Here are four fabulous tailrace areas in West Virginia where you'll find excellent angling for rainbows and browns this season.
As Joe Skeen of Grafton and I walked along the riprap that characterizes the shoreline below Tygart Lake Dam, we selected openings in the tree-lined bank to position ourselves. About five minutes after our arrival, Joe was casting a bladebait when a dark shape leapt out of the water a few feet from the shoreline. The big trout took a swipe at the artificial and then disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.
"There are some huge trout in the Tygart's tailrace, but they can be difficult to catch," Skeen said. Indeed, some fine trout fishing does exist in not only the Tygart's tailrace, but also below three other dams: Jennings Randolph, Summersville and Stonewall Jackson.
JENNINGS RANDOLPH TAILRACE
Jennings Randolph Lake lies along the Maryland/West Virginia border in Mineral County. Mike Shingleton, a coldwater fisheries biologist for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR), rates the tailrace there as excellent trout water.
"I would say that the tailrace fisheries below Jennings Randolph and Summersville are probably the best ones in the state," he said. "Jennings is easier to stock, and it has better access; but the Gauley below Summersville probably has better habitat. What both Jennings and Summersville have in common is their coldwater releases. Most of the other tailrace fisheries in West Virginia have releases that come from warm- water impoundments."
The biologist informs that the DNR releases mostly rainbows with some browns into the North Branch of the Potomac below Jennings Randolph. This past spring, for example, 2,600 pounds of fish were released. Those stockings occur twice during the spring, and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources supplements those stockings with two of its own. Shingleton is especially happy with the way that the released fingerling trout have adapted to their surroundings. Additionally, the DNR was able to release 600 to 700 pounds of brood trout in August 2004. The brood trout releases have taken place for the past several years.
The biologist emphasizes that anglers cannot fish the first three-quarters or so miles on the North Branch below Jennings until the town of Barnum. This regulation comes from the U.S. Corps of Engineers Baltimore office. The Corps' feeling is that the white water that exists below the dam and also the trout holding pens in that area make this area off-limits. At Barnum on river right (that is, the West Virginia side), Shingleton relates that fairly good access exists and that Mountain State anglers utilize that area heavily.
The North Branch's tailrace fishery continues downstream for some 15 miles until Westernport, Maryland. Shingleton says that the Free State is working on improving the access on its side of the river. Pat Docherty, area operations manager for the U.S. Corps of Engineers in Grafton, weighs in on Jennings' fishery.
"The trout fishing on the North Branch below Jennings is super, probably because of the heavy releases of fish, good hatches and good cold water," he said. "The floating trout hatchery below the dam is a big reason why I think this is probably the best tailrace fishery in West Virginia. All the trout state records for Maryland anglers have come from the North Branch.
"Some natural reproduction of brown trout takes place in the fall. I also know that 4- and 5-pound fish are sometimes caught. I would describe the habitat as consisting of deep runs, riffles, highly oxygenated cold water and a very rocky bottom. Another thing I like about this tailrace fishery is that I can go there during the summer and catch fish when the trout aren't biting anywhere else because of the low, warm water."
Docherty describes the floating trout hatchery below Jennings as being unique. The structure looks like a floating dock with nets under it. Trout are placed within the structure, and solar-powered feeders (equipped with a timer) periodically release pellets. The trout are much cheaper to raise this way, and obviously stocking them into the North Branch is easy. Another advantage is that the underwater nets allow waste to be washed away, and that the fish when released have already acclimated to the water of the river. Interestingly, the Jennings floating hatchery is the first one that the Corps created. Finally, Docherty warns that the algae-covered rocks below Jennings make walking very difficult, and wade-fishermen should be aware of the river's many dropoffs.
Chris Ellis, a wildlife marketing representative for the West Virginia DNR, has fished the Gauley River below Summersville many times.
"The Summersville tailrace has the potential to be the best tailrace trout fishery in the state. The Gauley below the dam reminds me of those Western trout streams where people spend thousands of dollars to go on guided trips. Another thing I like about the Gauley is that it is floatable for much of the year, although float-fishermen should be aware that there are numerous major and potentially dangerous rapids," he said.
"The habitat below the dam is absolutely phenomenal. Huge boulders lie in the river, and there is a lot of broken water in the form of rapids and riffles. I think a real key to the trout fishery is that Summersville is one of the deepest lakes on the East Coast. The lake is a bottom release one, so the water that comes out is very cold and clear, unlike a warm-water lake, which releases water from its surface. Under those conditions, trout usually only do well in the spring. At Summersville, you can catch trout year 'round."
Ellis says that a major reason why Summersville Lake was created was to provide clear, cool water to the Kanawha downstream. (The New and Gauley, of course, unite to form the Kanawha.) Toward that end, the Corps of Engineers releases massive amounts of water every September. An interesting consequence of the release was the creation of "Gauley Season," a time when white-water enthusiasts come from across the country to raft the river. Obviously, this time period is not a good one to float-fish the Gauley. Not only is the river often very crowded with boats, but the high-water conditions also make fishing almost impossible and potentially quite dangerous.
Mike Shingleton says the DNR annually stocks about 2,900 pounds of trout in the Summersville tailrace. Access exists below the dam on river right. Some anglers will walk along the shoreline below the dam, but doing so is very difficult, as massive boulders line the banks, which are heavily forested. The best way to sample the fishery is to employ a professional rafter and go on a daylong excursion.
The DNR stocks the Summersville tailrace from the dam downstream for two miles. Releases occur once in February, once every two weeks fr
om March through May and twice in October. Mostly rainbows are released, but some browns are also in the mix. White-water rafting companies stock the river twice annually by helicopter. Generally, anglers can expect to catch trout from below the dam downstream to where the Meadow River enters the Gauley. Summersville lies in Nicholas County about 70 miles east of Charleston.
STONEWALL JACKSON TAILRACE
The West Fork River below Stonewall Jackson Lake offers very different habitat from the streams below Jennings Randolph and Summersville lakes.
"We have a unique water supply situation on the West Fork below Stonewall Jackson. Long before Stonewall was constructed, a dam near Weston existed about 1 3/4 miles downstream from the current Stonewall Jackson Dam. So the tailrace below Stonewall is all flat water. In essence, you have one dam creating backwater up to another dam. The only similar situation we have in West Virginia is the tailrace below Burnsville," biologist Mike Shingleton said.
"So when anglers are after trout below Stonewall, they are basically fishing a big pond or a small impoundment. They may catch trout, but they also could catch muskies, bluegills and largemouth bass. The trout fishery is really only a spring one. During the summer months, anglers will find it very difficult to catch trout."
Interestingly, continues Shingleton, the West Fork River received trout this past summer from the federal hatchery in White Sulfur Springs. These were overgrown brood fish. Like the fish that are normally stocked in the West Fork, these trout were mostly rainbows. The biologist added that trout enthusiasts cannot count on the West Fork receiving trout from the White Sulfur Springs hatchery. Annually, the DNR places 2,600 pounds of fish in the river. Releases occur in a 1.5-mile section, from the dam downstream to near the Department of Highway's garage on county Route 30. Those stockings occur once in February and once every two weeks from March through May.
Although the West Fork's trout fishery is much more limited than that on the Jennings Randolph and Summersville tailraces, anglers will find that access is definitely good. Shingleton describes the access as "tremendous" and said that a trail runs along much of the river's right bank. Some of the best access is right below the dam, and a paved section exists for handicapped anglers.
Pat Docherty describes the West Fork, below Stonewall Jackson, as being a very narrow stream. The dam features multiple intake and discharge capabilities so that water enters the river from throughout the lake's water column. This allows the Corps to mix and match the water temperature and dissolved oxygen levels.
Like Shingleton, Docherty emphasizes that the Stonewall Jackson tailrace is not a year-round trout fishery. He says that anglers should concentrate their efforts from February through early June. Very little carryover of trout exists, as the fishery is mostly put and take.
Docherty says that the Tygart tailrace offers trout fishing from below the dam downstream to the U.S. Route 50 bridge in Fetterman, south of Grafton, a distance of approximately three miles. The best angling takes place in the first mile of the Tygart River below the dam. Rainbows are the primary species, although browns are occasionally caught and even a few golden rainbow trout make their way to anglers' creels.
"I would describe the trout fishery as decent, but in no way can it compare to the tailrace fishing on the Gauley and North Branch of the Potomac," he said. "People can fish on the Tygart from either side of the river below the dam. Some people like to wade-fish, but they should be very careful and leave the water when the sirens go off. When the sirens sound, lights also flash and a public service announcement comes on."
The Tygart River does contain some major rapids below the dam, but those rapids do not occur until the river arrives at Valley Falls State Park, which is well below the stocked trout waters. The "trout portion" of the tailrace offers little more than pools and riffles.
One of the things I liked best about fishing below Tygart Lake is that I could park my vehicle at the Grafton City Park immediately below the dam on river right. Parents with young children may well enjoy this situation, as the tykes can angle for trout for a while and then avail themselves of the park's facilities.
Joe Skeen adds that yellow perch also thrive below the dam, as well as some sizeable bluegills and some smallmouth bass and walleyes. Skeen agrees with Docherty that the tailrace is not a good summertime trout fishery, emphasizing that he has enjoyed his best success from December through April. Skeen further states that the late fall/early winter period is the best time to catch big trout from the tailrace.
Docherty informs that no significant hatches take place on the Tygart tailrace, and that minnows and crayfish are the predominant prey of trout here. For that reason, he likes to employ Clouser minnows, Woolly Buggers and crayfish patterns when he breaks out the long rod. Similarly, Skeen maintains that his most productive lures are in-line spinners and small crayfish-imitating crankbaits.
Mike Shingleton said that the Tygart tailrace, which lies in Taylor County, annually receives about 3,500 pounds of trout. The stockings take place immediately below the dam and occur once each month from February through May and twice in October.
Chris Ellis said that he prefers to fish the Mountain State's tailrace fisheries with a fly rod. In February and March, the Fayette County resident employs nymphs, such as size 8 through 12 Pheasant Tails, Hares Ears and Princes. If the trout seem fairly aggressive, as for example after a few days of slightly rising water and air temperatures, he will strip size 6 and 8 streamers through likely lairs, such as current breaks, eddies and undercut banks.
Come April, Ellis continues with the above nymph patterns, but he relies more and more on streamers, particularly toward the latter part of the month, as the warmer temperatures of early spring positively influence trout behavior and aggressiveness. In May, he tries various stimulator patterns, that is, any meaty looking fly that doesn't look like anything in particular, but mimics a host of little beasties. Caddis patterns in sizes 8 and 10 are also good choices then.
Mike Shingleton favors spinning tackle. The biologist said that one of the favorite lures for West Virginia tailrace enthusiasts is an in-line spinner with some fly-like dressing covering the treble hook. Other anglers, this writer included, feel that the fly dressing impedes the action of spinners and prefer in-lines with bare hooks and silver or gold blades. Of course, untold numbers of trout have been caught with both types of spinners.
Ellis prefers to ply tailrace fisheries when the water is clear and low, or when water levels are at least at moderate or normal levels. Moderate flows are also the time when these streams are best floated. But my favorite time -- and the period when I have enjoyed my best success -- is when the tai
lraces are running high and are moderately discolored. To be specific, I like the water to have a grayish hue.
I feel that is the time when jumbo trout are most actively cruising about and are also most easily caught. That's when I will upsize my baits and use the same hardware I would for river smallmouths. Good lure choices include 3-inch minnow plugs, 1/4-ounce crayfish crankbaits, and a real oddball choice -- 1/4-ounce Colorado spinnerbaits with single blades. I have caught trout up to 20 inches with these types of baits.
West Virginia features a diversity of tailrace trout fisheries. Jennings Randolph, Summersville, Stonewall Jackson and Tygart all have the potential to produce fish right now.
IF YOU GO
For daily stocking information, anglers can contact the DNR at (304) 558-3399 or visit its Web site at www.wvdnr.gov. Tygart Lake State Park makes for a convenient base for those fishing the Tygart tailrace. Stonewall Jackson Lake State Park can make the same claim for those visiting its tailrace, and Hawks Nest and Babcock state parks lie near Summersville. For all these parks, dial 800-CALL-WVA.