The people in charge of West Virginia’s fisheries want to make the state’s small lakes and ponds more productive places to fish.
“We have a lot of small impoundments,” said Mark Scott, the Division of Natural Resources’ assistant chief in charge of fisheries. “A lot of people fish them. We’re trying to give those people better fishing experiences.”
The steep-sided, narrow valleys of the Mountain State terrain make it difficult to create large lakes. The biggest, Summersville Lake in Nicholas County, encompasses just 2,700 acres. Tennessee’s Norris Lake (33,856 acres) and Kentucky’s Lake Cumberland (65,536 acres) seem gigantic in comparison.
In West Virginia, any body of water larger than 400 acres qualifies for large-impoundment status. Most of the state’s lakes and ponds fall far short of that mark, and they’re everywhere.
“When I was the biologist in District 4, I was responsible for 19 of them in my district alone,” Scott said. “We have a lot of small impoundments, and some of them are very popular with anglers.”
DNR biologists are working on ways to improve small-impoundment fishing. First and foremost, Scott said, is their ongoing attempts to create fish habitat.
“In a lot of those lakes, we’ve sunk Christmas trees to create fish attractors,” he added. “In others, we’ve dropped big trees into the water and anchored them alongshore.”
When a jammed valve forced Jackson County’s 240-acre Woodrum Lake to be drained in 2005, DNR biologists planted winter wheat on the dry lake bottom to restore lost nutrients. It worked like a charm. By 2015, the impoundment’s game fish populations had made a full recovery.
Most of the DNR’s habitat-improvement efforts focus on bass, which are ambush predators that congregate near sunken trees, stumps and limbs. Scott said impoundments with flooded timber have ready-made habitat, as do impoundments where beavers are present.
“Beavers do some tremendous habitat work for us,” he said. “They drop trees into the water and they build lodges. The best thing about beavers is that they do all this good work and they do it for free.”
Scott said some of the largest bass found anywhere in the Mountain State are those that dwell in small impoundments.
“Our survey data show that some of our best bass populations are in lakes and ponds where trout are stocked,” he continued. “I guarantee they’ll have some of the biggest bass. The best thing about those lakes is that they’re only fished during trout-stocking season. The rest of the year, bass fishermen can pretty much have those waters to themselves.”
Small-impoundment anglers also like to fish for bluegills, crappie and other panfish. In the state’s northern counties, biologists are wrapping up a study to determine why some waters hold larger bluegills than others.
The research’s results could determine whether DNR officials impose size limits, creel limits or special regulations in order to produce more and bigger panfish.
“We’ll start discussing some of those things this fall,” Scott said. “A lot of people think we should have limits on crappie and sunfish. Some people are going in there, keeping everything they catch and dragging out coolers full of fish.”
The difficult part, he added, will be striking a balance between too much and too little harvest.
“For instance, and this is hypothetical, suppose you have a fish species that breeds prolifically and you impose catch-and-release regulations,” he said. “You might get into a situation where the fish become overpopulated and their growth gets stunted.”
Even for highly desired, top-order predator fish such as muskellunge, Scott believes regulation changes should only be made when they can actually create the desired effect.
“A lot of muskie fishermen are catch-and-release anglers, and some of them are pushing for a 50-inch minimum size limit,” he said. “That only makes sense if a body of water is capable of producing fish that size. Not all of them are.”
Scott said biologists are trying to produce larger fish in some small impoundments by increasing the amount of available food.
“We need to be more in touch with forage options,” he said. “For example, at Stephens Lake in Raleigh County, the food base was pretty poor. We researched a number of different forage options, and we settled on stocking alewives.
“It really worked. Fishermen are loving it. We’re getting bigger bass and walleye, and we’re getting good growth in the trout we’re hoping to establish there.”
He cautioned, however, that alewives can’t be put just anywhere.
“They can affect walleye and [trout] reproduction,” he explained. “We were able to put them in Stephens because walleye and trout don’t reproduce there.”
Other baitfish species might be introduced, though. Scott said biologists might ultimately stock golden shiners in Fayette County’s Plum Orchard Lake, a 202-acre impoundment with relatively poor forage.
“We have to be careful, though,” Scott said. “We don’t want to solve one problem and end up creating others. Look at what happened with Asian carp. They were brought in to control algae, and now they’re taking over entire ecosystems.”
In some cases, improving the fishing can be as easy as stocking larger fish. In some small impoundments, particularly those located in state parks, DNR officials support what they call the “Family Fishing Program.”
Once a year — usually in late May — the agency stocks 1- to 2-pound channel catfish in selected lakes and ponds.
In recent years, a lack of hatchery capacity forced the DNR to purchase the catfish from Kentucky. Recent renovations to both warm-water hatcheries might change that. Technicians at the Apple Grove hatchery have begun spawning channel cats, with the goal of stocking them when they reach 9 to 12 inches in length.
DNR biologists meet regularly to consider management options for all the state’s fisheries, including small impoundments. Scott expects this year’s meetings to yield some new approaches.
“Where we see opportunities, we might try some new things,” he said. “We have to seriously consider every change we make. It’s a little like pulling the trigger of a gun. Once the bullet is out, you can’t bring it back.”