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New bass regulations in effect at Stonewall Jackson Lake

John McCoy
State fisheries officials hope to improve the health of Stonewall Jackson Lake's bass by allowing anglers to keep some of their catch.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's most-anticipated fishing-regulation change in years has gone into effect.

Since Jan. 1, anglers at Lewis County's Stonewall Jackson Lake have been allowed to keep some of the bass they catch. The old regulations, which required anglers to release all the bass they caught, are no longer in effect.

Bret Preston, fisheries chief for the state Division of Natural Resources, acknowledged that the change might disturb at least some members of the bass-fishing community.

"It's a significant switch, and it might not be 100 percent popular," Preston said. "Those [catch-and-release] regulations had been in effect since the lake was impounded [in 1989]. A lot of people are used to fishing the lake that way."

The catch-and-release requirement helped transform Stonewall from a fledgling bass lake to what is arguably the state's finest trophy-bass destination. In recent years, though, biologists have noticed signs of decline in the once-vibrant fishery.

"Overall, the condition of the lake's largemouth bass has diminished, and there are far more spotted bass in the fishery than there used to be," Preston explained. "We believe the new regulations will help to counter those trends and maintain really good bass fishing at Stonewall Jackson."

Under the new regulations, anglers are able to keep up to six bass a day, and only one of those fish can measure more than 18 inches in length. By restricting the take of large bass, fisheries officials hope to maintain the lake's trophy-producer reputation.

"We wanted the new regulations to encourage the harvest of smaller fish, but at the same time allow someone who catches a really nice bass to keep it," Preston said. "We don't think allowing people to keep one trophy bass will have any adverse impact on the lake's ability to produce trophy fish."

By targeting smaller bass, biologists hope to accomplish several objectives: encourage the harvest of spotted bass, which don't grow nearly as large as their largemouth cousins; thin out the overall bass population to prevent the spread of largemouth bass virus; and promote growth among surviving bass by removing competition for food.

Preston said DNR officials put a lot more thought and effort into this regulation change than they do for others, mainly because they hope to preserve Stonewall's reputation as the state's best bass fishery.

"This wasn't arrived at lightly," he said. "We debated this for quite a while before we went forward with it."

Biologists proposed the change last February, at the winter meeting of the state Natural Resources Commission, the seven-man panel that sets hunting and fishing regulations.

"We then told the public about the proposed change during a series of 12 public meetings we conducted in March," Preston said. "Based on input from those meetings, the commissioners asked us to get additional information. For four to six weeks late last spring, we surveyed anglers and boaters at Stonewall about the proposal. On top of all that, we held an additional public meeting at Stonewall in early July so people could comment."

Commissioners approved the new regulations at a late-July meeting. Preston said DNR officials plan to conduct surveys to monitor the numbers and sizes of bass kept and released by anglers, and to closely monitor the overall health of Stonewall's bass population.

"It generally takes a fishery a while to adjust to a regulation change, so we'll probably leave this regulation in place at least three years to see if it's having the desired effect," Preston said. "If it clearly isn't helping, we'll go back to the drawing board."

One significant effect of the new regulations is that organizations will now be allowed to conduct bass tournaments that have official weigh-ins. Under the previous regulations, only "golden rule" tournaments - those in which fish were measured for length and released immediately - could be held.

Preston said, however, that the presence of largemouth bass virus is forcing DNR administrators to limit the number of tournaments.

"We're not going to allow large weigh-in tournaments during June, July or August, when water temperatures are at their highest," he explained. "We want to reduce stress on the bass, and we don't want large numbers of them held in a tank where the virus could be spread."

Current plans are to allow only about 10 tournaments a year that attract 10 boats or more. DNR officials have scheduled a meeting on Thursday to draw lots for the allowed tournament slots. The meeting, at the Stonewall Jackson State Park administration building, will begin at 6 p.m.


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