For many anglers, the muskellunge represents the biggest fish they are likely to catch in a lifetime. This is true in the Mountain State, though both flathead and channel catfish give the toothy muskie competition in this regard. Muskies, however, carry with them a degree of mystery, from their tough-to-catch reputation, to that of showing up at unexpected times, such as when reeling in a modest-sized bass or walleye.
Given the level of fishing opportunities available to West Virginia anglers — from cold, clear running streams teeming with trout, to reservoirs that play host to three varieties of black bass — it’s understandable that muskies get overlooked in the mix. Add in the factor that muskies have such a reputation as being tight-lipped, supremely intelligent, and oh-so-hard to catch. And that it takes a boatload of specialized equipment to effectively target muskies. Add these aspects up and it’s of little surprise that muskie anglers make up a comparatively small percentage of the state’s anglers.
The truth is muskies aren’t particularly smart or wary. But as a top line predator their numbers are fewer, which means finding them is a more difficult task than with species found farther down the food chain like trout, bass and panfish. And while the potential size and toothy maw of a muskie calls for certain considerations in the way of tackle, one doesn’t have to take out a second mortgage to get properly set up to take on muskies.
Those up to the challenge find they have a number of muskie-fishing options in the state. Muskies are present in a number of West Virginia waters, both flowing and impounded. For the most part these populations are maintained by the stocking of muskie fingerlings by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. In a few cases muskie numbers are maintained naturally. Self-supporting muskie populations are quite rare in the eastern United States, a special resource that should be cherished and respected.
Appropriate preparation to take on Mountain State muskies entails an understanding of the state’s muskie management program, the tactics that catch muskies in our home waters, as well as a knowledge of which waters provide the occasion to catch these fine fish. Read on to learn about all these factors!
Muskies can be found in a variety of West Virginia waters. This includes a select number of impoundments, and a wider selection of rivers and creeks.
Impoundments with muskies tend to have significant food sources, most commonly gizzard shad. Lake-dwelling fish tend to be heavier than their river counterparts, a result of the denser forage base and the lack of having to fight current. Rivers containing muskies are usually of low gradient, providing a high number of the slow-flowing pools the species prefers. Soft-rayed species like suckers, carp, chubs and redhorse are common food sources for flowing water muskies.
Reservoir-dwelling muskie populations are provided by maintenance stocking of fingerling-stage muskies, ones reared in the state’s Apple Grove and Palestine hatcheries. Stonewall Jackson, Stonecoal, and Burnsville are considered the better West Virginia muskie impoundments.
As stocking programs evolve, fisheries managers discover what gives them the most bang for the buck. Such an example is the modification of holding muskies to the larger advanced fingerling stage, and life stage that appears to provide the highest survival rate. Larger fish that measure 10 to 12 inches in length are about two to three months older than the “standard” 6-inch fingerling previous stocked. Hatchery space and food sources are limiting factors in rearing young muskies to the advanced stage, as such fish take up more room, and require live minnows as opposed to hatchery pellets. Advanced muskie stockings occur during the fall.
The muskie picture on rivers and streams is a bit different than on lakes. While some flowing waters are stocked, there are also flowing waters, like Middle Island Creek and portions of the Elk River, where good numbers of muskies are supplied by natural reproduction.
During the past decade river muskies have been a focus of the DNR, including an extensive study conducted on the Buckhannon River and Middle Island Creek, both of which have sections managed under standard regulations as well as catch-and-release sections.