Fishing in West Virginia’s Mount Storm Lake just grew a little more interesting.
The 1,200-acre lake, mainly known for its smallmouth and largemouth bass, recently yielded a 41-inch, 30.5-pound striped bass. While not a record-breaking catch, the fish shone a bright light on the lake’s up-and-coming striper fishery.
Brandon Keplinger, the Division of Natural Resources’ district fisheries biologist, said stripers haven’t been in the lake all that long, but they’ve gotten remarkably large in a remarkably short time.
“It’s amazing how quickly those fish grow up there,” Keplinger said. “That striper was only nine years old. It’s very unusual for a fish that size to be that young.”
The DNR didn’t even begin stocking stripers until 2005.
“Before then, we put hybrid striped bass in there,” Keplinger explained. “This was a concern to [officials in] Maryland, Virginia and other mid-Atlantic states, who preferred the Chesapeake Bay strain of striped bass.”
Purebred stripers aren’t stocked in many places in West Virginia, but DNR officials decided to try them in Mount Storm. They took to their new surroundings with aplomb.
The lake’s abundant population of gizzard shad gave the stripers plenty to eat, and the newly stocked fish grew quickly.
“You often see that kind of growth in stripers stocked in landlocked lakes, particularly where there’s a good food supply,” Keplinger said. “We had a unique situation at Mount Storm. The lake had lots and lots of 19- to 21-inch gizzard shad, which aren’t vulnerable to predators. Those really large shad had the capacity to generate a lot of offspring in a size that could be consumed by bass.”
Shad that grew too large for smallmouth and largemouth bass to eat proved to be just the right size for stripers. “The stripers, as apex predators, were able to utilize a niche no other species was able to occupy,” Keplinger said.
The number of trophy-sized stripers being caught has increased in recent months, mainly because anglers have finally figured out how to catch them.
“It took people a while to figure it out,” Keplinger said. “The stripers are out in deep water, pursuing schools of gizzard shad. Most anglers work the shorelines, targeting largemouth or smallmouth bass.”
Maintaining a striper fishery isn’t easy, especially at a lake like Mount Storm.
The lake sits atop a high ridge, 3,200 feet above sea level, at the base of the state’s Eastern Panhandle. West Virginia’s two warm-water hatcheries are located in the state’s western counties nearly 200 miles away.
“Getting 4,500 fingerling striped bass here is tough,” Keplinger said. “Stripers don’t haul very well. We have to stop from time to time, check the dissolved-oxygen levels in the tank, and make sure we keep them at the right levels.”
The effort doesn’t end when the fish are stocked. The lake was created in 1965 to provide water for Dominion Energy’s Mount Storm power plant; water quality in the impoundment’s main feeder stream, Stony River, is poor. Acid rain and acid mine drainage have rendered the river too acidic to sustain fish life.
To keep any sort of fishery going, DNR and Dominion officials sweeten the water coming into the lake with treatments of limestone sand. The treatments, while relatively expensive, have been quite effective.
“I don’t think we’d have much of a fishery at all if we weren’t mitigating the effects of acid mine drainage and acid precipitation,” Keplinger said. “The area’s geology has very little buffering capacity. Untreated, the water coming into the lake has a pH of about 4. With treatment, the lake’s pH never really drops below 6.5. That’s a great number for this part of West Virginia, which is basically an extension of the Dolly Sods.”
While fishing at Mount Storm can be spectacular, it can also be miserable. Sometimes it can be both at the same time — spectacular from a fishing standpoint, yet miserable from an angler-comfort standpoint.
The lake’s altitude, and its location on an open, windswept ridge, make it one of the state’s coldest places to fish. Ironically, though, the fishing can be better in cold weather than it is in warm weather.
Keplinger said thermal discharge from the power plant makes the lake’s waters significantly warmer than they otherwise would be.
“During the winter, when Dominion is cranking out a lot of energy and using a lot of water, it’s not unusual to get water temperatures around 60 degrees Fahrenheit,” he continued. “People might be freezing at the surface, but they’re catching fish in relatively warm water down below.”
Conversely, on 70- to 80-degree days that are great for anglers, the lake’s water temperatures might be warm enough to make fish lethargic. Under such conditions, anglers would usually concentrate on deeper, cooler water, but Keplinger said Mount Storm doesn’t stratify into warm and cold zones.
“The lake is 120 feet deep in places, but we’ve never found any stratification,” he said. “There’s no thermocline; the water stays warm all the way to the bottom.”
The water is also quite clear, which helps explain the lake’s surprising productivity.
“The clear water allows a lot of photosynthesis, so we get lots of plankton production,” Keplinger said. “That’s perfect for shad, which are filter feeders. And the shad feed the bass and give us the ridiculously rapid growth rates we get.”
It’s not unusual, he added, for a largemouth bass to reach 16 inches in length by its third year.
“Problem is, Mount Storm’s smallmouth and largemouth bass seem to grow fast and die young,” he said. “We don’t find many that get larger than 18 inches.”
Stripers seem to grow just as quickly, but live much longer. That’s fine with anglers who have learned to catch them, and it bodes well for the striper fishery’s future.
“More anglers are learning to catch the stripers,” Keplinger said. “As they do, I expect the fishery will become even more popular.”