While West Virginia offers countless bass fishing opportunities, the lakes that run along the I-79 corridor offer more than just good fishing — they also offer access.
By Jeff Knapp
Interstate 79 provides the primary thoroughfare for folks traveling north and south through the Mountain State. It’s also an ideal corridor for bass fishing, as several top-notch fisheries are found not far from the four lanes that weave and climb through West Virginia.
Once devastated by acid mine drainage and a host of industrial pollutants, Cheat Lake is currently one of the top bass fishing lakes in the state, located right on I-68, just east of the I-79 merger at exit 148. Because of active treatment at mine discharge sites by state agencies and conservation groups, water quality has greatly improved.
According to Dustin Smith, West Virginia Division of Wildlife’s District 1 assistant fisheries biologist, the lake is as good as it has ever been for bass fishing, with it rating in the top 10 in terms of production in bass tournaments held across the state.
An impoundment of the Cheat River, Cheat Lake flows south to north, eventually draining into the Monongahela River. The dam is located near the West Virginia/Pennsylvania border.
Both largemouth and smallmouth bass are found in Cheat Lake, with largemouths being more common. However, there has been a recent trend of rising smallmouth numbers, and they are now better distributed throughout the lake.
Those bass fishing can expect to catch good numbers of bass, largemouths in particular, with a fair chance at quality-size fish. Recent survey work revealed largemouths over 15 inches make up about 30 percent of the total collected during electrofishing efforts.
“Most of the largemouth bass folks catch will be in the 12- to 15-inch range,” Smith said. “But 15- to 20-inch largemouths are available — they’re not uncommon.”
Size-wise, smallmouths tend to be smaller in Cheat Lake, with fish in the 11- to 12-inch range, though fish up to 17 inches are in the lake.
Cheat Lake is fairly clear, typically in the 5- to 6-foot range, featuring a variety of habitats. Some submerged weedgrowth is present, particularly in the two larger embayments near the dam, formed by Morgan Run and Rubles Run. Eelgrass and curly pondweed make up the bulk of the weedgrowth.
The lake also contains submerged timber under the water, as the lake was not timbered prior to being filled. However, it has been long enough that essentially only the main trunks are left, making them difficult to show up on sonar units. Besides the weeds and wood, much of the lake bottom is comprised of harder substrate — rocks and boulders.
Cheat Lake’s forage base includes emerald shiners, some gizzard shad and young yellow perch. Yellow perch numbers in Cheat are strong.
There is no horsepower limit on Cheat Lake, with the primary boat access at the Sunset Beach Access containing ample parking and a two-lane ramp. The Winter Ramp — found near the dam — provides limited parking, along with a single-lane ramp.
Stonecoal Lake is extremely overlooked for bass fishing, according to WVDNR District 3 Fisheries Biologist James Walker, mainly because of its proximity to Stonewall Jackson Lake, one of the top bass lakes in the state, and Stonecoal’s 10-horsepower limitation.
Since Stonewall Jackson provides a larger venue and a wide host of amenities, Stonecoal receives much less recreational boaters and skiers.
Best known for its musky fishing, Stonecoal produced both current state record muskies (West Virginia maintains records for both length and weight), of 52.7 inches and 49.75 pounds. But it also supports what Walker terms as a fantastic bass population, just south of Route 30, off I-79 at Exit 96.
Stonecoal has both largemouth and smallmouth bass fishing, though the numbers of the former are much greater, but both offer quality size.
Stonecoal benefits from Stonewall Jackson in another way, as well. Stonecoal was built to store cooling water for a nearby power plant. As such, releases were made from Stonecoal to augment West Fork flows during periods of low flow. The completion of Stonewall Jackson Lake over 25 years ago, an impoundment of the West Fork, eliminated the need for releases from Stonecoal. The lake’s fish populations have prospered from the more stable pool.
Setting in a steep-sided valley, Stonecoal has numerous embayments and smaller coves throughout its length. The larger bays pierce the lake’s southern shoreline.
Stonecoal Lake has also been the beneficiary of an aggressive habitat improvement project in recent years. Christmas tree/brushpiles have been added, as have numerous shoreline laydown trees. Though trees naturally fall into the lake through erosion and storm damage, the ones felled by the DNR tend to be more permanent in nature, as they are cabled to the bank.
“Bankside signs often mark the location of habitat improvement devices,” noted Walker. “They are great for pulling in baitfish, and as a result gamefish. During electrofishing efforts, we will be working a section of bank, not finding much, and then collect a bunch as we approach a tree or brushpile. They are especially good for anglers not familiar with the lake, furnishing places where there is a good chance they’ll find some bass.”
Two boat launches are found on Stonecoal Lake. One is in Lewis County, in the lower end of the lake near the dam. It features 50 parking spots and a two-lane concrete ramp. The other is located in the lake’s upper end in Upshur County. It provides 30 parking spots, as well as a two-lane gravel ramp. In addition to these primary access areas, the Pringle Fork Access, also found in upper end of Stonecoal, has a single dirt ramp and parking for around eight vehicles.
Completed in 1990, Stonewall Jackson Lake quickly attained widely accepted status as the state’s best fishing bass lake. Factors leading to this include the high level of fertility newly formed lakes enjoy, as well as a catch and release bass regulations that were in effect until about four years ago.
While Stonewall Jackson continues to be a good bass lake, fewer numbers of trophy-size largemouths, combined with an expanding spotted bass population, led the DNR to a regulation change in 2013, allowing harvest of six bass a day, only one of which can be over 18 inches in length. The regulation change was meant to thin the herd, while maintaining good numbers of larger bass.
During the first two years of the regulation change, the state monitored angler harvest. The efforts showed an extremely low level of harvest, suggesting that the catch-and-release practice is firmly engrained with many bass fishing enthusiasts. As such, it’s possible the DNR will reevaluate the regulation change in the future.
What differentiates Stonewall Jackson from other large state reservoirs is the abundance of flooded timber that was left remaining when it was filled in 1990. And while the 2,600-acre lake’s productivity has dropped to a more typical level, standing and submerged wood remain. Gizzard shad were introduced into Stonewall Jackson by the DNR a few years ago to bolster the lake’s forage base and have taken off in strong numbers.
The main arm of Stonewall Jackson stretches up to the town of Walkersville. The Skin Creek and Little Skin Creek arms provide two other long, narrow areas. While no horsepower limitations are in place, it has many no-wake zones. Access areas on Stonewall Jackson Lake include the Georgetown Access, Glady Fork Access and Jacksonville Access, along with access within the Stonewall Jackson State Park. A marina is also located in the state park.
Venturing farther south on I-79 leads to Sutton Lake, which can be found by taking the Flatwoods Exit.
“Sutton is a bit different than most other lakes in the area in that its waters are clearer, and it’s a bit less productive,” explained Walker.
The bass fishery is made up mostly largermouths and spots, with a small population of smallmouths.
“We get good numbers of bass when we electro-fish Sutton,” he reported. “About 100 bass per hour of effort, which is good.
Sutton Lake is formed by an impoundment on the Elk River. As a federal flood control lake it sees annual drawdowns. Much of the fish-holding habitat is in form of wood and rocks, and gizzard shad are present. There is no significant weed growth, nor is there any horsepower restriction.
Three ramps provide access to Suttton Lake. Bee Run ramp features a single lane ramp and ample parking on the lower end of the reservoir, across from the Wolf Run embayment. A second ramp is located nearby, close to the dam, featuring two concrete ramps and 100 parking spots. A third access area, on the Elk River within the lake’s headwaters, is found at the Bakers Run Campground. A single lane concrete ramp is provided.
South of Sutton Lake, off Exit 79 on I-79, sits Burnsville Lake, another fine black bass fishing lake.
“Burnsville’s bass are mostly largemouths, but there are also good numbers of spotted bass, including some nice ones in the 16-inch range,” said Walker. “Each year Burnsville turns out some citation-sized spotted bass.”
Burnsville, formed by an impoundment of the Little Kanawha River, is shallower than many other lakes, and tends to have a bit of color.
The lake contains some brushpile, and the DNR has been adding wood habitat to the lake. The agency has attempted to establish native vegetation, but have not succeeded, likely due to the regular drawdowns this federal flood control lake experiences.
Boat access to Burnsville is available at the lower end at the Dam Access, where four concrete ramps and a 100-spot lot is found. Bulltown Campground furnishes a single ramp and a 20-spot parking lot within the upper reaches of the main arm.
The Mountain State has other great bass fishing locations throughout its borders, but the lakes that border the I-79 corridor provide access and excellent fishing.