LAVALETTE - With his video camera mounted to the end of a long pole, Jeff Hansbarger dunked the rig under the surface of Beech Fork Lake and got a glimpse into a world few people ever see - a catfish's nursery.
Hansbarger, a biologist for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, has spent several recent days inspecting catfish nesting boxes in several Mountain State lakes. The boxes, built by a DNR worker and placed in about a dozen impoundments, are designed to improve catfish reproduction and reduce the need for stockings.
"Hey, we've got a catfish!" Hansbarger said as he pushed the perch-shaped camera toward the morning's first box. "It's a flathead, and it's sitting on eggs."
In short order, Hansbarger and his assistant, Mike Nuckles, checked six boxes. Five contained nesting catfish. "That's a really good percentage," Hansbarger said.
DNR officials launched the nest box-building program three years ago. Zack Brown, the biologist who spearheaded the project, said it was first tried in Braxton County's Burnsville Lake.
"We weren't finding young catfish in Burnsville, and we wanted to enhance spawning activity there," he explained. "Catfish are cavity nesters, and Burnsville doesn't have very many natural cavities. So we built some boxes and put them in the lake."
The wooden boxes, 32 inches deep by 16 inches wide and 10 inches tall, have a 6-inch hole offset to one side in the front. The hole gives the female catfish a secure place to lay her eggs, and gives the male catfish - which guards the nest after the eggs are laid - a nursery that's easier to defend from predators.
"We call them 'catfish love shacks,'" Brown said, laughing. "But all joking aside, they seem to be working."
Recent surveys have shown that more than half the boxes are being used. Brown said the percentage should improve as biologists better learn how and where to place the boxes.
"The first year, only 10 to 15 percent of them were getting used," he said. "And the results were clumped; boxes in some locations were used heavily, while ones in other locations weren't used at all."
DNR workers studied what the well-used boxes had in common.