HANDLEY - Many fishermen don't realize it yet, but one of the Kanawha River's most popular fishing spots is open to the public again.
After more than three years of closure, the fishing piers at the London Locks and Dam reopened quietly last fall. Appalachian Power, which owns the hydropower station where the piers are located, issued a press release about the reopening, but the release went largely unnoticed.
Power company officials closed the piers in 2009 when an access bridge to the property was declared unsafe. The bridge crossed the CSX railroad's main line through the area. Anglers could have parked next to W.Va. 61 and crossed the tracks on foot, but neither the railroad nor the power company wanted the liability that might have resulted from such an arrangement.
Months passed, and the piers remained closed.
Division of Natural Resources officials reminded power company officials that Appalachian's federal hydropower license required them to provide access to the piers on the dam's downstream side.
"We encouraged the power company to work with the railroad, and eventually it worked out," said Bret Preston, the DNR's assistant chief in charge of fisheries. "It was a time-consuming process to secure a safe railroad crossing. The power company was diligent in pursuing that."
Kerry Bledsoe, who coordinates federal hydropower license agreements for the DNR, said the piers stayed closed for years because CSX officials had trouble deciding where the new access crossing would be.
"Because it was taking so long, Appalachian offered us three other sites for fishing access," he said. "We refused them. The London access was a very popular fishing location and we didn't want to lose it."
The two companies eventually agreed on a crossing site a mile upstream from the locks. Appalachian officials paid for the warning lights and crossing bars, and for the equipment used to construct the crossing. A mile-long, well-maintained gravel road provides access from the crossing to the locks.
"Hats off to [Appalachian officials] for sticking with the process," Bledsoe said.
The new crossing is at the very southeast end of the town of Handley, next to the old CSX depot. There are no signs to indicate that it provides access to the fishing area, so anglers must be alert lest they miss it.
To further complicate the matter, a sign on the gate near the locks directs anglers to go to alternate fishing sites at Marmet and Kanawha Falls. The sign, put there while the London piers were still closed, hasn't yet been removed. When told of the sign's presence, Preston said he would make some calls and get it taken down.
A DNR district fish biologist said the newly reopened piers should provide what he called "excellent mixed-bag fishing."
"There's a lot of variety," said Jeff Hansbarger. "One of the big things right now is catfishing, mainly for channel cats and flatheads.
"Bass fishing has picked up because there's much more aquatic vegetation in the river than there used to be. The vegetation supplies a good nursery area for young bass, and fishermen are reporting good catches of smallmouths and largemouths.
"Other good bets are hybrid striped bass and true striped bass. You might even pick up a muskie or two. Early in the year, in late February and March, London gets a good run of sauger and walleye, too."
The hydropower licenses for all of the Kanawha River's hydropower fisheries - London, Marmet and Winfield - are up for renewal. Bledsoe said DNR officials have asked that the new licenses require the power companies to provide adequate parking, portable toilets and trash removal.
Parking space at the London site is limited, but Appalachian has placed a portable toilet there for angler use.
Reach John McCoy at email@example.com or 304-348-1231.