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5 Fall Fishing Hotspots In West Virginia

5 Fall Fishing Hotspots In West Virginia

Don't put away your fishing tackle just yet. Not when there's still great fishing to be enjoyed for walleyes, smallmouth bass and more in our state. Here's where! (September 2009)

Some of our state's best smallmouth fishing takes place during the fall season on the Gauley and New rivers and Tygart Lake.
Photo by Jeff Knapp.

Fall fishing in the Mountain State could be described as a bittersweet activity. One knows the turning of the leaves will also soon be turning the final page on another fishing season. But like a good novel, the final chapter is often the best one, too.

After all, when bass, walleyes and muskies sense the turn of the season and belly-up to the table, it often provides some of the best angling action of the year. Following summer's generous feeding opportunities, game fish are typically in as good of shape as they will be all year.

Post Labor Day means the kids are in school, and the personal watercraft are pretty much put away for the year. Many sportsmen are in the woods and fields, so a fall angler often has the water to him or herself. And the seasonal surroundings can be spectacular. Here's a look at five topnotch places to fish this fall, a slate of opportunities aimed at extending your action deep into autumn.

The Gauley River, in the fall, is known more for its whitewater rafting activities than for the fishing it provides. But the river holds an excellent population of smallmouth bass. And if you're willing to enlist the help of one of the professional guides that focus on the Gauley's fall fishing opportunities, you'll likely be in for a treat.

"Back in the 1970s, the Corps of Engineers would conduct a fall drawdown on Summersville Lake, significantly draining it during a 22-day period," said Larry Nibert, owner of The West Virginia Experience ( Discharge rates run in the 2,800 cubic feet per second (cfs) range during this activity.

The whitewater rafting industry came about due to the sport the high river flow volumes created. To spread the sport out over a longer period, high flows typically now take place from Friday through Monday. Currently, during the fall, from Tuesday through Thursday, the flow is throttled back to the 600 to 1,000 cfs range, providing a play time for those who are interested in angling more so than rafting.

According to Nibert, the best smallmouth bass water is the lower Gauley, running from the merger of Mason's Branch down to the town of Gauley Bridge, where it joins the New River.

"The Gauley is more of a numbers river than one for big fish," said Nibert in sizing up the river's smallmouth fishery. "That's not to say there aren't some big bass in there. We get our fair share of 15- to 19- inch bass."

Besides an almost total lack of fishing pressure — because of the remoteness of the area, as well as the need for specialized equipment and experience — Nibert said the river also provides the chance for a "Gauley Grand Slam," which includes not only brown bass, but trout, muskies and walleyes, too.

Brooder-class trout are stocked in the upper Gauley River — by helicopter — in a five-and-half-mile stretch down to the confluence of the Meadow River. Some make their way down to the lower Gauley. The lower Gauley also has a good and increasing muskie population.

"It's not uncommon to raise three or four muskies in a trip," he said. Size-wise, Nibert said a good Gauley muskie would run into the low 40-inch range. He said walleyes are also very common in the lower Gauley, noting two prior state-record 'eyes hail from the river.

Anglers preparing for a Gauley River float should load up on soft-plastic baits like Yum's Woolly Beaver Tail and Craw Papi, as well as tubes and flukes. Good hard baits include small Rebels and Big Os. All of these are attractive to bass, trout and walleyes alike. Muskie lures include minnow baits like Rapala's Husky Jerk, as well as big in-line spinners, such as Mepps Giant Killer and Musky Killer.

As good as the fishing can be on the Gauley, it's not a drive there and wet a line kind of deal. Nibert said that in the stretch from the Summersville Dam outflow down to the town of Swiss, he doesn't recommend fishing it without the services of a professional fishing/rafting outfitter. The river contains rapids that run from Class I to Class V, with sandstone boulders bigger than a house.

The Gauley River provides an outstanding multi-species fishery during the early to mid-fall period. In contrast, the New River, too, has a great smallmouth bass population, one that can be pursued throughout the fall, well into November, even December.

"The New River flows for 320 miles, from North Carolina north to Gauley Bridge, where it joins the Gauley River," said river guide Larry Nibert. "Since it flows from south to north, I feel it stays warmer a bit longer than other rivers, which extends the good bass fishing longer into the fall period."

The New River is not only warmer, it also flows through a fairly productive substrate, meaning it can support both big numbers of bass, as well as some big individual fish. Nibert said when the river conditions are good, skilled anglers commonly catch 50 or more brown bass in a day. His highest catch (for a boat) has been 172 small­mouths. Fish in excess of 20 inches are available, and more commonly are found on the ends of anglers' lines as fall progresses.

"We'll catch New River smallies as long as the water stays in that 48- to 56-degree range, right on into December most years," said Nibert. "I do caution folks who are looking for those 50-plus-fish days, that late fall is probably not the best time to fish the New River. But for trophy fishermen, especially those who are willing to slow drag some tube baits across the bottom, or slow-roll a big Terminator-style spinnerbait, this is the time to fish."

Nibert said five- to 15-fish days are typical during the late fall. He's boated as many as 35 to 40, with two anglers, during the second week of buck season.

"You have to be patient, and you have to fish slowly, just dragging the bait along the bottom," he noted. "You'll lose a few baits, but you have to fish slowly. The strike feels just like a big female bass picking a bait off a nest and swimming away with it."

Recently Nibert has begun Texas rigging a tube for the late fall, which allows him to work the bait at a sluggish pace without

frequently hanging up. He uses a 3/0 or 4/0 hook, along with 1/4- or 3/8-ounce sliding bullet sinker to fish a 4- or 5-inch flippin' tube for big New River smallies.

The length of New River from Hinton down to Gauley Bridge contains a good smallmouth bass population. Nibert said that along the river portion from the Interstate 64 bridge downriver to Fayette Station, which is directly under the New River Gorge Bridge, anglers should have an experienced, professional guide.

"There are Class III rapids along that stretch with hydraulics that are keepers," he noted.

A 1,440-acre impoundment of the Elk River, Sutton Lake provides a solid largemouth bass fishery, and is a fine place to spend an autumn day. According to Clarksburg-area bass angler Rob Grabow, Sutton has a strong largemouth fishery, with good numbers of green bass, as well as the occasional 3- to 4-pounder.

Both the Elk and the Holly rivers feed the upper end of the lake. As the lake undergoes its annual fall drawdown, the main lake, which entails about 75 percent of the acreage, is the main location for bass.

"Sutton has a lot of rock, and a lot of laydowns," noted Grabow. "As with most of our lakes, the clearest water is near the dam. Visibility can be 5 to 10 feet."

According to Nibert, the best smallmouth bass water is the lower Gauley, running from the merger of Mason's Branch down to the town of Gauley Bridge, where it joins the New River.

Grabow said Sutton's bass tend to school up as water temperatures drop and the lake level recedes. He prefers to cover water quickly, using a crankbait, such as a bigger version of Bombers Fat Free Shad. When he gets into a school, he'll slow down and work the area over with a slower presentation.

"The fronts of the creek mouths tend to be good in the fall," he added. "Creeks like Wolf Creek and Flatwoods Run are good starting points. As far as the upper part of the lake, I don't fish much above the railroad trestle, which I don't go past during the fall."

A fall pattern Grabow has happened on to involves bass, the lake's spotted bass in particular, feeding on balls of shad. This is a visual thing, with obvious feeding taking place near the surface. While the spots change from day to day, he said the action typically happens along the outside bend in the lake.

"It's kind of a hunting game, watching for the feeding near the top," states Grabow. He uses a walking-type topwater lure, or a popper, along with monster casts, to work these fish.

Sutton's main launch, the Bee Run facility, can be used throughout the fall.

Northern West Virginia anglers have a gem of a smallmouth bass lake in Tygart Lake, aka Grafton Dam. This Corps of Engineers flood-control lake is typical of a Mountain State impoundment, lying in a steep-sided valley. Rob Grabow lists Tygart as one of his favorite places to be come fall.

"Tygart has a really nice smallmouth bass population," Grabow said. "It doesn't put out exceptionally large bass, but it does have good numbers. And fall is one of the best times to fish it. You can be the only one out there."

During the early fall, Grabow said the average Tygart brown bass will go 14 to 16 inches. A 3-pounder, he said, is a bonus possibility.

"Like most of our lakes, Tygart sees a big fall drawdown," noted Grabow. "When the water starts to cool, and they begin letting water out of the dam, those smallies like to eat."

As the lake is drawn down, the smallies have less cover options than they did in the summer. Boat docks aren't an option, as they sit high and dry. The major creeks become less hospitable to bass as the lake is drained. As such, boulder fields and wood within the main lake become the primary holding places for fall Tygart smallmouths.

During the fall, the lake is navigable up to the vicinity of Sandy Creek. Typically, the water is quite clear. Grabow likes to throw a Lucky Craft Pointer, one of the deep divers.

"There are a lot of boulders in that area, throughout the lake, actually," Grabow said. "Jerkbaits really seem to call those fish out of the rocks. It's one of the best patterns going out there."

In addition to some impressive boulder fields, the lake also has some dominant rocky points that jut out into deeper water, structure that's easier to identify once the lake starts to lower. The area near the dam has some rock bluff banks that are good in the fall.

During the fall, Grabow prefers to keep moving, looking for active fish, rather than camping on a spot and working it with a finesse-type offering. So, when they won't come up for a jerkbait, he'll go down a bit with a small crankbait, like a smaller version of a Bomber Fat Free Shad, or a 200 series Bandit. When he does slow down, he'll throw a wacky-rigged 4-inch Senko worm. He prefers using darker colors.

During a typical year, Grabow fishes Tygart on past Thanksgiving. The weather of the fall season has a big influence on when he stops for the year.

"It's all about water temperatures," he notes. "I like it between 45 and 55 degrees. I don't fish out there much once the water drops below 45 degrees.

The winter boat access, in front of Pleasant Creek, is the only ramp available once the lake is being drawn down.

Just about the time the action is beginning to wane on the previously described spots, things are just starting to heat up on the first 20 to 30 miles of West Virginia's portion of the Ohio River. Around November, when water temperatures dip into the 50s and continue to fall, the Ohio's walleyes and (closely-related cousin) saugers begin to school up in tailrace areas and creek mouths. Action continues throughout the fall, winter and early spring, providing the river stays in decent shape and doesn't freeze over.

The three most upriver dams along West Virginia's portion of the big river are New Cumberland, Pike Island and Hannibal. All are gated dams. The lock chambers are located on the Ohio side on the New Cumberland and Hannibal dams. Hydroelectric plants are found on the West Virginia side at these two facilities. At the Pike Island Lock and Dam, lock chambers are found on the West Virginia shore. There is no hydroelectric plant at this dam.

According to fisheries biologist Curt Wagner, of neighboring Ohio's Division of Wildlife, electrofishing surveys conducted last November in the tailrace areas paint a picture of the present fish populations within these areas. In general, saugers outnumber walleyes. Saugers tend to out-compete with walleyes in turbid environments, which the Ohio River qualifies as.

Efforts conducted below the New Cumberland Dam reveal a population consisting of about 92 percent saugers and 8 percent walleyes. The 2007 year-class of saugers was well represented. Given the sauger's short life span that's particularly relevant for angling efforts.

"Saugers live fast and die young," explained Wagner. "Young-of-the-year saugers will often be 7 inches long by the fall. They are fast growing. But as such, they physiologically break down quickly, too."

Wagner said 2-year-old saugers produced during the 2007 spawn will average 12 to 14 inches in length. Three-year-old fish, though relatively rare, will exceed 15 inches.

The highest walleye numbers are found downriver in the Pike Island Locks and Dam tailrace, where the walleye population rose to 22 percent (78 percent saugers) during recent fall surveys. The Pike Island tailrace also produced the biggest walleyes, fish up to 25 inches.

The Hannibal Lock and Dam exhibited the highest sauger density of the three dams. About 97 percent of the catch was made up of saugers, with walleyes being represented with about 3 percent of that collected during electrofishing.

Fishing access varies from average to excellent within these three dams. Construction at the power plant at the New Cumberland Lock and Dam has temporarily eliminated areas typically open to shore-anglers. A boat access is located near New Cumberland, about a mile-and-a-half below the dam, which provides good boat access.

The Pike Island Dam features nice shore-fishing facilities on the Ohio side of the river. Public boat access if available a short distance downriver at the city of Wheeling's three-lane launch. The Hannibal Dam has the nicest shore-fishing facilities of the three, where fishing piers and fish-cleaning facilities are located on the West Virginia shore. There is also a nice boat access a couple miles down the river, at Fishing Creek, in New Martinsville.

Special regulations apply to walleyes here, calling for a two-fish limit and an 18-inch minimum length limit.

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