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5 Top-Rated Picks for Mountain State Trout

From the South Branch River to Spruce Knob Lake, plus three other hot picks, here's where you'll find some of our state's top trout angling this spring.

Brookies, browns, rainbows -- and golden rainbows -- are all present in West Virginia's finest trout waters. Photo by Gordon Whittington

By Kevin Yokum

West Virginia has one of the best trout-stocking programs in the nation. Each year, between 700,000 and 800,000 pounds of trout are stocked in West Virginia streams and lakes. Additionally, over 300,000 fingerling trout are stocked in our state's streams and rivers.

Trout stockings in the Mountain State begin in January and February with limited releases. Stockings really swing into full gear from March through May. This period delineates the heart of the traditional trout season when the majority of trout are stocked in West Virginia's waters. Stocking resumes again for two weeks in October, when about 35,000 pounds of trout are spread throughout the state in 26 streams and nine lakes.

The number and size of trout available for 2003 stockings are directly influenced by the weather conditions in 2002. It takes about 12 to 18 months to raise trout from an egg to a satisfactory stocking size of approximately 12 inches. Many variables can affect a trout's growth rate, including food, water conditions at the hatcheries and how much raceway space is available.

Although West Virginia has seven trout hatcheries, only four, Bowden, Edray, Petersburg and Reed's Creek, are responsible for egg production. The process starts when eggs are taken in the fall as trout begin to spawn. As these trout grow and space becomes available at other hatcheries, they are moved out to these hatcheries where food and individual space is increased.

Problems arise when drought conditions, like those in late 2002, limit water availability in state hatcheries. This prevents production trout from being spread to all state hatcheries, thereby limiting the growth and numbers that will be available for stocking the following year.

Keep in mind that trout eggs hatched in the fall of 2001 will make up the bulk of trout stocked this spring. Although dry conditions prevailed through much of the state last year, this spring's stockings should show no ill effects. In fact, according to the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR), 2003 is shaping up to be a banner year where trout numbers and individual trout sizes should be excellent.


The main reason anglers come to the South Branch each year is simple: big trout. The South Branch is the state's No. 1 producer of trophy trout, yielding an astonishing four times more trophy fish citations than any other trout water in the state. Running through several counties, the South Branch's trout-producing reputation comes primarily from Pendleton and Grant counties. Historically known as a trophy trout water, the South Branch currently holds the state record for brown trout (32 inches, 16 pounds), which was caught back in 1968 by Paul Barker.

The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) keeps records of the largest individual game fish caught from state waters each year, and it is not uncommon for the South Branch to claim the largest trout every year. In 2002, the South Branch produced the state's largest brook trout of the year (22 inches, 6 pounds, 8 ounces) and a 28-inch brown trout that weighed 9 pounds, 4 ounces.

South Branch anglers are treated to early-season stockings in January and February, but the large stocking being in earnest in March. Anglers really gear up to hit the river during the March through May peak when the South Branch gets stocked every week.

Probably the strongest physical characteristic of the South Branch is its pools, some of which are extremely large. Trophy trout prefer to live in the depths of these pools. Situated between these long, deep pools are productive riffle areas, which give the South Branch a healthy mix of trout habitat. While some areas feature limestone ledges, the majority of the river is cobble based with a few boulders scattered along the edges.

Like many of the state's prime rivers, the South Branch has a special regulation area. Located downstream of the Upper Tract in the Smoke Hole section, this one-mile-long catch-and-release area starts two miles below U.S. Route 220 at Eagle Rock and extends downstream. For springtime anglers, the special regulation area is a great place to find some of our state's true trophy-sized trout.

One of the most picturesque trout- fishing destinations in West Virginia, Spruce Knob Lake has established itself as a high-quality trout-fishing destination. This 23-acre impoundment that lies on the Randolph/ Pendleton County border has attained a well-deserved reputation for holding trophy trout. Numerous trophy trout citations are reported from Spruce Knob Lake annually and many others are probably not reported due to the lake's remote location.

Located on a mountaintop near West Virginia's highest point, Spruce provides excellent trout fishing in the spring and into the summer because the high elevation keeps the lake's water cool. Cool water and big trout go hand and hand and Spruce has its share of both. Nearly 14,000 pounds of trout, including several brood trout, were stocked into Spruce Knob Lake last year and anglers will be happy to know that similar stockings are slated for 2003.

Anglers can effectively fish from shore or from a boat, but only electric trolling motors are allowed on Spruce Knob Lake. Spruce Knob Lake does not have a launching ramp, only a primitive carry-in spot; so don't bring your bass boat. Fishing from a boat is an excellent way to avoid the crowds and trolling on this lake is a very productive way to fill your boat with trout.

Many trophy trout are taken each year on small spinners or spoons trolled behind aluminum johnboats, which seem to be the craft of choice for Spruce Knob anglers. For the shoreline anglers, handicapped accessible fishing piers and walkways line sections of the lake's shoreline and provide excellent fishing spots.

Spruce Knob Lake maintains a huge advantage over its river counterparts in that it is not susceptible to fluctuating water conditions, which often hinder spring fishing. The next time your favorite river is unfishable, due to high or muddy water conditions, give Spruce Knob Lake a try. I bet you'll be glad you did.

The North Fork of the Cherry River is one of West Virginia's greatest aquatic reclamation stories. This Nicholas County stream has gone from a desolate water that contained few fish to an establishe

d trout fishery. The DNR started treating the stream with limestone fines about five years ago and trout fishery's comeback to the reclamation has been remarkable.

Prior to treatment in 1997, the stream's trout biomass was 8.7 pounds per acre. After only a few years of treatment, the North Fork of Cherry River's trout biomass is up to 31 pounds per acre and continues to improve. The stream is now inhabited by native brook trout, stocked brown, rainbow and golden rainbow trout. With its overhanging vegetation and cool water, the North Fork of the Cherry is particularly suited for wild trout. Located high in the mountains of the Monongahela National Forest, the North Fork of the Cherry is an ideal place for wild trout to thrive.

The North Fork of the Cherry is a small river that has a wide variety of trout habitat. Pools, undercut banks, runs, pocket water, you name it and this stream has got it. One of the things anglers find so enjoyable about the North Fork is that almost all sections of this stream hold trout, so there is no wasted time walking from one pool to the next. The continuum of "fishy" areas keep anglers fishing rather than wasting valuable time searching for likely trout locations.

While the North Fork of the Cherry is loaded with trout, generally they are not as large as those found in some bigger rivers, such as the South Branch. However, as previously noted, this stream seems to be designed for wild trout. Many of the trout here are natives or have grown from stocked fingerlings. This becomes particularly evident when you look at trout from the North Fork because they are exceptionally colorful.

The North Fork is an excellent place to fly-fish, and one of the best sections to do this is the special no-harvest area located just north of Richwood. The catch-and-release area starts at Richwood's water-supply dam located behind the Four Seasons Motel and extends upstream for almost two miles. This stream has good hatches and trout display their "wildness" by attacking flies readily. Access to the catch-and-release area and the rest of the North Fork of Cherry River is via state Route (SR) 39. Abundant access is available to anglers, as SR 39 follows the river along much of its length.

The Elk River, upstream of Webster Springs, is known as one of West Virginia's premier trout streams. The thing that really stands out about the Elk is the number of trout in this stream. In addition, the Elk River is home not only to stocked trout but to native trout as well. Trout anglers fishing the Elk should be ecstatic because this water will receive almost 24,000 pounds of trout during 2003.

The stretch of the Elk River running through Randolph and Webster counties is blessed with an abundance of long limestone and cobble-lined pools, which are great for holding trout. Along with other high-profile trout waters, the Elk River features a gorgeous catch-and-release area on its upper end. This two-mile-long special regulation area runs from the Rose Run Bridge upstream to the old Elk Springs campground near the intersection of county Route (CR) 49 and CR 60.

The Elk River is an excellent spring trout fishery. More trout are available to Elk River anglers in the spring than at any other time of the year. The Elk has always been a favorite among flyfishermen and for good reason. Being a good-sized stream, the Elk provides plenty of room for backcasts and the trout seem to eagerly hit flies in the spring and early summer. When trout become finicky, anglers will do well to downsize their fly offerings. Anglers willing to fish flies as small as size 22 are usually rewarded.

State Route 15 and CR 26 run along the Elk River for much of its length, providing plenty of access for trout anglers. Anglers can also access the river from CRs 26-1 and 49.

Without exception, the Cranberry River is the best trout stream in West Virginia. Although the Cranberry's reputation for superb trout fishing has increased the fishing pressure, most anglers would still rank it as the state's No. 1 trout stream. This river holds more trout per acre of water than any other river in West Virginia. Furthermore, the Cranberry has plenty of trophy fish available for eager trout anglers.

Usually a river is known for either trout size or numbers, but the Cranberry can claim both. The trout extravaganza should continue on the Cranberry, as it is scheduled to receive a full stocking allotment in 2003. This included limited stockings in January and February and then heavy weekly stockings from March through May.

Located in Pocahontas and Webster counties, the Cranberry has just about any type of fishing experience for all types of anglers. Each section of the Cranberry offers unique opportunities for trout fishermen who differ on what determines a good trout fishing experience.

The Cranberry River is divided into two sections, the backcountry, and the more accessible lower Cranberry. Closed to vehicle access, the backcountry offers 16 beautiful miles of remote river that includes both the North Fork and South Fork tributaries. Many anglers utilize bicycles to travel into the backcountry and stay in the overnight shelters scattered along the river. While the entire backcountry is closed to vehicle access, the lower Cranberry is just the opposite with accessible roads running along the river.

The awesome trout fishery on the Cranberry is due mainly to the addition of limestone by the DNR. The limestone drums, which are responsible for the dynamic recovery of the Cranberry River, have been instrumental in developing the limestone fines program that is now used to treat many miles of water throughout the state. Prior to limestone treatment, the Cranberry River was so acidic that even warmwater fish species couldn't survive through the year.

Three special regulation sections for trout are located on the Cranberry. In the backcountry, a quarter-mile catch-and-release section is located on the North Fork of the Cranberry River from the limestone drum station down to the mouth. Another catch-and-release area extends from the mouth of the North Fork, downstream for 4.3 miles to the Dogway Fork Bridge. Yet another catch-and-release section on the lower Cranberry starts at the Woodbine Recreation Area and stretches downstream 1.2 miles to Camp Splinter.

The Shavers Fork of the Cheat River is one of the longest trout streams in West Virginia. Just like the Cranberry, the Shavers offers both remote trout fishing sections and those that are located right along the road. The best remote section of the Shavers Fork starts at Cheat Bridge and stretches downstream until it travels under U.S. Route 33 near Bowden.

This 43-mile remote section of the Shavers Fork is stocked from Bowden all the way to Beaver Creek. An ideal area for anglers who like to "get away from the crowds," the remote section of Shavers Fork is really loaded with trout in the spring. During last spring, this section was stocked twice with about 2,500 pounds of trout each trip and similar stockings are planned for this spring.

Downstream of U.S. R

oute 33, several miles of the Shavers Fork flow along the highway making for some of the most accessible fishing in the state. Although heavily fished, this area is perfect for anglers who have a limited amount of time. The Shavers downstream of Bowden doesn't lack for trout, as it is stocked in January, February, every week from March to May and then twice in October.

The Shavers is a good-sized river with lots of shallow, spread-out areas that do not provide sufficient trout cover. However, along with these areas, the Shavers sports some huge pools that trout absolutely love. These mammoth pools are where anglers will find trout.

A catch-and-release section is located within the remote area of Shavers Fork. Deep within the national forest, the 5.5-mile special regulation area ranges from the mouth of Whitmeadow Run downstream to the mouth of McGee Run. Access to the no-harvest area is restricted to Forest Service Route 92.

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