobber. 

Bluegill are most common up in the Roanoke River arm and around docks and brush piles in various coves.

Late spring and early summer offer great opportunities to catch some of the lake’s larger bluegill, as they spawn on soft-bottomed flats in tremendous numbers.

Catch More Bluegill and Sunfish

Try these simple fishing techniques and tips to catch more bluegill and other sunfish.


Smith Mountain Lake supports populations of both yellow perch and white perch, the latter being more abundant. Both species offer good fishing opportunities using live minnows and small minnow-imitating jigs and spoons.

White perch—technically more closely related to striped bass than to “true” perch—typically roam Smith Mountain Lake’s open waters in large schools. Anglers most commonly find them in 15 to 30 feet of water near the channels at the lower end of the lake. 

The best way to catch white perch is to locate a school using your electronics and fish vertically with jigging spoons and minnows. Typical white perch measure 7 to 12 inches.

Yellow perch are often caught alongside crappie, especially in winter around submerged brush.

Deeper, rockier habitat is even better, and some large perch measuring 10 to 12 inches are available. Smaller yellow perch typically inhabit shallower water.

Catch More Perch

Read our complete guide to yellow perch fishing tactics, including best baits.


The Virginia DWR has stocked muskellunge in Smith Mountain Lake, though survival rates have turned out to be low and a substantial muskellunge fishery has yet to develop. Still, anglers catch the rare monster. 

Muskies up to 44 inches have been landed at Smith Mountain Lake and are most likely to be encountered around drop-offs and standing timber in deeper coves. Anglers targeting stripers or black bass are occasionally surprised by a big muskellunge.

Muskie stocking has been sporadic since 2008 and usually consists only of fish left over from stocking other lakes. Muskies are widely regarded as the “fish of 10,000 casts,” and catching a big one here is truly a fish of a lifetime. 

Planning Your Trip

Several communities offer shopping, dining and lodging options around Smith Mountain Lake. The official Visitors Guide, published by the Smith Mountain Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce, is a great resource for finding your way around, both on and off the water.

Smith Mountain Lake is a very popular recreation lake, especially in summer. During the busy season, anglers would be well advised to get an early start to avoid the crowds and head to the coves where boat traffic is less overwhelming. 

Getting to Smith Mountain Lake

Roanoke is the closest major city to Smith Mountain Lake, and the upper end of the Roanoke River Arm is less than 30 minutes from the heart of Downtown Roanoke. The lower end of the lake is about an hour away via State Routes 24 and 116.

Bank & Boat Access

Even though much of Smith Mountain Lake’s shoreline is privately owned, there is still a great variety of public access for both bank and boat anglers. These are some of the best places to get on the water:

  • Smith Mountain Lake State Park: The largest public access facility on the lake, Smith Mountain Lake State Park offers a fishing pier and bank fishing access, boat launch facilities, and a large campground for tents and RVs on the lake’s north shore. Launching is free for anyone staying overnight at the park.
  • Smith Mountain Lake Community Park: Located directly across the lake from the state park, Smith Mountain Lake Community Park is a free public park that offers ample bank fishing access with a fishing pier, kayak launch, picnic area and beach.
  • Anthony Ford #4 Boat Ramp: One of several Virginia DWR access sites around the lakeshore, the Anthony Ford #4 Boat Ramp is a single-lane launch site on the south side of the lake, with a courtesy dock and modest bank access and parking.
  • Penhook #9 Boat Ramp: Located on Bull Run Cove off the southwest side of Smith Mountain Lake, the DWR-owned Penhook #9 Boat Ramp offers a two-lane launch with a spacious parking lot and courtesy docks. A large fishing pier and ample stretch of riprap-lined bank also provide excellent shore fishing access.
  • Scruggs #8 Boat Ramp: Located on the Blackwater River Arm near the mouth of Gills Greek, the Scruggs #8 Boat Ramp is a popular launch site with a single-lane ramp and courtesy dock. There is also an excellent T-shaped fishing pier at this site.
  • Oak Grove Boat Ramp: The Oak Grove Boat Ramp is on the west side of the Roanoke River Arm, about half a mile south of Hale’s Ford Bridge. This single-lane launch also has courtesy docks, ample parking, and a fishing pier.
  • Hale’s Ford Boat Ramp: Located on a cove immediately below Hale’s Ford Bridge, the Hale’s Ford Boat Ramp offers a single-lane ramp with a courtesy dock. Bank fishing is limited here, and the parking lot fills up quickly. 
  • Hardy Ford Boat Ramp: With a two-lane ramp and ample parking, the Hardy Ford Boat Ramp is a popular launch site far up the Roanoke River Arm. Though there isn’t a fishing pier at this site, there is access to a long stretch of riprap bank, both at the launch and under the nearby Hardy Ford Bridge.

In addition to the public sites listed above, Smith Mountain Lake has numerous privately owned marinas that offer boat launch facilities, boat rentals, docking, fuel, bait and tackle.

The lake also offers a wide range of lodging for anglers, from campgrounds and RV parks to large-scale resorts and hotels.