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W.Va.'s river monsters

In West Virginia's rivers lurk monsters from prehistoric times.

Anglers seldom see them, but they're there. And, say state fisheries officials, they're here to stay.

Sturgeon and paddlefish once thrived in Mountain State waters, but water pollution during the late 20th century wiped out the sturgeon and nearly killed the paddlefish. For the last decade, however, Division of Natural Resources crews have been reintroducing them, mainly in the state's major rivers.

Both species are throwbacks to an evolutionary time when fish were transitioning from cartilage skeletons to bony ones.

Paddlefish look like toothless sharks with long, paddle-shaped snouts that project from their upper jaws. Sturgeons look ... well, like sturgeons - long, slender, with undershot sucker-like mouths and bony knobs called scutes on their flanks.

Chris O'Bara, the DNR's fisheries management supervisor, said the paddlefish-restocking program is doing quite well, but the sturgeon restoration effort is getting only middling results.

"As far as paddlefish are concerned, we're actively rearing them in our hatcheries and have been stocking them for the past 10 years or so," O'Bara said. "We usually raise 3,000 to 4,000 of them a year in our hatchery ponds.

"We're actually getting quite a few reports of people snagging them while they're fishing for something else. We've had reports from every [navigation dam] tailwater on the Ohio River, from the Winfield and Marmet dam tailwaters on the Kanawha, and also from the Little Kanawha River, Middle Island Creek and the Elk River."

O'Bara said paddlefish swim upstream during high spring flows until they reach an object that blocks their progress.

"We have had them reported just below Sutton Dam on the Elk and below Burnsville Dam on the Little Kanawha," he said.

Particularly encouraging to O'Bara is the sizes of fish being collected, and potential evidence that natural production might be taking place.

"We've found paddlefish up to 30 and 40 pounds in our surveys," he said. "We tag all the fish we stock, and we've caught some fish that didn't have tags. Those could be fish moving up the Ohio from farther downstream, or they could be fish from natural reproduction. We just aren't sure which."

Sturgeon reintroductions began in the late part of the previous decade, when DNR officials began importing them from the Midwest.

"For a while there, we were getting our fish from the Wabash River in Indiana," O'Bara said. "We had problems getting consistent numbers of fish, and we're no longer attempting to rear them in our hatcheries. Frankly, the sturgeon program has been a low priority for us the past couple of years."

He doesn't expect it to stay that way, though.

"Over the next five to 10 years, I anticipate us easing back on our paddlefish work and concentrating more on sturgeon," O'Bara said.

Though other species of sturgeon can grow quite large, the shovelnose variety stocked in West Virginia waters seldom exceeds 3 feet in length and 5 pounds in weight.

"We've received reports of people catching them," O'Bara said. "A lot of the reports have come from the Kanawha River from the London Locks upstream to the shoals below Kanawha Falls. We've also gotten one report of one being caught in the Little Kanawha River."

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

 


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