About Lake Anna 

Dynamics Of Lake Anna

In 1971 the Virginia Electric and Power Company (now known as Virginia Power) closed the dam gates on the North Anna River and initiated their plan to create a new lake in central Virgina - Lake Anna.

Designed to provide condenser cooling water for their North Anna Nuclear Power Station, the 9,600-acre lake filled quickly and equally as quickly became a favorite with area anglers.

Everyone was traveling to Lake Anna in the years that followed and returning with tales of 50 bass days. In the early eighties it seemed like each weekend there was a new lake record.

Anyone with land on the lake could expect a knock a the door early in the morning from an angler eager to try his luck.

What made these early days on Anna special was what makes the first few years phenomenal on any new impoundment. Acres upon acres of newly flooded, fertile lake bottom, plenty of stumps and even some brush.

Now that things have steadied somewhat and Lake Anna is becomming more of a mature lake, many anglers have realized it takes a bit more to catch fish on Anna than it did 10 or 15 years ago.

A look at some of the dynamics and history of the lake might help even the veteran Anna angler better understand why the fish do what they do.

Here is some pre-flooding history that might be helpful when trying to understand what an ambitious and challenging project Virginia Power undertook.

From the beginning Lake Anna was designed for use as a multi-purpose facility. While Virginia Power engineers knew the lake would accomodate both the power station and recreational users. probably few could envision how popular the lake would become.

When Hurricane Agnes blew through central Virginia in the summer of '72 and dumped 14-inches of rain, Lake Anna was formed; two years ahead of schedule. Planners had predicted it would take some three years to fill the new lake.

When flooded, the North Anna river valley created a lake well-suited to the many faceted needs and wants of the recreational visitor. It was almost an instant bass fishing hit. If you built it they will come, right? More on that later, though.

Before the lake was impounded there was a North Anna River. A smallish river by most standards, really not much more than an ovesized creek, that flowed quietly through Orange, Spotslyvania and Louisa Counties. The North Anna, a primary tributary of the York River system, begins in the upper Piedmont area of Virginia in Albemarle and Orange Counties and flows southeast for about 60 twisty miles until joining with its sister river, the South Anna.

Here the two join to form the Pamunkey River which joins several other tributaries before emptying into the York River and eventually into the Chesapeake Bay.

Much can be said about life along the North Anna before Lake Anna was created. The surrounding area was as rich as the newly flooded lake bottom with rural heritage.

From the mines of Contrary Creek to the moonshine stills in the gently rolling hills and hollows, quite a bit of local history went under with the closing of the gates at the dam in 1971.

One bit of history that significantly impacted the river, yet was tempered by the lake was the acid mine drainage from Contrary Creek, a major North Anna tributary. Not actually in the lake, but about three to four miles up Contrary Creek, extensive iron pyrite mining operations before and after the Civil War up to 1920 had seriously polluted this section of the river.

Where up river from Contrary Creek wildlife and river structure was normal for a Piedmont Virginia headwater, down river from Contrary the North Anna was a mess.

Records reveal that the North Anna was said to have had barren appearance with an orange bacterial fuzz or floc common in the pools and still water. This was quite a contrast to the water above the Contrary Creek junction.

With the creation of Lake Anna, this acid-tainted landscape was flooded under many feet of water in most places. This did dilute much of the concentrated runoff and today the effects of the old mine are only visible in parts of Contrary Creek but nowhere near as bad as pre-impoundment days.

Yes, there are still periodic fish kills in upper section of Contrary Creek. However, steps taken to buffer the upstream areas have partially succeeded in eliminating much of the poisonous acid seepage. Submerged and emergent aquatic vegetation like lily pads and eel grass thrived in Contrary Creek (not so well these days, though), a good sign that things are at least liveable for much of the surrounding wildlife.

A short upstream hike from the Route 522 bridge crossing Contrary Creek will help anyone understand what the North Anna used to be like. Here the mine and its pollution is still visible and the creek remains barren.

The Hot Side

Adjacent to Lake Anna, but not open to the public is what Virginia Power dubbed the Waste Heat Treatment Facility (W.H.T.F.). This series of three connected mini-lakes or lagoons totals 3,400 acres and makes up the total 13,400 acres you hear when promoters describe the lake. This is somewhat misleading because access to the W.H.T.F. is limited to landowners and their guests.

The purpose of the W.H.T.F. is to receive the nuclear plant's cooling water and dissipate the heat it has acquired on its trip through the plant, into the atmostphere. This usually happens fairly well before the water mixes back into the lower end of the main lake at the only place where the "hot" side combines with the "cold".

Three earth and rock dikes separate the main lake from the W.H.T.F. Dike One creates Cooling Lagoon One. Dike Two corresponds to Pond Two. Dike Three, while like the others separates its pond from the main lake, also has a breech in it where the cooling water mixes back into the main lake.

The W.H.T.F. is an extremely unusual system, with warm, moving water flowing throughout much of its boundaries. This can give rise to some interesting fishing and boating opportunities. It has long been a secret year-round fishing hole among local landowners. Unfortunately, those water skiers lucky enough to gain access have also claimed sections of the "hot" side as their territory.

Currently there are two nuclear reactors operating at the plant. Original plans calling for the construction of two more reactors were scrapped after the initial four-unit power station/lake simulations promised to exceed new water quality standards that established water temperature limits.

While the plant's NRC license expired 2002, Virginia Power was re-licensed for another 20 years. Anglers can expect to be fishing a nuclear-influenced Lake Anna for quite some time, however, we can only hope there is never an accident involving the highly radioactive spent fuel.

While initial studies conducted in the 1960's predicted that four reactors could be operated within established temperature limits, later, more strict standards that limited W.H.T.F. discharges into the main lake to a maximum of 32ø Celcius (89ø Farenheit) or no more than 3ø Celcius (7ø Farenheit) above the normal water temperature, scrubbed the additional reactors.

Additionally, newer computer modeling programs seemed to indicate the W.H.T.F. would need to be closely monitored as again initial heat transfer capacities might have been overestimated.

Well, here we are in 2001 and despite violations of maximum temperature standards, the introduction of the exotic aquatic vegetation hydrilla, the subsequent elimination of the hydrilla by grass carp and other common lake snafus, the W.H.T.F. and main lake have not yet turned into soupy, green, mosquitoe-filled pools of algae!

All those engineers and biologists with Virginia Power must have done something right. My hat and many others are off to them - most of the time.

Hydrology Of Lake Anna

Hyrdology is just a fancy word scientists use to describe a lake's water characteristics. Due to the presence of the nuclear plant on Anna, the lake's hydrology is considered by scientists to be unusual.

Now while the average angler might not see the importance hydrology plays in determining fish behavior, savvy anglers do. Pay close attention to this section if you want to know where the fish go during those hot summer months.

The hydrology of Lake Anna differs from other lakes and reserviors in the region obviously due to the nuclear reactors and their affect on the water. Here is the key to understanding this big difference.

The lower lake areas have what biologists call an induced circulation pattern. In layman's terms - the water actually flows upriver instead of downriver. Pretty neat, huh?

Cooling water from the W.H.T.F. enters and mixes with the main lake at Dike Three where it is drawn back uplake by powerful water pumps operating approximately five miles away at the power plant!

Biologists have found that this reverse circulation increases the upper layer of water in the lower lake (known as the epilimnetic layer) and consequently increases the amount of dissolved oxygen in the lower lake.

What the heck does all this mean? It means that due to the current from Dike Three to the plant, the upper layer of oxygen holding water spreads to lower or deeper depths than in other lakes and decreases the anaerobic or "dead" layer of water.

This directly translates into more area for fish to roam in the lower end of the lake. The upper, oxygen-rich layer of water in the lower lake has been found as deep as 36 feet - even in the summer time! This is why fish are often difficult to find in the down lake region, they simply have so much more space in which to spread out.

Did you learn something? I know this knowledge greatly aided my angling success rate when I figured out that uplake fish were more concentrated and thus usually easier to catch.

Lake Sections and Their Characteristics

When the dam gates closed in 1971 and the gently rolling river valley filled, a lake was created with an amazing 271.5 miles of shoreline, wandering16.7 miles back toward its headwaters, The main and public portion of Lake Anna covers 9,595 acres in Louisa, Spotsylvania and Orange Counties. Another 3,400 private acres were impounded behind the dikes.

Each portion of the lake differs in its characteristics and it is important to understand these differences before trying to figure out the fishery.

Upper Lake

The upper end of the lake is marked by narrow, river-like stretches beginning at the confluence of the Pamunkey Branch and the North Anna, better known as The Splits. This section continues up into the headwaters of the lake. Much of the upper lake is shallow with an average depth of only four feet.

Biologists have found this portion of Anna is only slightly stratified in the summer. In other words, the upper lake has some layering of water according to temperature.

During the summer the hottest water floats to the surface, the cooler water remains below. Usually inbetween lies a layer of oxygenated water the fish will frequent to escape the oxygen poor upper and lower layers.

This cool, oxygen-rich layer offers the most suitable habitat for fish during the hot summer months. It is here and in the upper layer for short amounts of time that fish feed.

The middle layer or metalimnion in the upper lake is usually a band of water about three to five feet thick anywhere from ten to twenty feet deep depending on the weather.

Mid-and Down-Lake

Midlake areas roughly stretch from The Splits area downlake to around the power plant. This area is less like a river than uplake and is marked by large open expanses of deep, clear water. The midlake stratifies even more in the summer with the comfort zone of the fish often below twenty feet deep.

The downlake area is the rest of Anna that spreads out around the Dikes Two and Three and the dam. This, often mile-wide portion of the lake has an average depth of 33 feet and stratifies distinctly in the summer but mixes in the winter.

Biologists studying this section of the lake found that the when the North Anna Nuclear Plant is operating, the upper layer of warm, water can stretch down to 30 feet in the summer. They also found that due to the mixing affect of the discharge located at Dike Three this upper layer has fairly uniform levels of oxygen. While there may be a middle layer, the fish can comfortably inhabit the huge upper section.

The discharge area at Dike Three combines W.H.T.F. waters with the main lake quickly due to the deeply submerged openings in the dike. Depending on the rate of the circulation pumps, the cycle of water in the W.H.T.F. is approximately 14 days. Virginia Power engineers did their homework, because more than half of the heat gained from the water's trip through the plant is dissapated by the time it mixes back into the main lake.

Back to the three sections of the lake, though.

Virginia Power biologists and engineers have extensively monitored water temperatures throughout the lake for years and some very interesting results have been gathered.

The remote temperature buoys Virginia Power used can still be seen scattered throughout the lake. Some are still in use. They are barrel-shaped with an orange diamond marking on the sides. From these buoys a transmitter gives engineers accurate and immediate temperature readings from all over the lake.

From all these readings engineers learned that the majority of the shallower, upper end of the lake and midlake area warm slightly earlier in the spring. Maximum temperature in both areas is reached early in the summer.

The deeper, downlake stretches warm slower, however, heat is retained much longer. The peak here is later in the summer. Virginia Power estimates that the power plant only adds an additional one-tenth of heat to the natural levels experienced throughout the year.

Temperatures can vary greatly throughout Lake Anna during the year. The upper lake areas usually are warmest and often reach the upper eighties during the summer. However, they also cool down more quickly in the fall. Water temperatures fall into the fifties by November. The lower lake is just the opposite, though, often remaining in the sixties until the end of November.

What about the "hot" side of the lake? How hot does it get in the summer time? Interestingly, there is little published data on water temperature in specific ponds. Remember, Virginia Power is mostly concerned with the temperature down at Dike Three where the water must be within several degrees of the main lake.

However, I have taken numerous readings over the years with some surprising results. The all-time record high water temperature I recorded was during the summer of 1994 at the mouth of Canal One feeding into Cooling Pond Two. I pulled in the thermometer and read an astonding 106ø F on the surface!

Seasonal Patterns

Largemouth Bass

"The most important thing to remember when planning a largemouth trip to Lake Anna is the water temperature," says MLAGS founder C.C. McCotter, "From spring to fall you can follow the fish by the rise and fall of the thermometer."

"Looking at my journals it is clear that perhaps the finest time of year to catch a trophy largemouth on Anna is the early spring. Begin calling the marinas for water temperature readings in early March," he says.

When the water hits 49-50 degrees, make your plans and hit the water. Under normal conditions, parts of the lake warm to 50 degrees or more by the second or third week in March. This is usually preceded by a warm front that brings in a couple of days of 75-80 degree weather.

This warm-up, the lengthening days and approaching full moon, all trigger the big bass' spawning instincts and they head for shallows in droves.

Areas to fish in the spring on Anna are those that offer both warm water and protection from rough water; i.e. - wind and runoff.

Mid-lake creeks, from The Splits down to and around the power plant are less effected by lake-muddying spring rains and winds. These creeks often concentrate big bass during late March and early April. Try Pigeon Run, Marshall, Mitchell, Dukes, Beaver Pond and Sturgeon.

The best lures for these bass are shad imitators, as the big shad will also be drawn to the warmer water. McCotter recommends 1/4 - 3/8-ounce Dave Tournament Tackle Lake Anna Special spinnerbaits, suspending jerkbaits and four-inch swim baits rigged on 3/8-ounce jig heads. Dock fishing with jigs and small worms/tubes can also be productive during this prespawn period.

If a passing cold front knocks the fish out of the shallows, try a Carolina-rigged lizard. Use a 1/2-1/4 ounce egg sinker, a four-foot leader and a five-inch salt and pepper Berkley Powerlizard. The long leader allows the bait to float above the numerous stumps that dot the lake bottom. Back off to the nearest channel and/or point.

Grubs will also produce fish in the spring on Anna. Three and four-inch, salt and pepper Berkley Power grubs, rigged on 1/8 and 1/4-ounce ball-head jigs will catch plenty of fish but they tend to be smaller. Grubs work well on points in the early spring.

Once the water warms further, up into the upper fifties and low sixties, bass will begin spawning and fishing tactics change.

Everyone thrills at the sight of a big sow bass on a bed, but McCotter does not fish for bass with eggs on the bed and urges anyone who does to practice immediate catch and release - no bumpy rides in the livewell to the marina!

Largemouths in the down lake region (from power plant to the dam) spawn on stumps and docks. Bass in the mid-lake region spawn on stumps and docks, too, but they also like gravel patches in grass. However, bucketmouths in the upper stretches of Anna spawn on stumps, rocks, bullrushes and in willowgrass.

The best baits for bass in all three regions of the lake during the spawning period is a soft plastic stickbait, wacky worm or drop shot rig. A Berkley Power Jerk Shad is up there, too. Use each lure throughout the lake along shorelines until bass begin to move deeper sometime in late May.

Once the mating urges are over (at different times throughout the lake) bass will rest and then feed aggressively through early June, depending on when the water hits 80 degrees.

McCotter suggests sticking with the Jerk Shad and also uses a Berkley Frenzy surface popper during the post spawn period. The North Anna River from The Splits up into the headwaters of the lake offers excellent post spawn topwater bass fishing. Concentrate on the emerging willow grass along the shorelines.

When water temperatures reach 80 degrees and begin climbing for the rest of the summer, plastic worms and deep-diving crankbaits will take the biggest largemouths. Now it is critical to locate structure from 15-25 feet deep near the old river channel. Channel bends are best. This deep water, structure pattern will hold up through September when the bass will again start cruising the shallower water.

Also good in the heat of the summer, when water temperatures often reach the low nineties on Anna, are the extreme upper reaches of the North Anna and Pamunkey branches. Spinnerbaits and worms work well in these structure-filled shallows that are 8-12 degrees cooler that the lower lake areas.

Fall is the second best time to catch a trophy bass on Anna. Look for water temperatures to drop quickly into the seventies by late September and early October. Bass will scatter now into larger creeks off the main lake. Look for them in the back near or in schools of shad. Buzzbaits and surface poppers in the early hours, then medium running crankbaits and small spinnerbaits during the day will catch most fish now.

Good creeks in the spring will produce again in the fall.

As fall gives way to winter, McCotter shifts focus downlake. The vast, clear stretches near the dam hold tremendous numbers of schooled largemouths just waiting to be discovery by the lucky angler.

Here, the water remains in the sixties longest, often until the end of November. Concentrate on creeks with a channel and throw topwater and Jerk Shads in the morning and evening then switch over to spinnerbaits and medium running crankbaits during the day. Best creeks include Blount's, Levi and Valentines.

When water temperatures drop into the fifties, bass will hold on docks. Tube lures, small worms, jig-n-pigs and Jerk Shads are best now. Just before the bass vacate these shallow water creeks and head for deeper water they gang up in old creek channels. Use grubs, spinnerbaits and small crankbaits over these 10-15 foot channels.

Remember, down lake stays warmer longer. Plan your trips accordingly.

Wintertime patterns begin sometime in early December when the water temperatures drop into the lower fifties. Grubs and Carolina rigs are best now on flats near the main river channel. Once the water drops below 50 degrees, 1/4 and 1/2-ounce Hopkins or Crippled Herring spoons along with 1/4-ounce Riverside Rippers are fished over and near the main river channels for the rest of the winter. Jig and pigs fished in 17-27 feet will also lure the occasional bass to the net.

Crappie

While not widely publicized as premier crappie lake, Anna does have an excellent crappie population that can be tapped year round. McCotter has spent a lot of time following the movements of these tasty fish and has patterned them here for each season.

"Just about anyone can catch specks on Anna in the spring time," says McCotter, "Just find some brush in the shallow and dunk some minnows."

However, for the truly big slabs from 10-14 inches that McCotter guides for, tactics are slightly different.

In early March when water temperatures range from the lower forties to up near fifty degrees, crappies will suspend around bridge pilings in both the North Anna and Pamunkey branches. Use small 1/8 and 1/16-ounce white tube jigs and slip bobber rigs tipped with small minnows now.

As the water warms, the crappie will migrate up into the shallows of the upper lake arms. Mine Run Creek, Duck-In-Hole Creek and the upper reaches of Terry's Run offer the best big crappie fishing. Boat docks in 2-6 feet of water are where these fish hold and spawn, key in on them with slip bobbers and minnows and small jigs.

This peak in crappie fishing will continue through April, but begins to slow by May and water temperatures in the upper sixties.

Early summer crappie are back on the bridge pilings and deep docks, holding in 6-15 feet of water. Slip bobbers are best now. Follow these fish throughout the summer on the bridges, just look deeper and deeper. McCotter has caught them as deep as 30 feet.

In the fall look for crappies on structure-filled dropoffs once the water temperature drops into the sixties and seventies. Up lake fish will bite first. Old bridge foundations are traditional hotspots. Best depths now are 3-6 feet. Try the Rt 522 in Orange County, Grafton's, Dillard's, Holiday, Rt 522 in the North Anna, Terry's Run and Christopher Creek bridges in the fall.

The lake also has hundreds of privately dropped brushpiles as well as those dropped by Virginia Power that attract crappies. Look for them with your depth finder.

The Fishery

Over the years Lake Anna gained the reputation as one of the more difficult lakes to fish in the region. Early largemouth bass anglers were conditioned to catching limit after limit of football sized fish. After the initial boom time in the late 70's, catch rates only declined slightly in the late 1980's. Hydrilla came and went in the early 90's but the fishery has further stabilized and anglers continue to do well despite Anna's proximity to DC.

In the beginning there was only the upper North Anna River, its tributaries and numerous farm ponds that held any fish along what is now Lake Anna. Local anglers were more tuned into fisheries like Buggs Island and Lake Gaston before Lake Anna was created. However, that all changed quickly once the river valley was flooded.

Soon the new lake was teeming with life. From farm pond-reared bass and bluegills, to river carp and catfish, Lake Anna received a healthy start from the newly inundated fish populations.

To give the lake an extra boost and make anglers even happier, Virginia Power and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries immediately initiated an ambitious stocking program.

Today, 36 years later, there are an amazing number of fish species in the lake.

Extensive biological surveys conducted between 1975 and 1985 revealed there were approximately 40 species of fish inhabiting Lake Anna. In 1994, the lake community received a new member; the notorious grass carp.

Here are the original 40 species according to family group; American eel, gizzard shad, threadfin shad, blueback herring, eastern mudminnow, mosquito fish, white sucker, creek chubsucker, shorthead redhorse, northern hog sucker, chain pickerel, Northern pike, common carp, bluehead chub, river chub, golden shiner, satinfin shiner, swallowtail shiner, spottail shiner, pirate perch, white catfish, brown catfish, yellow bullhead, channel catfish, margined madtom, bluespotted sunfish, redbreast sunfish, pumpkinseed, warmouth, bluegill, redear sunfish, mud sunfish, largemouth bass, black crappie, yellow perch, walleye, tessellated darter, white perch and striped bass. There are rare, unsubstantiated reports of a smallmouth or two but they are not established in the lake.

That is quite a lineup to pursue. The sheer diversity of Lake Anna has always amazed me. Never seen an eel in the lake? Just run a trot line one summer night baited with minnows. You'll have a wriggling, hissing mess on your hands come morning!

Where are all the walleye? Take a flashlight and walk along Dike Three one late February night. You might just see a pair of their ghostly eyes along the rip rap. More walleye also inhabit the upper portion of the Pamunkey Branch.

A look at some of the most common fish in the lake is not only interesting but helpful when attempting to understand the lake as a whole ecosystem.

Of the 40 or so original species, two are non-native introduced forage fish; blueback herring and threadfin shad. The other two are gamefish; the striped bass and walleye.

First, let's talk about the all-important forage base of Lake Anna before examining the game fish.

A major part of this forage base is gizzard shad. These fish were indigenous to the North Anna River and Pamunkey Branch before flooding, migrating up these tributaries each spring to spawn. Their populations in the lake have remained fairly constant since Anna stabilized in 1975.

I always knew there were huge numbers of these baitfish in the lake, but I was still amazed to discover biologists have conducted studies showed an incredible average of 200-366 pounds of gizzard shad per 2.5 acres!

The threadfin shad, while not as plentiful as gizzard shad, were successfully stocked in 1983 by V.D.G.I.F. biologists to boost the lake's forage base.

Unfortunately, threadfin are extremely temperature sensitive and die quickly in cold water. They would die out if it were not for the heated water that flows from the power station. They only overwinter by migrating into the W.H.T.F. and congregating in the warm water discharge area. In the warmer months they can be found throughout Anna where they feed on the abundant plankton.

The blueback herring were stocked somewhat experimentally to further enhance the forage base. While early samplings seemed to indicate only minimal reproduction, lately it seems like the herring have become a well-established member of the deep, downlake area and even some portions of the mid- and up-lake regions.

These forage fish, along with rough fish like the suckers and carp compose the largest portion of the biomass or amount of fish in the lake. The baitfish are also the base of the food chain for many gamefish also found in the lake.

Chain pickerel is another of the native species that successfully made the transfer from river to lake. However, the pickerel have not faired well over the years. Biologists attribute the decline of this species due to the lake of preferable spawning areas. The pickerel prefer marshy, vegetated areas more common in slow moving streams and rivers like the pre-impoundment Pamunkey and North Anna.

One area the pickerel seem to be hanging on at is Contrary Creek. Large stretches of submerged and emergent aquatic vegetation offer excellent spawning and living habitat throughout the upper reaches of this creek.

Bluegill is another forage fish that is also pursued by some anglers. Their numbers remain constant but they really don't get much bigger than 12". I have caught one-pound bluegill and shellcracker (red ear sunfish) with my fly fishing clients, but rarley do I see anyone else going after these panfish.

Unfortunately due to hydrology restrictions, striped bass and walleye could not sustain themselves in Lake Anna without annual stockings. Over 100,000 striper are stocked annually as are between 40-90,000 walleyes.

Perhaps the most sought after fish in the lake, the largemouth bass, came from several sources. Inundated ponds and streams and a generous stockings in 1972 created the present populations. After the initial successful stockings, biologists determined the largemouths were reproducing equally successfully and ceased stocking efforts.

The lake record, caught in 1986 still stands at 13 pounds even. Each year, clients of the guide service catch or have the chance to catch largemouth bass over eight pounds (the Virginia citation mark). Our largest caught by a client is 10 pounds even. We have had eight fish over the eight pound mark recorded during trips and countless others over the 22" length citation mark.

Despite the predictions of the biologists, Anna has and is still producing stripers over 20 pounds. The guide service has produced several 20-pounders over the past three years and two dozen fish over 17 pounds.