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Our State's Best Family Fishing (And More) Vacations

Our State's Best Family Fishing (And More) Vacations

Here's a district-by-district look at some fine places in which to relax and unwind throughout our great Mountain State -- and even enjoy some fine angling nearby to boot!

Photo by Tom Berg

Upon arriving at Tygart Lake State Park in Taylor County, I could easily see why this establishment has such a good reputation as a destination for families who enjoy fishing and the outdoors. Parents and their children could fish for tailrace trout below the Tygart Lake Dam, float-fish for smallmouths and sunfish above the lake in the Tygart River, or, as many families do, angle for smallmouths, bluegills and catfish in the impoundment.


Tygart Lake State Park

Joe Skeen, activities programmer and park naturalist for the state park, which is located in District I, is understandably proud of the family-friendly atmosphere.

"Park personnel have strived to make this a family-oriented facility," he said. "We've done so by seeing to it that we offer a wide variety of family-related activities, especially nature based with our summer recreation program. We also know that the family element is what people are looking for, something that every member can enjoy about the outdoors. It could be fishing or swimming in the lake, sunbathing on the beach area or walking along some seven miles of hiking trails.

"Bluegills, channel catfish and smallmouth bass are the fish most often caught in Tygart Lake. And last year, someone caught a 28-inch walleye. Most people fish from the shore, and as you would expect, the morning and evening periods are typically best in the summer. Tygart is a very warm lake in the summer, so the fish usually only feed actively along the coves and shoreline during low-light conditions. The lake trail runs around the impoundment; just look for openings along the shoreline off that trail and you should find a place to catch some fish."

Skeen added that during the midday period, the fishing is often quite poor -- again because of the overly warm water. The afternoon hours might be a good time for parents and their offspring to meander along one of the trails. The park naturalist recommends Ridge Trail, which winds end to end just under a mile and covers moderate terrain. Hikers will have to crest just one ridge and they should enjoy strolling along two streams, across two bridges and through a beautiful valley. Skeen relates that deer commonly inhabit the trail corridor, something that wildlife watchers should appreciate.


The 2,134-acre Tygart Lake State Park features 11 deluxe cabins, a 40- unit camping area (open from late April to Oct. 31), a 20-room lodge, gift shop, and fishing boat and pontoon rental. Three picnic areas and a recreation building are two of the amenities. Some nearby attractions include the International Mothers Day Shrine, Valley Falls State Park and the Philippi Covered Bridge. For more information, contact the park by calling (304) 265-3383. All state parks and forests in this story can be reached by dialing (800) CALL-WVA.


Smoke Hole Caverns

Jerry Hedrick, who operates Smoke Hole Outfitters in Seneca Rocks, said that families who enjoy pursuing trout should enjoy a visit to the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac.

"The North Fork is a clean, cold, unpolluted mountain stream and a great trout river," Hedrick said. "My favorite section is from Seneca Rocks to Smoke Hole Caverns, which is a distance of about 15 miles. The catch- and-release section is an especially good place to fish."

The aforementioned catch-and-release area lies in Pendleton County and is a 3/4-mile-long section at the mouth of Seneca Creek near the Seneca Rocks Visitors Center. Access is by county Route 28/1 at the junction of state Route 28 and U.S. Route 33 at Seneca Rocks. That water receives an annual stocking in April. The North Fork, as it courses through Grant and Pendleton counties, receives stockings once in January, twice in February, once each week from March through May and again in October. The October stocking coincides with the beginning of squirrel season.

Jerry's son, Josh, is the chief guide for Smoke Hole Outfitters. Josh suggested a variety of patterns for late-spring and early-summer angling on the North Fork. The younger Hedrick recommends emergers, such as size 16 or smaller Blue-Winged Olives, sizes 16 through 20 sulfurs, size 14 slate drakes and sizes 16 and 18 light Cahills. Effective nymph patterns include size 14 and 16 Pheasant Tails and Hare's Ears.

Spin-fishermen, continued Hedrick, should do well with two old reliables: in-line spinners and salmon eggs. A key for doing well with those choices is to only spool 2- to 4-pound-test on a light-action spinning rod.

"One of the great things about the North Fork is the variety of trout-holding cover," he said. "When you first arrive at the river, you will usually see push water, then a riffle, next several runs and finally a pool. Somewhere in that pool will be an eddy next to a bank that is heavily wooded. The sweet spot is where the riffle starts to spread out but is still moving at a fairly good pace. That pattern of habitat repeats itself over and over as you go down the river."

Jill Teets of Smoke Hole Outfitters emphasizes that the group's facilities are very family friendly. She said that the family log cabins on site offer two bedrooms and a large kitchen. The North Fork flows just 50 yards behind the buildings. The historic Smoke Hole Caverns is also on site. The Seneca Indians used these caverns to smoke wild game -- thus the name for the area.

When settlers came to this area of the Mountain State, they quickly saw the value of utilizing the caverns as a place to make corn whisky, hide valuable possessions and perhaps even escape from the law. A system of walkways leads through the caverns. Also nearby are hiking trails, mountain biking and horseback riding. A variety of hunting and fishing trips are also offered throughout the year. For more information, contact; or call toll-free (800) 828-8478.


Elk River

Located east of Charleston, the Elk River features populations of catfish, muskies, smallmouth bass and assorted members of the panfish clan. But if I wanted to introduce a youngster to bass fishing, then I would recommend another member of the black bass family that the Elk contains good numbers of -- the spotted bass, also known as Kentucky bass.

The Elk possesses a number of attributes that make it a topnotch spotted bass waterway. Those traits include low-gradient shoreline cuts, downed trees, and numerous brushpiles. Of course, in the Mountain State, spots don't grow to the size that largemouths and smallmouths do. Nevertheless, good numbers of

fish in the 8- to 11-inch range fin the Elk, a size of fish tailor-made for young anglers who are using light tackle.

Numerous float trips exist on the waterway. Among the possibilities are Sutton Dam to Gassaway (five miles), Gassaway to Frametown (4 1/2 miles), Clay to Elkhurst (mileage varies depending on the precise put-in point), Elkhurst Road to Queen Shoals (eight miles), Queen Shoals to Clendenin (three miles), Blue Creek Bridge to Big Chimney Bridge (six miles), Big Chimney Bridge to Mink Shoals (3 1/2 miles) and Mink Shoals to Kanawha River (five miles).

Another reason why the Elk is a marvelous stream for families is that it lacks major rapids. One of the interesting aspects about fishing in the Mountain State is the difference in terms that exists. For example, on the upper Potomac, anglers speak of floating and fishing riffles. On the Elk, in contrast, the term riffle is infrequently heard as fishermen speak of checking out shoal water.

Typically on the Elk, the riffles, that is, shoals, create very small drops in the stream bottom. Anglers should encounter little difficulty running these shoals during the late-spring and early-summer period. Although by late summer, portaging is often required as the Elk can become quite shallow.

For more information on planning a trip to Charleston and the Elk River, contact the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau at (800) 733-5469 or (304) 344-5075; or visit their Web site at Families may want to consider visiting the West Virginia State Museum, in the state capital, and any one of a dozen or so parks in the Greater Charleston Area.


Bluestone State Park

One of my favorite Mountain State parks is Bluestone Lake State Park in Hinton. This 2,100-acre southern West Virginia establishment in Summers County encompasses Bluestone Lake and its nearly 2,000 acres, making the body of water the third largest in the state.

Brett McMillion is acting superintendent at Bluestone. He emphasizes that families and their budding anglers should enjoy visiting the impoundment.

"Bluestone has a very good population of bluegills and crappie, so the lines of youngsters should pretty much always be tight," he said. "The lake is also known for its flathead catfish, and striped bass come down from Claytor Lake in Virginia. The state has stocked hybrid stripers, and, of course, many anglers go after the lake's largemouths.

"Some excellent wade-fishing for smallmouths and sunfish can be found below the dam in the New River. Below the dam, the fish seem to bite all day long. I would strongly suggest that all family members wear lifejackets while wading and that they contact the U.S. Corps of Engineers to find out current water levels and the release schedule."

McMillion relates that bank access is generally lacking around the lake, although the River View Trail does encircle Bluestone and occasionally provides shoreline openings. Bank- fishing is also possible at a marina where boats can be rented. The acting superintendent said that if a family does rent a boat, its members should consider checking out the dam area. A number of fish attractors have been sunk, and the rock cover that has been created is a current hotspot. Tournament anglers have reported good catches of largemouths.

Among the park's amenities are a 32-unit tent and trailer campground featuring 22 sites with electric hookups, a rustic camping area with 47 sites, 26 cabins, nature hikes, special weekly programs, hiking trails, swimming pool, game courts, and a seasonal nature/recreation program. McMillion is very enthusiastic about the nature program, as three or four fun activities are planned daily.

Camping is also available at the adjacent 17,632-acre Bluestone Wildlife Management Area (WMA), which the New River flows through. McMillion informs that some 300 campsites exist in the WMA, many of them along the New. Nearby attractions include Tamarack Arts and Crafts Center and Grandview Park, which is famous for its outdoor musical drama: "Hatfields and McCoys," which I have seen and heartily recommend. For more information, check the park's Web site at For water level information below Bluestone Dam, contact the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at (304) 466-1234. For general information from the Corps, dial (304) 466-0156.


Cabwaylingo State Forest

Bob Mathis, a district administrator for the state park and forest system, said that the first thing potential visitors should know about the 8,123-acre Cabwaylingo State Forest is that the place name is not of American Indian origin, as many folks believe. Instead, the name is the combination of the spellings of four nearby counties: Cabell, Wayne, Lincoln and Mingo.

"Families coming to Cabwaylingo should understand that the state forest is a little different from many of our other parks and forests," Mathis said. "Remote is not quite the right word to describe Cabwaylingo, but I would describe it as quiet and out of the way."

The District V state forest is tailor-made for those families who find nature itself as being entertaining enough. Birding, hiking, outdoors photography, and, of course, fishing are the premier activities.

Mathis said that fishing activities should be concentrated in the West Fork of Twelve Pole Creek, which he describes as a "very pretty stream as it flows through the state forest." This stream is stocked from Wilsondale downstream six miles through Cabwaylingo State Forest, receiving infusions once each month from February through May. Plenty of carry-over fish should remain in June.

The district administrator emphasized that visitors will likely relish their sojourn in any of the 13 standard cabins, as they feature stonework from the Civilian Conservation Corps era in the 1930s. Additional lodging exists in a modern cabin and 25 campsites that Mathis maintains are never crowded. Among the other amenities are a swimming pool, playgrounds, souvenir shop and hiking trails. But Cabwaylingo's main attraction may be the solitude it provides its visitors.


Blennerhassett Island/Ohio River

Superintendent Donna Smith of Blennerhassett Island Historical State Park believes that families who enjoy learning more about history will relish a visit to this District VI area. In 1798, Harman Blennerhassett settled on the island and set about building a mansion and furthering his fortune. However, the wealthy Irishman became involved with the notorious Aaron Burr in 1806 about an alleged plot to create an empire. Both men were captured and their lives ruined. In 1811, Blennerhassett's run of ill fortune continued when his mansion burned.

Archaeologists rediscovered the foundations in 1973 and have re-created the mansion. Families may well enjoy learning more about the history of Blennerhassett and Burr, as well as the Delaware Indian, Nemacolin, who ruled the island in the 1760s. Other famous personages who were attracted to the landmass include George Rogers Clark, King Cha

rles X of France, Johnny Appleseed and poet Walt Whitman. Native Americans dwelled on the island for centuries until the 1780s.

The 500-acre historical state park has a multitude of places where families can fish, and many openings in the shoreline exist. Of all the fisheries in West Virginia, the Ohio River no doubt offers the most diverse one. Largemouths, smallmouths, spots, bluegills, sunfish, walleyes and hybrid stripers are some, but by no means all, of the game fish that fin this lowland waterway.

Before taking a sternwheeler to Blennerhassett Island, families may want to drop by the Blennerhassett Museum of Regional History in Parkersburg. A video of the namesake family is much recommended, as well as Native American artifact displays. Once on the island, be sure to partake of the guided mansion tours, horse-drawn wagon rides and picnicking possibilities. For more information, dial the toll-free number listed earlier or call (304) 420-4800; on the Web the address is:

State Parks & Forests

VIPP Program

For a family vacation, my wife, two kids and I have been visiting one or more West Virginia state parks or forests every year since 1991. From that first visit, which was to Watoga State Park 14 years ago, to the most recent one this past June at Tygart Lake State Park, I have been impressed by the professionalism and enthusiasm of the state park personnel. In my household, mid-June means its time to go to a Mountain State park or forest.

I have visited so many of these establishments that I only need to go to two more, Holly River and North Bend, in order to become a VIPP (a Very Important Parks Person). Anyone who visits any of 15 designated state parks and forests, plus five more from an electives list of the remaining ones, can receive this designation. After completing these 20 visits and submitting an authorization card, you will receive an official VIPP windbreaker. For more information on this program as well as visiting the state parks, dial the toll-free number listed earlier; or go online to

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