Smallmouth bass anglers in Southern West Virginia have another reason to hate the year 2020.
“Early fall is typically a great time to fish, but if river flows are dropping, it isn’t so good,” said Mark Scott, head of fisheries for the state Division of Natural Resources.
Flows on the state’s portion of the New River have been anything but predictable this year. Sudden rises and falls in the river’s level have become all too common. Anglers and river guides are upset, and they’ve started to complain.
“A lot of the complaints have been coming from outfitters,” Scott said. “They have clients booking trips with them when the water level looks great, and boom! It drops.”
Scott said many of the complaints have been hurled at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which controls the outflow of Bluestone Dam. He added, however, that the corps probably isn’t to blame.
“This year has been a weird year, weather-wise,” he said. “We’ve had high water up and down the river, and as a result we’ve had a lot of drops and rises.”
Anglers have been quick to blame the corps because the agency has closed off eight of Bluestone Dam’s 16 gates so contractors can work on a long-term dam stability project. Scott doesn’t believe the corps is to blame.
“I’ve looked at the gauges when I’ve gotten complaints,” he said. “There was only one instance when I wasn’t sure why the water dropped. The rest of the time, the gauges downstream from Bluestone have corresponded perfectly with the gauge in Glen Lyn, Virginia, upstream from the dam.”
Scott said the corps operates Bluestone as a “run-of-the-river” facility. “They usually try to put out the same flow downstream as they are getting upstream,” he explained.
The exception, he added, occurs during high-water events when corps officials retain water in Bluestone Lake to prevent flooding downstream.
“With eight of their 16 gates closed, they can’t discharge what the catch as quickly as they used to,” he added. “That’s going to affect flows. High flows will last longer. That actually could help keep water levels stable for longer periods of time, but it could also account for some of these sudden drops.”
Claytor Dam, located 65 miles upstream near Radford, Virginia, can also affect flows in West Virginia’s section of the river. Claytor is a hydropower dam owned by American Electric Power, and it isn’t unusual for the company to release additional water to meet power demands.
“Actually, when the flows upstream are erratic due to releases from Claytor, the presence of Bluestone helps to smooth out those rises and falls a little,” Scott said.
Because the corps is a federal agency, Scott said, West Virginia officials have no say in how the agency operates its dams.
“I’m sure, though, that the corps isn’t trying to mess up anyone’s fishing,” he continued. “But unfortunately, it happens that way sometimes.”