Now's the time to catch big walleyes from our state's rivers. Here's where you should try this season!
by Kevin Yokum
Catching a state-record walleye is a rare and exciting event in an angler's life and only a fortunate few will ever experience the thrill. So when I received a call from an Elk River angler who claimed to have caught the latest record walleye, I could understand his elation. Arriving at the location to officially weigh and measure this potential new state-record walleye, I also felt a surge of adrenaline.
Weighing in at 14-plus pounds and measuring over 33 inches, the walleye was enormous, but it wasn't a state record. To break the current state record, a walleye must exceed 35 inches in length or 17.22 pounds in weight. Both of the current state- record walleyes were caught from rivers. The big walleye river trend points out what veteran walleye anglers have known all along, early-season river fishing gives anglers their best chance to catch trophy walleyes.
Several West Virginia rivers have self-sustaining walleye fisheries like the Elk River, but others are dependent on supplemental stockings. The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) stocks about 300,000 walleye fingerlings in state waterways annually. Many of the walleyes are stocked into reservoirs, but some are placed in large rivers, including the Kanawha. Each year, the Kanawha is slated to receive over 22,000 fingerling walleyes. The Tygart River, although not stocked directly, receives fingerlings through the Tygart Lake Dam. Many of the 44,000 walleye fingerlings put into Tygart Lake eventually come through the dam during high-water conditions and serve as a direct benefit to Tygart River anglers as these fish continually migrate downstream from the tailwaters.
For the last two years, the DNR has changed its walleye stocking philosophy. Instead of stocking millions of freshly hatched walleye fry, the DNR now stocks walleye fingerlings that are 1 to 3 inches in length. Freshly hatched walleye fry require large quantities of zooplankton during the first few weeks of their lives. So weather conditions in March, when the walleye fry were stocked, were often not conducive to good zooplankton production. Consequently, walleye survival during some years was very poor.
Now that the DNR has more hatchery pond space at its new Apple Grove Hatchery, walleyes can be reared to a larger size, which will result in a much better survival rate. The bottom line will be dynamite walleye fishing for West Virginia walleye anglers for years to come.
This hefty Elk River walleye was caught in January just prior to a snowstorm. Fishing the early season may increase your chances of tangling with a trophy marble-eye. Photo by Kevin Yokum
KANAWHA RIVER The Kanawha River has always attracted its share of marble-eye anglers and many agree that the river is a good place to land a daily limit of walleyes. Although more renowned for producing quantities of walleyes, each year some successful anglers are treated to encounters with trophy walleyes from the Kanawha.
Three particular locations on the Kanawha stand out as particularly notable walleye hotspots. The first two are the Marmet and London locks. Temperature, food and water flow in the tailwaters downstream of these two locks provide excellent conditions for walleyes. Each of these sections of river is capable of producing early-season trophies.
Fishing can be especially good from January through March below the locks on the Kanawha. Minnow-tipped jigs and 3-inch twistertail jigs are popular baits that have proven to be superb walleye catchers. White and chartreuse colors seem to work the best. When conditions are right, suspending jerkbaits can be effective, but jigs remain the most versatile lures for tailwater anglers.
Generally, successful anglers will fish as close to the dam as possible. Walleyes concentrate along the swift water flowing through the gates, thus offering a prime target for anglers. Depth is a key criterion for successful walleye fishing in the Kanawha River. Occasionally walleyes suspend in the Kanawha River, but normally bouncing jigs along the bottom just off the main current line will likely be the most productive way to trigger strikes. This seems especially true for anglers who are fishing for big walleyes.
The last location on the Kanawha is one of the best places in the state to catch a trophy walleye. Kanawha Falls has earned this reputation by producing many big fish over the years. The current state length record for walleyes (35 inches) was caught from Kanawha Falls in 1976. How can this particular location produce so many trophy fish? The falls act as a natural barrier for migrating walleyes and function as an area where walleyes really become concentrated, especially in winter and early spring. Right now Kanawha Falls is the No. 1 trophy walleye location in the state.
Live bait appears to be the ticket at Kanawha Falls and many trophy-hungry walleye anglers use large shiners or creek chubs. It is not uncommon to see anglers using chubs as large as 8 inches for big walleyes.
To get to Kanawha Falls, anglers will travel southeast from Charleston along U.S. Route 60. Kanawha Falls features great angler facilities, including a boat ramp, fishing pier and plenty of shoreline access. Although lots of fish are caught from shore, anglers fishing from a boat will gain access to prime water that is unavailable to shoreline anglers.
ELK RIVER It seems that the Elk River has been a premier walleye fishery in West Virginia for as long as anyone can remember. The Elk River has maintained a self-sustaining population of walleyes for many years, but it is the size of the marble-eyes inhabiting the Elk rather than the numbers of walleyes that keep anglers returning. Frankly speaking, the Elk features some giant walleyes. Each year, the Elk River yields several walleyes weighing in the double digits, including two fish in 2001 that each weighed over 14 pounds.
Seasoned anglers typically keep the locations of their favorite trophy walleye hotspots a secret, but the mouths of large tributaries are always good bets for holding trophy walleyes. Despite receiving a good bit of fishing pressure, the mouths of Elk River tributaries receive top marks as some of the state's most consistent trophy walleye locations. Birch River, Strange Creek, Duck Creek, Buffalo Creek and Sycamore Creek are just a few of the larger tributaries flowing into the Elk that provide areas where early-season walleyes bunch up.
Many veteran Elk River anglers prefer fishing with live bait. Creek chubs and small suckers are the bait of choice and sizes range up to 12 inches in length, with the preferred length being around 6 inches. Always popular, jigs (4-inch twistertails) seem to catch
their share of big Elk River walleyes during the early season as well.
While any pool or tributary along the 82-mile length of the Elk (from Sutton Dam to the mouth near Charleston) might hold walleyes, the tailrace downstream of the dam is one of the most probable locations to encounter numbers of these biggest members of the perch family.
Acting as a barrier to fish movement, walleyes stack up in the tailwater throughout the year, with January through April being touted as the best time to fish for walleyes. Each year, some trophy walleyes are landed from this tailwater, but most caught here will be between 12 and 20 inches. Minnow-tipped jigs and twistertail plastic grubs are the lures of choice for tailwater walleye anglers, although a number of walleyes are caught on spinners and spoons each year, too.
The Sutton tailwater is located off exit 62 from Interstate 79, near the town of Sutton. Head toward Sutton and follow signs to the dam. Other sites on the Elk River can be found by traveling along state Route (SR) 4. State Route 4 follows a large portion of the Elk River from Sutton Dam all the way to Clendenin. Near Clendenin, SR 4 becomes U.S. Route 119 as it takes over as the primary access to the Elk until it reaches the mouth near Charleston.
OHIO RIVER Finding fish, such as the much-coveted walleye, is easy on the Ohio River. Creel surveys conducted on the river have shown that more than 90 percent of this river's walleyes are caught from the locks and dams that span its banks. By integrating fish and restricting upstream movement, dams form a natural catch basin for anglers.
Fish will orient themselves in relation to the water flow coming through the dam. By studying water currents it becomes easier to predict where walleyes will be on any given lock. "Water flow is critical to fishing the Ohio River," said Frank Jernejcic, a district fisheries biologist and avid angler. The outflow from the dam usually determines where good fishing will occur. If water flow through the dam is excessive, then moving downstream where there is less flow usually results in better fishing. During times when only a little water is flowing through the dam, target the areas of moving current close to the dam.
According to Jernejcic, several of the navigation dams on the Ohio offer good walleye fishing. Notable dams include Hannibal, Willow Island, New Cumberland and Pike Island. Biologist Jernejcic feels that the dams farther upstream tend to have better walleye fishing than those downstream.
One such upstream dam, Pike Island, deserves special mention because in addition to good walleye fishing, it features some of the most modern facilities on the river, including an impressive fishing pier on the Ohio side. Anglers are reminded that they can fish either side of the Ohio River with a valid West Virginia or Ohio fishing license.
The New Cumberland Lock is another prime spot to catch Ohio River walleyes. Accessing the New Cumberland Lock requires some effort, as it is approximately a quarter-mile walk to the fishing access. Anglers who do hoof it are often rewarded with bountiful catches of walleyes.
When asked about the quality of Ohio River walleye fishing, Jernejcic stated that over the last few years, the number of walleyes being caught by Ohio River anglers appears to be increasing. And, make no mistake, a trophy walleye could show up at any lock along the Ohio, especially early in the year.
The Ohio River can be a productive water body throughout the year, but February and March are traditionally the prime months to rack up big numbers of walleyes. It seems that some of the most productive days of fishing occur when the weather is at its worst. Although not comfortable to anglers, windy, overcast days when temperatures are cold can be the best time to catch walleyes.
There also seems to be a correlation between rough weather conditions and big-fish action. A lot of experienced walleye anglers feel that big fish are much more active during harsh weather and therefore become more susceptible to angling. Even when water levels seem too high to fish, walleyes are available below the dams. High water allows these fish to move close to shore making them especially vulnerable to shoreline angling.
Lure preferences among Ohio River anglers are as diverse as anywhere in the country. However, twistertails in white, black and chartreuse appear to be a mainstay. Jernejcic recommends 1/4-ounce jigs tipped with chartreuse twistertails as a great locator pattern. Another great walleye producer is to use a night crawler on the end of a jig. Either rig is most effective when fished along the bottom. To catch 'em you have to get down where they are and most often the river bottom is where Ohio River walleyes hang out.
Anglers shouldn't be afraid to try radical lure changes to entice big walleyes. I know of one walleye angler who uses 8- and 10-inch jointed muskie plugs on the Ohio. Fellow anglers give him lots of strange looks, but last year alone, he landed three walleyes on the Ohio River that each exceeded 10 pounds.
TYGART RIVER Over the last few years, no water has been more reliable for producing walleyes in the late winter and early spring than the Tygart River. The walleye "stack-up" on one particular section of the Tygart has become so consistent that anglers now plan special trips to the area to take advantage of the walleye accumulation. The area most noted for this hot streak is in the tailwater just below the Tygart Dam. Walleyes slip through the dam during periods of high flow that frequently occur from December to April.
"During this period, the highest concentration of walleyes in the state can be found just below the Tygart dam," said biologist Jernejcic.
Many walleyes will remain in the tailwater for some time, creating an assemblage of walleyes many anglers only dream about. Recent walleye surveys conducted in early spring on the Tygart tailwater turned up an incredible 175 walleyes in just 47 minutes of electrofishing. Although no jumbo walleyes were seen, plenty of harvestable-sized walleyes up to 18 inches were sampled and released. While the majority of walleyes present in the tailwaters will be less than 20 inches, anglers do catch some trophy walleyes each year.
Prime walleye fishing usually occurs just after periods of high flow. During high flows, walleyes often concentrate along the shoreline. In sharp contrast, periods of low flow will result in walleyes bunching up in the mid-river current near the face of the dam. Often a boat is needed to reach walleyes in the middle of the river during low release conditions. Anglers are reminded to use caution when boating near the Tygart Dam due to churning currents and changing water flow levels.
A prime trophy walleye area suggested by Jernejcic on the Tygart River is located just downstream of Valley Falls, near the community of Hammond. Jernejcic has noticed that a walleye pattern has developed over the years. Anglers fishing the Tygart typically catch the largest walleyes from the river near Valley Falls. These lunker walleyes don't
seem to have an affinity for any particular lure or bait, but they surely hang out in the proximity of the falls.
It is probably naive to think that only the tailwater and the Valley Falls pool hold quality walleyes, while the eight miles that separate them wouldn't be worth fishing. Fishing the stretch between these two hotspots may prove to be profitable for intrigued anglers.
Now is an exciting time for West Virginia walleye anglers. New stocking capabilities are leading to improved walleye fishing all across the Mountain State. Trophy walleyes are showing up in greater numbers each year and that trend is likely to continue as stocking survival improves.
One thing stands out about anglers who are catching big walleyes: They fish early in the year, even when the weather is harsh. Getting out the fishing gear a little early this year may be the key you need to hook up with a real trophy walleye or two this season.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to West Virginia Game & Fish