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Starks lands monster smallmouth on Kanawha River

Courtesy photo
Pro angler Jeremy Starks has had some good days catching big bass, but rarely have they been as good as a recent Kanawha River outing in which the Scott Depot resident caught five smallmouths that weighed 4 to 6 pounds apiece. He could only hold four for the photo.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The photo tells the story - or does it?

It shows professional bass fisherman Jeremy Starks holding aloft four monster smallmouth bass. Given Starks' travels on the Bassmaster Elite Series tour, one might suspect the fish came from Lake Erie, Lake Champlain, Dale Hollow Lake or one of the nation's other legendary smallmouth fisheries.

They did not.

They came from the Kanawha River, inside the Charleston city limits.

"That was a heck of a day," said Starks. "I actually caught five, but I could only hold four for the picture. All of them were caught in about a 11/2-hour span, early in the afternoon."

Starks usually doesn't keep fish in his livewell unless he's fishing in a tournament. But on May 23, with the Kanawha running a tad high and on the swift side, he ended up with five big ones in the well at once.

"It was kind of funny how it happened," he recalled. "The current was pretty strong that day. I caught a 4-pounder and wanted to get a picture of it, but with the current that strong I didn't want to get off the trolling motor and get pushed away from the spot I was fishing. So I put the fish in the livewell, figuring I'd get a picture later."

Then he caught another lunker. And another. And another. And yet another. By the time the fishing slowed enough for a photo, the livewell was full.

"The smallest fish was 4 pounds, 3 ounces, and the largest was 6 pounds," Starks said. "That's a bag of bass that would stand you in good stead anywhere. It's something to be proud of that they came from the Kanawha River."

Starks grew up in the Upper Kanawha Valley, and in his lifetime has seen the river transformed from a badly polluted carp-and-catfish fishery into a dynamic multi-species fishery that includes sauger, walleye, muskellunge, hybrid striped bass, largemouth bass and smallmouth bass.

"The bass fishery in particular has improved," he said. "The big difference there is the amount of aquatic vegetation. There used to be almost none, and now we have hydrilla, milfoil and water willow growing from one end of the river to the other.

"All that vegetation provides nursery habitat. Once young bass get to a certain size, they don't need cover. But to live long enough to grow to that size, they need places to hide. The river has more vegetation now, and bass are spawning more successfully than ever before."

Starks credits all that aquatic weed growth to a cleaner, healthier watershed.

"Part of it is better [land-use] practices upstream," he explained. "There's less erosion, less silt in the river, and we're not getting chronic floods like we used to. If you get floods at the wrong time of the year, it kills vegetation.

"Also the river isn't as polluted as it once was. Communities are cleaning up their sewer systems, and companies are cleaning up their industrial waste. We're definitely headed in the right direction."

As remarkable as Starks' big catch was, he said it didn't exactly catch him by surprise.

"I've been catching bigger fish," he said. "The average size [of Kanawha River bass] has gone up. It's unusual to catch that many big ones out of one area, but it's not something that can't be duplicated.

"I have to admit, though - that 6-pounder shook me up a little. That's a giant smallmouth, no matter [where] you're fishing."

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


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