3 Hot West Virginia Tailraces
September 29, 2010
Willow Island, Racine and Pike Island tailraces offer excellent year-round angling on the Ohio River for hybrid stripers, walleyes, catfish and more. Here's where you should try this year!
By Kevin Yokum
Good news for early-season anglers. The Ohio River rocks! Serving up some of the Mountain State's best early-season fishing opportunities, anglers won't want to miss out on this year's fabulous Ohio River tailwater action.
While angling on one of the Ohio River tailwaters last February, I found myself in the midst of some exceptional sauger fishing. Seemingly, every angler on the shoreline was catching one sauger right after another. High catch rates on Ohio River tailwaters are nothing unusual, but big numbers aren't the only thing that keeps anglers returning to the Ohio River.
The river is famous for producing trophy fish. Every time an angler's rod tip arches downward, he might be hooked up to the trophy of a lifetime. A tally of West Virginia's Trophy Fish Citation program reveals that the Ohio River annually produces more trophy fish than any other West Virginia water.
Running from our state's Northern Panhandle all the way to its southwestern corner near Huntington, the Ohio River is West Virginia's largest body of water. Since the river forms the border between West Virginia and Ohio, a reciprocal agreement between the states allows residents from either state, who maintain a valid fishing license, to fish either shoreline. All regulations, creel limits, etc., apply to the state in which the angler is physically fishing, regardless of his license type.
TAILWATERS SO GOOD?
A series of navigational dams divide the Ohio River into different sections referred to as pools. Seven such dams are found within West Virginia's boundary, and each acts as a barrier to migrating fish. The result is a super-concentrated fishing zone for anglers. Fish are steadily moving into tailwaters because tailraces provide a constant flow of food and well-oxygenated water. Seldom will anglers find fish in quantities like those in tailwaters below Ohio River dams.
The Ohio River is home to more species of fish than any other Mountain State water, but four game fish in particular serve as primary targets for tailwater anglers: hybrid striped bass, walleyes, saugers and catfish. Each of these highly sought-after species can be found on any Ohio Race tailrace, although some tailwaters seem to be better for certain species.
WILLOW ISLAND TAILWATER
A favorite for many Mountain State anglers, the Willow Island Tailwater is one of the best on the Ohio River for shoreline fishing opportunities. Anglers coming to Willow Island for the first time will find that the main fishing access on the Willow Island Tailwater is conveniently located on the West Virginia side of the river just off state Route (SR) 2 near the community of Willow Island.
According to Division of Natural Resources (DNR) fisheries biologist Frank Jernejcic, Willow Island is one of the best tailwaters on the Ohio River for catching a variety of species. While Willow Island is especially noted for its early spring sauger and hybrid striped bass fishing, anglers stand a great chance of landing catfish and walleyes as well. If you're looking for a mixed bag of prized game fish from the Ohio River, Willow Island Tailwater might be your best bet.
The Willow Island Tailwater does receive significant fishing pressure, particularly from anglers in the Morgantown and Fairmont areas. Substantial fishing pressure doesn't seem to affect fish behavior, but getting a prime fishing spot along the bank can occasionally be challenging.
Anglers looking to launch a watercraft will find suitable boating access to the pool near the SR 14 bridge in Williamstown.
West Virginia and Ohio have a reciprocal license agreement while fishing on the Ohio River, but anglers must obey the regulations of the state they are fishing from. If you're fishing from the Ohio side, then Ohio regulations prevail. Photo by Ron Sinfelt
The fishing access on the Racine Tailwater is located across the state line in Ohio. This tailwater features a hydroelectric powerhouse and modern angling facilities, including a fine fishing walkway/pier. The fishing pier has been quite popular with Racine anglers and remains one of the best angling locations throughout the river.
The thing I really find appealing about fishing the Racine Tailwater and areas farther downstream is that the Racine Pool's 30-plus miles are not heavily developed like most of the river. I like to fish in tranquil environments and on the Ohio, this area is about as peaceful as it gets.
Racine is best known for hybrid and sauger fishing early in the year, although channel catfish and walleyes are also readily available. For anglers looking for river quarry other than the "big four," drum and other less notable sportfish always seem to be abundant in the Racine Tailwater.
High water on the Ohio is no problem because fishing on the Racine Tailwater is better when water levels are above normal. Sportfish, including hybrids and saugers, move in close to shore during high-water events making prime targets for shoreline anglers. However, when water levels get too high to fish on the Ohio side, there is a parklike area on the West Virginia side that is really productive.
Anglers looking for the Racine Tailwater will find it about five miles south of Racine along Ohio's SR 338.
PIKE ISLAND TAILWATER
According to biologist Jernejcic, it's difficult to pick one tailwater over another, but he does feel that the dams farther upstream, especially Pike Island, tend to have better walleye fishing than those downstream. Over the last few years, Pike Island has served up some fabulous walleye and sauger action on the river. The spring sauger run last year was downright phenomenal and speculation is that this year's sauger action will be excellent again.
In addition to good walleye and sauger fishing, Pike Island deserves some extra credit because it features some of the most modern facilities on the river, including an impressive fishing pier on the Ohio shoreline. This fishing pier was designed to be angler friendly and the structure lives up to its billing by offering prime fishing opportunities for lots of Ohio River anglers.
Just north of Wheeling, anglers can reach the Pike Island Tailrace by following SR 7. Additional access and facilities are located on the Ohio side of the river.
PRIZED TAILWATER CATCHES
Hybrid Striped Bass
Hybrid stripers are vicious predators that will attack nearly anything, but they prefer to feed on schools of baitfish. Nothing fires up hybrids like a school of gizzard shad and Ohio River tailwaters function as a congregating point for shad, so naturally the hybrids follow.
According to biologist Jernejcic, tailwaters make up less than 1 percent of the fishing area on the Ohio River, but account for over 99 percent of the fish caught on the river. Frankly, tailraces are fish havens and particularly so for hybrids.
Being an open-water species, hybrids thrive in large river tailwaters because these areas provide oxygenated water and tons of forage. Research conducted by the Ohio Division of Wildlife has shown that hybrid striped bass tend not to move up and down the river as was once thought, but seem inclined to remain in one pool. That study also showed that hybrids remained in the tailraces for the majority of the year.
Both Ohio and West Virginia stock the Ohio River with hybrid striped bass, but the number of hybrid striped bass stocked is dependent on annual hatchery production. Previously, state agencies stocked hybrid striped bass among upstream areas on the Ohio River in anticipation of the fish moving downstream, but since research has shown that hybrids tend to remain in one pool, agencies now spread fingerling hybrids to pools throughout the river.
Another factor that makes hybrid stocking so important on the Ohio River is the high rate of harvest on hybrid striped bass. It's not surprising that walleye and sauger harvest rates are high, but no one would have guessed that harvest was so high on hybrids. The West Virginia DNR tagged over 1,500 Ohio River hybrids and within six months anglers returned more than 15 percent of the tags. Angler tag returns indicated that over 30 percent of the hybrids caught by anglers were harvested.
Since the West Virginia DNR altered its walleye-stocking program to stock fingerlings instead of fry, walleye fisheries in the Mountain State have excelled. Nowhere is the result more impressive than on the Ohio River. Increased size of the fingerlings has resulted in a much better survival rate, which ultimately leads to better walleye fishing.
Walleyes are prized table fare and creel surveys conducted on the river have shown that harvest rates up to 50 percent are fairly common, so a successful stocking program is vital on the Ohio.
Finding walleyes on the river is not that difficult. Fish position themselves in relation to the water flow and by studying water currents coming through the dam, it becomes easier to predict where walleyes will be on any given tailwater. Outflow coming through the dam usually determines where the best walleye/sauger fishing will occur. If water flow through the dam is heavy, then moving downstream where there is less flow usually results in better fishing. When only a little water is flowing through the dam, the areas of moving current close to the dam will offer the best fishing.
When asked about the quality of Ohio River walleye fishing, biologist Jernejcic stated that over the last few years, the number of walleyes being caught by Ohio River anglers has been impressive. An avid angler himself, Jernejcic prefers to fish the upstream tailwaters for saugers and walleyes rather than those farther south.
The Ohio River can be a productive water body throughout the year, but winter and early spring are normally periods when anglers encounter big quantities of walleyes. It seems that some of the most productive days are when the weather is at its worst. Although a bit uncomfortable to fish in, windy, overcast days when temperatures are dropping can be the best time to catch walleyes. Even when water levels seem too high to fish, walleyes will often move close to shore making them especially vulnerable to shoreline angling. Clearly, high-water periods offer some of the best walleye/sauger fishing opportunities on the Ohio River, regardless of the time of year.
The Ohio River is famous for big catfish and the reputation is well deserved. The Ohio is so good that it is consistently the No. 1 trophy citation producer for both channel and flathead catfish, according to data from the West Virginia Trophy Fish Program.
The secret to catching big catfish, especially flatheads, is to fish when flows are above normal. Any serious whiskerfish angler will also tell you using heavy tackle and live bait is a necessity when fishing for trophy flatheads. Anglers should expect a good mix of both channels and flatheads on the river, but the ratio will depend a lot on bait selection. Bait selection has great influence on anglers' catches, as most anglers catch channel catfish on liver, night crawlers or small gizzard shad, while flatheads are usually caught on live bluegills, goldfish or large shad.
Tailwaters have established themselves as the premier places to fish on the Ohio River and there seems to be no danger of that title changing hands. The most productive area within a given tailrace will usually be the water flowing from the dam (outflow). Learning how to fish the outflow normally determines an angler's success rate.
Fishing success for shoreline anglers is often determined by the proximity of the outflow to the shoreline and nothing frustrates an angler more than the inability to cast into the outflow, especially if they can see game fish actively feeding on the surface.
Such sightings of hybrids are common on the river and these aggressive predators seem to be just out of reach of conventional casting ranges. A few shoreline anglers have gained an advantage by switching to surfcasting tackle. By gaining more distance on their casts, they can place lures right among the fish, thereby increasing the odds of getting a bite.
Poppers and other surface lures remain popular among Ohio River tailwater anglers, but any surface lure that features an erratic action will be effective on hybrids. Anglers also attach agitator bobbers, which can be cast farther because of additional weight, to a fly or jig. White doll flies seem to be most effective when used with this setup. The harvest limit on the Ohio River is four hybrid striped bass per day per angler.
Techniques used to catch walleyes and saugers are similar on Ohio River tailwaters. It is amazing to consider that after years of tailwater fishing, jigs continue to be fashionable among Ohio River anglers. Jigs are fabulous for enticing river walleyes or saugers into biting, and best of all, jigs are easy on the wallet.
Walleyes and saugers frequent the river bottom, so if you're not bouncing the bottom with your jig, add weight. Live bait is a smart option for walleye or sauger anglers, and since most of these delicious-tasting fish will end up on a dinner plate, deep hooking is not a problem. Ohio River anglers are allowed to harvest a combined total of 10 fish (walleyes, saugers or mixed bag) each day.
The Ohio River may be the stat
e's most famous catfish water. Nothing attracts anglers like a giant catfish, and on the Ohio River, flatheads are king. To catch a big flathead, it's almost imperative to use live bait. Live bluegills or shad are the optimum choices, although goldfish and other baits will work.
Channel cats are particularly fond of chicken liver and although many kinds of commercial baits are available on the market, chicken liver seems to work the best. It also happens to be the most economical. Currently, there are no restrictions on number or size of catfish that anglers may harvest on the Ohio River, although there are some fish consumption issues that anglers need to be aware of. Consult your fishing regulations for a list and explanation of fish consumption advisories if you plan on eating catfish caught from the Ohio River.
Catching a hodgepodge of different species is an exciting aspect of any trip to the Ohio River. Most anglers will be targeting the "big four" (walleyes, saugers, hybrid striped bass and catfish) and there is no better spot to find them than on one of the river's tailwaters. While anglers will be able to catch fish anytime of the year, early-season tailwater action on Ohio River is something no angler will want to miss.
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