Bass fishing in the Ohio River can be a pretty good deal. Just ask any fisherman. We can also refer to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife; who have collected data on the river for the past 12 years to back up that claim.
In September I was invited to see first-hand how biologists collect samples for their annual black bass survey on the river. The survey team consisted of Division of Wildlife (District Three) Fisheries Biologists Curt Wagner, Steve Moss and Cameron McCune. On this night (black bass surveys are done at night) we were collecting samples (smallmouth and largemouth bass and temperate basses - white, striped and hybrid striped bass) in the Pike Island Pool, in the tailwater habitat just below the New Cumberland Dam (mile marker 54.4, near Stratton and Toronto, Ohio). Another crew was surveying downstream in tributary mouths, main channel sites and embayments. The previous night the crew had surveyed the Hannibal Pool waters.
Wagner said a good number of fish were collected from both areas. The fish I witnessed going into the nets - mostly smallmouth bass - in the New Cumberland pool were impressive, in both numbers and quality. The ones that didn't make the nets - other species not in the survey - looked good too as they drifted by the DNR's boat.
ODNR Fisheries Biologist Cameron McCune holds a 3.9lb smallmouth bass that was collected for a black bass survey recently in the Ohio River. Photo by Larry Claypool
"Although we do not have the data from this fall analyzed yet, we collected a decent number of fish from both the Pike Island Pool as well as from the Hannibal Pool the night prior. Most specifically, we noted fairly high numbers of age-0, or young-of-year, bass indicating a strong spawn this spring and we also observed that fish had good body condition, or a high weight at a given length, indicating good foraging conditions and likely higher upcoming winter survival."
Since the surveys have been done since 2005 the Division of Wildlife can offer good data and detect trends in the fisheries, which helps their efforts and can assist fisherman with knowledge about where to fish and what is available now and in the future.
"We strategically plan our focus areas and then conduct sampling that is standardized across systems and years. In this way, we can squeeze the most from our data and detect trends and changes in fisheries. Since 2005, the Ohio Division of Wildlife has sampled black bass in the Ohio River using a standardized protocol," said Wagner. "We use night-electrofishing in September to collect all three species of black bass. We sample 10-12, 15-minute transects across tailwater, main channel, tributary, and embayment habitats in multiple Ohio River navigational pools each year. Part or all of 10 navigational pools border Ohio and each year 4-7 pools get sampled across the state."
The fish I witnessed going into the nets were impressive, in both numbers and quality.
Wagner explains the electrofishing procedure used to collect samples for their surveys. "In the simplest description, electrofishing is just stunning the fish momentarily with electricity so that a netter can dip net the fish out of the water and capture it for research purposes," said Wagner. "The Division of Wildlife electrofishing boats have a generator on board that produces alternating current (AC) and sends this current to a transforming control box."
As the DNR collects its data many local - and regional - fisherman have a good pulse and knowledge of what goes on in the Ohio River because they spent a lot of time on the water. East Liverpool (Ohio) veteran bass angler Mark Wilkinson appreciates the Ohio River fishery. He says the fishing has been great.
"The river is thriving again, like it was in 1997 to the year 2000," said Wilkinson. "The big difference to me is all of the aquatic vegetation has never been this immense, allowing four shad species to survive so much better and two (of those) feed so many different species. It looks like next year will be the banner year of a five-year huge class and look for records to be set."
The oldest and biggest smallmouth bass netted during DNR's sampling I saw was a dandy pair 3 1/2+ pounders (see photo). They were beautiful samples of the species. I had said at the time that the fish appeared to be "really healthy". Wagner noted that one fish was 19" and weighed 3.6lbs and the other was 18.5" and weighed 3.9lbs.
"When we talk about healthy in the fish management world, we are most often meaning how 'plump' they are for a given length. This is referred to as body condition and can be an indicator or good prey base, optimum growth conditions, and an expected high winter survival and following spring reproductive success," explained Wagner.
"The quality habitat of the Ohio has also benefitted other species of fish. I think the walleye, musky, crappie, sheep head, and all three species of bass have been thriving and growing. We have noticed a small drop off in hybrid and white bass though," said Wilkinson.
During the black bass survey the team also nearly netted an American eel. The eel quickly leaped from Moss' net after surprising the team in the dark waters. Eels do exist in Ohio waters but few are seen or caught.
"It was pretty unusual. The first one I've seen in Ohio in person in the wild," said Wagner of the eel. "Now saying that, I've heard of two other reputable sightings in Ohio this fall. I think we know they are in the river at some low density and anglers to sometimes catch them; however, it was the first one I've personally encountered doing any type of fishing sampling in the Ohio River in my nearly a decade of work on the river."
For more information about the ODNR Ohio River Fish Management and Island Fish Management, visit the webpage: wildlife.ohiodnr.gov/species-and-habitats/fisheries-management.
The Ohio River provides a wide variety of fishing to shore and boat anglers along its 981 miles. Twenty-five types of sport fish are available from its origin at the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers near Pittsburgh, PA to where it empties into the Mississippi River, near Cairo, Illinois.
The sampled fish - in this case only black bass - were collected and tested/measured by the biologists in the field after each survey. If any questions or problems arise then samples are sent to a state laboratory.
During the very comprehensive creel survey of 2012; Wagner said to his knowledge there were no reported catches of American eels in the Ohio River from 2,551 angler interviews across the entire reach bordering Ohio.