No matter where you live in our wild and wonderful state, great family vacations are not far off. And it just so happens that fine fishing isn't far off, either!
By Bruce Ingram
Hawks Nest State Park is one of the crown jewels of West Virginia's park system; so it was with great anticipation that I made my way there last summer. The 488-acre park, located in Ansted in Fayette County, sports a 250-acre lake that is the result of a dam on the New River.
After I spent the night at the establishment's 31-room lodge, which overlooks the impoundment, my major goal the next morning was to partake of some bank-fishing. I took the Hawks Nest Canyon Tramway from the lodge to the lake's marina (now that's a unique way to travel from one place to another to go fishing) and upon arrival at the marina, I noted that a family had come to the park to experience a morning of fishing.
Among the assemblage were Tracy Simms of Clifftop and her 9-year-old son, Brandon. The duo definitely had a plan to their fishing, as they rotated between fishing from the ramp near the marina and along the shoreline below the tram. Brandon struck first, catching a dandy bluegill that fell to that most traditional of panfish baits - a night crawler. Tracy then scored with a similar size bluegill that went for an ultralight crankbait. Meanwhile, I spent an interesting, though ultimately exasperating, period of time trying to fool two 4-pound largemouths that were cruising about the area.
"Hawks Nest State Park is very family oriented, as are all of West Virginia's state parks," said assistant superintendent John Bracken. "A very popular thing with the kids is to take the aerial tramway, which descends 500 feet into the New River Gorge down to the lake. Because the view is so spectacular, we have school groups from all over the state come here.
"Another popular family activity is to take a jet boat excursion with Captain Rick Larson, who is a real roughhewn character with a scraggly beard. The captain, who is a Coast Guard-approved pilot, is a real favorite with the kids."
Bracken describes the spring fishing for largemouth bass at the lake as "phenomenal," as the fish move in close to the banks. In May and June, the assistant superintendent, who is an avid angler himself, says that it is not unusual for him to receive reports of 5- to 6-pound bucketmouths being caught. Later in the summer, the smallmouth bite is good, especially at night.
Tracy Simms of Clifftop and son, Brandon, with a bluegill he caught from Hawks Nest Lake in June. Photo by Bruce Ingram
Mill Creek enters Hawks Nest Lake near the marina, and this area is an excellent place to prospect for bluegills.
"Kids like to bring their fishing poles and ride down the tram. Then they walk over to Mill Creek and have the chance to catch some bluegills. They can take a break from fishing and visit our snack bar. The boat launch area is another popular place to fish for panfish. Because of the dam, the water in the lake does not fluctuate much, so we typically have good bluegill spawns year after year. The channel catfish and flathead fishing can also be good," Bracken said.
In addition to the fishing, families can enjoy a number of other activities at Hawks Nest State Park. My second morning, I went hiking on one of the five trails, which range from 100 yards to two miles in length.
The park offers a restaurant, nature program and special events throughout the year. There are also a tennis and a basketball court, two picnic shelters and a pool, among other amenities. For more information, contact Hawks Nest State Park at (800) CALL-WVA or (304) 658-5212. The toll-free number is good for any state park in West Virginia.
Of course, Hawks Nest State Park, which is located within District IV, is not the only destination that provides superlative family fishing. Here are choices from each of the state's six districts.
DISTRICT I: COOPERS ROCK STATE FOREST
Blair Taylor, a district administrator for the state park system, maintains that Coopers Rock State Forest (12,713 acres) in Preston and Monongalia counties is a wonderful destination for outdoorsy families.
"I think two of the things families enjoy most about Coopers Rock are the hiking and picture taking," he said. "The views from the top of the mountain are some of the best in the entire state; they are simply gorgeous and are much favored by photographers. The trails at Coopers Rock are also excellent with there being some 50 miles of trails."
Taylor also speaks highly of Coopers Rock, a 6-acre body of water. A footpath surrounds the body of water and provides excellent fishing access, especially for children. The mini-impoundment receives infusions of trout bi-weekly from March through May, and no doubt some of those fish will be around in June. Bluegills and largemouth bass are also known to fin the shoreline of this pond.
The district administrator also says that families will enjoy camping at Coopers Rock, as 25 tent/trailer campsites exist, all with electric. Picnicking is another favorite pastime; other amenities include a playground and a trading post/snack bar. Taylor also says that parents and children may enjoy taking one of the hiking trails to the Henry Clay Iron Furnace, which is where barrels used to be constructed. A cooper is someone who makes barrels, hence the name for the state forest. For more information, contact the state forest at (304) 594-1561.
DISTRICT II: CACAPON RESORT STATE PARK
One of the favorite state parks for my family and me is Cacapon Resort State Park (6,000 acres) in the Eastern Panhandle. This District II domain offers a great deal for parents and their children, emphasizes Taylor.
"Cacapon Lake (6 acres) has very good trout fishing in the spring and early summer. Three very small, spring-fed feeder streams enter the lake and help keep the water cool. A swimming beach is also at the lake and that is very popular with kids. Bass and bluegills also are present in good numbers, so kids have a chance at catching three different species of fish."
Cacapon Lake also contains crappie, northern pike and channel catfish. During our visit, my children enjoyed renting a boat and tooling around the lake. The kids also took great pleasure in horseback riding on one of the park's many trails.
The park's 36 cabins are also a major draw, as some are modern, some standard, and some constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the Great Depression. My family stayed in one of the CCC cabins and enjoyed its spacious confines and the craftsmanship of those long ago w
orkers. Taylor informs that the cabins are so popular that some are reserved as much as a year in advance.
Other amenities include some 30 miles of trails, 46 lodge rooms with restaurant, tennis, game courts, picnicking and a nature center. A new nature center was opened in 2001 and educational exhibits and programs are among the highlights. Nighttime hikes and astronomy talks are conducted, too. For more information, contact Cacapon Resort State Park at (304) 258-1022.
Jim Walker, a fisheries biologist in District III, says that families should consider several junkets down the Buckhannon River. In the community of Buckhannon, a low-water bridge creates a pool that is known for its outstanding muskie sport. But below the pool is where parents and children may want to concentrate their efforts.
"Below Buckhannon, there are two floats that are available, which are ideal for family floating. Neither trip has any serious white water by any means and there are only a few Class I rapids. Kids can catch a lot of smallmouth bass and rock bass while on both of these trips. I would describe these floats as having plenty of riffles, pools, long meandering stretches and several oxbows," Walker said.
"Now don't come on these floats expecting to catch trophy smallmouths. Most of the bass are between 10 and 12 inches and a 14-incher would be a real prize. These trips are good for numbers of bass. Kids can also catch plenty of 5- to 8-inch rock bass with a few redeyes that are real fat. People also have the opportunity to catch muskies; fish over 40 inches have been caught from the river. Even the Buckhannon Pool, which is known statewide for its muskie fishing, does not produce fish that size."
Walker says that muskies do reproduce in small numbers in the river, but that stockings maintain the fishery. A few channel and flathead catfish show up in creels from time to time.
The put-in for the first float is below the Buckhannon Pool near the local Farmers' Market and is in an area known as "The Island." Swing sets, picnic shelters and a boat launch all exist in this area. Canoes and johnboats can be easily launched from the site, which is on river left about a mile off state Route 33 east. The trip only lasts two miles - which is ideal for kids - with the take-out being at Pringle Tree Park at a river-left access point. Much of this float takes place among fields, scattered wood lots and even a golf course.
The second float, also a two-miler, is very similar to the makeup of the first trip, except that the second offers more of a rural setting. The banks are very wooded, and fields and human handiwork are much more uncommon. The take-out is on river right on River Road in Upshur County.
DISTRICT V: BEECH FORK STATE PARK
Beech Fork State Park (3,981 acres) not only has an impressive expanse of land, but the 7,531 acres of the Beech Fork Lake Wildlife Management Area (WMA) further complements the rural nature of this District V pick.
Dillard Price, assistant superintendent for the park, relates that families should find this western West Virginia park a very special one.
"As far as families are concerned, they should enjoy all the different activities we have here."
Among those activities he lists are mountain bike and hiking trails, 275 campsites (several of which are near water), swimming pool, game courts, six vacation cabins, playground and a summer naturalist and various outdoor activities. Of course, for many families, the 760-acre lake will be the main attraction.
"Beech Fork Lake has good largemouth bass and hybrid striper fisheries. I have seen some very nice largemouth bass caught from the lake, and the lake has a reputation of having good largemouth fishing. Last year, a kid caught a 7-pound hybrid striper not far from the cabins. We also had a 40-pound flathead caught near the campground area," Price said.
Price says that the fishing pressure is concentrated in two major areas. Many tournament anglers often head toward the lower one-third of the impoundment and probe the deep water near the dam. Many local fishermen and state park visitors, however, seem to gravitate toward the shallower upper end of the lake where the cabins and campsites are concentrated.
The assistant superintendent took great pains to emphasize that fine angling is possible at other places around the lake. Other game fish present include spotted bass, crappie, tiger muskies and saugeyes. The lake has a 10-horsepower limit on all motors.
Hiking is an especially popular pastime at the state park. Some visitors head for Beech Fork Lake WMA to enjoy trekking through its oak-hickory-pine forests. The terrain is quite steep here. After the spring gobbler season ends in May, the forest is lightly used. A shooting range also exists at the WMA for those who enjoy this sport in the off-season from hunting. The state park itself offers five hiking trails, ranging from the Nature Trail, which is a 3/4-mile loop to the Lost Trail, which is for the serious hiker and runs for five miles.
Other attractions at the state park include nature/recreational programs, volleyball, horseshoes, tennis, basketball courts and picnic facilities. Six cabins are available for rental. For more information, contact Beech Fork State Park at (304) 522-0303.
DISTRICT VI: CEDAR CREEK STATE PARK
Blair Taylor emphasizes that District VI sporting families may well relish a visit to Cedar Creek State Park (2,483 acres) in Gilmer County. Of special interest to these familial groups are the three lakes that dot the landscape there. These three lakes truly earn the title of mini-impoundments, as they only total eight acres. They are also very shallow with a maximum depth of 5 feet.
The shallow nature of these ponds, for that is what they really are, means largemouth bass and bluegill fishing is likely paramount and such is definitely the case. Youngsters should have little trouble hauling in a mess of the abundant 'gills, and a largemouth or two is also quite possible. Channel catfish also thrive in the lakes, and trout are stocked bi-annually.
Families may well enjoy a number of other attractions. Perhaps the adults more than the children will appreciate the reconstructed one-room schoolhouse, which features student desks, inkwells and a potbellied stove. As a teacher myself, I am glad that I missed the era where unruly boys dipped the ponytails of screaming girls in inkwells. Since school will have recently let out for many children, I don't know if they will be as enthused about visiting a similar establishment; of course, I speak somewhat in jest.
Sure to be family favorites include the game courts, softball field, swimming pool, paddleboats and the 14 miles of hiking trails. Picnic sites, two covered shelters and a seasonal nature/recreational program are other highlights. A 45-unit campground and a 10-site group camp are available for rental. The latter is especially po
pular with clubs, scout and church groups. Finally, the park is not far off Interstate 79, which means that West Virginians from outside District VI may want to give this domain strong consideration as a summer sojourn. For more information, contact Cedar Creek State Park at (304) 462-7158. As noted earlier, the (800) CALL-WVA number will also connect with every state park in the Mountain State.
Every year as I do the research and interviews for this article, I, at the same time, make plans to reserve a cabin at the West Virginia state park that I will visit this year. For 13 years now, my family and I have journeyed to a different park. Indeed, I only have three parks left to visit and I can become part of the state's VIPP program, which stands for Very Important Parks Person.
If you enjoy visiting West Virginia's state parks as much as I do, consider striving to become a part of this program. To qualify as a VIPP, you must visit 15 specific parks, such as Babcock, Lost River, Watoga and Hawks Nest, just to name a few. You must also journey to any five of the 25 elective state parks and forests. I have already completed the latter requirement and only have three of the specific parks left to visit, one of which is Tygart Lake. Perhaps I will see you there this summer.
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