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Summersville Lake's Surprising Flathead Fishery

Summersville Lake's Surprising Flathead Fishery

In a water more conducive to walleye angling, mud cats are making their mark as well -- and thrilling local fishermen who hook into one!

The jig moved slowly along the bottom of the rocky lake. All the while, my sensitive G. Loomis rod detected every bump and crevice along the way. Suddenly, my rod struck resistance as the jig dug deep into a solid object. Instinctively, I set the hook and then immediately began to scold myself for burying the bulky jig into a log. After all, the trophy smallmouth I was fishing for certainly would have bolted as soon as the jig's sharp hook made contact, and a big walleye would be bulldogging his way along the bottom.

Amid all this commotion, I felt the unmistakable movement of my line slicing sideways through the water. I couldn't imagine what was attached to the end of my line, but it had to be a big fish of some sort.

My heart accelerated as the battle raged past the five-minute mark without even a glimpse of the fish. Could this be the next state-record smallmouth? Anticipation sent my mind into a tailspin as the first glimpses of the fish revealed brown flashes. After an exhausting 10-minute struggle, I sat staring at the origin of all the excitement.

The 12-pound flathead lay quietly in my net, and I sat on the boat too surprised by the conquered quarry to be disappointed that my prized state-record smallie turned out to be a flathead catfish.

Flatheads, like this healthy specimen, have been increasing in numbers in the depths of Summersville Lake; and it looks like these heavyweights could add some angling excitement to the lake's already prized fish species.

Summerville Lake is by far the most visually striking of West Virginia's impoundments. Giant boulders, white rock cliffs and glimmering blue water greet anglers as they enter this Nicholas County water. (Continued)


Located near the town of Summersville, Summersville Lake remains the Mountain State's largest impoundment at 2,700 acres. The lake also happens to be one of the state's busiest, especially on warm summer weekends. Recreational boating traffic can be problematic, especially for anglers seeking a quiet day on the water.

This U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lake features some of the Mountain State's clearest water, and the lake extends downward for hundreds of feet, so the water stays cool. This is perfect for walleyes and smallmouth bass. It's certainly not the kind of lake an angler might envision when searching for a quality flathead fishery.

In fact, anglers have long known of Summersville's outstanding walleye and smallmouth bass fisheries. Few, however, ever dreamed that one day the lake would feature a thriving flathead catfish population as well.

Flathead catfish have been documented by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) in previous sampling collections, but until about eight years ago, flathead numbers in Summersville Lake were considered marginal at best.

For some reason, flathead populations have really beefed up over the last decade, and some of the specimens are impressive ones, indeed!

Certainly, Summersville doesn't contain 50-pound flatheads like those Burnsville Lake continues to churn out; however, this surprising catfish fishery does contain plenty of 5- to 15-pound catfish. Thus, the future looks bright as Summersville's flatheads continue to grow with each passing day.

During last year's sampling regiment on Summersville Lake, DNR surveys revealed several flatheads in the 8- to 10-pound range, a few in the 10- to 15-pound range and plenty of flatheads in the 5- to 8-pound range.

Knowing that flatheads have a lengthy lifespan, perhaps someday we'll see a 50-pounder come from this lake. Fifty pounds might be stretching it given the productivity of the upper Gauley watershed, but a significant number of 25-pound fish should be likely in the not so distant future.

But what makes this fishery so exciting is not the quantity of lunker flatheads, it's the fact that this fishery receives so little fishing pressure directed toward catfish. Sure, a few whiskerfish anglers fish the lake, and occasional catches from smallmouth and walleye anglers do occur, but nothing serious. With all the national emphasis generated by trophy catfish these days, it's getting difficult to find catfish destinations like Summersville Lake.

Finding flatheads is usually a matter of locating their preferred habitats: rock ledges, submerged timber, sandy flats and feeding zones. Although the lake doesn't have much submerged timber, Summersville happens to be loaded with the other three habitat types.

Flatheads use crevices (hollow logs, caves and cracks in ledges) for protection, spawning and nesting during certain times of the year. And even when they're not using such openings, you can bet the fish are close by.

Summersville Lake contains numerous rock ledges, but some prime concentrations are along the main lake. Some of the lake's best flathead ledges can be located across the lake from the dam, around Long Point and on the main lake between Long Point and the mouth of McKeys Creek.

Another way to locate flatheads is through their stomachs. Rock bass, bluegills and sunfish are the primary food sources for Summersville Lake flatheads, and rock bass in particular because they remain so abundant in the lake. As their namesake indicates, rock bass love to hang around rocky substrate near shallow water.

Accordingly, flatheads will be found in the same vicinity as these rocky feeding zones come dinnertime. Flatheads will hardly pass up an easy meal anytime, but they are especially aggressive during low-light periods from dusk till dawn. Most anglers recognize nighttime as the period when flathead activity reaches peak levels.

Summerville contains much rocky substrate, but anglers will be interested in the concentrations of rocky substrate located along the shore between Long Point and Salmon Run.

Another rocky shoreline that consistently holds flatheads is the face of the dam. Rocky riprap creates nooks and crannies that mark the homes of rock bass, bluegills and sunfish, thus providing hungry flatheads a gourmet feast.

West Virginia lakes tend to offer a limited amount of flats. Since catfish love flats, any flat on Summersville Lake should be worthy of an angler's attention. Two types of flats exist in Summersville Lake: sheltered flats lying inside protected coves and those found along the main lake.

Across the lake from Long Point, anglers can find the latter type, a wide main lake flat that seems to always harbor flatheads. Other bends along the main lake featuring gradual slopes serve as likely flathead feeding spots as well.

Live bait remains the best option for flatheads, but for optimal results, anglers may need to take extra steps. Before placing live bait on a hook, make sure it has been tempered to the water temperature of the lake. Tempering increases the life span of live bait and ensures that the bait will be active. Energetic bait that moves around vigorously is much more likely to attract the attention of flathead catfish.

Goldfish seem to be the preferred bait for many flathead anglers, but bluegills or rock bass also work well on trophy flatheads. In fact, bluegills and rock bass seem to work better on Summersville Lake probably because these panfish make up the largest portion of a flathead's natural diet.

Bluegills or rock bass can be hooked through the tail or through the upper mouth, whichever an angler prefers. A large egg sinker (can be up to 1 ounce) should be placed just above the bait to secure it on the bottom. Gear up with sturdy tackle and prepare for the action to heat up.

At the summer pool elevation, Summersville Lake offers plenty of boating access from four different launching facilities: Salmon Run, Long Point, Battle Run and the winter ramp beside the dam. For facilities related to food, gas or other services, the ramp at Long Point hosts the only marina service on the lake.

Anglers should check with the Summersville Lake office or call the lake's fishing report at (304) 872-5809 for current details on fishing and water conditions.

If you're looking for a brand-new catfishing experience this season, Summersville Lake's untapped flathead fishery may be just what you're searching for.

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