Some of our state's finest marble-eye angling occurs in rivers like the Kanawha, Elk, Tygart and others. Here's where you need to try right now! (March 2007)
Photo By Ron Sinfelt
The fog swirled above the still waters and encircled our boat as a gentle breeze drifted by. The bustling river life had yet to awaken, and I was soaking up the serene vibes when a distinct tap on my line signaled the presence of a walleye. With a tight line and bent rod, I peered intently into the water to catch a glimpse of what might be a mighty 4-pounder or a 10-inch "cigar" walleye. With fishing for walleyes, you never know.
Although I had hoped this walleye would be an early spring lunker, the chunky 18-incher turned out to be a welcome addition to the stringer where it joined three others that were all destined for the dinner table.
West Virginia features a variety of walleye waters, including some fine river fishing. However, new developments in Mountain State walleye management, including an intensified stocking program and expanding walleye stockings into previously non-stocked rivers, should add a whole new wave of angling excitement.
Fishermen are aware that some West Virginia rivers have self-sustaining walleye fisheries like the Elk River, but most are dependent on supplemental stockings from West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) hatcheries. The DNR stocks about 300,000 walleye fingerlings in state waterways annually, and production during the last two years has exceeded expectations. In 2006 alone, over 380,000 walleyes were stocked in West Virginia waters.
While many walleyes are stocked into impoundments, some are carefully delivered to large rivers within our state, such as the Kanawha and Ohio rivers.
During the past two years, a new strain of walleye, deemed the New River strain, was discovered. This genetically superior river strain has been targeted for hatchery production by the DNR, and New River strain walleyes are slated to be stocked into many of the Mountain State's large rivers.
The new hatchery at Apple Grove, in Mason County, has expanded the fish-rearing capacity for the DNR, and such expansion should allow for an increase in walleye production. This will ultimately benefit Mountain State anglers.
Big and wide and second only to the mighty Ohio in size, the Kanawha River is a pretty good walleye fishery. The Kanawha River has traditionally received token attention from Mountain State anglers, but over the last five years or so, fishing pressure has increased noticeably. Anglers have probably figured out that many areas of the Kanawha are capable of producing quality walleyes.
Documented catches from the past have demonstrated that the Kanawha can produce trophy walleyes, but clearly this river's strength lies in numbers rather than its trophy potential. Typical walleyes from the river run between 10 to 20 inches, although that size varies with year-class strength.
Walleye stocking has become an important feature in many West Virginia rivers, and the Kanawha is no exception. Each year, the Kanawha is slated to receive stockings of fingerling walleyes; the river received over 31,000 walleye fingerlings in both 2005 and 2006. Numbers like these should really get anglers excited about the future of walleye fishing in the Kanawha River.
No place on the river is more popular among walleye enthusiasts than the locks, and for good reason; fish stack up heavily in the tailraces. The Marmet, Winfield and London locks are prime localities to encounter significant walleye action.
Certainly, the locks offer a tempting package for walleyes, including the right temperature and flow, along with plenty of forage. Walleyes will migrate to the dams where they find comfy conditions, and thus take up residence. This makes anglers happy, as these walleye-enriched environments can serve up superb fishing.
Angling for these biggest members of the perch family can be exceptional from January through April below the Kanawha River locks. Minnow-tipped jigs, 3-inch twistertails and husky jerkbaits are popular baits that continue to rate as the river's top walleye lures. White, black and chartreuse colors seem to perform well, but usually it's lure weight that determines success. Anglers must fish lures that run at the proper depth where walleyes are holding in order for successful fishing to take place.
During most flows, anglers will find the best fishing close to the dam. Walleyes concentrate along the swift water coming through the lock gates, thus providing a clear target for anglers.
Access to the Winfield lock is via U.S. Route 35, while the London and Marmet locks are along U.S. Route 60.
The Elk is an old favorite among Mountain State walleye anglers. Historically, the river has been an important walleye fishery for West Virginia. In fact, this river was one of the first West Virginia rivers to feature a thriving walleye fishery.
The thing that sets the Elk River apart from other West Virginia walleye rivers is that the Elk has maintained a self-sustaining population of marble-eyes for many years without the aid of supplemental stockings.
But keep in mind, the main draw on the Elk is the size of the fish rather than numbers, so the river's walleye anglers are more focused on size. State records and large walleyes have been the norm on this perennial trophy producer. Each year, the Elk River turns out several walleyes weighing in the double digits, including the new state record just a few years ago.
The Elk has always been a tough place to learn where the walleye hotspots are, as local anglers seem very tight-lipped. However, biology provides clues for locating early-season walleyes.
As walleyes move up the river, the mouths of large tributaries serve as inviting harbors. These tributary junctions always seem to be hotspots for early-season walleyes. Spawning habitat is considerably better upstream in the tributaries, and so are the dinner specials. Most tributaries are loaded with potential food at that time of year. Also, tributaries serve as great places for walleyes to escape the relentless current of the Elk.
Despite receiving significant fishing pressure, the mouths of Elk River tributaries still rank among the Mountain State's most consistent trophy walleye locations. Strange Creek, Birch River, Duck Creek, Sycamore Creek and Buffalo Creek all flow into the Elk and provide potential hotspots for early-season walleye action.
Many veteran Elk River anglers prefer fishing with live bait, and there's little doubt that this tactic is effective. Creek chubs and small suckers in sizes up to 12 inches in length remain the preferred baits. For anglers fishing with artificials, jigs (4-inch twistertails) and small crankbaits seem to work well during the early season.
Other than intersections with sizeable tributaries, just about any pool or tributary along the 82-mile stretch of the Elk (from Sutton dam to the mouth) is capable of holding walleyes. For example, the tailrace just below the Sutton Dam has traditionally been a fine location to encounter walleyes. Since the dam acts as a barrier to fish movement, walleyes tend to bunch up in the tailwater. January through April is touted as the best time to fish for walleyes on the Elk, although anglers might have to share shoreline access with tailwater trout anglers during this time frame.
Trout fishermen regularly encounter walleyes while fishing in the tailrace, particularly those anglers fishing with spinners and spoons early in the morning or late in the evening.
The Sutton tailwater is located off exit 62 of Interstate 79, near the town of Sutton. Travel through Sutton and follow signs to the dam. Other areas of the Elk River can be located by traveling along state Route (SR) 4. State Route 4 follows a significant portion of the Elk River from Sutton Dam all the way to Clendenin. Near Clendenin, SR 4 flows into U.S. Route 119 as this route takes over as the primary access to the Elk until it reaches the mouth near Charleston.
When Mountain State anglers mention the granddaddy of them all, they're not talking about the Rose Bowl, they're referring to the Ohio River. One might think that it would be hard to find walleyes on the largest river in West Virginia, but locating them on the Ohio is rather simple. Just go to one of the river's locks.
DNR data collected on the river has shown that more than 90 percent of the fish caught from the Ohio River are hooked in the tailraces below the river's locks. By integrating fish and restricting upstream movement, dams form a natural catch basin for anglers to target.
Fish alter their position in relation to the water flow coming through the dam, and by analyzing currents, it becomes easier to determine where walleyes will likely be. Water flow coming through the dam will be the overriding factor in determining where the fish will be holding. If high flows are coming through the locks, then fish will move farther downstream in areas of less flow. If minimal current is coming through the locks, then fish will be right around the moving water.
Trophy walleyes can show up anytime on the Ohio, but for sauger and walleye anglers, fishing the tailraces has become more of a numbers game than a trophy hunt. Plenty of fish limits are taken each year below the Ohio River locks and that isn't likely to change, at least not in the near future.
Any of the lock systems on the river are capable of supplying good walleye action. Notable locks include Hannibal, Willow Island, New Cumberland, RC Byrd and Pike Island. Over the past few years, fishing on the upper locks seems to have been better than that on the lower locks. However, it is difficult to determine where the best action will occur as walleye and sauger fishing on the river has been good throughout.
Of the lock systems, Pike Island offers the most prominent facilities, including an impressive fishing pier on the Ohio side. New Cumberland has been one of the hottest walleye locks on the Ohio River the past two years, but accessing the New Cumberland Lock requires some effort. The lock lies approximately one-fourth of a mile away from the parking area; but if the hot walleye bite is on, anglers don't seem to mind.
If conditions are right, the Ohio River can be a productive water any time of the year. February and March are traditionally the best months to catch quantities of walleyes.
One trend that has emerged among Ohio River locks is that when water levels rise significantly, walleyes will move close to shore, making them especially vulnerable to shoreline angling. Anglers should note this trend and target shoreline eddies and slack-water zones when the river is running full.
Jigs tipped with twistertails in white, black and chartreuse appear to be a mainstay among Ohio River anglers. Walleyes bite these rigs readily, and the setup is easy and cost efficient. Another great walleye rig to use is a night crawler on the end of a jig. Tip the night crawler straight on the jig or add a spinner blade and trailer hook for more action. Crankbaits and husky jerkbaits also work well.
Angers are reminded that a regulation established in 2006 mandates an 18-inch minimum length and a two-fish-per-day creel limit on walleyes caught from the Ohio River.
Anglers fishing the Tygart River have been racking up big numbers of walleyes for several years now, and over the past five years, the section just below the Tygart Dam has produced arguably the most consistent early-spring walleye fishing in the entire Mountain State.
Walleyes are not stocked directly into the Tygart River, but are stocked into Tygart Lake during alternate years. During periods of high flow, lake stockings are important because many of the 40,000-plus walleyes stocked into Tygart Lake eventually slip through the dam into the river system. Usually these high-water events occur during winter and early spring.
Walleyes only inhabit sections of the river downstream of the lake, and that probably won't change, since the river depends on lake stockings for replenishment. A few walleyes can be found in the river immediately above the lake, but not in appreciable numbers.
Once walleyes hit the tailwater, many remain for a considerable amount of time, creating an impressive concentration of marble-eyes. High densities of walleyes confined to a small volume of water form an environment capable of generating stringers full of walleyes. Anglers are reminded that the daily limit is 10 walleyes per day on nearly all West Virginia rivers.
Walleye fishing in the Tygart tailwater is a numbers game. Although big walleyes show up occasionally, the majority of marble-eyes will run from 10 to 18 inches, the latter making mighty tasty fillets.
The best fishing usually occurs after storm events that contribute to high water flows. During high flows, walleyes tend to bunch up along the shoreline to avoid swift currents gushing through the dam. These walleyes are particularly vulnerable to shoreline anglers, especially those using minnow-tipped jigs, twistertails or small jerkbaits.
During times when little flow is being released through the dam, walleyes will congregate within the flowing water in the middle of the river. Anglers must use boats to access these mid-river walleyes.
Swirling currents and gate alterations can make fishing near the dam an interesting affair. Anglers need to exercise good judgment when fi
shing during times when water elevation in the tailwater is changing.
Through the years, the massive body of water known as the New River has produced tons of fish, and big ones at that. This super-productive system has developed a reputation for yielding big smallies and muskies. Even flathead catfish reach huge proportions in this river, so why not walleyes?
The New certainly has the food base to produce big walleyes, and walleyes that have worked their way into the river have done superbly. For years, anglers have caught trophy-sized walleyes from the river, which have probably migrated in from Virginia. Such rationale explains why the DNR added the New River to its list of waters to be stocked with walleyes.
The spring of 2007 will make the third consecutive year that the New has received walleye fingerlings. In 2006, 9,200 fish were stocked, and some of the walleyes stocked in 2005 have already attained catchable size.
It isn't a question of will walleyes do well in the New, the question is more like will the New River become West Virginia's next premier trophy walleye fishery?
So far, walleye stockings have been initiated downstream of Hinton in the Sandstone area. Corresponding angler catch has occurred from Sandstone down to below the Interstate 64 bridge. This area is popular among smallmouth anglers, and several bass anglers have reported catching walleyes here with some regularity.
The Cheat River has also been selected for walleye stocking, and last year, 3,800 walleyes were stocked from St. George to Rowlesburg. Few reports of angler-caught walleyes have surfaced, and only time will tell whether the stocking will be successful.
Mountain State walleye anglers have much be excited about in the years to come, and the most significant advancements in walleye fishing may just come from West Virginia's large rivers.