Hot Winter Tailrace Action On The Ohio River

Hot Winter Tailrace Action On The Ohio River

From walleyes to hybrid stripers and more, there's always something biting in the tailraces of the mighty Ohio River. (January 2006)

Photo by Tom Evans

"It's the best-kept secret in West Virginia," the elderly gentleman stated. Forcing back a grin at the fellow's comment, I asked if he was kidding. "Give me 30 minutes and I'll prove it," the angler answered. Intrigued by his confidence, I agreed.

For the next half hour, I watched as the determined angler landed several hybrid striped bass, a sauger and three freshwater drum from the Hannibal tailrace.

"That's pretty im-pressive," I assured the angler. "Impressive? I did not even catch a walleye, and I always catch walleye and maybe even one of those mudcats (flathead catfish). I sure wish I could have reeled in one like yesterday. It weighed nearly 30 pounds!" the tailrace angler exclaimed.

Having fished West Virginia all my life, it isn't often that I'm surprised about a water body's fishing potential, but I sure was that day.

Admittedly, I figured something would be biting along the Hannibal tailrace on that warm March afternoon, but nothing as lucrative as the assorted stringer of fish that angler caught in front of me. It really demonstrated what dynamic fisheries exist on Ohio River tailraces, and it definitely made me regret not bringing along my fishing tackle.

Such variety is not uncommon along the Ohio River, and any of the river's seven tailraces can produce an onslaught of fish species, even in the late winter or early spring.

WHY THE TAILWATERS?

Every year the question comes up: What's so special about Ohio River tailraces? The same old answers to the same old question: plenty of food, well-oxygenated water, current and a manmade barrier that stacks up fish.

These manmade structures, better known as navigational locks, divide the Ohio River into different sections commonly referred to as pools. Seven such locks are found within West Virginia's boundary, and each acts as a barrier to migrating fish; hence, different fish species are thereby concentrated in the tailraces just downstream of each dam. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that wherever fish concentrate, quality fishing is likely to occur. Through the years, anglers have learned to home in on tailraces and with good reason.

Creel surveys conducted on the Ohio River have shown that more than 90 percent of the fish caught on the river come from these tailraces. In addition to hefty numbers of fish, most tailraces provide easy access to the river, especially for shoreline anglers.

Current is a natural food carrier for sportfish and when fish congregate in the tailraces, they use the current as a delivery service. Routinely served with such grandiose meals, why leave? In addition, flowing water from the locks helps maintain premium water quality in tailrace areas on a water body that is not necessarily known for pristine conditions.

Baitfish come to the tailraces for many of the same reasons that sportfish do. However, once in the tailrace, life may get a bit difficult. Game fish learn that it's easier to pin baitfish against a barrier (lock wall) than in the open river.

The Ohio River is an intriguing place to fish because it features so many different species. Anglers never know for sure what is pulling on the end of their line. Some of the river's most popular game fish species include bass, walleyes, saugers, hybrid striped bass, catfish and even muskies. All of these species can be found in any of the river's tailraces, although some tailraces seem to offer better fishing for certain species.

NEW CUMBERLAND TAILWATERS

The New Cumberland tailrace provides some of the Ohio River's best hybrid striper action. Starting in February and continuing through November, the hybrid bite lasts nearly all year.

West Virginia biologist Frank Jernejcic claims, "Anglers will probably not find a better place to catch hybrids on the Ohio River than at the New Cumberland tailrace. Over the last few years, several guys have reported catching impressive stringers of hybrids from New Cumberland."

Hybrids aren't the only thing worth catching in the New Cumberland tailrace. Walleyes, catfish and saugers are available just about any time of the year. Saugers seem well suited to the New Cumberland Lock, particularly during the late-winter, early-spring period. Usually by late winter, the tailrace downstream of the New Cumberland Dam will be bustling with sauger activity.

According to Jernejcic, water flow is the real key to fishing success. "When a lot of current is flowing through the dams, anglers should concentrate along the shoreline and anywhere they might find some slack water," Jernejcic stated. "Conversely, conditions where little flow is moving through the dams dictate that anglers cast far out and as close as possible to the current because saugers will hold along the current lines."

In addition to featuring some of the river's best hybrid and sauger action, the New Cumberland tailrace can also be a hotspot for Ohio River walleyes.


Creel surveys conducted on the Ohio River have shown that more than 90 percent of the fish caught on the river come from these tailraces.
 

A jig tipped with a live minnow or night crawler has been a super effective, yet simplistic bait rig among Ohio River anglers. The reason being that it works fantastic on walleyes, and an angler can catch just about anything that swims while fishing this setup.

Unlike many of the Ohio River tailraces, the New Cumberland doesn't offer convenient access to the river. Getting to the tailrace requires a bit of effort as the river lies approximately a quarter-mile from the parking areas, but topnotch fishing definitely makes the walk worthwhile.

Once in the tailrace, anglers can fish from the lock wall or along specially designed fishing paths. During most flows, it seems that anglers prefer to fish from the lock wall.

To gain access to this productive tailrace, take state Route (SR) 2 north out of New Cumberland and travel about 1.5 miles to the tailrace. Anglers sometimes park near the Crescent Brickyard building and walk to the river. Farther up SR 2, fishermen can park along the road and hike to the tailwaters. Either way, a short walk becomes mandatory.

Anglers

who want to fish from a boat can launch from the nearest ramp, which is located behind the New Cumberland Volunteer Fire Department building. The ramp enters the river a few miles downstream of the New Cumberland Lock.

HANNIBAL TAILWATERS

Many anglers believe that year in and year out, the Hannibal Lock offers the most consistent walleye and sauger fishing on the Ohio River. Just about any of the tailraces on the river are capable of yielding good numbers of walleyes, but Hannibal seems to provide quality fishing every year, particularly in the early season. February and March are traditionally the prime months to catch large numbers of walleyes and saugers on the Ohio River.

Don't be discouraged by high flows during the winter or spring because some of the best fishing on the Ohio River takes place during such conditions. Even when water levels on the Ohio River seem too high for good fishing, many species will likely be holding in tailraces. Anglers can usually find walleyes in slack-water spots near the shoreline.

Walleyes and saugers aren't the only species available at Hannibal. Largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, freshwater drum, hybrid striped bass and even catfish inhabit this tailrace or at least visit on a regular basis. Fishing for channel catfish seems to be particularly good in the spring and summer.

According to Jernejcic, Hannibal offers the best angling facilities on the river. Two fishing piers, shoreline pathways, toilets, a picnic area and even a fish-cleaning station stand are available for the tailrace angler's use.

"All these facilities make the Hannibal tailrace a great family fishing location," Jernejcic added. A hotel is conveniently located just across the parking lot for traveling anglers, and all sorts of walkers, joggers and anglers use the tailrace's friendly outdoor arena.

As for fishing, the best opportunities might come from the area surrounding the two fishing piers just below the dam. The river's swift current circles these fishing piers during high flow, creating a backwater eddy. This backwater forms a natural holding area for fish to escape the strong currents of the mighty Ohio. Hybrid striped bass, walleyes and freshwater drum will concentrate in this area regularly during heavy water flow.

During periods when the lock is not releasing much water, anglers need to find ways to get their lures near the flowing water of the release gates. Sometimes that means using surf- casting gear or other specialized tackle capable of heaving lures across great distances. During low flow conditions, fish will be oriented next to the current, so long casts become necessary.


Catfish and freshwater drum have been particularly abundant at R.C. Byrd during the last few years, and both species seem to be popular targets for anglers.
 

Biologist Jernejcic has monitored the river for more than 25 years. He indicated that tailraces throughout the Ohio River have maintained a high quality of fishing for many years, and Hannibal in particular seems to have done so.

Located just off SR 2 near New Martinsville, the Hannibal Lock is an obvious landmark.

Anglers looking to fish from a watercraft will find the closest launch ramp at the mouth of Fishing Creek, about two miles downstream from the Hannibal Lock. Much like the Hannibal tailrace, the mouth of Fishing Creek offers fine winter and early spring fishing.

R.C. BYRD TAILRACE

The most modern lock spanning the Ohio River is R.C. Byrd (formerly known as the Gallipolis Lock). The R.C. Byrd tailrace offers some of the finest fishing opportunities in southwestern West Virginia and certainly the most diverse.

Walleyes, saugers, hybrid striped bass, smallmouth bass, spotted bass, freshwater drum, largemouth bass and catfish are all present in this dynamic tailrace. Anglers can expect to catch a variety of species when fishing on any of the Ohio River locks, and at R.C. Byrd, this seems particularly true. The last time I visited the R.C. Byrd tailrace, many of the anglers fishing the tailrace ended up catching a mixed bag of species.

Of course, baits/lures can dictate which species anglers might catch, but those using natural baits like minnows or night crawlers can expect to catch quite a variety from river tailraces. When fishing the Ohio River, there's no telling what might be tugging on the other end of the line.

Catfish and freshwater drum have been particularly abundant at R.C. Byrd during the last few years, and both species seem to be popular targets for anglers. Many anglers prefer to fish R.C. Byrd during high flows, and District 5 biologist Zack Brown explained why.

"During high flows, a large back eddy develops on the West Virginia side of the river. Sheltered out of the heavy current, fish of all varieties congregate in this temporary shelter, creating magnificent angling opportunities for shoreline anglers. The only way to fish this backwater is from shore."

During routine electroshocking samples this past year, Brown turned up hundreds of drum and other sport fish that were congregated in this eddy. Some of the drum were impressive and would easily have been considered trophy size.

Brown also indicated that good numbers of saugers normally hang out in the tailrace, and occasionally a big walleye turns up during electroshocking surveys on the river.

At R.C. Byrd, saugers and walleyes remain prime targets for late-winter/ early-spring anglers. Saugers are more abundant than walleyes in this tailrace and continue to provide the most consistent action for tailrace anglers at Byrd.

The Greenup Pool, the receiving water of R.C. Byrd tailrace, has also been producing many trophy catfish over the last few years. Right now, the Greenup Pool has as much trophy catfish potential as any place on the Ohio River.

Live or cut bait has served as the primary choice for catfish anglers on the Ohio River for centuries, and it still works today. Flatheads are much more apt to hit a live bluegill or gizzard shad, while channel cats will respond much better to chicken livers or cut bait.


Some tailrace anglers continue to use crankbaits, and they can be effective when anglers have to make long casts to access gate openings.
 

Facilities in the R.C. Byrd tailrace are pretty basic on the West Virginia side of the river, consisting of simple shoreline access paths. The Ohio shoreline once offered piers and walkways to anglers, but flood damage has hindered some of those. Repairs are planned, but anglers will need to contact the Ohio Department of Natural Resources for updated progress reports on those facilities.

The R.C. Byrd tailrace does not furnish boat-launching facilities to the Greenup Pool, and the closest ramp is seven miles away at Green Bottom Wildlife Management Area.

Tailwater access is available on the West Virginia side of the river off SR 2 near the new Apple Grove State Fish Hatchery. Shoreline access and plenty of parking can be found at the tailwater.

TAILRACE TACTICS

Nothing beats live bait while fishing the Ohio River's tailraces. One of the primary reasons fish remain in the tailraces is to feed, and upon close examination of the water, it's not uncommon to see schools of baitfish along lock walls. With game fish concentrating on baitfish as primary forage, what better bait could an angler throw than live minnows?

Night crawlers make a great secondary choice, providing anglers with catches of nearly every sportfish on the river. Worms or night crawlers sure make economical sense and are easy to obtain.

We couldn't talk about baits without at least mentioning jigs. Probably the best all-around artificial baits to use in the tailraces, jigs can be fished at various depths. Adjusting baits to the level where the fish are holding is paramount to successfully fishing these tailraces. Thankfully, jigs remain particularly effective on early- season walleyes and saugers because live bait can be tough to obtain during late winter/early spring.

Some tailrace anglers continue to use crankbaits, and they can be effective when anglers have to make long casts to access gate openings.

We can't forget about the old "liver and onions" for catfish. Liver being actual chicken liver for channel catfish and "onions" is slang for live bluegills or shad used for flathead bait. The onion term stems from a baitfish's "peeled" appearance after being engulfed by a vicious flathead. These two options are clearly the best choices for Ohio River catfish anglers.

The most productive area at a given tailrace will be within the water flowing from the dam (outflow). Fishing the outflow is critical to success no matter what bait or lure is selected. If you're not fishing around current, you're missing out.

Early every year, anglers flock to Ohio River tailraces to experience the state's first legitimate fishing action. Fishing can be excellent for a multitude of species during late winter/early spring, but anytime is a good time to fish the Ohio River tailraces.

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