Photo by Michael Skinner.
Vivid memories of the trophy 10-pounder still keep me up at night. The vicious strike, a frantic battle, and one last boat side lunge that snapped my line. What a nightmare! My first 10-pound bass, inches from outstretched fingers, and then it was gone.
One of the most basic, yet sound, theories regarding trophy bass is that to consistently catch lunkers you must fish where they live. The more time anglers spend bass fishing in trophy-yielding water, the odds of catching trophy bass increase.
Surprisingly, my first encounter with a 10-pound bass didn’t take place in Florida or California but on West Virginia’s very own Stonewall Jackson Lake. Stonewall Jackson happens to be the East’s largest catch-and-release impoundment for black bass. While 10-pounders are still rare this far north, Stonewall Jackson sure has plenty of trophy bass.
Long noted as the state’s premier bass lake, Stonewall Jackson is one of West Virginia’s largest impoundments at 2,650 surface acres. Stonewall Jackson Lake is best known for its abundance of high-quality habitat, and the lake features an unbelievable amount of fishable water. Stonewall Jackson Lake has an average depth of 15 feet and contains acres of submerged timber.
One aspect that separates Stonewall Jackson from other lakes is the number of coves and no-wake zones that provide secluded fishing for anglers. These days, a quiet day on the water without interference from other boats can be refreshing. Big bass, tons of fishable water, and quality on-the-water experiences keep anglers coming back to this Lewis County impoundment.
Stonewall Jackson is a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lake managed for flood control, so each year the impoundment experiences an obvious drawdown. Usually in September, the lake is lowered approximately 5 feet to catch excess winter and early spring precipitation. However, Stonewall Jackson fills quickly once the Corps starts retaining water in April.
IS IT STILL NO. 1?
Since the lake was impounded 17 years ago, Stonewall has been the best bass lake in West Virginia, but some anglers feel that trophy bass fishing in the lake is starting to decline. I’ll address the decline theory later in the article, but first, the numbers don’t lie.
The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) has tracked bass tournament data from state waters for nearly 40 years. Significant information, such as catch rates and individual weights of tournament bass, has been recorded.
Even though the catch-and-release regulation prohibits conventional weigh-in tournaments, bass tournaments can be held on Stonewall Jackson using a “paper” tournament format where bass are caught, measured and released in the presence of a witness; hence, Stonewall Jackson is included in the historic data set.
An analysis of the bass tournament data by the DNR indicates that a combination ranking of catch rates (number of fish caught per hour) and quality-sized bass (biggest bass) remain higher in Stonewall Jackson than any other reservoir in the state.
Catching plenty of bass is fun, but most anglers come to Stonewall to catch “once-in-a-lifetime” trophy bass. And many times, catch them they do.
West Virginia DNR sampling data also shows that while Stonewall Jackson is still the number one bass lake in the state, the margin of difference has decreased significantly. Once far superior to other West Virginia lakes, data now indicates that impoundments such as Cheat, Summersville and East Lynn lakes are gaining quickly in the rankings.
One significant change in Stonewall Jackson was documented during a recent statewide research effort conducted by the DNR. Stonewall now displays a much higher percentage of spotted bass than it once did. In fact, just five or six years ago, spotted bass weren’t that common. Now, in some areas, up to 30 percent of the lake’s bass population consists of spotted bass. Such competition among bass species has and will likely continue to negatively affect largemouth bass populations on Stonewall Jackson.
WHY IS STONEWALL NO. 1?
A catch-and-release regulation on black bass (largemouth, smallmouth and spotted) has been in place on Stonewall Jackson Lake since it was filled in 1989. Usually, when a new lake is impounded that reservoir tends to produce incredible growth rates in fish during a five- to seven-year period.
Stonewall Jackson was no exception, as fish, especially bass, grew extremely fast. With the impending catch-and-release regulation, the DNR has maintained impressive numbers of large bass in the lake, thus recycling big bass after big bass for anglers to catch over and over again. The regulation has played a vital part in the success of trophy bass fishing on Stonewall Jackson Lake.
An overwhelming majority of anglers still favor the catch-and-release regulation for black bass on Stonewall Jackson. But is the lake’s trophy bass population declining because of the regulation as some critics claim?
First of all, there does seem to be a shift in the lake’s trophy bass population. Fewer trophy bass remain in the lake than were there 10 years ago, although there are still plenty of bass over 5 pounds swimming in the lake.
However, the problem doesn’t lie within bass population “stunting” as many folks predicted it would. There appears to be no stockpiling of small bass in the lake. A portion of the large trophy bass have died off from old age, and growth is much slower in remaining bass now that the reservoir has aged (productivity has decreased). This natural progression was inevitable, and reservoirs across the country encounter the exact same scenario, usually much quicker than Stonewall Jackson has.
The slower growth factor has been compounded by the illegal introduction of white bass and yellow perch, both of which consume tons of forage from the lake that should belong to the lake’s premier species: largemouth bass.
Over the years, Stonewall has received plenty of fishing pressure, so incidental hooking mortality, as well as delayed mortality, probably prevented the stockpiling of small bass within the lake’s system. The result is that removing the catch-and-release regulation would do little to increase the number of trophy bass.
In fact, the impending selective harvest would lik
ely remove even more trophy bass from the lake. Even switching from a catch-and-release regulation to a slot limit wouldn’t solve the slow growth and potential forage shortage.
Besides the catch-and-release regulation, the primary reason Stonewall Jackson remains West Virginia’s top bass lake is habitat. Tons of standing timber still exists in Stonewall Jackson, providing quality habitat for bass from one end of the lake to the other.
A fair amount of the lake’s shoreline is lined with riprap, yielding additional high production areas for bass and baitfish to inhabit. No other state reservoir can come close to containing as much riprap as Stonewall Jackson. These fine habitat types, as well as others covered inside the article, should continue to keep bass fishing on Stonewall Jackson at a premium.
WHERE TO FIND THE BIG ONES!
Stonewall Jackson Lake easily ranks as the state’s top lake for habitat, and the lake’s cover takes many forms. Some of the best cover types include submerged timber, riprap shorelines, submerged roadbeds and aquatic vegetation.
Without a doubt, standing timber is the thing that distinguishes Stonewall Jackson from other impoundments. Many sections of the lake are covered with the remnants of hardwood forests, fencerows and orchards. And make no mistake: Bass love to hang around timber, especially when deeper water is close by.
Standing timber is a productive cover to fish at any time of the year, but early spring can be a particularly good period to find bass on timber. Big bass love to lurk around wooded areas, especially early in the year. Anglers need to make sure they cast lures right against standing timber because sometimes bass hold extremely tight to structure during the spring’s early transitional periods.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that mature bass seem to hold near larger trees. So, make sure to fish around large timber if you’re looking for one of Stonewall’s giant bass. Don’t overlook isolated trees located farther out in the lake.
Although timber can be found throughout the lake, the most consolidated areas of standing timber on Stonewall Jackson Lake lie in the Jacksonville and Little Skin Creek areas. Both areas are loaded with many corridors of standing timber, and remain encapsulated by no-wake zones. Anglers fishing these areas can be assured of minimal boat traffic disturbance while on the water.
Riprap is another dynamic habitat type where anglers can find bass on Stonewall Jackson. This easy to locate structure experiences plenty of fishing pressure, but there always seems to be bass hanging around it, and sometimes riprap can hold many chunky bass.
Fish gather around these areas as the sun warms the rocks, making rip-rap a great structure to fish early in the year. Even though fish can be caught year ‘round near riprap, the optimal time of year to fish this cover type is probably during the late spring or summer.
Sections of riprapped shorelines can be found all over the lake, but the most concentrated riprapped shorelines are located near Stonewall Jackson State Park and Little Skin Creek. Sections of riprap containing culverts are even better than regular shoreline riprap.
Before Stonewall Jackson Lake was created, numerous roads crossed through the area. These old county roads now lie submerged under the surface of Stonewall Jackson Lake. Roadbeds make excellent fish habitat, as they warm quickly from the sun’s rays and offer natural dropoffs on the downhill side.
Each day, as water temperatures warm, bass will move up to roadbeds and then back into deeper water adjacent to the roadbeds. Bass often come up on the roadbeds to feed early in the morning and late in the evening.
With an entire road system running under Stonewall Jackson Lake, anglers can find these structures in just about any section of the lake. Look for the remains of old roads running along hillsides and into the lake. Some of the old roads appear obvious on fish finders/sonar graphs, while others are more difficult to detect; but all of these areas can be dynamite to fish.
Lying in north-central West Virginia near Interstate 79, Stonewall Jackson Lake might be the easiest of the Mountain State impoundments to find. Additionally, Stonewall has five boat launches scattered throughout the lake, which makes boating access very convenient. All launching facilities, with the exception of Glady Fork, are capable of handling large boats. Each facility offers plenty of parking.
From the air, Stonewall Jackson is shaped like a giant V with two distinct arms: West Fork and Skin Creek.
The Skin Creek arm has three launches: the Vandalia Bay, Glady Fork and Georgetown. These sites can be located by taking exit 96 off Interstate 79 and traveling on county Route 30.
Vandalia Bay is the busiest ramp on Stonewall Jackson and receives the most fishing pressure of any launch site. Located close to the main lake, Vandalia Bay has few no-wake restrictions surrounding the ramp. Boats with big motors tend to use this site as they can get on plane quickly, and thus access other parts of the lake.
The Georgetown (Little Skin Creek) ramp receives minimal fishing pressure and may be one of the lake’s most underrated areas for fishing. The area offers excellent stands of timber and a few riprapped shorelines for anglers to fish. However, Georgetown is located inside nearly a mile of no-wake zone, so anglers make a solid commitment to fish the area when launching at this site.
The best feature of Georgetown is that anglers can immediately begin fishing after launching their boat, since the ramp is adjacent to excellent bass cover.
The Glady Fork access has a small carry-down launch, perfect for canoes and ultralight watercraft, but trailered boats can’t be launched at this site. Large boats can access the area from the main lake. This tributary cove offers good habitat and receives a fair amount of fishing pressure.
Best features of the area include standing timber and a sizeable shoreline covered with riprap. If you’re trying to get away from angling pressure, Glady Fork could be one of your better options on the Skin Creek side of the lake.
On the other side of Stonewall Jackson Lake, the Roanoke and Jacksonville sites provide access to the West Fork arm. Anglers should take exit 91 from Interstate 79 to reach the West Fork sites.
The Roanoke/State Park launch is located inside Stonewall Jackson State Park and remains the second busiest ramp on the lake. Anglers should be aware that Stonewall Resort now charges $6 to enter the park and launch a boat at this access ramp. For frequent park users, season passes are available.
This access facility does feature the lake’s only marina service and is centrally located in the middle of the West Fork arm. As for bass habitat, the Roanoke area fea
tures some of the most diverse habitat on the lake, including open points, riprapped shorelines and culverts. In part, because such a variety of cover types are available, this area provides consistent fishing under a wide variety of environmental and biological conditions
The Jacksonville site may be reached by taking U.S. Route 19 south, and turning onto Walkersville Road (county Route 44). Continue on county Route 44 until turning onto Mudlick Road (county Route 19/10). After turning on Mudlick Road, the boat launch is located less than a quarter of a mile on the left.
Despite being the most isolated access site on the lake, the Jacksonville launch area offers tons of submerged and standing timber. A five-mile no-wake zone, stretching from the Jacksonville ramp downstream to an island near the state park, surrounds the Jacksonville access. The Jacksonville area is perfect for anglers who are seeking a remote fishing experience that offers awesome big-bass habitat with relatively low fishing pressure.
While Stonewall Jackson Lake may be showing signs of old age, the lake remains West Virginia’s best bass lake. With plenty of fishable water, a surplus of quality habitat and numerous big bass, this impoundment should continue to be the Mountain State’s premier bass fishery for years to come.