Winter Walleyes & More On The Ohio River
September 29, 2010
Baby, it's cold outside, but don't let that stop you from trying our state's hottest wintertime fishing for marble-eyes, saugers and saugeyes on the Big O. Here's where to find great angling right now! (January 2007)
Photo by Jeff Knapp
Of the many angling opportunities found in West Virginia, perhaps none is as significant or diverse as that provided by the Ohio River. The Ohio River furnishes northern West Virginia anglers with a wealth of fishing options. From the numerous tailwaters areas, impounded pools and also the many backwater areas, something is happening 12 months of the year. During late winter, the best thing going is the fishing for walleyes and also saugers, their closely related cousins.
In response to the importance of the Ohio River as both a recreational and industrial resource, recently the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) put into effect a five-year management plan. The Ohio River Fisheries Management Plan, which presently runs from 2005 through 2009, addresses various issues that directly affect the angling community. This includes the stocking of various sport fish. A five-year information-gathering period was conducted before the creation of the plan, one that included significant public input.
Included in the list of fish to be stocked are largemouth bass (Willow Island Pool), smallmouth bass (Hannibal Pool), hybrid striped bass (the Willow Island Pool and pools upstream), paddlefish (all West Virginia pools of the river, excluding R.C. Byrd and Greenup) and also blue catfish (Belleville Pool and pools downriver). Walleyes are not missing from the list, as the plan calls for a maximum of 65,000 walleye fingerlings to be released annually into the Hannibal and Pike Island pools. Stocking rates are dependent on the availability of fish as well as river levels at the scheduled time periods designated for stocking.
The stocking of walleye fingerlings into these upper pools of the Ohio River is particularly exciting. New River-strain walleyes will be stocked, which is a strain of marble-eye that was isolated a few years ago by DNR biologists. As a fish that evolved in a riverine environment, it is hoped the New River strain is best suited for venues, such as the Ohio River. If this proves to be the case, the odds of successful natural reproduction increase. Ultimately, the Ohio River could harbor higher levels of wild (self-sustaining) walleye populations.
Starting last year, in response to the New River-strain stocking program, walleye bag limits have been reduced and minimum length limits increased. On the Ohio River, the West Virginia walleye bag limit is now two, with an 18-inch minimum length limit. The bag for saugers and saugeyes remains at 10 (in aggregate with walleyes) with no minimum size.
Saugers are found throughout the Ohio River and average about 12 inches long. They tend to be more streamlined than walleyes, and display more vivid mottled markings that extend below the lateral line. Saugers are missing the significant white tip on the tail that is found on walleyes.
Fish identification photos are included in the back of your 2007 Fishing Regulations booklet. Though they are no longer stocked in West Virginia waters, at least not in ones that drain into the Ohio River, saugeyes (a walleye and sauger hybrid) are a popular fish in neighboring Ohio and can be present in the river as a result of that source.
Since they are such an important part of the winter angling picture, a word on saugers is in order. Sauger populations are self-sustaining. In the Ohio, they tend to grow fast. Given a good forage base, they can attain a length of 12 inches or so by the fall of their second year. As many fast-growing fish do, though, physiologically they break down quickly, too.
Adult saugers have a high degree of mortality. Springs that provide poor reproduction conditions, which occur quite often, see little if any sauger production. This, coupled with adult mortality issues, equates into variable sauger population levels. For anglers, some years, they may catch a fish nearly every cast when the conditions are good. Other years, the yield is much lower.
Though not directly related to walleye fishing, another exciting aspect of the Ohio River Management Plan is the habitat enhancement component. Beginning in the Belleville Pool, nursery and spawning habitat will be constructed in select embayments. Expansion of this plan to other pools of the Ohio River is expected in years to come.
In that the word "pool" comes up often during discussions of navigable rivers, such as the Ohio, perhaps an explanation is in order. A network of lock and dam systems elevates the Ohio to the point that it can handle large industrial craft, such as barges and the push boats used to move them. The lock chambers permit the passage of boats, either from upriver or downriver, past the dam. Pools, as applied to the Ohio, are the river sections that stretch from one dam to the next.
A pool is named for the dam located at its downriver point. For instance, the Hannibal Pool of the river is the river section that runs from the Hannibal Locks and Dam, located near New Martinsville, upriver to the Pike Island Locks and Dam, a distance of about 43 miles. Pool lengths vary according to the height of the dam and the topography of the area.
Naturally, tailraces (the downriver discharge area below a dam) are named for the dam that creates them.
The Belleville tailrace is located directly below the Belleville Dam. Along West Virginia's portion of the Ohio, there are seven separate lock and dams. The two most upriver dams -- Pike Island and Hannibal -- are found in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District. The remaining five -- which include Greenup, Robert C. Byrd, Racine, Belleville and Willow Island -- are located in the Huntington District.
Each district publishes navigational maps. Be sure you coordinate river areas you are interested in with the district in which they fall before ordering a book of river charts. Information on how to purchase Pittsburgh District river charts can be obtained online at www.lrp.usace.army.mil/nav/nav.htmn . Maps, in PDF format, can also be downloaded free of charge. Information on purchasing navigation chart books and downloadable maps from the Huntington District can be obtained online at www.lrh.usace.army.mil/navigation/.
The best walleye fishing tends to be found in the upriver portions of the Ohio River. Saugers are well distributed, and can be found throughout West Virginia's portion of the river.
fortunate to having had the opportunity to fish on several of the country's more productive walleye rivers, various sections of the Ohio included. Though minor differences exist from river to river, few angling situations have more in common than does river fishing for walleyes. This is especially true during the cold weather months.
Catching fish first means finding fish. This is simplified on walleye rivers during the winter months. During the late fall, particularly if river levels rise a bit, walleyes begin migrating upstream, working their way toward potential spawning grounds they will use the following spring. Barriers such as dams impede their progress. Tailwaters sections of dams tend to be rich in forage species, so it's of little surprise that walleyes tend to stack up there. Hence, unless extremely high water levels create abnormally strong currents, discharge areas below dams can be counted on to hold good concentrations of walleyes.
Though tailrace areas attract most of the angling attention, not all walleyes run up to a dam to spend the winter and early spring there. Slackwater areas of the pool itself will hold plenty of fish, ones that see little fishing pressure, at least when compared with the tailraces. Walleyes seek out areas of reduced current when the water is cold. They don't have to expend as much energy to remain in such a location. Baitfish species are also present in many instances, for the same basic reason. Once you find them, river locations that provide reduced current and plenty of baitfish will tend to attract walleyes year after year. Generally, you can count on them being productive for years to come.
Rivers are dynamic environments, though, and subject to changes brought about by nature. Floods can alter fish-holding areas. High, cold water during the spring can negatively affect baitfish populations. Winter fishing tends to be slow when there are low levels of baitfish in the river. The fish seem to sense that it's not worth expending the energy to attempt to feed. Or, maybe they go into the winter period in weaker condition because of the lack of food. This may explain why they don't bite well during winters when shad and minnows are scarce. However, the dry weather of 2005 and the dry spring of 2006 should equate into plenty of food for walleyes this winter.
Slack-water areas are places where the main force of the river has been deflected or reduced. On the Ohio, this commonly occurs below rock/ gravel bars that are washed out into the river at the point where a small tributary enters the main river. Chunk rock, gravel and sand are deposited in the river when the feeder streams are running high.
The resulting rock bar acts like a wing dam of sorts, deflecting the force of the river out toward the main channel. This creates any eddy effect below the rock bar, a place where the current actually reverses itself. Such places are easy to find, in that they tend to collect junk and debris following a period of high flows. When the water level is normal or low, these places are likely to freeze first, since there is little current. Most of the larger rock bars will also be marked with a navigational buoy, put in place off the tip of the bar to warn boaters of the shallow-water hazard.
Depending on the physical layout of a rock bar, in certain cases there will be a section of slower water located above it as well.
Another common scenario is found at the mouth of larger feeder waters, ones that can be navigated a ways from the main river. Typically, such spots have reduced current. A delta often forms at these spots. Walleyes hang off the edge of the delta during the day, and then move up on the shallows toward dark.
"City structure," such as pilings, barge tie-offs and bridge piers, can also provide the current breaks needed to hold winter walleyes. Add to the list warmwater industrial discharges. Warmwater discharges attract many species of fish during the winter, and are quite common on the Ohio. The plume of warm water often extends well downriver from the discharge. A surface temperature gauge on your boat can lead you to areas that have plenty of fish, and fewer fishermen. Islands and island complexes, too, should be investigated for walleye-holding spots on their downcurrent end.
According to Frank Jernejcic, fish manager for the DNR, the best walleye fishing on the Ohio occurs on the Pike Island and Hannibal pools. This includes the Pike Island and Hannibal tailrace areas. The tailrace area that feeds the Pike Island Pool is that formed by the New Cumberland Locks and Dam, located upriver of New Cumberland. These three tailraces, and the two pools located between them, provide the most consistent walleye (and sauger, too) fishing on West Virginia's portion of the Ohio. Walleyes become less numerous as you venture downriver, though sauger numbers tend to remain relatively strong (within the limiting factors previously described).
Largely, tailwaters angling means shore-fishing, particularly during the winter months. An imaginary line running from the end of the lock chamber approach wall and the width of the river designates the standard restricted zone in which boats are not permitted. Though a modified restricted zone has been created by the Corps of Engineers, which allows boats closer to the dam, it is only in effect when buoys are in place to mark the area. This may not be the case during the winter months.
Shoreline access varies from spot to spot. In general, the better shoreline access is found on the shore of the river opposite the lock chamber. Hydroelectric plants have been incorporated into this end of the dam in some instances, in which shoreline access tends to be quite good.
The lock chamber of New Cumberland Dam is situated on the Ohio side of the river. Boat anglers should find a good current break immediately downriver of the lock mouth. Just be on the lookout for boat/barge traffic moving through. Water passing through the lockage can often trigger feeding sprees for walleyes and saugers, so be aware of this potential "inner bell." Buffalo, Virginia Cross and Indian Cross creeks are among the larger tributaries to enter this pool, along with a good smattering of smaller feeder waters. A DNR boat ramp is located near New Cumberland.
The Pike Island Lock and Dam tailwaters area boasts excellent shore- fishing facilities. The lock chamber is found on the West Virginia side of the river. Several islands are located between the dam and Wheeling. Big Grove, Captina, Fish and Wheeling creeks are among the larger feeder waters. A public boat ramp is located in Wheeling.
Shore-fishing facilities are excellent, too, at the Hannibal Locks and Dam. The lock is on the Ohio side, with a hydro plant on the West Virginia bank. Fishing Creek, located a couple of miles below the dam, is a good spot for walleyes and saugers. A boat ramp can be found a short distance up from Fishing Creek's mouth.
The jig-and-minnow is standard winter walleye fare for both the shore- and boat-fisherman. Boat anglers should float with the speed of the current, fishing the jig vertically (straight under the boat). Consider anchoring just off shallow feeding spots, such as gravel bars and major creek mouths. This is especially effective just before the twilight period, as yo
u'll likely intercept fish moving shallow to feed. Drop down a size on the jig, and make short pitch casts. Shore-anglers can score by casting a jig-and-minnow, or by soaking a shiner or chub on a live-bait rig. Tailwaters areas, in particular, can be full of snags, so expect to lose some tackle.
The Ohio River serves as the division between West Virginia and Ohio, from above Weirton to downriver of Huntington. A reciprocal agreement is in place between the resource management agencies of both states, one that allows licensed resident anglers from West Virginia to fish from the Ohio shore of the river. Licensed Ohio anglers from that state are permitted the same privilege on the West Virginia bank.
Winter fishing on the Ohio River can warm up an otherwise cold day. However, just because the action can be hot, anglers need to remember that the water is brutally cold. A plunge in the river at this time could be a lethal one.
Wise boat anglers will wear their personal flotation devices (PFDs) at this time. PFDs have become increasingly comfortable to wear, and provide extra welcome insulation during cold days. Boat floors can become slippery due to snow showers or spilled water from the minnow bucket, providing an added danger.
Shore-anglers, too, are at risk. Shoreline rocks can be icy. Shelf ice can extend a few feet from shore. Under no circumstance should you venture out on shelf ice. Tailrace areas, the most popular of shore-fishing spots, can be especially dangerous due to the current areas found there.
In addition to the navigational river charts previously listed, serious river anglers might consider buying the Southern Ohio edition of Sportsman's Connection Fishing Map Guide. This guide contains maps of the Ohio River, including valuable fishing tips and access information.
Find more about West Virginia fishing and hunting at: WVgameandfish.com