It's All About Fishing!
I wanted to do a change of pace with this blog entry and spin a more personal topic that I personally love about the Tygart Valley River watershed… Fishing!
Many of our Save The Tygart Watershed Association members, and members of the community we support, find fishing to be one of the favorite recreational activities within our watershed. We all know fishing is a major pastime and source of tourism for the State of West Virginia. With a state so full of river systems and impoundments, it’s easy to overlook the Tygart, however; be warned, this isn’t a watershed you want to overlook. Whether you are a general warm-water angler, bass fisherman, predator fisherman, crappie angler, cat fisherman, or even a cold-water trout and smallmouth angler, the Tygart Valley River system has something for you.
I particularly claim myself to be a trout fisherman, addicted to say the least. I have given guided fly-fishing trips across West Virginia and commonly find myself fishing the Tygart Valley River and its tributaries. I grew up close to the watershed and found it helpful to learn this river due to the proximity and the ability to hop over to the river in the evenings or work it into a tight schedule. Even if I lived a good distance away from the Tygart, I would still find myself making the drive. There are many species I’ve yet to cross off the list from the Tygart Valley River watershed, but I suppose that just gives me a reason to keep coming back and learning more. I won’t claim to be an expert on every species, but I hope this blog can help some of you to find useful tips, how to access the river system, tackle and bait choices, fishing regulations, hot spots, and maybe even enjoy a fishing picture or two. I will share plenty of helpful resources at the end of this blog so stay tuned!
Pictured Above: A nice Tygart Valley River smallmouth bass caught by Zachary Abbott in 2013.
First, let’s look at the types of fishing locations within the Tygart Valley River watershed. Most of us probably know there is a large impoundment that has been a part of the Tygart Valley River watershed since 1938, known as Tygart Lake in Taylor and Barbour Counties, West Virginia. Tygart Lake encompasses 1,750 acres along a 10-mile distance of river. Being one of the larger impoundments in West Virginia, considering fishing the lake can be daunting. The lake hosts a dam with gated subsurface outflows. This creates a generally colder outflow than a surface outflow lake. With that being said, the immediate tailwater section leaving the lake can become an interesting and active fishery as the water is usually much cooler and more oxygenated in the summer months than the river further downstream. The opposite can be said for winter months, as water will be warmer than sections further away from the lake. Downstream of the tailwater section, the Tygart Valley River slows down and widens as it joins the West Fork River to form the Monongahela River. Above the lake, we have a much different river layout. The Tygart Valley River branches into many tributaries, becomes more and more rocky and riffle-bound as you work your way up stream. The Tygart Valley River will become small enough to jump across as it nears its start in Mace, WV, near Snowshoe. The smaller the river and its tributaries get as you move upstream the closer you get to cold-water habitat.
I will break the entire watershed down into three major components for the sake of fishing, Tygart Lake, Tygart Valley River above Tygart Lake (including tributaries), and Tygart Tailwaters downstream to the Monongahela River.
Pictured Above: Topographical map of Tygart Lake w/ depth profile courtesy of the WVDNR.
When anglers look at Tygart Lake, it is easy to become overwhelmed. There are so many questions raised: “Where do I fish?”, “How do I fish deep water?”, “Where do I even start?”, “How can I target a certain species?”. If you have thought of questions like this in the past, don’t worry, you’re certainly not alone. Luckily, nowadays there are tons of online resources to help anglers out with things like this. YouTube videos with a “how-to” style are excellent. There are also many other sources of lake fishing tips online with a simple Google search. “Back in the old days”, as they say, we would have to approach this with a trial and error method by putting time in on the water and changing tactics until we found something that worked. Hopefully I can save you some time.
Pictured Above: Tygart Lake swimming area at summer pool level courtesy of WVNews.com
The best fishing on Tygart Lake comes from a boat, although you can also catch fish from the bank. There are boat ramps provided at the Tygart Lake Marina and at the Doe Run access from Pleasant Creek Wildlife Management Area near the campground. When boat fishing, remember to read the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources regulations as it pertains to safely operating a boat. Remember to have appropriate fitting life jackets, floatation device/cushion, noise making device, fire extinguisher if a gas-powered vessel, and a light source. On a boat, you gain access to all points of the lake. This can be exciting but also makes your choice for a fishing location difficult.
Generally, in winter, fish of all types will sit in deeper (and warmer) water. As the season warms into spring, fish will start to move into more shallow areas to feed or spawn. Once temperatures raise to a certain point, or if the sun is very intense, fish may start to move to deeper water once again. Some species, like catfish, can actually be most active in the warmer days of the year. Temperatures will begin to drop again in the fall and fish will generally resume feeding heavily before winter sets in.
Temperature is the key! A helpful tool to take with you is a digital thermometer that is submersible. There are some cheap options on Amazon that you can lower into the water with a rope. Some models have a metered rope where you can measure how deep your thermometer is when you’re taking a reading. Once you figure out what the temperature is at different depths, you can find the ideal depth for a fishing spot depending on what species you would like to target. Different types of fish utilize different areas, depths, temperatures, and habitat within a lake so it is important to research your choice of fish before you target them.
Another big factor to lake-fishing success is water clarity. After periods of heavy rains, Tygart Lake can often become murky or even very muddy. Often times branches and debris will wash into the lake hours or even days after a rainfall event. Be careful and always pay attention to your path when boating. Sometimes when the water is murky, fish can be more active due to the sense of security they get by not being seen by predators. It’s also common for more baitfish or food to be available to game fish during higher or murkier water. Brighter colored baits tend to work better in dark and murky waters. When water is low and clear, fish can often see shadows and movement better. This generally makes the fish more “spooky” where a mistake can scare them off or deter them from biting. Sometimes, even the shadow of your bait alone can scare fish off, so it can be helpful to use smaller or more natural colored baits during these conditions.
The third major component, at least in my mind, of finding fish in a large lake is habitat. Have you ever seen Tygart Lake in the fall when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lowers the lake level? In West Virginia, we generally see less rainfall and more heat at the end of summer and fall. This will usually cause the lake to refill slower than the outflow of the dam needs to maintain the tailwater flows. When this happens, the lake level drops and structures on the bottom of the lake become more visible. It is an impressive sight that I suggest you take advantage of. This exposure of the lake bottom can give you an idea of where rock structures, log jams, man-made fish habitat, currents, stumps, or spawning beds are. Finding these structures gives you a higher likelihood of targeting an area where more fish are likely to hang out. A depth finder or fish finder sonar device on your boat can also usually show you an image of the bottom directly below you. You can watch for dramatic depth changes to indicate that there is a structure below you. The majority of the bottom of Tygart Lake is open rock, gravel, and sand which can be too open for some fish at times.
When fishing from the bank, your access is limited as often times the edges of the lake are wooded and steep. It can be difficult to navigate all the way around the perimeter of the lake. There is a small pond at the Doe Run access site which can make for good fishing although popular and pressured. When bank fishing, you can also follow my tips above and change your depth by varying the amount of weights you toss with your lure or bait. The use of a float or bobber can help you maintain a set depth somewhere closer to the middle of the water column. It could be very helpful for bank fishermen to explore Tygart Lake during a draw down to find structure and habitat that is within casting range.
Species Present Here:
Prized Targets: smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, white bass, walleye & sauger, catfish, and musky.
Additional Fish: various baitfish, sunfish, carp, drum, chain pickerel, pike, shad, perch, and crappie.
Super Rare: Sturgeon & Paddlefish (Paddlefish are less likely - being cut off from the Mon. River)
Pictured Above: Tygart Lake with a fall draw-down exposing many feet of lake bottom.
Switching gears, Tygart Lake Tailwaters, which includes the entire downstream portion of the Tygart Valley River from Tygart Dam in Grafton, WV, to the town of Fairmont, WV, is a great place to consider fishing. The species of fish present here is very similar to that of the lake, however; there is greater habitat for species with river preferences. Some of these fish may be in higher abundances closer to the dam if they prefer swifter currents, whereas fish preferring slower currents may more likely be found further away from the dam. Food sources like baitfish can also influence where you'll find game fish. Close to the dam, the river is rocky, swift, and deep. As the river travels further away from the dam, it widens and slows down. Often, there are shallow islands and deep channels that give the Tygart Valley River its character below the lake.
One of the most popular fishing draws to the Tygart Tailwaters is the WVDNR trout stocking program. The tailwaters are stocked with catchable adult trout monthly from February to May and twice in October. This location is also part of the "Gold Rush" special event in April, where it receives a stocking of only golden rainbow trout. Thanks to the cool outflows in the summer, it's not uncommon to find holdover trout year round. This program can make this a great place to take a young angler, or even a seasoned fisherman looking to fry up some trout fillets.
This section can be finnicky at times, mainly depending upon gate release and stream flow. It's very important to pay attention to all signage and to any audible sirens that may signify an increased gate release. One helpful tool is The United States Geological Survey (USGS) stream flow data provided for free. This can be accessed at any point by Googling "USGS Tygart Valley River" and selecting the monitoring station below the dam. You can also call a phone number to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, that I'll provide at the end of this blog, to get an updated read-out of current lake and outflow values.
Species Present Here:
Prized Targets: stocked trout, smallmouth bass, walleye & sauger, catfish, and musky.
Additional Fish: various baitfish, sunfish, carp, largemouth bass, white bass, drum, chain pickerel, shad, perch, and crappie.
Super Rare: Sturgeon & Paddlefish
Pictured Above: A view of fishermen enjoying Tygart Dam from the tailwaters, credit to Greg Eicher.
Last but not least, we have my personal favorite stretch of the Tygart Valley River... the headwaters! Like we believe here at Save The Tygart Watershed Association, our headwater streams are the most important stretches of our rivers. Any damages or pollution trickle downstream and can hinder the river's health. I will have to paint with a broad brush here as I discuss the headwater section, as there are so many tributaries, forks, and miles of river above Tygart Lake. This, in fact, is why I consider this portion to be my favorite with regards to fishing... Diversity. Each tributary is different, and they each offer different opportunities for fishing.
Tygart Valley River works its way up from the lake, through the town of Philippi, to Elkins, and onwards along rt. 250 where it will finally reach its birthplace in Mace, WV. If we're speaking road miles, it would take nearly 80 miles of highway and an hour and a half of driving to follow the river from the lake to its head springs. If you included all of the miles in tributaries, we'd begin to think we couldn't afford the gas it would take to see the entirety of the watershed.
Much like the tailwater section, the "Tygart Headwaters" section is stocked with adult catchable trout by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources twice a month from February through April, once in May, and twice in October. This section spans from Valley Head downstream 11 miles to Becky’s Creek. You can find stocking locations by watching for parking pull-off's and walking trails that indicate anglers use the area. Trout are stocked in easy to access locations like bridges, trails, and road accesses due to the difficulty of transporting these sensitive fish. Given this is a smaller section of river, it's not uncommon for trout to scatter and occupy deeper holes where they can position themselves to feed and hide from predators. You will often find stocked trout miles from where they were stocked as the season progresses. Don't be afraid to walk!
The lower stretch of Tygart Headwaters is larger and deeper. From the lake to Elkins the primary target fish are warm-water fish like smallmouth bass and musky. Above Elkins, the primary target fish are stocked trout, smallmouth bass, wild brown trout, wild rainbow trout, and native brook trout. Just a reminder, if you choose to target wild trout, consider safely releasing these fish as they are important to their stream. Anglers typically harvest large trout, but when we harvest large wild or native trout we are essentially harvesting the fish that are responsible for repopulating the stream. Releasing these wild trout helps to ensure the population will remain for generations to come. When trying to pick a tributary to fish, it's common to see that anglers keep wild trout streams a secret. I am also guilty of this due to the relaxed regulations in place by the WVDNR. The best advice I can give is to "blueline", which means examining a topographical map and looking for streams with lots of elevation change. If you explore streams like this, more often than not, you will find some surprises and great scenery you can't find on Google.
Be mindful of property boundaries and public locations like wildlife management areas or national forest. Be respectful of private landowners and posted signs. If you can float the river, you have legal access to pass through posted property below the high water mark. If the stream is not navigable, you must find legal access to the stream. An app like "onX" is a great resource that shows property boundaries and lists the private owner or public designation. When you fish these smaller streams, remember to use light lines, watch your shadow, and make as little disturbance as possible to prevent spooking fish. This is particularly important with wild trout, as they are very keen at spotting predators.
Some tributaries such as Mill Creek within Kumbrabow State Forest have special regulations (Fly Fishing Only Catch and Release), for native brook trout as an example. Be sure to check with the WVDNR Fishing Regulations to ensure you are properly equipped for the stream you are fishing. If you plan on harvesting fish, make sure you follow the proper harvest limits where applicable.
Species Present Here:
Prized Targets: stocked trout (rainbow, brook, brown, golden rainbow, tiger), smallmouth bass, wild rainbow trout, wild brown trout, native brook trout, & musky (in downstream-most sections).
Additional Fish: various baitfish, sunfish, rock bass, carp, & chain pickerel.
Pictured Above: A prime male native brook trout from a Tygart Valler River tributary displaying his spawning colors, caught in 2015 by Devin Bokey.
Pictured Above: Another male native brook trout from a Tygart Valley River tributary in spawning colors I caught in 2016, because another beautiful brookie won't hurt, right?
Pictured Above: A view of Mill Creek Falls within Kumbrabow State Forest courtesy of WV Tourism.
The last thing I would like to discuss before I provide you with a list of helpful resources is bait choices. You were probably wondering, "How the heck do I catch those fish you talked about?". Well, here we go! Trout of all types are predatory fish. They prefer things like spoons, spinners, small crankbaits, live bait (nightcrawlers, mealworms, wax worms, minnows), jigs made of feathers or rubber jigs. Common jigs imitate small rubber worms or minnows. Just a word of caution, avoid live baits if you plan on releasing fish as this often leads to deep-hooking a fish. If you deep hook a fish it is best to cut the line 3-4" outside of the mouth and release it unharmed. Dough baits like "powerbait" also works well for stocked trout. A word to the wise is to not use this for wild trout. Why? Have you ever seen colorful dough fall from the sky in the forest? Nope. Wild trout generally prefer things that imitate their natural diet like flies, minnows, crayfish, or other terrestrial insects. Fly fishing is the most productive way to target wild trout. Trust me, don't be that guy that uses powerbait on a native stream.
Panfish and sunfish, ie. bluegill, crappie, pumpkinseeds, rock bass, perch, etc. are considered to be the gateway drug to fishing. They are extremely easy to catch. Use a small hook and small bait like a worm or a small jig. They are tasty too! These are a great species to get kids hooked to fishing with.
Species of bass prefer baits that imitate baitfish like crankbaits, jerkbaits, tubes, or even spoons. These all come in different varieties that work better in different depths. Bass also love to eat frogs, jitterbugs, whopper ploppers, or pencil baits that agitate the surface of the water. Rubber worms and senkos are also an 'old faithful' bait of choice. Live baits work well also.
Catfish and other bottom-dwellers love stinky baits, worms, livers, hotdogs, or even an old fashioned home-made concoction of kitchen scraps. Some cats like flatheads and blue cats will also love to chomp down on live baitfish. Cutbaits like a bled shad or bluegill will work well for almost all types of cats. You will see some interesting tactics should you attend a catfish tournament, perhaps even a stinky bait wrapped up in pantyhose. Your options are endless with catfish baits.
Musky, pike, pickerel, walleye, and sauger are very predatory fish. Don't be surprised to see one of these fish (especially pike and musky) take on a fish of their own size. Often their eyes are bigger than their stomach. These baits are easy to spot in a bait shop due to their size. You'll see everything from mini musky, large rubber jigs, buzz baits, whopper ploppers, gigantic spinner baits, or even a duckling. Yes, I said duckling. Large crankbaits and jerkbaits work well too! Walleye and sauger aren't quite as voracious but they tend to dwell near the bottom and will willingly hit flashy baits like spoons, spinners, jigs, crankbaits, or even a live minnow. Pickerel are basically a mini pike with the same type of diet, just smaller. A word of advice for musky and pike is to wear polarized glasses and throw a ton of casts. These fish will ambush baits out of nowhere, even out from under your boat. It's important to spot them first so they don't catch you with your pants down. Musky are called "the fish of 10,000 casts" due to the supreme difficulty of coaxing them into biting. Don't give up if at first you don't succeed.
As for fish like paddle fish and sturgeon, well, you're on your own there! I wish I had better advice for targeting them, but the chances of catching (let alone seeing) one of these fish is slim to none. Just a tip, these fish must be released immediately.
Hopefully you've found something useful that will help you in this blog! Although brief in comparison to my actual fish brain, this should help the beginner angler or new angler to the Tygart get pointed in the right direction.
I always offer the WV angling community the ability to pick my brain if they ever have fishing related questions. You can contact me at any time if you are looking for help or suggestions. The best way to contact me is through Facebook, as I administrate the "Trout Fishing West Virginia" Facebook group with 25,000 members. You'll find plenty more pictures and tips from me there, or just drop me a message!
-Devin Bokey (WV Fly Fishing Guide & STTWA Assistant & Editor)