West Virginia River Walleyes & Saugers

West Virginia River Walleyes & Saugers

These members of the perch family are thriving in many of our state's river systems. Here are three top ones to consider right now. (March 2010)

Are you looking to shrug off the past winter? One of the best ways is with an early-spring trip to a river setting in pursuit of walleyes. The fishing action can rid you of a couple months of inactivity, and may well provide a couple of firm-fleshed fish fillets for the skillet.

Andy Vetula with a good-sized river walleye, which was fooled by a hair jig and minnow combination.
Photo by Jeff Knapp.

The Mountain State features a number of excellent walleye-fishing options. Reservoirs such as Summersville Lake and Tygart Lake play host to self-sustaining walleye populations and provide excellent angling opportunities throughout much of the year. But by nature, the walleye is a river species. So it stands to reason it should fare well in moving-water environments.

Many of our state's warmwater rivers host walleyes and their closely related cousin the sauger. Major rivers like the Ohio, Monongahela and Kanawha are enjoying the benefits of higher water quality, and the surge in fish populations such provides.

In the case of river walleyes, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) began an enhanced river walleye-stocking program in 2004 with the introduction of a special strain of walleye. The DNR hopes these fish will do better in some of the state's flowing waters.

The unique walleye strain was first identified by research conducted by the West Virginia's DNR, Ohio University and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Eggs were acquired from neighboring Virginia and raised to fingerling stage fish, where they have been stocked in the New, Cheat, Kanawha and Ohio rivers. These three rivers currently carry an 18-inch minimum length limit, and two-walleye creel limit.

According to fisheries biologist Mark Scott, walleye stockings have been particularly effective on the New River. Female walleyes, in particular, are exhibiting a fast growth rate. There may be a push by the fisheries management community for a slot limit that better protects the breeder-sized walleyes than the current 18-inch length limit.

Early spring is one of the best times to cash in on fast river walleye fishing. Beginning in the late fall, river walleyes move upstream, a migration triggered by cooling temperatures and (often) rising water levels. Barrier areas such as dams and falls halt this upward movement, resulting in a concentration of fish in certain areas. Walleyes often find the correct spawning habitat in such areas, and then tend to stay in the vicinity until mid to late spring, when a downriver dispersal takes place.

What follows is a look at three different West Virginia river settings that provide good early-season walleye fishing, as well as a tactics primer for catching these fish at this time.

THE UPPER OHIO RIVER
From where it flows into the state from Pennsylvania, the Ohio River is a border water, separating West Virginia and the state of Ohio. While saugers are the more dominant member of the perch family on the Ohio, walleyes exist in the upper end of West Virginia's portion of the Ohio, becoming more infrequent in downriver areas.

The three most upriver dams along West Virginia's portion of the Ohio are the New Cumberland, Pike Island and Hannibal. All are gated dams. The lock chambers are located on the Ohio side on the New Cumberland and Hannibal dams. Hydroelectric plants are found on the West Virginia side at these two facilities. At the Pike Island Locks and Dam, lock chambers are on the West Virginia shore. There is no hydroelectric plant at this dam.

According to fisheries biologist Curt Wagner, who works across the river for the Ohio Division of Wildlife, recent electrofishing surveys conducted in tailrace areas paint a picture of the present fish populations. In general, saugers outnumber walleyes. Saugers tend to out-compete with walleyes in turbid environments, which the Ohio River qualifies as.

Efforts conducted below the New Cumberland Dam reveal a population consisting of about 92 percent saugers and 8 percent walleyes.

"Saugers live fast and die young," explained Wagner. "Young-of-the- year saugers will often be 7 inches long by the fall. They are fast growing. But as such, they physiologically break down quickly too."

Wagner said 2-year-old saugers produced during the 2007 spawn would average 12 to 14 inches in length by their second year. Though a fairly high percentage of 3-year-old fish will have naturally succumbed, those still present will exceed 15 inches.

The highest walleye numbers are found downriver in the Pike Island Locks and Dam tailrace, where the walleye population rose to 22 percent (78 percent saugers) during recent fall surveys. The Pike Island tailrace also produced the biggest walleyes, fish up to 25 inches.

The Hannibal Locks and Dam (L&D) exhibited the highest sauger density of the three dams. About 97 percent of the catch was made up of saugers, with walleyes being represented with about 3 percent of that collected during electrofishing.

Fishing access varies from average to excellent within these three dams. A boat access is located near New Cumberland (about 1.5 miles below the dam).

The Pike Island L&D features nice shore-fishing facilities on the Ohio side of the river. Public boat access is available a short distance downriver at the city of Wheeling's three-lane launch. The Hannibal L&D has the nicest shore-fishing facilities of the three, where fishing piers and fish-cleaning facilities are located on the West Virginia side. There is also a nice boat access a couple miles down the river, at Fishing Creek, in New Martinsville.

A reciprocal agreement between Ohio and West Virginia allows licensed resident anglers from either state to fish this border water with their resident licenses. Boat-anglers must pay heed to signs and buoys that mark the restricted area below dams where boats are prohibited.

THE NEW RIVER
When one thinks of river walleyes, the image of a whitewater-laced river isn't the first to come to mind. But such is one of the state's better river walleye settings -- the New River -- especially in the early spring, when walleyes stack up below natural waterfalls.

According to fisheries biologist Frank Jernejcic, surveys conducted last spring by the DNR have been particularly impressive on the New River, thanks to the resurgence of the walleye fishery fueled by th

e stocking of river-strain walleyes.

"I was down there last March during a survey," said Jernejcic. "I was amazed at the number of 20-inch walleyes we collected in a short stretch of river."

The area Jernejcic referred to is below Sandstone Falls, which is located a few miles downriver of Bluestone Dam. Access to the area is available by way of Sandstone Falls Park, near Hinton.

THE TYGART LAKE TAILRACE
While the river barriers on the previously listed rivers feature navigation locks dams, and also natural waterfalls, in the case of Tygart Lake, the structure is that of a 230-foot-high concrete flood-control dam.

Built to hold the waters of the Tygart Valley River, Tygart Dam's (also commonly called Grafton Dam) tailwaters section contains a good supply of walleyes, especially during the early season.

"Starting around December, some walleyes pass through the dam and end up in the tailwaters area," explained Jernejcic. "The movement continues through early April. There are lots of walleyes in the tailwaters during that time."

Jernejcic said that though there are smaller walleyes in the discharge pool year 'round, early spring is the best time to catch bigger fish.

"The bigger walleyes don't seem to hang around very long," he noted. As the waters warm, he said the larger 'eyes are contacted downriver, usually in an area about two miles below Valley Falls.

Good access to the tailwaters pool is available at the city of Grafton's park, which has a boat launch as well as riverside access. For areas downstream on the Tygart Valley River, check out the access provided by Valley Falls State Park.

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