Even in the depths of winter, somewhere fish are biting.
In West Virginia, that somewhere is a stretch of the New River where walleye fishing gets hot when the weather turns cold.
Sammy Pugh knows first-hand how good it can be. Pugh, owner of New River Trophy Outfitters, spent two years helping the state Division of Natural Resources study walleye movements up and down the river.
“At this time of year, walleye migrate upstream to spawn,” Pugh said. “Some of them come from as far away as Hawks Nest Lake. When they get to Sandstone Falls, they can’t move any farther upstream, so they bunch up in the pools —between the falls and the mouth of Meadow Creek.”
When water and weather conditions allow, the fishing can be spectacular. Pugh said he has enjoyed days when he and his clients landed up to 40 fish.
“Female walleyes tend to run larger than the males, and during the spawn, there are a lot of those big females in a relatively short section of river,” he added. “Some of those females are 30-plus inches, and can weigh up to 15 pounds.”
Pugh said the walleye spawning run tends to run in waves.
“When the water rises after a big rain event, fish start making their way upstream,” he explained. “Any time that happens, we get a whole new batch of walleyes around Sandstone.”
Many people believe spawning walleyes congregate in the pool at the foot of Sandstone Falls. Pugh said that’s a misconception.
“Really, you can find them in any of the big holes between Sandstone and Meadow Creek,” he continued. “There probably are more fish up close to the falls, but getting there is rough this time of year.”
The public boat ramp at Sandstone allows relatively easy access to a 2-mile section downstream of the falls, but swift currents and rocky shoals at the foot of the falls pool make access difficult for boaters even under the best of conditions.
“That’s not a big deal, though,” Pugh said. “There are plenty of walleyes downstream from there.”
The New River walleye fishery, once famous for trophy-sized fish, declined sharply between the 1960s and 1990s. Non-native strains of walleyes, stocked to try to reverse the decline, didn’t thrive.
In 1999, however, scientists at Virginia Tech discovered that the New River’s native walleyes were genetically different from the Great Lakes fish being stocked there. Division of Natural Resources biologists began capturing native-strain fish, spawning them in hatcheries, and returning the offspring to their traditional range throughout the New, Gauley and Elk River watersheds.
To protect the growing fisheries, DNR officials placed restrictions on the number and size of fish anglers were able to keep. On the New River between Sandstone Falls and Meadow Creek, for example, anglers aren’t allowed to keep any walleyes at all.
Downstream from Meadow Creek, anglers are allowed to keep up to two, only one of which can measure more than 30 inches. All fish between 20 and 30 inches must be released.
Despite the restrictions, Pugh has no shortage of clients willing to pay for a day of guided, catch-and-release walleye fishing.
“Any day the river is at a fishable level, I have people waiting to go,” he said. “I ran a few trips [the last full week of January], and we did well. The fishing will get even better between now and the end of March.”
Wintertime fishing is fairly safe, but Pugh said anglers should take a few precautions.
“You definitely want to make sure your undergarments are polypropylene or wool,” he added. “If you can get hold of a wetsuit or a dry suit, it wouldn’t hurt to wear that, too. A lot of people wear neoprene waders.
“And everyone who goes out in a boat should wear a life jacket — all the time. In the winter, even in the calm holes, I leave mine on; if you fall into 35-degree water, you just lock up. You might think you can swim to shore, but you can’t.”
Anglers who come dressed for the cold shouldn’t have much trouble catching walleyes, which aren’t exactly picky eaters.
“Basically, they like anything that looks like a fish,” Pugh said. “Four- to 6-inch swimbaits in chartreuse, orange or white work well. So do spinner baits, especially bright, gaudy ones with lots of flash. We even catch walleyes on 3-inch Mister Twister grubs. People who use live bait for walleyes seem to do well with nightcrawlers and shiners.”
As a species, walleyes aren’t exactly renowned for their fighting ability. Pugh said New River walleyes forgot to read that script.
“These fish are different,” he continued. “When you hook one that weighs 8 pounds or more, you think you’ve got a muskie on the line. In fact, we catch a lot of nice walleyes on the 8- to 12-inch glide baits we throw for muskies.”
Walleyes that fight like muskies? That should heat things up, even in the dead of winter.