Combination hunting and fishing trips frequently fail to live up to expectations. Too often the fishing is best when you are off in the woods, or you’re tossing plugs when it’s prime time to be carrying a gun. You go for great hunting and fishing-but end up with neither.
But last May, with the help of West Virginians Squirrel Hager, Gregg Cook, and Kevin Goff, I found the ideal location for a combination trip, a place where the hunting and fishing complement each other.
Stonewall Jackson Lake Recreation and Wildlife Management Area is West Virginia’s showpiece catch-and-release bass lake, a multiforked, 2,650-acre body of water that harbors some of the state’s best largemouth bass fishing, as well as exceptional muskie, crappie, catfish, and bream fishing. The lake is surrounded by steep, wooded hillsides blanketed in an oak-hickory forest that is swarming with turkeys. There is not a house or a road in sight, and everything you can see, from the lake to the ridge tops, is public land, open to hunting.
The best part is that turkey hunting hours in West Virginia end at 1 p.m., just when the sun warms the mountain waters enough to activate the bass. The fishing stays good right up until dark. As we fished, we listened to the gobblers going to roost and planned the next morning’s hunt.
Every place we fished, there were gobblers sounding off at dusk. On the first day, I killed a nice 3-year-old gobbler on the ridge above our houseboat mooring. It was noon, long after early-morning gobbling had ceased. I had been sitting for two hours in a place where turkey sign was abundant, calling softly, when the gobbler walked silently into view. He spotted my little jake decoy at once, went into a menacing half-strut, and marched into killing range.
“Sometimes they respond best later in the morning, after their hens have left to go lay eggs,” said Squirrel. “It pays to stay in the woods and keep calling long after the early-morning gobbling stops.” Squirrel tagged his bird the next morning, and the day after that, I scored on another longbeard that came to my sparse soft calling at half past 10.
Because of its catch-and-release restriction on bass, Stonewall Jackson holds a top-heavy population of adults. The biggest ones are always females, with many exceeding 7 and 8 pounds. Ten-pounders are caught occasionally.
During our visit, water temperatures were in the mid-60s and spawning activity was just getting under way. Male bass, many of them in the 4- to 5-pound class, were shaping nests and attempting to herd big, gravid females to their sites.
You could spot the brightened gravel where males had cleaned out nests, and often you could see the male bass standing guard close by. Twister-tailed jigs flipped close to the nests brought immediate strikes from the feisty males, which went airborne when we hooked them and tore the lake’s surface with violent jumps and thrashings.
“Four-pounder right there by that stump,” Kevin would tell me, squinting through polarized sunglasses. If I made the cast accurately, the strike was automatic.
In the five days we were at Stonewall Jackson Lake, each of us released bass in excess of 5 pounds. Two of us tagged three gobblers, and we saw 14 gobblers-all of them longbeards. One night we set a trotline and hauled in a stringer of 4- to 7-pound channel catfish that provided the makings of a delicious fish fry on the deck of the houseboat. Another night we dined on a mess of slab-size bluegills we’d found swarming in a shallow cove. On the last evening, we grilled turkey breasts on the houseboat and ate while the whippoorwills whooped it up on shore.
“We’ve got it all at our fingertips,” Squirrel said. “You step off the boat right into the woods to go hunting, and you can catch your fish right off the deck. I’mm telling you, man, it doesn’t get any better’n this.”