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The Ever Changing Ohio River


The PIke Island Lock and Dam on the Ohio River near Wheeling is one of the many that have transformed the river into a "chain of lakes" fishery.  One biologist believes the river is returning to its roots.

It’s a river that fishes like a lake, at least until recently when it’s been fishing more like a river.    The confusion of such a statement may be apparent, but to bass anglers on the Ohio River the evidence to support the statement is growing more noticeable with each and every fishing season.

Most of the navigational dams on the river are nearing 30, 40, to 50 years old and over.   During the early phases of those navigational pools, the river became transformed into a chain of small lakes and the bass populations responded accordingly.

"The average water level increases and starts flooding areas that aren’t typically flooded.   You start getting embayments where there weren’t embayments and the mouths of the tributaries start to back up," said DNR Ohio River Biologist Chris O’bara.  "That does a couple of things, it creates more of a lake-type habitat and releases a lot of nutrients in those embayments." 

The lake-like habitat is more conducive to species like the largemouth bass and crappie.   Typically the southern end of the Ohio has been the area where largemouths have thrived while the upper reaches from Wheeling to Pittsburgh were considered more of a smallmouth fishery.   O’bara says as time has worn on, he is seeing that change.

"We’re seeing better numbers of smallmouth and spotted bass in all parts of the river, even down into the RC Byrd and Greenup pools," said O’bara during a recent WVOutdoors conversation.

He equates some of the improvements to good reproductive years and fewer catastrophic floods during the peak of bass spawn.  However, the catch rates from bass tournaments on the Ohio are also showing improved creels of smallmouth and spotted bass, leading O’bara to believe more is at play than just the year-in and year-out spawn.

"Over time the embayments fill in, siltation increases, nutrients have a tendency to run out and things start moving back into a riverine situation and less in a lake-type form," O’bara explained.

He’s convinced now more than ever it’s happening.   A few years back a barge became stuck at the Bellville Lock and Dam.  The lock was unable to be closed and caused a near dewatering of all but the main river channel for days.    It was a crushing blow to the fishery, but also a rare look into the mighty river for anglers and biologists alike.

"It was kind of an eye-opening experience," said O’Bara. "It was amazing to me of just how much structure is out there and how much of the substrate and the bottom is still gravel out there."

O’bara says the dewatering of the pool also revealed dozens of potential bass hiding spots.  Anglers saw large boulders, woody debris, and old construction materials and even in at least two or three places in every pool old navigational locks.  The long since flooded low level dams still exist well under the waters of today and create an amazing fish attractor for those lucky anglers able to locate them.

"Some of the tournament anglers are doing a lot better with smallmouth," said O’bara. "I talked to one guy who says he’s doing better in 20-to-30 feet of water at times."

O’bara says it’s a transformation that is actually happening in rivers across the country where the Corps of Engineers structures are nearing the start of a second century and the waters are finally adjusting to the change. 


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