September 29, 2010
The mighty Ohio keeps on churning through the coldest of winter months, providing excellent tailrace angling for walleyes, hybrid stripers and more.
By Ed Harp
The Ohio River is one of the nation's greatly underappreciated fisheries. True, it's not the best black bass fishery. In fact, it's poor in that category by almost any standard -- except for smallmouths in its upper stretches. Far too much attention is paid to the river in this regard. Yes, bass are fun to catch and are one of the most popular species in our country, there's no doubt about that; however, there are many other challenging species to catch out there as well.
What about the great striper and hybrid populations? And catfish, especially flatheads and blues, are caught from the Ohio River that grow to 50 pounds or more! There are backwater crappie up to 12 inches, and saugers, saugeyes and walleyes by the boatload! Each can lay claim to being one of the better species of fish to pursue.
All of these species are scattered throughout the river. The upper stretches are home to smallmouth bass, walleyes, saugers, saugeyes, stripers, hybrid striped bass, crappie and a surprising number of big catfish. As you work your way down, the percentages of each species may change -- from smallies and saugers to stripers and hybrids and catfish -- but they're all there, nevertheless.
And, some of the best -- if not the best -- fishing in the Ohio River takes place in the tailrace waters below the dams. Let's take a close look at four of the better ones in the Mountain State.
Mountain State waters start at the 40-mile mark in the upper stretches of the river. That's where the river first crosses into West Virginia. It ends at the lower end of the river near Kenova, where shortly after is the boundary between West Virginia and Kentucky.
WILLOW ISLAND DAM
The Willow Island Dam is the place to start in the upper stretches of the river. To be fair, the Ohio River offers some great fishing above this dam. It is not, however, located below the dams in the tailrace waters.
The fast, churning waters here offer some good smallmouth fishing and some great sauger and saugeye fishing. January brings cold waters, but still, fish can be caught.
Effective lures include jigs and in-line spinners. The water can run the gamut from clear to muddy. Clear water calls for relatively heavy -- 1/2- to 3/4-ounce -- hair jigs. Some of the best are tied from craft hair and other synthetic fibers, which will move and flow in the current.
Models with flat heads or stout hook protectors are the norm. Like most tailrace waters, this one is littered with every type of snag imaginable. If you cast more than once or twice, you'll probably get hung.
And that brings us to the subject of line. Again, when the water's clear, savvy anglers spool their reel with heavy fluorocarbon. It offers two advantages -- lack of visibility and weight. Even at strengths of 15-pound-test or more, fluorocarbon is nearly invisible underwater. It just disappears when immersed. And it's heavy and sinks. This helps get your jig down in the swift current.
Most anglers will toss natural colors with their hair jigs. Browns, grays, anything that looks like a crayfish or a shad will do. Recently, bright white has become all the rage; for whatever reason, the bass seem to like that color. And that, after all, is the ultimate test on whether or not to use a lure.
In-line spinners are good, too. Weights around 1/2 ounce are a bit more popular. Bright flashy colors are common, but muted blues and grays are popular as well. Most anglers prefer fluorocarbon line for the reason stated above. But braid is also popular. Test weights of 65 pounds or more are easily handled on standard size casting reels and will often straighten a hook when it's snagged, saving the lure.
When the water turns muddy in January and February, it's best to fish for something besides smallmouth bass. No reliable source could be found who said he or she could catch very many of them in cold, muddy swift-running water.
Saugers and saugeyes are another matter, however. There are huge populations of these fish all along the West Virginia side of the river; they tend to congregate below the dams in late winter.
Most anglers will fish for them with jigs and minnows hung under a bobber. There's nothing fancy here. Find the biggest, brightest jig you can -- a 1-ounce, lime-green fluorescent model is perfect. Stick a minnow on the jig and suspend it a few inches above the bottom. After that, it's a matter of waiting for the bobber to disappear.
Regardless of which species you target, take along a couple of long rods. There's not much shoreline cover in the area. You'll need to make long casts out past the shallow water and into the current. The fishing is respectable down as far as Bull Creek, near mile marker 165.
There's a launch ramp at Calf Creek, near Waverly. Otherwise, follow the road signs for public access. Obey the Restricted Area signs.
This tailrace is similar to Willow Island in that it harbors good populations of smallmouths, saugers and saugeyes, with the occasional striper or hybrid thrown into the mix. That said, however, the fishing is very different, especially for the smallies.
There's a rock bank that extends for quite a distance that can produce great smallmouth bass action when conditions are right. "Right" means relatively clear water and warm, sunny weather. Those conditions will cause brown bass to become unusually active and hang around the rocks.
Fishing is usually best late in the day after the sun has had a chance to warm the rocks and they, in turn, have warmed some of the surrounding waters. That triggers a feeding response in the bass and will cause them to bite with abandon upon occasion. This tends to be off and on, however. If it's off, you're wasting your time.
Small, shallow-running hard jerkbaits are often effective under these conditions. Toss them out into the current and let them rest for a moment or two. Then twitch them a time or two and repeat the rest period. Do this as long as possible as the bait drifts along with the current. Sometimes banging your bait off the rocks will help.
If you can see smallies following the bait but not reacting to it, try a fast burst of speed just as the fish is drifting down, out of sight. Sometimes that will trigger a response from lethargic bass. If that doesn't work, try bouncing a natural-colored hair jig around the rocks.
Whenever possible, try to
work your jerkbait into slack water behind larger rocks. This water warms faster than moving water and allows the smallies a chance to rest from the current, which can be wicked at times in this area.
Another great technique for coldwater Racine Pool smallies is to drift a jig under a bobber. This is much like crappie fishing. Tie a tiny jig to light fluorocarbon line and let it drift with the current under a small bobber. Don't impart any action to the jig. This is coldwater fishing. The current will provide all the action you need.
Jig colors are largely a matter of personal choice. Natural colors are always acceptable, but many successful anglers lean toward bright, fluorescent hues
Saugers and saugeyes like the rocks, too. They'll become active under roughly the same conditions that trigger smallmouth activity. Fish for them by using the same techniques that were described earlier. Saugers are saugers; they don't know what pool they're living in.
Access is a problem below the Belleville Dam. The best ramp is on the Ohio side of the river. It's owned and operated by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Otherwise, you can bank-fish in this area. Follow the road signs for access.
The next dam down from Belleville is Racine. The tailrace is fairly clean looking on the surface but, like all tailrace waters along the Ohio River, there's plenty of fish-holding cover to be found under the surface.
In some ways, this area is one of the easiest to fish. There's plenty of open water available, no matter how nice the weather or how strong the bite.
Saugers and saugeyes are kings here. You can catch them with the standard jig, minnow or bobber rig if you like. A number of anglers like to use modified Carolina rigs, however. Use heavy braid or strong fluorocarbon line and a really big sinker.
Big is defined as 1 1/2 ounces, maybe more. The current is fierce most days in this tailrace, and it'll wash away anything lighter in a matter of a minute or two. Other than the rig, everything's about the same to make these saugers bite. A heavy jig, a strong hook and a minnow will usually be effective.
Long rods are a must here. The water tends to be shallow on the West Virginia side. You'll need to make long casts to get out in the current and swirls where the fish are roaming. Heavy catfish combos and light saltwater outfits are popular and effective for this type of angling.
The saugers and saugeyes that live here are reported to be a little bigger than in the upper stretches of the river. Fish over 12 to 14 inches are common, and nearly every year there's at least one 18-inch giant reported.
Note the word "reported." Size is very difficult to determine under the circumstances. Most saugers and saugeyes are taken home and eaten. Few of these fish are displayed around the docks and at tackle shops.
There's an outside chance of you catching a smallie or two here, but that's about all. For whatever reason -- probably lack of shoreline structure and slack water -- they just don't seem to inhabit this tailrace.
If you have the itch, however, there's a rock bank on the Ohio side of the water at about mile marker 240. It will hold brown bass when conditions are right. That usually means clear water and plenty of warm weather.
Just as in the other areas, jigs and jerkbaits are the most productive lures. If the water has a little color to it, throw brighter colors and bigger baits. Work them slowly. Give the bass plenty of time to find them and to make up their minds.
Access is tough here. There's a ramp on the Ohio side near Racine. Otherwise you're on your own. For bank-fishing, follow the road signs.
ROBERT C. BYRD DAM
The Byrd Dam tailrace might be the best one of the bunch. The river is fairly wide in this area and there are rocks and debris everywhere. Even better, we're getting into hybrid and catfish waters.
That's not to say, however, that the sauger and smallmouth populations should be ignored. It's just that we've talked about how to catch them long enough. If that's your pleasure, use the same techniques described above in this tailrace.
But, with that said, don't expect the smallmouth fishing, and to a lesser extent, the sauger and saugeye fishing, to be as good here as it is in the upper stretches of the river. There's less current in this area and less natural habitat. That all plays a role in the bigger picture. If you're looking for something different, try sampling the striper and hybrid striped bass. They fight hard and taste good, too.
Stripers and hybrids can be caught using spinners, in-line spinners and cut live bait. Fishing spoons and spinners is easy enough. Tie one on, throw it as far out into the water as you can and reel it back, slow and steady and smooth, through the current.
Bigger lures seem to work best. Spoons between 1/2 and 2 ounces are considered normal. Some anglers go even bigger. In-line spinners of the same size are just as effective. Again, throw them as far as you can and wind them back. Any color will do as long as it's silver, white or a combination of the two.
Artificial lures are a great way to catch these big, heavy freshwater fighters. The real trophies are usually taken on cut bait. Bottom walker rigs are the most popular. They tend to keep the bait up off the bottom where the fish can find it and, at the same time, they reduce snags.
You can make one of these rigs with a three-way swivel and a big, stout hook. Tie the swivel to your main fishing line. Make sure one ring is directly below the main line and the third is off to the side -- at a right angle to the main line. Then drop a short line -- 12 inches is about right -- off the bottom ring, straight down. Tie another piece of line off of the right angle ring and affix your hook to it.
When all is said and done, you should have a straight line from your rod tip to the sinker with a three-way swivel in the mix. Your hook should be tied off to the side. This will allow the sinker to bounce along the bottom and the bait to float up, off the bottom in the current.
Big 4/0 or better wide-gap hooks are a must. Some anglers will use light line from the swivel to the sinker. That way if the sinker gets hung, they can quickly break off and retie. That saves a ton of valuable fishing time.
This is the easiest rig on the planet to fish. Throw it out into deep water and gently pull it back. When you feel a tug, tug back. That's all there is to it.
Bait is usually anything that can be caught quickly, cut into pieces and impaled on the hook. The very best baits are oily or bloody. Shad, sunfish and skipjacks are perennial favorites, with skipjacks heading the list.
This is also catfish country. The Greenup Pool below the dam and the Byrd Pool above the dam are full of big flatheads and blues. The flatheads can be taken with bottom walker rigs and big live shad. The blues will take cut bait with abandon.
There's a caveat here, however. Cold January water doesn't exactly turn catfish on. They are extremely lethargic and don't feed very often. Still, if you can catch one or two, it's well worth the effort.
There's excellent shoreline fishing below the Byrd Dam and a couple of rough ramps as well. Like always, follow the signs.
A word of warning is in order when it comes to fishing any of these tailrace waters. They can be dangerous, very dangerous. Pay attention to what you're doing or you may pay the ultimate price.
The current is swift and unpredictable. Even worse, areas of the bank can be unstable. That's a bad combination. Stay well back from the edge when you're fishing and never venture into the water, no matter how shallow or benign it may appear. No fishing lure is worth your life.
If you fish from a boat, always wear a PFD and never fish alone. Small boats will be swept away in a matter of seconds when the dam gates are open. Enjoy your time out on the mighty Ohio, but always be careful and safe.