By Kevin Yokum
“It’s a little bit like fishing in the ocean, because when you feel that tug on your line, you never know what might be on the other end,” says Jake, an Ohio River tailrace regular. Jake loves to fish the big waters of the Ohio, and he does so every chance he gets. The Ohio River has become an extremely popular fishing destination for Mountain State anglers, and one of the prime reasons is its tailraces offer West Virginia anglers the first consistent fishing of the year.
Even though good fishing occurs throughout the year, exceptional fishing can start as early as January. Three reasons explain why anglers love to fish the Ohio’s tailraces: early-season fishing action, the chance to catch a mixed bag of sportfish and the opportunity to catch trophy fish like no other state water.
On this nippy winter afternoon, Jake has landed two walleyes, a sauger and had his line snapped after a vicious hookup that was almost certainly a large hybrid striper. If today turns out like most days, Jake will double his production and end up with a nice catch of fish to take home for dinner.
In addition to early-season fishing, the Ohio River tailraces offer some of West Virginia’s best opportunities for trophy fish. The river is well known for producing a variety of trophy fish, and pictures of these big ones are plastered on tackle store and marina walls all along the river. While the Ohio River annually produces more fish than any other West Virginia water, the river’s most impressive feature is big fish. Each year, more trophy fish citations are issued for Ohio River catches than anywhere else in the state.
Stretching from the Northern Panhandle to the southwestern corner of our state near Huntington, the Ohio River is our state’s largest body of water. The river forms the border between West Virginia and Ohio, so Mountain State anglers who maintain a valid fishing license have the right to fish either side of the river, thanks to a reciprocal agreement between the states of Ohio and West Virginia. All regulations, creel limits, etc., apply to the state in which the angler is physically fishing, regardless of their license type.
It seems that just about every freshwater species known to man finds its way into the Ohio River and while numerous fish species are available to tailrace anglers, four primary species receive the bulk of anglers’ attention. Throughout the year, hybrid striped bass, walleyes, saugeyes and catfish are all available at each Ohio River tailrace, although some tailraces offer better fishing for certain species.
“Water flow is critical to fishing the Ohio River,” says Frank Jernejcic, Division of Natural Resources fisheries biologist and an avid angler. The outflow from the dam usually determines where good fishing will occur. If water flow through the dam is excessive, then moving downstream where there is less flow usually results in better marble-eye fishing. During times when only a little water is flowing through the dam, target the areas of moving current close to the dam.
According to Jernejcic, it’s difficult to pick one tailrace over another, but he does feel that the dams farther upstream tend to have better walleye fishing than those downstream.
One such upstream dam, Pike Island, deserves mentioning because in addition to good walleye fishing, it features some of the most modern facilities on the river, including an impressive fishing pier on the Ohio shoreline. Anglers are reminded that they can fish either side of the Ohio River with a valid West Virginia or Ohio fishing license. Don’t limit yourself to one side of the river, because the best fishing may be on the opposite shoreline.
Just north of Wheeling, anglers can reach the Pike Island tailrace by following state Route (SR) 7. Additional access is located on the Ohio side of the river.
For my angling preferences, fishing and cold weather don’t mix very well, but anglers fishing Ohio River tailraces don’t seem to mind, particularly when the sauger bite is hot. On many occasions when the weather turns cold, the sauger bite seems to get better, especially on windy or cloudy days.
As a general rule, when a lot of current is flowing through the dams, fish along the shoreline in slack water. When little current is coming through the dams, fish as close as possible to the current because saugers will be holding along the current.
Besides featuring some of the river’s best sauger action, the New Cumberland tailrace is also a prime spot to catch Ohio River walleyes. In the tailraces, saugers or walleyes will usually hammer twistertail jigs. Tipping a jig with a live minnow or night crawler will make it even more effective. Hybrid striped bass may also be caught while sauger fishing, as both species hit jigs readily.
Accessing the New Cumberland tailrace requires some effort, as it is approximately a 1/4-mile walk from the fishing access to the river, but the walk is definitely worth the effort. Over the last few years, the number of saugers and walleyes being caught by Ohio River anglers appears to be increasing, and nowhere on the river is the fine walleye fishing more evident than at New Cumberland.
High catch rates are the principal draw, but trophy walleyes could show up anytime, especially early in the year in the New Cumberland tailrace.
To gain access to this productive tailrace, take SR 2 north out of New Cumberland and travel about 1.5 miles to the tailrace.
The best time to catch walleyes may be on windy, overcast days when temperatures are dropping. There also seems to be a correlation between rough weather conditions and big-fish action. A lot of experienced walleye anglers feel that big fish are much more active during harsh weather, and therefore become more susceptible to angling.
Even when water levels on the Ohio River seem too high to fish, walleyes will be available below the river’s dams. That’s when they move close to shore, making them especially vulnerable to bank-fishing in the Hannibal tailrace.
The best way to fish Hannibal may be from the shore, especially when water is passing through the dam’s hydroelectric turbines. Abundant shoreline access is available and many walleyes have been landed from fishing piers just below the dam.
The strong current that circles these fishing piers during periods of high flow creates a “backwater” eddy that makes an ideal location for anglers to find fish. Hybrid striped bass will lie on the edge of the heavy current and strike bait as it comes to them. Hybrid striped bass are plentiful in the Hannibal tailrace and these fish give anglers some spectacular bonus fishing opportunities.
The Hannibal Dam is located near the town of New Martinsville just off SR 2.
Hybrids are vicious predators that will eat almost anything, but their preferred feeding method is to attack schools of baitfish. The Belleville tailrace is one of the river’s best locations to find hybrid striped bass busting schools of shad and when this happens, the water can literally turn into a churning feeding frenzy. Hybrids don’t hang close to cover like most game fish, but they do stay close to the dam tailraces.
Hybrids are especially fond of the tailraces because these areas provide just about everything that a fish could want. Fresh water and tons of gizzard shad team up to make an enticing package that keeps hybrid striped bass in the tailraces for most of the year. Recent research conducted by the Ohio Division of Wildlife confirmed that hybrids remain in the tailraces for much of the year.
In addition to hybrid striped bass, the Belleville tailrace is an excellent place to encounter trophy catfish, particularly the giant flatheads that the Ohio River is famous for. When I say giant, I’m talking about catfish up to 60 pounds or more!
To the delight of non-boating anglers, Belleville features a plethora of shoreline fishing enhancements. A hydro unit was set in place a few years ago, and now water flow around the unit draws all kinds of fish near the West Virginia shoreline. Two fishermen access piers and a shoreline walkway allow anglers to conveniently fish right down to the water’s edge. The Belleville tailrace doesn’t have a boat-launching facility, and the closest ramp is located about 10 miles downstream in Ravenswood. Anglers willing to lock through the dam can launch about one mile upstream of the Belleville Dam.
Catfish are more aggressive during the spring and summer, but anglers using live or cut bait near the river’s bottom could hook into a trophy catfish at anytime of the year. Flatheads are much more apt to hit a live bluegill or gizzard shad, while channel cats will respond much better to chicken liver or cut bait.
The RC Byrd tailrace has some great features that are perfect for shoreline catfishing. Shoreline access can be found on both the Ohio and West Virginia sides of the river, but the Ohio shoreline has the most elaborate setup with piers and walkways. The RC Byrd tailrace does not offer boat-launching facilities, and the closest ramp is seven miles away at Green Bottom Wildlife Management Area.
The best access to the RC Byrd tailrace can be found just off SR 7 in Ohio, although additional shoreline access is available on the West Virginia side of the river off SR 2.
Often hybrids seem to be just out of reach of conventional casting ranges, so some shoreline anglers have switched to using surf-casting tackle. By gaining more distance on their casts, they can place lures right among the fish, thereby increasing odds of getting bitten.
Pencil poppers and other surface lures are very popular among Ohio River tailwater anglers. These surface lures produce an erratic jerking motion that hybrids just can’t seem to resist. Another tactic is to use an agitator bobber, which can be cast farther because of additional weight, and attach a fly or jig to it. This method has proven effective on Ohio River tailrace hybrids. Anglers are allowed to harvest up to four hybrid striped bass per day on the Ohio.
In the Ohio River tailraces, the techniques used to catch walleyes and saugers are very similar. Jigs are a mainstay for Ohio River anglers with white, black and chartreuse being the most effective colors. The weight you use will depend on water flow, but 1/4-ounce is what many anglers use, with heavier jigheads being utilized during higher flows. Walleyes and saugers spend most of their time on the river bottom; so if you’re not touching the bottom, then add weight.
Live bait is always an option for walleyes or saugers, and since m
ost of these fine-tasting fish will be heading for the dinner table, deep hooking is a non-issue. A total of 10 fish (walleye, sauger or mixed bag) are allowed for Ohio River anglers each day.
The Ohio River is full of catfish and many of them are big ones. The largest of the Ohio River cats is the flathead and to catch a big one, it’s important to know that flatheads prefer live bait. Live bluegills or shad are the best choices, although goldfish and other bait will work. Anglers should note that circle hooks offer excellent hookup rates when used with live bait. These hooks do minimal damage to fish, if you should choose to catch and release.
Channel cats are particularly fond of chicken liver and after trying many kinds of commercial baits, chicken liver seems to be the most effective and economical to use. Currently, there are no limits on number or size of catfish that anglers can harvest on the Ohio River.
Early-season action, a wide variety of game fish and trophy potential like no other water in the state provide three solid reasons to fish Ohio River tailraces this year. If you don’t have a trip to the Ohio River planned, then mark it down today.
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