5 West Virginia Whiskerfish Waters
September 29, 2010
You'll catch your share of chunky channel catfish and fat flatheads when you dunk your offering into any of these first-rate rivers or lakes. (June 2007)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
Not glamorous by typical angling standards, catfish well represent the blue-collar nature so prevalent in the Mountain State. Hard fighters and eager biters, whiskerfish exist in many state waters, providing an exciting element available to all state anglers.
Flathead catfish, common in many of the state's river systems, grow to impressive sizes and furnish a trophy aspect to our sport. Channel cats, too, grow to large proportions and are even better distributed. Bullheads, the pan-sized version of whiskerfish, are found in many state reservoirs and ponds, as well as low-gradient rivers and streams. An excellent "family fish," generally, you can count on bullheads to be cooperative. Blue catfish are also present in select areas, most notably portions of the Ohio River.
Interestingly, two of the state's catfish records have been set within the past two years. Michael Sears took the current state-record channel cat from Patterson Creek in 2005. The big fork tail measured 40.3 inches and weighed 33.42 pounds. That same year, Sam Morrison landed the largest blue catfish to date, a 24.37-pound fish that stretched the tape to 36.5 inches.
Records for the other two species of catfish go back some years. It was 1977 when Gary Freeman caught the top bullhead from the Tygart Lake headwaters. The big bullhead was 22.75 inches long and weighed 6.1 pounds. The flathead record has stood the test of time, over 40 years, in fact. L.L. McClung took a 70-pound shovelhead in 1956 from the Little Kanawha River. That fish taped out at 52 inches.
What follows is a look at five top-notch catfish waters in the state. Some are better suited for folks looking for relatively fast-action "numbers" waters if you will. Others may offer a better chance for a bigger catfish, something that really stretches out your line.
STONEWALL JACKSON LAKE
While largemouth bass and muskies may receive much of the limelight cast over Stonewall Jackson Lake, the impoundment also contains its share of catfish. Stonewall Jackson is one of the top lakes in the state for channel catfish, with good numbers of average-sized fish, as well as some that are over 20 inches.
Located in Lewis County, Stonewall Jackson Lake covers about 2,600 acres and has a maximum depth of about 80 feet, though its average depth runs about 15 feet.
Created by the Army Corps of Engineers by an impoundment on the West Fork River, Stonewall Jackson was made with the angler in mind. Much of the timber was left in the lake before its being flooded. Shoreline access is good in select sections, particularly near launch and access areas. Young panfish and silverside minnows comprise a significant portion of the food base used by channel cats and other of the lake's predators.
The main arm of Stonewall Jackson stretches uplake to the town of Walkersville. The Skin Creek and Little Skin Creek arms provide two other long, narrow waters. While no horsepower limitations are in place, many no-wake zones are. Recreational usage on this lake is less than many others.
Access areas on Stonewall Jackson Lake include the Georgetown Access, Glady Fork Access, Jacksonville Access, and also the access located within the Stonewall Jackson State Park portion of the lake. A marina is also located in the state park.
Many other recreational attractions can be found within Stonewall Jackson State Park -- including Stonewall Resort -- and Stonewall Jackson Wildlife Management Area. Weston, located just north of the lake, can provide some services.
A daily report on the status of recreational facilities as well as the current lake level can be heard by calling (304) 269-7463.
Located just a bit down the interstate from Stonewall Jackson Lake, Burnsville Lake is perhaps overshadowed a bit by its popular neighbor. Even so, Burnsville provides an excellent channel catfish fishery. The lake also contains flathead catfish.
Burnsville Lake is in Braxton County, just south of the Braxton/Lewis county line. It took a dam on the Little Kanawha River to form this 968-acre water, which has an average depth of 15 to 20 feet.
The Division of Natural Resources provides additional fish-attracting habitat in the form of brushpiles made of Christmas trees and triangular pallets. These structures are placed in depths of about 10 to 20 feet. The forage base on Burnsville is made up of emerald shiners, other minnows and small panfish.
Anglers targeting catfish will find that they tend to concentrate along points, just as many other species of game fish do. Burnsville Lake has a number of long, extended sand points and flats, excellent spots to intercept the lake's channel cats.
There is no horsepower limitation on Burnsville Lake, though there are several no-wake zones. Basically, the no-wake zones are found in the lake's bays and coves, as well as its headwaters.
Boat access is available at three sites. This includes the Riffle Run and Bulltown day use areas, plus the Bulltown Camping Area. Many of Burnsville's better shoreline access for anglers is found within these areas. The Falls Mill Fisherman's Area provides access for the handicapped, as do other day use areas.
Burnsville is an excellent place to combine catfishing with a summer camping outing. The Riffle Run Campground provides 60 sites, while the Bulltown Campground offers over 200. Sites vary from primitive to those with hookups for electric, water and sewage.
Burnsville Lake can be reached by taking exit 79 off Interstate 79. Follow state Route (SR) 5 to the lake.
A daily report on lake and tailwaters conditions can be heard by calling (304) 853-2398.
Spanning the New River near Hinton, Bluestone Lake's 2,000-plus acres represent another topnotch channel catfish impoundment.
Stonewall Jackson is one of the top lakes in the state for channel catfish, with good numbers of average-sized fish, as well as some that are over 20 inches.
Bluestone supports an excellent warmwater fishery, part of the reason being a strong gizzard shad population. While considered a scavenger by many -- and they do readily take dead bait -- channel cats are also effective predators. Many a bass angler has had a c
hannel cat smash a crankbait. So you can be sure Bluestone's channel cats make good use of the lake's shad population.
Bluestone Lake is easily accessible from I-77 and I-64. Take exit 14 (Athens Road) off I-77 to SR 20. Travel north approximately 25 miles to Bluestone Dam. From Interstate 64, take exit 139 (Sandstone/Hinton) off I-64 to SR 20, and travel south approximately 12 miles to Bluestone Dam. The dam is located at Hinton.
Launch ramps are located at Bluestone Bridge, Bluestone State Park, Bluestone Marina, Leatherwood Landing, Bull Falls and Bertha, though not all are suited for larger- size boats. A campground is within Bluestone State Park. Primitive camping is available at specified locations on the Bluestone Wildlife Management Area.
For additional information, contact the Bluestone State Park at (304) 466-2805, or call the COE Project Manager's office at (304) 466-1234.
There is no horsepower limit on the lake.
West Virginia's portion of the Ohio River not only provides a distinct physical boundary along the northwestern edge of the state, it also provides some outstanding fishing opportunities, catfish in particular. Channel cats and flatheads exist in very good numbers, and also grow to excellent sizes in the Ohio. Blue cats are also showing up.
While reservoirs offer good cat-fishing, there's just something special about fishing a river for whiskerfish. Maybe it's fairly easy to locate good spots to cast for catfish on rivers? Maybe it's because some big ones inhabit riverine environs? Or perhaps the fact that rivers tend to offer more shore-fishing opportunities than many of the state's reservoirs, which tend to be heavily wooded and often steep. Rivers provide the perfect venue for a relaxing evening of catfishing, a quality way to cool off following a hard day's work.
The Ohio is a classic example of a big-river catfishing situation. It has dams, feeder streams, hydroelectric facilities (within some of the dams), and industrial/municipal discharges. Opportunities abound for both the boat- and shore-angler.
Much of the fishing attention on the Ohio, regardless of species, occurs in the tailwaters area below the navigational dams. Along West Virginia's portion of the river, navigational dams are found at the Pike Island, Hannibal, Willow Island, Belleville, Racine and Robert C. Byrd projects. The facilities vary a bit from site to site, but some catfishing opportunities exist near all of these dams.
The immediate tailwaters areas are limited, for the most part, to shore-anglers. A restricted area exists below the dams, one where boats are not permitted. State agencies located along the Ohio have been working with the Army Corps of Engineers to expand the sections where boats are permitted, in an effort to add fishing opportunities. Therefore, if you are a boat angler, you may find that you are now permitted in areas where you were previously prohibited. Restricted areas, during the recreational boating period, tend to be well marked with buoys.
The Hannibal Locks and Dam, found near New Martinsville, provides a good example of an area for Ohio River cats. On the West Virginia side of the river, below the dam, you will find good parking and river access. Fishing platforms are provided, and you can fish from the rocky shore as well. A hydroelectric power facility is located within the dam on the West Virginia side, so game fish (such as catfish) tend to be drawn to the place. Baitfish such as gizzard shad, injured or disoriented from a ride through the turbines, provide a buffet that attracts catfish (as well as other predators like hybrid stripers).
A couple of miles below the Hannibal Locks and Dam, you'll find the mouth of Fishing Creek, entering the Ohio from the West Virginia side at New Martinsville. Boat-anglers will find a good launch ramp up in Fishing Creek that provides boat access to the river.
A deep hole has been gouged out at the mouth of the creek. Catfish, as well as other Ohio River inhabitants like saugers and white bass, find this hole to their liking. It's a good night-fishing spot. This same situation is common at the mouths of the many creeks and small rivers that join the Ohio. Often it is necessary to cross private property to access these areas, so be prepared to acquire permission to do so.
Boat-anglers should look for the deeper holes in the river. These are often located at outside river bends. A sonar unit will easily point out the deeper holes. Catfish tend to hold in the bottoms of these areas when they are inactive, then move to the head (shallow lip) of the hole when it's time to feed. The twilight period is a good time to anchor just upstream of the front edge of a hole. Stay at least an hour or two after dark. Flathead catfish, in particular, tend to feed under the cover of darkness.
There are a host of public access sites on the Ohio River. Visit the West Virginia Division of Wildlife's Web site at Wvdnr.gov/Fishing/Fishing.shtm. Under the "Fishing" head, click on "Public Fishing Areas."
A reciprocal agreement between West Virginia and Ohio permits licensed anglers from either state to fish from the shores of both states.
From a catfishing perspective, the Kanawha River is quite similar to the Ohio, just on a smaller scale. Shore-anglers can expect to catch channel cats and flatheads below the dams, and also near the mouths of feeder waters. Boat-anglers should look for the deep river holes.
On the Kanawha, navigational dams exist at Winfield, Marmet and London. The Winfield Dam is located 31 miles above the river mouth. Marmet and London dams are found 67 and 83 miles, respectively, from where the Kanawha joins the Ohio.
West Virginia catfishing isn't limited to navigable rivers like the Ohio and Kanawha. Free-flowing rivers offer good fishing for catfish, as is evidenced by the good sport found in the New River. Smaller streams, too, can provide virtually untouched cat-fishing opportunities, particularly sections found close to where they join a major river.
Much of the fishing attention on the Ohio, regardless of species, occurs in the tailwaters area below the navigational dams.
Besides the chance to tangle with tough, brawny fish, another advantage of pursuing catfish is the simplicity of the affair. It's doesn't take much tackle to be successful. Likewise, it's not necessary to invest long hours honing your skills to catch them. Catfish lean toward the cooperative side, particularly in the warm waters of summer.
Channel catfish can be taken on a wide variety of baits, both live and not so live. For the boat-angler on a river, a good tactic to use during the day is to employ the same type of slip-drift tactics walleye anglers use to cover long, deep holes. Using a leadhead jig, typically a 1/4- or 3/8-ounce, allow the boat to drift with the current while fishing the jig directly under the
boat. The jig should be kept a few inches above the bottom. Use the electric trolling motor to make the adjustments in boat speed necessary to keep the line vertical. While you may wish to experiment with one of the many prepared catfish baits to tip your jig, I've had excellent success with two baits while fishing in this manner: ribbon leeches and a chunk of hot dog. That's right, a small piece of the frankfurter.
Anglers fishing from the shore of a river will do well by employing a simple slip-sinker system. Egg and walking sinkers will all work, though egg sinkers tend to roll under rocks where the current is heavy. Run your line through the eye of the sinker and tie it to a heavy bait hook. The hook should be matched to the size of the bait being used. Don't be afraid to use a good-sized hook, as channel catfish and flatheads won't be bothered by a bigger hook.
Channel catfish are known for preferring aromatic baits, so many anglers favor "stink baits" such as chicken livers. If you'd rather not deal with the mess of handling chicken organs, another good option is one of the prepared catfish baits such as that offered in the Berkley PowerBait lineup.
While channel catfish will eat dead baits and smelly concoctions, flatheads prefer to kill their prey. Lively creek chubs and suckers make excellent bait for flatheads, fished on the previously described slip-sinker rig.
Whether you are fishing from shore or a boat, it makes good sense to use some type of rod holder to keep from having a big cat tow your rig into the water. The forked stick is a time-proven tool for the shore-angler. Many styles of rod holders exist for boat-anglers.
Free-spooling baitcasting reels with clickers, coupled with stout casting rods, make the ideal rod/reel combo. With the reel in free spool, the clicker alerts the angler of a catfish making a run. Rods should be on the longer side, such as 7 feet or so lengths. Longer rods allow for more powerful, long-sweeping hooksets.
There you have it, a look at some of our state's best catfishing opportunities. However, to catch 'em, you have to wet a line. Hope to see you doing just that real soon. The catfish are ready, are you?