Waters that don't support big bass boats outnumber the big ones in West Virginia and many provide some excellent small lake bass fishing.
By Richard Hines
One of my friends had called and said, "Just leave your bass boat in the garage and load your kayak, we'll hit some small lakes where bass boats can't go."
That suited me perfectly because for the past two years I was getting more fishing time in a kayak than any other type of watercraft. The lake he had picked out was the 306-acre Upper Mud River Lake located near Hamlin. This DNR lake was the perfect setting for spending a spring day chasing bass from a kayak.
Upper Mud River Lake, like many Mountain States public fishing lakes, tend to run on the small side when compared to surrounding states. However, many of these smaller lakes have great bass fishing and a big boat is not needed to catch them.
According to Jeff Hansbarger, District 5 fisheries biologists, the Upper Mud River Lake is probably the best small lake in the district. The lake is loaded with both woody cover and aquatic vegetation making it perfect for bass. Routine DNR fishery surveys are also demonstrating that catch-and-release is helping build the bass population.
"Look in the arms of the lake for standing timber and don't overlook an occasional beaver hut in the back of a cove," said Hansbarger. "Any type of structure is home for a bass. Weed beds are also along shorelines, so plan on using a pig-and-jig to bust through lily pads and other aquatic vegetation where a largemouth might be hanging out."
Upper Mud also supports a good muskie fishery, and muskie anglers are using larger lures for both muskie and bragging-size bass.
District 2 contains several lakes but two lakes really seem to stand out.
One is Sleepy Creek, located in Berkeley County on the Sleepy Creek WMA. This lake contains 205 surface acres, all of which seems to be outstanding habitat, which is demonstrated by its past record of producing quality largemouth bass. It is also one of the lakes in the state that was planned with fish in mind. Large areas of standing timber were left in the lakebed creating perfect conditions for largemouth and other fish.
District Biologist Brandon Keplinger says Sleepy Creek was drawn down 8 to 10 feet several years ago, which really helped improve habitat in the lake.
Located in Grant County, just south of Dorcas, South Mill Lake contains 48 acres, which seems a perfect match for any small-boat angler. Like many lakes, South Mill was originally regulated by a minimum 12-inch size limit on bass and the harvest was significant.
After analyzing routine survey results, the fisheries staff found the largemouth bass population was stunted at 12 inches. According to Keplinger, there were big numbers of young bass stacked up and vying for same food resources, same space and same habitat.
Surveys indicated that somewhere around 95 percent of the bass were holding at this 12-inch size class. Once the fish exceeded 12 inches it was harvested, so biologists decided to flip that regulation by allowing anglers to harvest any bass below 12 inches and harvest any bass above 16 inches.
"We found anglers began returning the quality fish and those in the 12- to 16-inch range back into the population," Keplinger said.
Immediately, there was a marketed increase in the number of quality fish. All this occurred within a few years and it now appears the lake has enough production to allow the bass population to keep pace with the fishing pressure.
"The two lakes that really stand out in District 4 is Stephens Lake, which is in Raleigh County and Plum Orchard in Fayette County," said Mark Scott, fisheries biologist.
Both have good bass fishing, and when compared to other Mountain State public fishing lakes these two rank on the larger side of the scale. In most cases the back portions of the lakes have no wake zones or are restricted to 5 mph, but boaters should be aware that while the main channel is open for any boat there may be special restrictions for operation of boats.
Plum Orchard Lake has 202 acres and spring is a good time to hit this lake. By early summer Plum always seems to stratify around 8 feet deep.
"Plum has a lot of lily pads and other weed beds that make this lake a good destination for largemouth," Scott said.
Anglers can also pick up crappie from these weed beds as well. Bass are always under the lilies and weed beds, so anglers should plan on fishing weeds to catch big bass, but they tend to break up in the early fall.
Stephens Lake, on the other hand, stratify down to about 18 feet, so fishing pre-spawn bass may require anglers to be prepared to fish either shallow or deep depending on water temperatures. Scott sees a lot of anglers fishing deep, particularly if shad are active.
There are dozens of rivers for kayak and small boat anglers but one that seems to get top mention is the Greenbrier River. All the lower stretches of the Greenbrier are passable with any type of small fishing boat from kayaks to a johnboat.
"The headwaters of the Greenbrier all flow out of the mountains up in Pocahontas County and while the upper reaches of the river are trout waters you will find bass as you move downstream," said Jim Hendrick, fisheries biologist.
The lower portions of the river are warmer that higher regions, and shifts over from trout to smallmouth bass. However, it doesn't take long after spring for floating the Greenbrier to become difficult.
From March through early May seems to have the best flows, which is a good time to alternate floating with some wading in selective locations along the river. While the Greenbrier is known for smallmouth bass, it also has largemouth bass in the longer pools.
Typically, the current in these pools will be slow enough to fish one side and paddle back up stream for a second run. When doing this, alternate between spinnerbaits, and plastics until finding the right combination.
One nice thing about fishing small rivers is the endless possibilities, as, according to Mark Scott, fisheries biologist, anglers should not overlook the occasional muskie or walleye that will be found along this stretch of water.
Of course, anglers need to remember that it takes time to float a six to nine mile stretch of river. The Greenbrier has numerous launching sites, but Scott recommends two spots along the Greenbrier. One is at Caldwell just off Highway US 60 to Ronceverte. This is a six-mile float trip that should just about fill the better part of the day. The second float Scott puts in at Renick and floats to Anthony. Both sites are in Greenbrier County.
When fishing small lakes across the Mountain State, be on the lookout for a good mix of aquatic vegetation. South Mill Lake has this attribute and it is one of the reasons why this lake maintains good reproduction. This type of cover creates a perfect scenario fish but heavy vegetation can be tough, so keep an assortment of weedless baits. As vegetation starts to thicken up, go to a pig-and-jig to bust through the surface layer and reach big bass hiding under cover.
Anglers should also consider state park lakes. While most are small and seem to get heavy pressure, park lakes can be perfect for a quick fishing trip, especially in smaller craft. Anglers may not have sterling success, but there is always the possibility of a 5-pounder hanging out.
In fact, West Virginia anglers have a wide range of smaller lakes to fish and best of all, it seems every district in the state has several worth trying. Many of these smaller lakes are perfect for small boats in that they are restricted to electric trolling motors or less than 10 HP only. This gives anglers time to focus their attention on working the banks, brush piles or weed beds for fish without having to watch for larger watercraft.
CRAPPIE, AS WELL
"Of all the small lakes in District 4, Stephens Lake stands out for crappie," said Mark Scott.
With the recent efforts to develop a shad fishery, it's a good bet that not just bass but crappie have benefitted. Small boats are just the trick for maneuvering into woody brush or along vegetation beds. Shifting from bass to crappie might be a good idea after early morning bass are slowing down.
If you are in a kayak it may not be easy to haul along a bucket of minnows, or minnows might be illegal (Always check specific lake regulations). In this case, consider small crankbaits or jigs. Pink is always a good choice. If you don't have pink, anything bright or fluorescence will work. Color preference varies according to water clarity, so experiment with several colors. In heavily fished waters step down jig size; a 1/32-ounce jig might out produce a 1/16-ounce jig.
To take a break from continually casting, try using a narrow bobber to keep the jig suspended. If fishing beds and you happen to spook crappie, they may return in 15 to 20 minutes. If not check nearest drop off where they may be hanging out.