Stonewall Jackson Lake in Lewis County has ascended to the top of the heap when it comes to bass fishing in West Virginia. The state’s second largest lake is also one of its newest. The impoundment was flooded in the last 1980’s and since its creation has always carried a catch and release restriction on all black bass.
The regulation was originally put in place to help extend the common fertility which comes with a newly flooded impoundment. The measure worked and Stonewall is routinely looked upon as the state’s best bass fishing water.
But, now DNR biologists believe the catch and release restriction has outlived its usefulness and may have reached the point of diminished returns.
“In the last few years, we’ve been monitoring black bass populations and we’ve noticed a decline in relative weight of largemouth bass and an increasing number of spotted bass,” said DNR Assistant Chief for Warmwater Fisheries Brett Preston.
Preston said the declining weights is alarming.
“With a length limit regulation we can try to manipulate the size structure so we can maintain the size structure and keep catching those nice largemouth bass up at Stonewall Jackson,” he said.
The agency is proposing a rule change which would allow an angler to keep six bass from the lake. However, only one of those bass could be over 18″ in length.
“A quarter century is a long time for any catch and release regulation to be in place so we knew we had to take a look at it,” Preston added.”Our folks spent a lot of time looking at the data and came up with a pretty good regulation proposal that will try to make fishing as good as it can be at Stonewall.”
The state’s two largest bass fishing organizations appear to be on board with the rule.
“The fishing is not as good as it once was, it’s a lot tougher now,” said WV Bass Federation President John Burdette. “They’re telling us the fish there aren’t as healthy as other lakes. They say a 12-inch fish at Stonewall doesn’t weight as much as a 12-inch fish at Burnsville, Sutton, or Summersville.”
The regulation would require some interesting strategy when the lake is finally opened to bass tournaments. Under the proposal a two-man team could only keep two bass over 18″ the rest of the normally six-fish limit would have to be between 12″ and 18″.
“We’ve always wanted to have tournaments there, but for quite a while the Federation even supported the catch and release,” Burdette said. “We’d like to see it opened up just like any other lake. The catch and release has been there since day one and what they probably need is some of the smaller fish taken out of the lake.”
The West Virginia BASS Federation Nation agreed.
“We believe the proposed regulation change will provide a great opportunity for bass tournament anglers, musky fishermen, Stonewall Resort, and all sportsmen that use the lake,” said Federation Nation Conservation Director Jerod Harmon. “Additionally, with the closure of the locks on the Monongahela River, a regulation change at Stonewall would provide another much needed 2600 acres of accessible tournament water.”
Harmon adds they have full confidence in the DNR’s data and determinations on the status of the health of the lake.
But, not everybody is on board. Frankie Haught of Morgantown and his dad Frank Haught fish the lake about 75-days a year. He disagreed with the conclusion bass fishing had slacked off.
“We have been catching more of the bigger fish in the last 5-6 years than the years right after the lake was first built,” Haught said. “One day last July my dad and I had 6 fish for over 27lbs. The largest being 6lbs.15oz. Three years ago in a stretch from mid July to September he had 50 bass over 4lbs and the largest was 7lbs.11oz and we have many pictures of fish over 5lbs. from the past few years.”
Haught is circulating a petition to oppose the regulation. He said he’s gotten 300 signatures and expects to collect many more before the DNR’s deadline for public comment.
“I just worry people who are just fishing for anything will start hauling the big bass out of there and really start to hurt it as those disappear. It will add a lot more pressure to the lake,” he said. “The tournaments will add pressure to the lake too, but I’ve fished tournaments in West Virginia since I was 15. I know every trail goes to extremes to take care of the fish and release them alive.”
The rule changel additionally would create a 52″ minimum length and one fish per day limit on musky caught at Stonewall Jackson. Preston said the proposal is to enhance musky numbers in the lake.
The rule change proposal is up for public review and will be discussed at the upcoming Sportsman’s Sectional meetings March 18-19. The final decision on any changes lies with the Natural Resources Commission. They will decide at their April 28th meeting after hearing all public comments as well as the data from the DNR. The meeting will be at the Lakeview Conference Center in Morgantown.