Good marble-eye angling is possible throughout our state, especially on Jennings Randolph, Stonecoal and Sutton lakes. Here's what you can expect to find this season. (March 2009)
Satisfaction from the day's fishing brought a smile to my face as I continued to study the glistening line where it plunged beneath the water's surface. I watched intently for signs of a strike that might indicate the presence of another walleye on this brisk March afternoon. The warming sun was shining down on the reservoir's bare banks as it slowly heated the shallows. This alerted walleyes from the deep to seek out the rare warmth.
Four marble-eyes destined for my dinner table already crowded the livewell; this is half of a legal limit. One of the specimens, a 24-inch trophy was the highlight of the day, but there was still plenty of time remaining to put additional walleyes in the well.
Such a trip exemplifies a typical day of walleye fishing on Mountain State reservoirs: enough walleyes to make fishing interesting and the chance for a trophy to boot.
The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) has been making efforts to boost walleye fishing in the Mountain State since the agency switched from stocking fry to larger fingerlings. A concerted effort to stock walleyes more effectively fuels the DNR's plan to produce better walleye fisheries. Several research studies are underway that could very well contribute to enhancing West Virginia walleye fisheries.
One of the main obstacles has been the annual variability of state hatcheries to consistently meet strategic management goals. For example, 2007 was a banner year, as the DNR stocked more than 240,000 fingerling walleyes across the state. However, in 2008, only 48,000 walleye fingerlings were available for stocking purposes from state hatcheries. Intermittent stocking makes it challenging to maintain consistent walleye populations in Mountain State waters.
Despite management challenges and geographic limitations, the DNR remains committed to creating better walleye fisheries. That means Mountain State anglers should be able to see visible improvements to West Virginia's walleye fishing in the near future. Let's take a look at some of the already established walleye fisheries.
Of all the walleye waters in West Virginia, Jennings Randolph remains the most mysterious. Perhaps the lack of notoriety lies in the fact that Jennings Randolph sits in the Eastern Panhandle sharing a common border with Maryland.
Anglers who fish this 952-acre impoundment on the North Branch of the Potomac River know the lake is capable of producing really gigantic walleyes. Additionally, fishing pressure on marble-eyes in Jennings Randolph remains very limited.
Jan Gonzales, former U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project leader for Jennings Randolph Lake, acknowledges the lake's walleye potential, "We see some real trophies caught from the lake by die-hard anglers who have figured out how to catch those giant walleyes. Although we occasionally hear of anglers limiting out, the lake seems to be geared toward trophy fish rather than quantities of walleyes."
Like many Mountain State reservoirs, Jennings Randolph experiences a significant drawdown in lake elevation during the cold season. In October, the lake is lowered 35 feet to its winter pool, and remains there until April when the lake refills to summer pool elevation. Anglers can call the lake information hotline at (304) 355-2890 for current conditions on the lake.
Once crippled by severe acid mine drainage, the water quality in the North Branch of the Potomac has improved dramatically, thanks to multiple treatment facilities within the Jennings Randolph Lake watershed. Still hampered with low alkalinity, the system still has room for improvement, though it continues to develop into a quality fishery and certainly one known for producing trophy fish.
Walleyes were initially stocked into the lake in 1983 and some natural reproduction has occurred. However, biologists soon realized that those initial stockings weren't going to be enough to sustain a thriving walleye fishery and some assistance would be required. Jennings is slated to receive supplemental walleye stockings during years when surplus fish are available from the state's DNR or sometimes even Maryland's DNR, according to Jim Hedrick, a biologist from Romney.
A reciprocal license agreement between Maryland and West Virginia allows anglers who possess a valid fishing license from either state to fish Jennings Randolph Lake. Anglers should be aware that there is a 15-inch minimum size regulation on walleyes, as well as a creel limit of five per day.
As Gonzales stated, the real draw for walleye anglers on Jennings Randolph is trophy walleyes. The lake features a fair population of walleyes, but anglers struggle to catch their limits on Jennings, perhaps due to clear water and lack of clear-cut walleye structure. However, what anglers give up in quantity is certainly overcome by quality. (Continued)
On multiple occasions, sampling efforts by the DNRs of West Virginia and Maryland have turned up walleyes exceeding 15 pounds, and on one occasion, a walleye measuring longer than 31 inches was captured.
While it remains difficult to pin down walleye hotspots on the lake, some of the lake veterans claim to have discovered such locations. Perhaps this year you, too, might discover a magical hotspot on Jennings Randolph Lake and turn that into a place to catch a double-digit walleye or two.
Unlike many Mountain State impoundments that turn out trophy walleyes during the early spring, Jennings Randolph's lunker walleyes are caught throughout the year, even in the middle of summer.
One impediment walleye anglers encounter on Jennings Randolph is problematic access. Boating access on Jennings Randolph is limited for walleye anglers. Because of ramp closures and restricted areas imposed by the Corps of Engineers, the lake is closed to boat traffic between November and March.
The Howell Run ramp on the West Virginia side of the lake remains open only from April through October until the lake level drops below the ramp level. The Maryland ramp remains open for the same period. Seasonal launch permits are honored on the lake regardless of which ramp you use to launch a boat. The Howell Run ramp located off state Route (SR) 46 features a double-lane ramp with floating docks. Parking is ample.
The Maryland launch is on Mount Zion Road off SR 135 on Backbone Mountain. The launch features a 30-foot-wide ramp with a floating pier. Parking for 50 vehicles is available.
Jennings is the real deal when it comes to trophy walleyes, but don't expect them to come easy or without a good deal of effort.
Despite its widespread reputation as a trout and muskie paradise, Stonecoal Lake was once reputed to be the best walleye lake in the state. During the 1980s, this 550-acre waterway, situated between Lewis and Upshur counties, was decreed an exceptional walleye fishery. My, how things can change quickly.
Stonecoal's walleye population declined during the 1990s, and anglers pointed fingers at each other as well as other sources for the decline. In reality, several factors may have contributed to the decline, such as the illegal introduction of yellow perch, increased fluctuation of water levels or competition with other species.
The lake received a big boost in the early 2000s when the DNR began stocking fingerling-sized walleyes into the lake instead of fry. The survival of these 1- to 3-inch fish turned out to be much greater than the 1/4- inch fry, and the walleye fishery started to take shape once again. Stonecoal Lake now showcases an expanding walleye population. Anglers are beginning to see the results in their creels. Although the lake received no walleye fingerlings in 2008, 11,000 young walleyes were stocked in the lake during 2007.
Each year, Stonecoal Lake undergoes an annual drawdown (8 to 15 feet) when Allegheny Power releases water into the West Fork River to augment water used downstream at their Harrison County power plant.
Anglers are treated to an esthetically pleasing experience when fishing Stonecoal Lake, thanks to the lake's limited shoreline development, abundant wildlife and peaceful atmosphere.
The lake itself has about 17 miles of shoreline and much of it is accessible to shoreline anglers. As for geographic features, Stonecoal Lake has very steep sides and is characterized by numerous dropoffs.
Anglers who fish Stonecoal Lake for walleyes claim that the best way to catch them is to troll deep with crankbaits across sloping points. Small, jointed Rapala Husky Jerks and Storm Hot 'N' Tots minnow-type lures rank among the lake's premier walleye producers. Another successful technique is fishing dropoffs with minnow-tipped jigs or bouncing 3-inch football jigs across the rocky bottom.
Other than some early-season trout anglers, fishing pressure is generally very light for anglers who are targeting walleyes here.
Stonecoal Lake has two access sites that deliver anglers to the lake. Stonecoal's west end access can be reached by taking the Horner/ Georgetown Road from U.S. Route 33, three miles east of Weston. Turn into the lake on Stonecoal Road (15/5). This access site has a concrete boat ramp, a physically challenged fishing pier, shoreline access and a paved parking lot.
The upper end access site is a little tougher to locate but can be reached by taking the Brushy Fork road from U.S. Route 33, a half-mile west of Buckhannon. After entering the Brushy Fork Road, look for the Stonecoal Lake sign that directs anglers to turn right down a gravel-packed road to the lake. This access has a boat ramp, but parking is very limited. Keep in mind there is a 10-horsepower limit on all outboard motors used on Stonecoal Lake.
The dark horse of all state walleye waters may be Sutton Lake. Relatively few anglers fish Sutton for walleyes, and many Sutton anglers are surprised to hear walleyes exist in the lake at all. That could change shortly.
Sutton is one of the few reservoirs in West Virginia that has received walleye stockings during the last two years. In 2008, over 18,000 walleye fingerlings were stocked in Sutton Lake to supplement the 20,000 walleyes placed there in 2007.
Such stockings should mean great fishing during the next three years for anglers who are willing to explore a new walleye lake. Revamped walleye stocking efforts have injected new life into Sutton's walleye population.
At 1,440 acres, Sutton is one of West Virginia's largest reservoirs. Created by impounding the Elk River near the town of Sutton, this Braxton County lake looks like a prime walleye location, as it is characterized by steep sides, clear water and features depths over 100 feet.
Anglers should note that daily water condition updates for Sutton Lake and its tailwaters are available by calling the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' recorded message at (304) 765-2705.
Anglers coming to Sutton Lake should be aware that the lake receives plenty of recreational use because of its location in central West Virginia. The lake remains a top bass tournament site, and scores of recreational boaters routinely use the lake, so walleye anglers should expect company when on Sutton.
Sutton features much more of a river-like atmosphere than most West Virginia reservoirs. Many walleye anglers tend to fish the riverine environments on the lake's upper end, especially early in the year. Large tributaries, such as Holly River and Laurel Creek, merge with the Elk River to create enticing habitat on the lake's upper end.
The area around Holly Point, where both rivers meet, is a perennial walleye hotspot that seems to be a natural holding location for walleyes.
Although Sutton Lake contains very few shallow flats, it does have excellent points that create prime structure for walleyes. Stony Point, located just downstream from the mouth of Stony Creek, remains one of the many points where anglers tend to find walleyes.
Another lake hotspot for all kinds of fish, including walleyes, lies near the lower railroad trestle, which crosses a side cove about halfway up the lake. The area around this railroad trestle is known for concentrating good numbers of bass, and in recent years, walleyes.
Deep rock structure near the trestle seems to provide quality locations for bass and walleyes, and such habitat should continue to attract marble-eyes as the lake narrows here to form a natural funnel.
Speaking of attractors, anglers would be well advised to note that the DNR has placed fish attractors in several locations around the lake. Fish attractors are excellent places to encounter fish of all kinds, even walleyes. Some of the largest walleyes I've seen on the lake were hiding among these fish attractors. Each attractor should be marked with buoys or signs clearly indicating its location.
Anglers fishing the upper end of the lake will find fish attractors below Bakers Run Campground and near the Tunnel Road Jetty. Another attractor is located across the lake from where the Holly and Elk river arms merge.
Three more attractors can be found downstream within a mile of the Holly and Elk river junction. For anglers on the lower end of the lake, a fish attractor is located at the head of Wolf Fork, and another is located by the handicapped-fishing pier near the dam.
Anglers may use various launch ramps to access Sutton Lake. The most convenient and heavily used access is near Bee Run Campground. Sitting on the lower end of the lake, the Bee Run launch ramp features the lake's only marina.
To get to the Bee Run area, take exit 67 from Interstate 79 at Flatwoods and follow the signs to SR 15. Then follow SR 15 for about three miles before turning into the Bee Run area.
Two additional ramps provide access to the upper end of the lake. The ramp near Gerald R. Freeman campground can be located by traveling on SR 15 toward Diana. It takes about 35 minutes to get to this ramp from I-79.
To get to the Baker's Run ramp, take exit 62 off Interstate 79 and go through the town of Sutton. In Sutton, turn right and travel across the Elk River bridge onto county route (CR) 19/40. After traveling several miles, turn onto CR 17 toward Centralia. The Baker's Run area is located just past the community of Centralia, but be advised it requires 45 minutes to get to this ramp from Interstate 79.
Walleye numbers in the Mountain State are on the rise, thanks in part to modernized management strategies, including the stocking of larger fingerling walleyes. Such advancements can only serve as good news to our state's walleye anglers.
Additional improvements should become evident to anglers as the DNR tweaks its walleye stocking strategies. Currently, research efforts are underway to determine the optimal number of walleyes to stock per acre of water. Such scientific data will provide imperative information to the DNR, so they can generate measurable improvements to established walleye fisheries.
Additional challenges of generating enough hatchery space to produce adequate walleyes to fulfill stocking requirements will also need to be addressed.
West Virginia isn't a nationally recognized walleye state by any means with only a limited number of quality walleye fisheries. However, with improved management strategies boosting current fisheries, the Mountain State will likely elevate its status in the world of walleye fishing.