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Variety of fish species thriving in Kanawha River

Were I so inclined, I could walk outside the Gazette offices during my lunch hour and cast a lure to any number of fish species.

The Kanawha River contains largemouth, smallmouth, spotted, white and hybrid striped bass; flathead and channel catfish; walleye; sauger; muskellunge; several sunfish species; freshwater drum; carp; smallmouth buffalo; longnose gar; skipjack herring; sturgeon; paddlefish; shad and other small forage fish.

Not bad for a river that, 45 years ago, was pretty much dead.

In the mid-1960s, fish kills occurred routinely along the Kanawha. Industrial pollution, untreated sewage and untreated mine discharges wreaked havoc on the river's fish. Dissolved oxygen levels got so low during hot summers that even catfish and carp had trouble surviving. Less robust species didn't stand a chance.

Then something happened.

The federal Clean Water Act of 1972 forced polluters to clean up the stuff they were pouring into the nation's waterways.

The act authorized federal and state governments to set limits on pollution and to enforce those limits.

With the equivalent of a regulatory gun to their heads, industry leaders put their engineers and scientists to work devising ways to reduce pollution. The brainiacs came through. Pollution levels began to drop — slowly at first, but more rapidly as better pollution-abatement technology became available.

As pollution disappeared, the Kanawha's game fish reappeared.

Catfish and other hardy species were the first to recover. Basses and sunfishes came along later. Finally, sauger and other pollution-sensitive "indicator species" staged comebacks.

The transformation was under way in 1980. That was the year I started writing a newspaper column, and I remember doing a piece about the Kanawha's budding comeback. By 1990, the river's fishery had pretty much been restored.

Division of Natural Resources officials helped the process along by stocking species that otherwise wouldn't have established or reestablished themselves.

Hybrid striped bass, for instance, are genetic "mules" created by crossing white bass with striped bass, and they can't reproduce on their own. DNR stockings have kept hybrid populations thriving since the late 1970s.

Same goes for shovelnose sturgeon and paddlefish. If DNR officials hadn't horse-traded with other states, those species might never have been reestablished in the Kanawha.

Anglers can most easily sample the river's largesse at the Winfield and Marmet dams, where special fishing piers allow point-blank casting access to the dams' churning outflows.

Turbulent water carries loads of oxygen. Oxygen attracts fish of all types, from the smallest minnows to the largest flathead catfish. Toss a baited rig into the maelstrom and it's hard to tell what might latch on. It might be a 14-inch sauger. It might be a 14-pound hybrid.

I visit the locks' fishing piers from time to time, taking photos and talking to fishermen. It never ceases to amaze me how many anglers say they're "fishing for whatever will bite."

As someone who almost always targets a chosen species, that's almost a foreign concept.

For Kanawha River anglers, it's the norm.

From Kanawha Falls to the Marmet Locks to the Winfield Locks and on downstream to the river's confluence with the Ohio, variety truly is an angler's spice of life.


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