Return of walleye, smallmouth bass a good sign for Cheat waters

KINGWOOD — By 1950, walleye had disappeared from the Cheat watershed, victims of pollution from mines and other sources.
But improving water quality in Cheat River and Cheat Lake have allowed the popular sporting fish to make a comeback.
Dustin Smith, assistant fisheries biologist with District 1 of the Division of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources Section, said the DNR has been tracking the return of life in the water.
“Walleye are native to the Cheat watershed. Historically they were in there, but they are sensitive to acidic conditions, low pH,” Smith said.
The pH value measures the acidity of water. Walleye like a pH above 6. Acid mine drainage forced waters in the Cheat far below that, before watershed restoration effects started.
The DNR started stocking walleye in the lake about 1999, as water quality improved and continues to stock every other year.
“We are now seeing naturally reproducing walleye,” Smith said. “We’re picking up juveniles during the years we do not stock. And that’s probably the biggest bright note, because the main point in their life when walleye are sensitive to low pH is during the egg stage and the larvae stage.”
A couple years ago, the DNR did a tagging study to track the walleye. Receivers were placed in Cheat Lake and in the river just upstream of the lake. The receivers, the size of AA batteries, were surgically implanted in the bellies of fish. The receivers picked up signals from tagged fish as they swam by.
The results showed some walleye are swimming upstream from the lake, into the river, during the spring, to spawn. And many of them stayed in the river, Smith said.
“Now we don’t know how far upstream those fish went, we just know that they did leave the lake and go into the river,” he said. “And anglers have also caught walleye as far up as Albright. So they’re definitely in the river.”
Walleye are popular with anglers and popular to eat, Smith said. “They’re just a highly prized sport fish.” From a conservation standpoint, walleye are top predators who were native to the watershed, and it’s good to know the water can support them again.
And the walleye aren’t alone in their comeback. The lake and river have become one of the area’s best smallmouth bass habitats, Smith said.
“Smallmouth bass are equally sensitive to pH,” Smith said. “It’s just a spectacular smallmouth fishery, both in the river and in the lake.”
The two species are “a really good indication of how far things have come, because those are two species that are often some of the first lost,” Smith said.
Cheat Lake also has become one of the top-producing bass tournament sites.
“It’s a real success story,” he said.
Much of that success is attributed to Friends of the Cheat. What’s good for fish is good for people, noted FOC Director Amanda Pitzer. FOC spent 25 years working with private industry, government agencies and the public restoring the river’s water quality.
The return of fish to the watershed is a visible symbol of the recovery of the watershed, she said. And it adds to the recreation economy of the area.
“People come here and they spend money in our stores, in our restaurants and even come back with their family and think of Preston County as a nice place to make home,” Pitzer said. “And I think that having that healthy river full of fish is something that we can all be proud of, and it’s going to make Preston County a better place to live.”
Cheat River Outfitters runs trips on the river, which was the first in the state to host white water trips but later became less popular because of the pollution. That reputation is changing now, Pitzer said.
There’s a 15-inch minimum lake limit and eight fish per day limit on walleye, but Smith urged people to selectively harvest them.
“The numbers are improving, and they grow extremely fast in Cheat Lake. It’s one of our fastest growing walleye populations,” Smith said. “We’ve got fish over 30 inches.”
In the next couple years the DNR will consider whether to change the regulation. It also continues to monitor water quality. A meter just upstream of the lake shows pH for the last eight years or so has stayed above 6.
On a recent search, biologists found more than 40 species in the lake. That includes many species of forage fish, including silver shiners, mimic shiners, darters, hog suckers, and gold and red suckers.
“Really all the species that have come back are a testament to the improvements in water quality,” Smith said.
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