Our Best Five Muskie Lakes

Pennsylvania's fisheries biologists have had great success with their muskie management plan, and the outlook for 2004 is for more great fishing. Are you ready to catch that 50-inch monster?

Photo by Pete Maina

By Jeff Knapp

Muskies provide many Keystone State anglers, especially fishermen living in the western portion of the state, with the opportunity to catch a truly large fish. Sure, monster-size flathead catfish, channel cats and carp swim these waters, and in most instances are easier to catch, but they don't carry the mystique or prestige that comes with matching wits with the mighty muskellunge.

The western region of Pennsylvania is blessed with various types of muskie waters. Natural lakes, large reservoirs, small impoundments, major rivers and small streams are all places our muskies can call home.

Here's a look at the state's muskie program, as well as an in-depth examination of five of our best muskie waters.

MUSKIE MANAGEMENT 101

As stated by Bob Lorantas, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's Warmwater-Coolwater Unit leader, the state's muskie management program has a long history.

"According to Del Graff, our recently retired Fisheries Bureau chief, Pennsylvania's muskie management program extends as far back as the 1890s when stocking for that species began," Lorantas said. "The program was re-initiated in 1953 and there was great success in culturing both muskellunge and tiger muskellunge. Continuous improvements have led to the expansive stocking programs that currently exist in Pennsylvania.

"Of course, stocking is not the only component of the management program," he added. "Harvest limitations have always been an important consideration."

Tiger muskellunge are a hybrid species created by crossing a female muskie with a male northern pike. Though many states have not enjoyed a great deal of success with their tiger muskie programs, Pennsylvania fisheries managers have experienced positive results in several state waters. The fish also fills an important niche by providing muskellunge angling in waters where the species was not naturally found.

"The native range of muskellunge in Pennsylvania was restricted to the Ohio River drainage and the Great Lakes drainage," Lorantas explained. "Through stocking programs, fishing opportunities have been extended throughout Pennsylvania. In most instances, range extension through stocking programs has been directed to manmade reservoirs constructed over the years. Additionally, abundance is regulated in many water bodies by stocking tiger muskellunge, a functionally sterile hybrid. Both species provide similar recreational experiences and reach the statewide minimum size of 30 inches in about three years."

Although hybrids grow at rates similar to muskellunge, hybrids do not exhibit the longevity that pure muskellunge exhibit. Of all the muskellunge trapped, scale sampled and then released from Pennsylvania trap nets, the oldest tiger muskellunge was 11 years of age, while the oldest muskellunge was 15 years of age.

"The reason tiger muskellunge do not live as long is probably related to their aggressive nature. This means that tiger muskellunge are removed by anglers at greater rates than muskellunge and do not make it to as old an age," Lorantas noted.

Special Regulations areas for muskies are rare in Pennsylvania. Statewide, the minimum length limit stands at 30 inches, with a creel limit of two fish. Conservation Lakes carry a 36-inch length limit, but only three lakes remain in the Conservation Lakes program, having been replaced by Big Bass and panfish enhancement regulations. When it comes to muskies, only Sugar Lake is a major player of the three remaining Conservation Lake waters, and the commission plans on discontinuing this program.

The PFBC is looking at revamping some of its warmwater programs. The muskie program, with its rather liberal minimum length and creel limits, is reported to be a major component up for possible change.

The commission estimates that 96 percent of the attention directed toward muskies is at fish that are produced by its stocking program. The agency has been attempting to re-establish the wild muskies of Presque Isle Bay, and a one-fish, 40-inch minimum length limit has been in place there since 1998.

Last year, the PFBC stocked 78,719 pure muskie fingerlings, 1,465 pure muskie yearlings and 89,011 tiger fingerlings. Those are fish destined for future anglers, but here's a look at some of the best places to go for your wall-hanger muskie this month:

PYMATUNING LAKE

Over the years, the fertile waters of 13,000-acre Pymatuning Lake have provided great fishing for many species, muskellunge included. The Pymatuning muskellunge management road has been a bumpy one the past 25 years or so, but appears to be running much smoother in recent years.

During the 1980s, Pymatuning Lake's muskie population fell victim to heavy losses due to lymph sarcoma, commonly called red spot disease. Likely viral in origin, a lot of unknowns are associated with red spot disease, even though it was first identified in pike and muskies some 100 years ago. Afflicted fish exhibit open sores that can spread to internal organs. The disease is often fatal, particularly in muskies. Fish appear to be particularly susceptible to red spot during the spring spawning season.

Pymatuning's muskie population has bounced back well from the low ebb of 20 years ago. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission continues to stock muskies in the lake, and for a five-year period from 1997 to 2002, the Ohio Division of Wildlife provided additional fish.

During that period, the lake received 5,000 fingerlings from each source. Ohio's muskie stocking program for this lake ended in 2002. According to Craig Billingsley, PFBC Area 1 fisheries manager, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission currently sets its sights at stocking 7,000 fingerlings per year in the lake.

Recent survey work conducted by the Fish and Boat Commission indicates that the muskie population seems to be doing well. Trap nets set in the spring of 2003 produced record numbers of study fish. Some 117 muskies were captured ranging in size from 9 inches up to 47.75 inches. Catch data from 1990 to 2003 shows red spot disease has been reduced to 5 percent of the adult population.

Billingsley also said that angler reports have been positive.

"Though it is inconclusive, we do hear good reports from muskie anglers," Billingsley noted. "No really

large fish have been reported, but fish in the 45-inch class are not unheard of. It's my opinion that Pymatuning will continue to provide excellent opportunities to catch muskellunge, unless red spot returns."

Pymatuning is a shallow flatland reservoir. The lake's average depth is about 8 feet, with 30 feet being the maximum. The water is turbid. Weed growth is common, but limited to a depth of about 5 feet due to the dark- colored water.

The forage base at Pymatuning consists of several species. Gizzard shad and alewives are abundant, with alewives showing up in much greater numbers in the past three years or so. A large carp population also provides muskie fodder.

At present, Pymatuning has a 10-horsepower motor limit. Access areas are numerous around the lake.

Maps are available from Fishing Hot Spots at (800) ALL-MAPS, and the Ohio Division of Wildlife at (614) 265-6300.

TIONESTA LAKE

A significant tributary to the Allegheny River, Tionesta Creek is impounded about a mile upstream from its merger with the river. Built primarily for the purpose of flood control, 569-acre Tionesta Lake also provides an important recreational element that includes muskie fishing.

According to Allen Woomer, Area 2 fisheries manager, the lake has a solid history as a muskie water.

"In the past, Tionesta Lake has produced very good muskellunge fishing," Woomer stated. "Fish in the 40- to 50-inch range are common, and we usually sample good numbers of smaller fish as well, indicating that there are more fish in the pipeline coming up. During our last survey, conducted in 2002, we sampled a 42- inch muskie and a couple of fish in the low 30s. In 1995, we sampled several in the 40- to 50-inch range. I would characterize the lake as a steady producer of muskies with the occasional lunker caught."

Angler reports also indicate a good muskie fishery in Tionesta. During the summer of 2003, there was a viable report of a 50-inch-plus fish caught and released from the upper area of the lake.

Muskie stockings in Tionesta have been consistent over the years, likely adding to the quality fishing found there. In 2003, the lake received stockings of both fingerling- and yearling-stage muskies. Tionesta Creek provides good habitat for warmwater species for some distance above the lake, and muskies are taken there on a fairly consistent basis. The area near Kelletville has some long, deep holes and provides a good opportunity for the shore-angler looking to make contact with a muskie.

The topography around Tionesta Lake is quite rugged, and the lake sits in a steep-sided valley. Thus, some shoreline areas tend to drop off fairly quickly into deeper water. Woomer stated the average depth is 13.5 feet, with a good mix of deep and shallow habitats. The lake contains very little aquatic vegetation.

An earthen dam fronts the Stillwater Pool, with a tunnel discharge emptying back into the Tionesta Creek streambed some distance below the dam.

The outflow area is a popular bank- fishing spot, and muskies are taken from the outflow pool. It's a short distance - about a mile - to the confluence with the Allegheny River, yet another productive muskie spot that can be fished from shore or boat. Boats can be launched at the gravel plant ramp on the Allegheny River in the town of Tionesta.

According to Woomer, the lake's forage base consists of a variety of suckers, bullheads, golden shiners, various minnow species and panfish such as yellow perch, bluegills, rock bass and crappies.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains two-lane boat ramps on Tionesta Lake at the dam and the Nebraska Bridge Recreation Area on the upper end of the lake. There is no horsepower restriction.

TAMARACK LAKE

Crawford County's Tamarack Lake was once considered the finest muskie lake in the state in terms of muskie density. It was once a great "action" lake, and provided me with my first four-muskie day.

In spring 1999, it was drained to permit repair work on its dam structures. Since then, it has been refilled and restocked, and early indications are that it is on its way to being great muskie water again.

"For physical habitat, Tamarack Lake is prime muskellunge water," said biologist Woomer. "It is shallow throughout, with an average depth of just 4.2 feet. It has an abundance of aquatic vegetation growth that can reach nuisance levels in some years, but it is great habitat for muskies.

"The lake also has lots of old submerged stumps that provide plenty of ambush sites for muskies. During the 1999 drawdown, we handled over 500 adult muskies, which is almost one per acre, making this a really great muskie fishery," Woomer said.

Following completion of the dam repair work, it didn't take long for the Fish and Boat Commission to begin restocking this productive water.

"We began restocking muskellunge in November 1999 with 2,200 fingerlings," recalled the biologist. "This was while the lake was still drawn down but had enough water that we could get some fingerlings in to get things rolling. In 2000, 37 adult muskellunge were stocked in April and 1,680 fingerlings were stocked in September. In 2001, 560 fingerlings were stocked. This is the normal or prescribed stocking rate of one fish per acre that we stock to maintain a muskellunge fishery.

"In 2002, it again received 560 fingerlings, but because of a shortfall in hatchery production in 2003, it did not receive any muskies. Generally, the percentage of survival in refilled impoundments is very good to excellent due to the lack of predators, so there should be a really good muskie population established given our high stocking rates and good survival. Growth rates are generally very good during the first few years following a drawdown because of the high level of forage available and limited competition among predators for food," Woomer noted.

Tamarack is a productive water with a variety of food species to feed a dense muskellunge population. Woomer lists the primary forage base as panfish, such as yellow perch, bluegills, pumpkinseed sunfish and crappies. Some bullhead species, golden shiners and minnow species could also be consumed.

This is an electric motors-only lake. Shallow draft boats driven by powerful electric motors with lots of battery power are the best bets. The Fish and Boat Commission provides seven access points, making it convenient to re-launch in different areas rather than burning up battery power boating to them.

EAST BRANCH RESERVOIR

East Branch Reservoir in Elk County provides another component to the muskie fishing picture: a water capable of producing trophy tiger muskies. An 1,100-acre impoundment of the East Branch of the Clarion River, this deep waterway has produced tigers in the 50-inch clas

s in the past.

"We have had a good tiger muskellunge fishery at East Branch Lake since the late '70s," Woomer stated. "This impoundment has always been stocked only with tigers. Tiger muskies as large as 51 inches have been caught by anglers there in recent years, along with several others in the 45- to 50-inch range. During the last survey conducted on East Branch in 1997, we sampled good numbers of tigers in a variety of different size groups from 8 to 44 inches. Through the various survey years, East Branch has consistently produced tigers in the 40-inch-plus range."

This lake has steep sides and plenty of deep water. The average depth is over 50 feet. It's an ideal trolling water, as anglers can cover both distance and a variety of depths. Presenting lures throughout the water column is important, as muskies may be found at various depths.

"This is a 'two-story' lake, meaning it has high levels of dissolved oxygen throughout the thermocline and down into the lower layers of the lake where the cold water resides throughout summer. Lake trout can survive in East Branch," said biologist Woomer.

Because of its steep sides and winter drawdown, there are virtually no weeds in East Branch. The forage base consists of white suckers, yellow perch, golden shiners, rock bass and bullheads.

There are no horsepower restrictions. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers provides a boat launch near the dam. Elk State Park offers an access area on Instanter Drive.

LAKE SOMERSET

Despite its modest size, this PFBC-owned water contains a fine muskie population, with some fish reaching that magical 50-inch mark. Last season, a well-documented 53-incher was caught and turned back into the lake.

Somerset is a shallow, weedy, 256-acre lake with a maximum depth of about 16 feet. The Fish and Boat Commission draws the lake down every other year to keep weed growth at a manageable level.

Both tiger and purebred muskies are found in Somerset Lake. The forage base consists of gizzard shad and panfish species. There are two access areas.

Though western Pennsylvania provides the traditional range for muskies in the state, there are quality waters in the central and eastern portions, particularly for tiger muskies. Top choices include Marsh Creek, Nockamixon and Blue Marsh lakes, and the Juniata River.

Muskies have the potential in many waters to reach the 30-pound mark, even 40 pounds in some waters. Though the minimum length limit stands at 30 inches, which in many folks' experience is a large fish, it's barely beyond the juvenile stage for muskies.

Perhaps the most significant allure of muskie fishing is the potential for catching a true trophy fish. The catch-and-release philosophy can only help make things better in this regard. If you want to see more 50-inch-class muskies in Pennsylvania, it's important that anglers learn to handle muskies carefully and release them to live - and fight - another day.



Discover even more in our monthly magazine,

and have it delivered to your door!

Subscribe to Pennsylvania Game & Fish


Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.