CHESTER - The sound of baitfish splashing in the tanks of Chaney's Service Station in Chester can mean only one thing: Fishing season is about to start.
Longtime bait shop operator Don Chaney, 90, of Chester, is gearing up for fishing season business, as well as the start of catfish tournament season.
"You can get your supplies, a smile and some friendly advice here," said his daughter-in-law, Jean Chaney, former owner of Chaney's with her husband, Jerry.
Don Chaney shows off the shiners he sells as baitfish at Chaney’s Service Station in Chester. Chaney is gearing up for the start of fishing season and the stocking of Hancock County streams with trout. (Photo by Stephen Huba)
A sign in the room where Chaney stocks baitfish and makes lead sinkers reads, "Our baits are alive and healthy when they leave our bait room."
Chaney is in his fourth decade of operating the bait shop in a back room of the service station, which his father started in 1935. He's also the oldest member of the Chester-Newell Sportsmen's Club, which sponsors a monthly catfish tournament on the Ohio River from May through August.
Although Chaney makes and sells fishing tackle, fishing has always been more vocation than avocation for him. "Never had a line in the water," he said. "Can't swim."
But then, upon further reflection, he remembers fishing as a boy and upon leaving the U.S. Army Air Force after World War II, when he caught a sailfish off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
"I know how to put a worm on a hook and how to take a fish off a hook," he said.
Chaney sells shiners and minnows as well as nightcrawlers, meal worms, wax worms and maggots. And he just ordered $500 worth of fishing tackle in preparation for the trout fishing season.
Chaney said trout especially like meal worms, wax worms, Velveeta cheese chunks and yellow salmon eggs.
Each year in Hancock County, Tomlinson Run Lake, its tributaries and Kings Creek are stocked with rainbow, brook and golden trout. This year's stocking event is scheduled for mid-April, said former state Sen. Edwin J. Bowman, of Weirton.
At a cost of $15,000, the trout stocking program is paid for by the state of West Virginia and Hancock County commissioners. The county's half comes from hotel occupancy tax revenue that is earmarked for recreational purposes.
Bowman, an avid fisherman, said he started the stocking program about five years ago with the help of fellow Sens. Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, and Jack Yost, D-Brooke, and state Delegate Randy Swartzmiller, D-Hancock.
"I knew the number of fishermen we have up here and how much they enjoy that sport," Bowman said. "We've seen people coming in from Ohio and Pennsylvania. ... Citizens have stopped me along the streams and thanked me."
Bowman said the trout average 13-14 inches but can get as big as 18-23 inches. The program stocks from 5,000 to 5,300 pounds of trout in Hancock County streams.
"They're all very good-sized fish," he said. "Once the word gets out that there's been a 24-inch trout caught, that just stimulates people to go down there."
Bowman said he does not announce the specific stocking date to give the fish time to get acclimated to the waters.
Chaney agrees that many people who fish Hancock County waters are from out of state. Fishing along the Ohio River has increased over the years, he said, as industries along the river have closed and the condition of the water has improved.
"The river was in bad shape. You couldn't eat the fish," he said.
One thing that attracts fishermen today is the Ohio River Catfish Tournament sponsored by the Chester-Newell Sportsmen's Club.
This year's tournament, which covers the Ohio River from Wheeling to Pittsburgh, is scheduled for May 25, June 15, July 20 and Aug. 10. The tournament begins at 7 p.m. Saturday and ends at 7 a.m. Sunday.
Fishermen can sign up and pay the $10 fee at Chaney's. Measuring is done at the Chester City Park marina. Winners are judged by the length of the fish. Cash prizes go to the longest fish and the blind draw fish.
Chaney said the biggest catfish he's seen measured was 52 inches. He's also heard his share of fish stories over the years.
"They'll tell you (about) the one that got away," he said.