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The Ohio River - Undiscovered by Fly Fishers!


Originally Published in

Country Anglin' Outdoor Guide
November/December 2005

by Joe Cornwall

Morone chrysops and Morone saxatilis, better known as the white bass and the striped bass respectively, are both ideal fly rod targets. When you cross a white bass with a striped bass you get a wiper Ė perhaps the perfect Midwestern fly rod target! The hybrid keeps the aggressive, predatory nature of its striper heritage and blends it with the extreme growth rates of its little sweet-water cousin. While schools of pure white bass declined in both the Ohio River and Lake Erie from the middle of the nineteenth century right on through to the middle of the twentieth century, the increasingly hospitable water quality of the Ohio River has led to a reversal of that trend. The white bass and the larger, faster, stronger hybrid wiper are now common. And the fishing is fabulous!

Fly fishers are a rare breed on the big waters of the Ohio River. This is unfortunate. With 691 miles of flow bordering the Buckeye state, it is not for lack of opportunity. Nearly every city or town along the river has access, and the mouths of tributary rivers and streams are great places to begin your search for white gold. To find the mother load, look no farther than the Ohio Rivers dam and lock system!

The Meldahl Locks and Dam is located just 30 miles east of Cincinnati. It creates a 95 mile navigation pool downriver of the Greenup, KY Locks & Dam. Nearly a million people live within a two hour drive of this marvel of modern engineering, but on any given day youíll only share the fishery with a scant few dozen. Thereís plenty of room to carve out your own little space, and on weekdays youíll likely have run of the house.

The planning for the lock and dam in this location was initiated in April 1958. Construction of the locks was started in March of 1959 and they were placed in operation in November of 1962. Construction of the dam was started in April of 1961 and it was placed in operation in December of 1964. The pool was raised to full height in March of 1965. There are a total of 11 public recreation areas either existing or proposed for development on the Meldahl Lock and Dam

In the intervening 40 years since it was built, the Ohio River has seen many changes. This is one of the very few instances in which we, as a society, can honestly say that things are much better today than they were ďway back whenĒ. I donít believe the Ohio River has been this clean, productive and accessible for fishing since these amazing structures were built!

One of the factors that contribute to the quality of this fishery is the abundance of fodder the Ohio River provides her residents. There are, quite literally, schools of shad that number in the millions. On some days the bait is so thick that youíll snag the unwitting baitfish on your fly as you try to retrieve it through the swift currents. This abundance of shad also leads to the biggest challenge youíll face Ė imitating prolific bait that the gamefish become very selective towards, and getting it noticed. To this end there are two factors to which you must pay close attention; size and a prominent eye.

Stripers, whether in salt water or fresh, are a very challenging quarry. They are notorious for becoming ultra-selective to bait size. If a striper is feeding on a 3 to 3 Ĺ-inch shad, it will very likely turn its fishy nose up at a 2-inch or 5-inch offering. To get the nod of approval you have to get the size right. And like a pro football player who anticipates his rivalís movement through the direction of said rivalís belt buckle, a striper, white bass or wiper (and many other species, to boot) tracks and hits its prey based upon the dark, reflective spot of its eye. They eye of a shad is a key strike trigger.

The best times to fish these Ohio River structures and have a chance at landing a true toad of a fish in the ten pound plus category is when the bait is concentrated, the water is cool enough for active feeding by wipers (they are a cool water fish which enjoy peak metabolism when water temperatures range from 55 to 60 degrees) and the light level is low enough to bring the game fish shallow. This means fishing the spring and, especially, the fall. Also it means that you have to be there at daybreak or sunset. While the occasional fish may come to hand under bright, blue skies, Iíve found that this is the least productive and dependable time to fish. Cloudy overcast days threatening rain or snow can be cosmic Ė especially when they occur during the peak season of late October through early December.

The Ohio River is big water. This is no place for an 8-foot 4 weight trout rod! Bring a heavy rod that can cast a size 1/0 fly and handle 60 to 80 feet of line. I like a 10 foot 7 weight, overlies with an 8 weight line. I typically fish an intermediate line. A Teeny 200 grain sink tip is my second choice. When the fish are especially shallow, or are working on top, a floating line will work too. Just remember that you are dealing with strong currents and need to make a presentation at depths of 3 to 8 feet. The fly must be delivered accurately, and it has to get to depth quickly. Fluorocarbon leaders are best as they help the fly sink and are less visible in the amazingly clear water of the big river. Fish arenít especially leader-shy so 10lb test is a good place to start. When the big fish arrive Iíll often step up to 14lb test.

An important accessory is a shooting basket. This is a device that straps around your waist and holds your fly line in a manner that allows a clean shoot on the forward cast. Because youíll be fishing in rocky rip-rap you canít let your line lay on the ground. Between abrading the line from standing on it and cutting casts short due to tangles, youíll find a shooting basket to be an excellent investment. Shooting baskets are available at most fly shops for very reasonable prices or you can make your own from a small, plastic laundry basket and a wading belt.

Finally, make sure you practice your double-haul! While Iíve had days when the fish could be reached with a 20 foot roll cast, it is far more common to bang out 70 foot casts into a gusting wind. This is something you have to do with a minimum of back casting and a maximum awareness of both fellow fishermen and potential obstructions. Itís not as hard as it sounds, but beginners and experts alike may want to pack a spinning rod in case the conditions get out of hand.

The best flies to use are shad and shiner imitations. Productive flies always include an imitation of the shadís prominent eye and are tied sparsely with lots of inner glow and life-like flash. My favorite patterns are the Whitlock Sheep Shad series, including the Swimming Shad, Waker Shad and Deep Sheep Shad. I also use a pattern very similar to Whitlockís, but of my own devising, that I call a Simple Shad.

Gray-over-white is the predominant color pattern and many streamers will work. Just remember to use a fly that is about the same size as the shad and shiners the fish are feeding on. As the year progresses, the size of the bait will increase and the size of your fly pattern should, too. By December Iím using 4 to 5-inch long flies tied on 2/0 hooks. Donít worry; even a 12Ē white bass can get that hook into its mouth. And because stripers, white bass and wipers will invariably hit the head of the fly, short shank hooks that grab and hold are best. Always use a non-slip mono loop knot to enhance the flyís swimming action.

If you go you should know that you can fish the Kentucky side of the Ohio River with an Ohio license. As a result of negotiations between the wildlife agencies of Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky, Ohioís fishing regulations have been unified for fishing between our mutual borders. Ohio daily bag limits and minimum size limits apply to the Ohio River and its embayments and tributaries to the first dam or riffle. That includes a daily bag limit of no more than 4 white bass, stripers or hybrids over 15Ē. Indiana does not provide reciprocity of licensing and you must have a valid Indiana license if you fish the Ohio River from that state.

There are some areas that offer safe and comfortable wading. There are many sand and gravel bars that are identified on the Ohio River navigation maps and these often provide a productive, wadeable opportunity. The areas below the locks and dams are decidedly unwadeable! This is big water and it can be dangerous. Boats must be seaworthy and there are significant penalties for venturing too close to any dam in a boat. Under extreme circumstances that penalty can be the ultimate one. Please, practice common sense and fish with a partner.

If you thought the fishing season was winding down, think again. October, November and December may be the very best months of the year to get into some hot cold-weather action. Donít put your rods away yet! Instead, head down to the Ohio River and find out what kind of world-class fishing is available right in your own back yard!







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