September 29, 2010
From the Kanawha River to the R.D. Bailey Dam and beyond, here's where you'll discover some of our state's finest hybrid striper action right now! (May 2007)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Like finned tigers, West Virginia's hybrid striped bass prowl the state's large waterways in search of prey. Sometimes they find it. Often it's some unfortunate shad or skipjack herring that wasn't quick enough to escape. But sometimes it's a lure or a piece of bait -- and when it is, the angler at the other end of the line learns just what a tiger this stripe-sided denizen of the deep can be.
"Our hybrids are extremely strong, extremely hard-fighting fish," said Bret Preston, fisheries chief for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR). "That's one of their great appeals, and that's why they've been so popular with fishermen ever since we began stocking them."
Encouraged by water-quality improvements brought about by the Clean Water Act of 1972, DNR officials began looking for ways to improve the state's big-river fisheries. For a while, they tried stocking full-blooded striped bass, but the stockings wouldn't take.
"True stripers never would stay in the rivers," Preston explained. "They always seemed to migrate upstream or downstream from where they were stocked."
To fill the ecological niche, biologists turned to the hybrid, a striper and white bass cross that had been introduced successfully in other states. "We found that hybrids were less migratory, they grow faster, and they could more easily adapt to changes in water quality. In other words, they had several advantages that true stripers didn't have," Preston said.
"Because they don't reproduce, we're easily able to control their numbers. When we stock them, we know for sure that the population is never going to get out of control."
Introduced to Mountain State waters in the late 1970s, hybrid stripers quickly filled an empty ecological niche in the state's largest waters.
"After navigation dams were built on these rivers, native populations of walleyes and other open-water fish really suffered. With fewer large predatory fish there to feed on them, populations of gizzard shad exploded," Preston recalled.
The stocked hybrids took over the role the walleyes left open. They tore into the vast schools of gizzard shad that queued up downstream of the navigation dams. They grew large in a hurry. Fishermen started hooking them. The word spread quickly.
"It didn't take long for hybrids to become extremely popular with anglers. They put up a great fight, they are a lot of fun to catch, and they are pretty good-sized. People like that package," Preston said.
Since then, the number of hybrids stocked each year has fluctuated, mainly because they're difficult to grow in hatcheries. In years when the weather cooperates and hatchery workers are able to get a good crop of zooplankton going, DNR crews might stock as many as 1 million fingerlings. A few cloudy days during the plankton-growing period can knock the total back to 200,000 or so.
"We had some very good years early on, when we were raising all our hybrids at the Palestine Hatchery. They tend to do well in the earthen-bottomed ponds there. After we split production between Palestine and the Apple Grove facility, our production tailed off a little. The plastic-lined ponds at Apple Grove don't grow hybrids very well unless we're lucky enough to get a really good plankton crop in them," the biologist said.
Almost all of those fish are stocked in a relative handful of waters -- the Ohio, Kanawha and Monongahela rivers and Beech Fork, R.D. Bailey, Bluestone and East Lynn lakes.
If there's an epicenter of West Virginia's hybrid fishery, it probably extends along the Kanawha River from Kanawha Falls in Fayette County downstream to the Robert C. Byrd Locks and Dam on the Ohio River. Hybrids congregate at five places along that stretch -- the falls, the London Locks, the Marmet Locks, the Winfield Locks and the Byrd Locks.
Zack Brown is the DNR biologist who oversees four of those five fisheries. He said anglers who want to fish them should live by a simple rule: "The bigger the water, the bigger the fish."
"Of course, the farther downstream you go, the bigger the river gets," he said. "So the biggest fish tend to be found in the Winfield and Robert C. Byrd tailwaters."
Like most tailwater species, hybrids tend to collect in the strong currents downstream from the dams' hydropower facilities. Brown said higher flows attract more fish. At all three of the Kanawha River fisheries, steel piers allow anglers to stand directly over the dams' outflows and cast directly downstream.
At London, the pier is located on the south side of the river near the town of Handley. If they watch their footing, anglers can pick their way along the riprapped south shore and catch hybrids for more than one-quarter of a mile downstream.
"The only downside to the fishery is that the hybrids tend to run a little small," Brown said. "Most of them are going to be in the 15- to 18-inch range."
A few miles downstream at Marmet, the fish get a little larger, but the fishery is considerably smaller. The locks are located smack in the middle of the town they're named for, and downstream access is limited. Most fishermen use the piers to avoid trespassing on townspeople's property.
Between Marmet and Winfield, the Kanawha picks up two major tributaries -- the Elk and Coal rivers. By the time the river reaches Winfield, it carries almost half again the volume it did just a few miles upstream. Hybrids thrive there.
The dam's fishing pier lies on the river's south side, just outside of Winfield's town limits. Anglers can use the pier or fish from the riprapped shore nearly a half-mile downstream to the mouth of Little Hurricane Creek.
"Also, when the water gets too high to fish on the south side, the hybrids will swim across the river to the backwater eddy downstream of the locks," Brown said. "That becomes a good place to fish when the water gets up over the piers."
A similar situation exists at the Robert C. Byrd Locks on the Ohio River, a few miles downstream from where the Kanawha empties in.
"The lock side there is on the West Virginia side o
f the river, and the fishing there also is good when the water gets up," Brown explained. "When the water is lower -- at base flow or less -- there's better fishing on the Ohio side."
Under a reciprocal fishing regulation adopted by both West Virginia and Ohio, anglers with fishing licenses valid in one state may legally fish from the opposite shoreline. When the hybrids are running, it's not unusual to find several cars with Mountain State licenses parked in the Ohio side's fisherman-access area.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials built a fishing pier there a few years back, but a flood washed it away. Whether the pier will be rebuilt in time for this year's peak hybrid season is anyone's guess.
Fortunately for anglers, the fishing-access area at the Ohio River's Belleville Locks and Dam is in much better shape. In fact, said district fisheries biologist Scott Morrison, it's one of the best anywhere.
"There are actually two metal catwalks for people to fish from. The first one extends directly over the outflow of the power plant, and the second one extends upstream 90 degrees from that and allows access along the plant's riverward side. In addition, there's a paved walkway that extends downstream along the riprap, with wing deflectors to attract baitfish and game fish."
Hybrids at Belleville average 4 to 5 pounds apiece. Morrison said that when the big-shouldered fish turn sideways in the swift currents, they put up an impressive fight.
"The best fishing arguably is in the summer, when the hybrids come to the surface and attack schools of gizzard shad," he added. "A lot of people go there with large surf-casting gear and wait until they see surface action. Just about any silvery lure that looks like a shad will draw a strike. A lot of guys also like to dead-drift 6- or 7-inch shad through the flows downstream of the hydro units."
Though it's located a fair distance from the state's major river fisheries, Wyoming County's R.D. Bailey Dam also merits mention as a top hybrid producer.
"The fishery tends to fluctuate with the gizzard shad population," said biologist Mark Scott, who lives nearby. "In years when we have a lot of shad, we tend to catch a lot of hybrids."
He said the lake holds many 13- to 16-inch fish, and a fair number that will go 10 to 12 pounds.
Fortunately for West Virginians, there are plenty of places where the "tigers of the deep" are known to prowl.