GETTING THERE, Take U.S. 29 southwest through Lynchburg to Chatham and pick up Route 57 west through Martinsville to the lake. Or head west on U.S. 211 to I-81. Follow south to U.S. 220 at Roanoke, then continue south to Route 57. Go right (west) on 57 to the lake.
For a combination bass-trout trip, it's hard to top the Smith River and Philpott Lake in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Just west of Martinsville, in southwestern Virginia, the Smith easily ranks as the state's premier trout stream. Philpott, formed by damming the headwaters of the Smith, is a charming, medium-size bass lake, its 3,000 acres big enough to find seclusion and husky bass in, yet small enough that the johnboat fisherman won't feel intimidated by his lack of mobility.
Though it takes six hours to reach the lake and river, once you get there the fishing and related activities can keep the whole family busy for a three- or four-day stay. The bass and trout are just minutes apart.
Interestingly enough, the quality fishing available in both the Smith River and Philpott Lake is man-made. There was no lake until 1953, when the Corps of Engineers built a 220-foot dam on the Smith, transforming what had been a marginal, put-and-take trout fishery with a few stunted small-mouths drifting about.
Philpott Dam not only created a jewel of a lake eged by the symmetrical knolls of the Blue Ridge, it also breathed new life into the Smith. The dam's sluices spew cold, nutrient-rich waters from 50 feet deep in the lake. The water, which is released five days a week to generate power, pours out at 45 to 50 degrees, producing prime trout habitat for 12 miles downstream. Seldom do these tailwaters exceed 62 degrees, and the heavy discharges sweep out silt and scour the riverbottom, leaving sparkling gravel - perfect spawning territory for trout. Both browns and rainbows reproduce naturally in the Smith since Philpott was constructed, and the browns grow to enormous sizes. Three times in recent years the state record for brown trout has been shattered on the Smith, the latest winner weighing 14 pounds, 6 ounces. Sober anglers have reported hooking and losing fish estimated at 18 pounds.
Most of these large browns - and there are are plenty in the two- to six-pound class caught each year - come to anglers who fish the big, icy pools immediately below the dam with spinning gear and plugs such as Rebels and Rapalas.; Rapalas.specialists like to hit the stream when the gates at the dam are just being opened.
The rising water stimulates the browns, and they feed heavily as hundreds of threadfin shad are caught in the outlet and spit out below. The tiny bits of silver shad act as a natural chum for the pot-bellied brown trout.
About the time the spin fishermen are just getting into action, fly anglers are getting in their final licks at the finicky trout in the special trophy area several miles downstream. Rising water from the dam discharges puts an end to safe walking, and the trout go deep, unwilling to fight the heavy currents to sip in tiny mayflies.
Chances are good, however, that these anglers have had several hours of quality fly fishing before the water was released - an entire day, if it's a weekend.
The trophy area is one of the prettiest stretches of the Smith, accessible only by foot via railroad tracks. There's a daily limit of one trout over 12 inches. Only single barbless hook artificials are permitted on this water, which features trout-filled riffles and slow, challenging pools. Hatches of mayflies are excellent, and terrestrials produce well when no mayflies are emerging.
To reach the special area, take Route 57 out of Martinsville to Route 666, then go northeast to Philpott Bridge.The trophy water starts just downstream and runs for three miles.
Good flies for the Smith include the Blue-Winged Olive, Adams, Light Cahill, Black Ant and Crowe Beetle in sizes 14 to 22. The trout are discriminating feeders, and tippets testing heavier than two or three pounds are # sure to draw prompt refusals.
Since water releases can play such a vital role in fishing the Smith, a call ahead to the Philpott Lake powerhouse at 703/629-2128, or the reservoir office at 703/629-2703, is recommended before making a trip. Usually the schedule for the coming week will be available by late Friday afternoon.
Of course, one of the main advantages of a trip to this area is that when the power is running heavy at the dam you can pack up your fly rod and head to Philpott for a go at the bass. This is a clear, cold, deep lake with plenty of the sharply sloping points and rocky shorelines that smallmouths love. It's one of the best bronzeback spots in the state, with average fish running 1 1/2 to two pounds and occasional specimens going up to seven pounds.
Largemouths are also present in good numbers and often bite better than smallmouths during the summer. As a general rule, the catch should run six smallmouths to four bigmouths.
Philpott has a reputation for being a "difficult" lake, but local angler Curtis Hodnett, who fishes the lake about a hundred times a year, thinks that's because the fishermen don't respect the clarity of the water and the shyness of the smallmouth sufficiently.
Hodnett uses eight-pound line or lighter and goes with small, compact offerings that appeal to the delicate tastebuds of the bronzeback. During summer his best producer is a four-inch red worm rigged Texas-style and fished with a 1/16-ounce slip sinker. Other good lures include spinner-baits, Rapalas and small diving plugs. If the bass won't strike cast lures, Curtis recommends trolling with crankbait close to the shoreline.
Non-fishing members of the family will find beaches for swimming at Philpott and nature trails at 4,500-acre Fairy Stone State Park just up the road. Here you can search for the twin drystals of staurolite the park was named for. According to legend, the cross-shaped crystals were formed from the tears fairies shed when a messenger brought news of the death of Christ.
Most of the abundant campgrounds are spaciously laid out amid aromatic hardwood and evergreen forests. There are 250 campsites at ten locations on the Corps of Engineers land immediately around the lake. Though most are peaceful and secluded, the Bowen's Creek camping area is where the local teenagers hang out.
Particularly intriguing are the campsites accessible only by boat. The locations of these roadless camping areas are shown on a map of the lake, which can be obtained by writing Reservoir Office, Philpott Lake, Ourte 6, tbox 140, Bassett, Virginia 24055.
Fairstone State Park also has campsites, plus 25 rustic cabins with modern plumbing, equipped for housekeeping. The three-bed cabins rent for about $100 a week. For reservation applications, write Fairy Stone State Park, Route 2, Box 134, Stuart Virginia 24171. CAPTION: Picture, CURTIS HODNETT LANDS A 3 1/2-POUND LARGEMOUTH BASS ON LAKE PHILPHILPOTT. By Gerald Almy.