Something big is happening in the depths of Stephens Lake.
Rainbow trout stocked in the 272-acre Raleigh County impoundment are growing, and they’re growing really fast. Fast enough, in fact, that state and local authorities hope to create a trophy trout fishery there.
It’s a project that fisheries officials have toyed with for years.
The lake, tucked among the hills just west of Beckley, has had an off-and-on relationship with trout fishing. Until the Division of Natural Resources restricted trout stockings to lakes no bigger than 50 acres, it received put-and-take stockings each spring. When the stockings stopped, the trout fishery gradually disappeared.
“For a long, long time, there were no trout in the lake,” said Mark Scott, the DNR’s assistant chief in charge of fisheries.
From his surveys of Stephens Lake, Scott — who served as the Beckley-area district fish biologist for years — knew the reservoir had the potential to support trout year-round.
“Stephens is a bit unusual for a West Virginia lake,” he explained. “The cold waters deep in the lake have enough oxygen to support trout.”
Lake waters naturally grow colder as depth increases. But in most Mountain State lakes, by the time the temperature drops into the 50- to 60-degree range trout prefer, the oxygen is gone. In Stephens’ ultra-clear water, however, sunlight can penetrate deep into the cold zone and nourish oxygen-generating single-celled plants.
“Because that cold water never mixes with the warmer water above, we actually have higher oxygen levels in the cold water than we have in the warm,” Scott said.
In other words, the depths of the lake are just about ideal for trout.
In 2015, Scott began an experiment to see if trout would stay deep enough to avoid being eaten by the large walleyes that prowl the lake. He implanted radio transmitters into some good-sized rainbow trout and tracked their movements.
He found that the trout preferred to stay at depths between 24 and 29 feet, where water temperatures hovered between 50 and 58 degrees. He also discovered that in the winter months, when the trout could come up from the depths without suffering thermal shock, the smaller ones fell prey to bass and walleyes.
“Anything 10 inches or bigger is able to survive OK,” Scott said.
With several trout-hatchery renovation projects currently under way, however, the DNR can’t spare enough spare rainbows to stock the lake each year. To compensate, members of the Raleigh County Parks and Recreation Commission purchased 1,000 pounds of trout and conducted their own stocking.
“We did the stocking in the spring, but the water stayed cold and the trout were getting fished pretty hard,” said Molly Williams, the commission’s executive director. “We lost more fish than we planned to.”
To allow the lake’s trout fishery to reach its full potential, DNR officials proposed a two-trout limit instead of the usual four.
“We wanted to minimize the harvest to give the fish a chance to grow,” Scott said.
The state Natural Resources Commission will vote on the reduced limit at its next meeting, scheduled for Aug. 2. If approved, the regulation will go into effect Jan. 1, 2021.
Scott said putting the limit into effect will allow the stocked trout to grow to trophy proportions.
“There’s plenty for the trout to eat now,” he continued. “The lake now has a very healthy alewife [minnow] population, and guys who are catching the trout are finding alewives in them.”
Stephens historically has been plagued by poor baitfish populations. Scott said shad were stocked in the lake, but they failed to thrive.
“We decided to try alewives,” he said. “We went and got about 75 of them from R.D. Bailey Lake. They appear to be doing really well. The bass and walleye anglers are loving the alewives.”
So, apparently, are the trout.
“They’re growing fast,” Scott said. “Some of the rainbows we stocked at 8 inches had grown to 18 inches by the following year. That’s a pretty good growth rate.”
He said some of the larger rainbows being caught lack the green backs and red-striped sides characteristic of the species.
“They look more like steelhead,” he said, referring to rainbow trout that spend most of their lives in oceans or large lakes. “They have big, silvery bodies and small heads. Really healthy fish.”
Scott said that if the regulations have the desired effect, rainbows caught in the future might be measured in pounds rather than in inches.
“One of these days, I’d like to see people catching 8-pound rainbows,” he said.