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Stonewall Jackson Lake bass could become keepers

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Anglers who fish one of West Virginia's best-known catch-and-release bass-fishing spots might one day get to keep some of the bass they catch.

Division of Natural Resources officials have proposed to remove Stonewall Jackson Lake from the state's list of the catch-and-release waters. If approved, the change would go into effect Jan. 1, 2014.

Bret Preston, the DNR's assistant chief in charge of warm-water fisheries, said the change would allow anglers to keep up to six bass per day, but only one per day that measured 18 inches or longer.

"The idea is to allow some harvest, but at the same time to protect some of the larger fish," Preston explained. "We know we aren't going to make the lake hold more bass, but we might be able to create some larger fish while still allowing people to take some."

Biologists believe the lake can no longer support as many bass as it did when it was younger and significantly more fertile.

"We've been collecting data on Stonewall's largemouth bass population for 12 years," said Chris O'Bara, the DNR's head of fisheries research. "While the bass there are larger than bass in most West Virginia reservoirs, we're finding that they don't weigh as much as they should for their lengths.

"Usually what that indicates is a lack of forage in the system, and that probably means the lake had become unbalanced, with too many bass and too few bait fish."

By allowing anglers to remove some bass, DNR officials believe the remaining fish will grow heavier and healthier.

"We set up the [proposed] regulation to promote the harvest of smaller fish," O'Bara explained. "That does two things - it helps reduce the population of spotted bass, which max out at 12 to 16 inches, and it helps preserve the lake's population of trophy-sized largemouth bass. Anglers can catch one trophy fish and take it home, but they won't be able to catch six trophies and take them all home."

Since the regulations would allow anglers to keep up to six bass in their boats' livewells, bass-fishing organizations would be able to conduct weigh-in tournaments at Stonewall for the first time since the lake was impounded in 1989.

O'Bara said DNR officials plan to closely regulate the number of tournaments held there, mainly out of concern for boaters' safety.

"Stonewall is a very narrow lake that has a lot of standing timber [in it]," he said. "If you put too many high-powered boats in there at one time, you create problems. We don't want to put anglers or [recreational] boaters in danger."

Biologists proposed the regulation at last Sunday's meeting of the state Natural Resources Commission, the panel that sets fishing and hunting season dates and bag limits. Commissioners should vote on the proposal sometime later this year.

At the same time, they'll probably also vote on the DNR's proposal to change Stonewall's muskellunge-fishing regulations. Currently, anglers are allowed to keep up to two muskies, both of which must measure at least 40 inches in length.

Under the DNR's proposal, the new minimum size limit for the lake would be 52 inches.

"The idea there is to make Stonewall a destination for trophy muskie fishermen in the same way it's a destination for bass fishermen," O'Bara said. "The regulation would help ensure the presence of really big muskies in the lake, and it would still allow anglers to take home that really big fish of a lifetime."

Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1231.


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