Photo by Pete Maina
Mountain State anglers should experience good fishing for muskellunge this summer, that is, if conditions allow. After all, much of our state’s muskie fishing is found in large streams and small rivers. And during the past two summers, abnormal amounts of rain have negatively impacted angling effort. So the hope is for a drier summer, one where anglers can enjoy the many muskie-fishing opportunities that are available.
Here’s an up-to-date look at West Virginia muskie management, the best waters to fish this year, as well as some of the better tactics to employ.
MOUNTAIN STATE MUSKIE MANAGEMENT 101
According to West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) fisheries biologist Kevin Yokum, the agency manages the muskie resource in three different ways.
The state has waters that contain native muskie populations, ones that once had native populations but can no longer support them through natural reproduction, and waters suitable for muskies that are not within the native muskie range. These three management strategies reflect these categories.
The state is blessed by the reality that a good number of our waters contains self-supporting muskie populations. The fish found in these waters are the Ohio strain of muskellunge, noted Yokum. On such waters, ones like the Buckhannon River, no muskies are stocked by the DNR. These are wild fish, their numbers sustained through natural reproduction. Wild muskies are rare in the eastern United States. Even in such fabled waters as New York’s Chautauqua Lake, at least 75 percent of the muskie population is the result of stocking efforts done by the New York Department of Environmental Control.
Some other state waterways within the native muskie range can no longer support good numbers of muskies solely through natural reproduction. In these waters the DNR stocks Ohio-strain muskie fingerlings. These fish are raised by the agency from eggs taken from brood stock obtained from local waters.
“We don’t have any trouble getting enough adult fish to serve as brood stock,” Yokum noted, referring to the work done each spring in regard to Ohio-strain muskies.
Unlike trout, it’s impractical to maintain hatchery populations of adult top-line predators, such as muskies, to obtain annual supplies of eggs. Instead, fish are trapped during the spring from waters that contain them. If the targeted numbers of males and females cannot be trapped to secure the necessary amounts of fertilized eggs, stocking efforts suffer. Weather and other environmental conditions play a big role in this work. For this reason, as with farming, stockings of fish, such as muskies, walleyes and hybrid stripers, vary somewhat from year to year due to the fluctuating supply.
The state’s stocking efforts are not limited to the Ohio strain of muskie. In waters outside the native range, Chautauqua-strain muskies are stocked on a regular basis to maintain muskie fisheries in the waters that will support them. These waters lack the conditions necessary for self-supporting muskie populations. Chautauqua-strain muskies stocked in our waters are the result of both egg-stripping efforts from local fish as well as eggs acquired from outside sources. The raising of muskies in West Virginia is done at the agency’s Apple Grove and Palestine hatcheries.
The state’s muskie fishery also benefits from a bit of enlightened management, as well as a conservative attitude among many of the anglers. Significant catch-and-release areas are present at two of the better muskie waters. Also, according to DNR fisheries biologist Scott Morrison, catch-and-release is practiced by many of the anglers who target these great fish.
“I’d say about 99 percent of our muskie anglers practice catch-and- release,” he said. “That conservation ethic is quite well spread.”
Statewide, the minimum length limit for pure-strain muskies is 30 inches, with a creel limit of two. Morrison also noted a new special regulation put in place this year is a 40- inch minimum length limit on North Bend Lake, a 300-acre body of water located in Ritchie County. But as was previously stated, most anglers release their muskies, which has much to do with the improvement of muskie fishing, not only in West Virginia, but wherever the fish is found.
QUALITY MOUNTAIN MUSKIE WATERS
Muskie angling is readily available to many anglers in the Mountain State. While certain reservoirs receive notoriety in regard to muskie fishing, generally, it’s the flowing waters experts like the DNR biologists point anglers toward.
“Lakes like Stonecoal and Stonewall Jackson do have muskies in them, but the action is not as consistent as it is on many of our flowing waters,” Kevin Yokum said. “For that reason, I tend to suggest anglers concentrate on the streams and rivers that contain muskies.”
What follows is a look at a few of the high-quality muskie waters contained within the state. They are ones picked by biologists Kevin Yokum and Scott Morrison as ones likely to provide good fishing this summer, particularly if good conditions exist.
Muskie waters tend to be divided into two categories. Action waters, where the fish are more numerous but tend to run smaller, and “size” waters, where you will work harder for a strike, but the chances for a trophy fish are better. Some waters are a blend of the two.
According to biologist Yokum, the Buckhannon River falls into the “action” category.
“This isn’t to say you can’t catch a fish over 40 inches in the Buckhannon, but the odds are much better that you will catch smaller ones,” he said. “But it’s not uncommon to catch several muskies in the same day.”
As any muskie angler will attest, multiple muskie days are a rare treat indeed, even if the fish are on the short side.
Like all of West Virginia’s muskie creeks and rivers, the Buckhannon is characterized as being of low gradient, with long, slow-moving pools. Yokum said the Buckhannon is also rich in submerged timber, which serves as ideal ambush cover for muskies.
A well-known catch-and-release area is located on the Buckhannon River. According to the DNR, the 6.5-mile section runs from the city of Buckhannon’s water-supply dam, upstream to the first riffle. Included in this area is the section of French Creek, from its mouth to the first riffle. The entire stream section is commonly referred to as the Buc
khannon Pool. All muskies caught within the parameters of the special regulations area must be released immediately.
Though the catch-and-release section is popular with muskie anglers, Yokum said there is good muskie fishing throughout much of the river.
The Buckhannon River is currently the subject of a tagging study aimed at determining, among other items, muskie movements in the river.
Public launch sites on the Buckhannon River can be found at Carollton, Hall and Rangoon in Barbour County, and Buckhannon, Pringle Tree, the FEMA site and the Trust Joint McMillan Plant in Upshur County.
The Buckhannon River is only suitable for small boats, as is true for most of West Virginia’s flowing muskie waters.
MIDDLE ISLAND CREEK
According to Yokum, Middle Island Creek is another muskie fishery where big muskies take a back seat to numbers. Like the Buckhannon River, Middle Island Creek also contains a lengthy catch-and-release section that is popular with anglers from Tyler County and surrounding areas.
The DNR lists the boundaries of the muskie-managed waters as a six-mile section beginning at the state Route 18 bridge near Centerville and continuing downstream to the low-water bridge near the Jug Wildlife Management Area. Included in this area are sections of Indian and McElroy creeks from their mouths to their first riffle.
The same regulations enforced on the Buckhannon River project water also apply to Middle Island Creek.
Also, like the Buckhannon, biologist Yokum said good muskie populations are present in much of Middle Island Creek’s 50-some-mile length. Whereas Buckhannon features lots of sunken wood, muskie habitat on Middle Island Creek is more in the way of long, deep pools and eddies. Forage fish include suckers and chubs, soft-rayed fish that muskies prefer as a food source. This same type of forage exists in all of the waters that are featured here.
Public access sites on Middle Island Creek in Tyler County include Blue, Buffalo Run, Joseph’s Mill, Jug, Pratt, Purgatory Run, Sellers Road and Tyler County Farm.
LITTLE KANAWHA RIVER
Numbers waters are great for the sheer action they provide, but all muskie anglers like the chance for a big fish on occasion. Not that a 30-inch legal fish isn’t big. Just that the sheer strength of a 40-inch-plus muskellunge is something that needs to be enjoyed from time to time. Kevin Yokum said the Little Kanawha River contains a fairly high muskie population, while at the same time providing a better chance at a fish likely to test your tackle and fish-fighting skill.
“The Little Kanawha is a tremendously lengthy river,” Yokum noted. “The muskie water runs from the tailwaters of Burnsville Dam the whole way to the Ohio River.”
The Little Kanawha River can be characterized as having long pools. As Yokum noted, muskies are present in many miles of water. The river picks up size in Wirt County near Creston. From there it flows through Wirt, then Wood County, emptying in the Ohio at Parkersburg.
In Wirt County, access sites can be found at Creston, Palestine, Sanoma, Sportsman’s Park, Spring Valley and Wells Lock. Wood County accesses include Corning Park and Leachtown.
The Little Kanawha — between the Burnsville Dam tailwaters and Creston — also flows through portions of Gilmer and Calhoun counties.
Taking the sport a step farther for the angler looking for a true trophy, a fish over 45 inches with the potential for the magical 50-inch mark being a possibility, Yokum said the Elk River just may be the place to go.
“You will need to put in your time and effort, though,” Yokum said.
Like the Little Kanawha, the portion of the Elk River holding muskies is sizable, stretching from the Sutton Dam tailwaters to the area above its merger with the Kanawha River. The best muskie habitat is considered to be the river portion within Braxton and Clay counties. Muskies are not found above Sutton Dam, where the habitat is much different than that found downstream. Water quality is somewhat deteriorated in the lower portion of the river.
As with our previously mentioned waters, this section of the Elk contains the slow, deep pools conducive to stream-bred muskies. Plenty of wood is found in the form of submerged cover and shoreline laydowns.
Clay County access sites include Camp Associates sites No. 1 and No. 2, Duck, King Shoals, Mary Chilton Roadside Park, Procious and Queen Shoals. In Braxton County, small boats can be launched at Frametown Bridge and the Sutton Dam tailwaters.
Biologist Scott Morrison also recommended quality waters, such as Middle Island Creek. He also suggested anglers fish the Hughes River. It, along with the previously listed waters, should be prime for muskies this summer, the fishery fueled by fish from the 1999 year-class.
“The 1999 season was a dry, drought year,” Morrison explained. “Those low-water conditions provided good spawning conditions for our native muskies. As a result, we had an extremely good year-class.”
Morrison said the muskies of that 1999 spawn would be in the 32- to 36-inch range this summer.
A tributary of the Little Kanawha River, the Hughes River features long, slow-moving pools, ones divided up by shallow riffles. Morrison said pools are commonly a mile long on this river. While the riffle areas can be muskie hotspots during the spring, he would expect the fish to be located in the deeper, slower water at this time.
Boats can be launched on the Hughes River at Chucks Ford in Ritchie County.
Muskie tactics tend to evolve in such a way to suit local fishing conditions. On West Virginia’s relatively small, flowing waters, this is the case.
“Small, johnboat-style boats are most appropriate for these waters,” Scott Morrison said. “Most anglers outfit their boats with an electric motor.”
He said bank- and wade-fishing are not common, so most folks utilize the shallow-draft craft. Thanks to the numerous access sites located along most of these waters, float-fishing is also a popular way to fish the water. Additional access sites can be found on the DNR’s Web site at
www.wvdnr.gov. Click on “Public Fishing Areas” under the “Fishing” title.
Lures of choice for muskies tend to be crankbaits and jerkbaits. Though not necessarily thought of as a “muskie” state in the broad spectrum of things, several outstanding lure makers call the Mountain State home. The long list includes bait/lure makers such as Jack Cobb, Gene Wyde, the Amma Bamma, Widowmakers, Crane Baits, Tuff Shads, Jones Specials, Willey Bucktails, Big Chimne
y, Buckhannon Mountain and Smutly Dog. Many of the lures produced by these locals are tailor-made for the shallow-flowing waters described here.
“Probably because we don’t have much in the way of weedbeds, bucktails are not as popular here as they are in some areas,” Morrison said.
For instance, a 200 series Crane, which is a shallow-running minnow bait, is ideal for working over the top of a logjam. A T-Bone, an up-and-down jerkbait made by Widowmaker, might be just what it takes to lure a big Elk River muskie from the depths. It doesn’t take a wide assortment of lures to tackle our state’s river and stream muskies, just a few baits well chosen to work the depths and conditions commonly encountered.
In conclusion, it’s worthy to again note the positive effects that catch-and-release fishing have had on the muskie resource. In recent years, much has been learned about the proper way to handle muskies to ensure they survive the encounter so they can fight another day.
Despite their menacing look, muskies, large ones in particular, are rather fragile. Hooked fish should be brought to the net as quickly as is reasonably possible to minimize fatigue. Smaller fish that can be handled without the use of a net can be unhooked while they remain in the water. For larger fish, large nets specifically designed for catch-and-release fishing function as an in-the-water livewell while the hooks are removed or cut free from a fish.
Delayed mortality of released fish is the result of the cumulative stress experienced during the process of being caught and released. Photo sessions, common with anglers, add to the stress. If photos are necessary, the process should be short and well planned. Have everything ready before the fish is lifted from the net. Horizontal holds, experts agree, are much easier on the fish than vertical ones. Warm-water temperatures, widespread in state waters during the summer, are extremely stressful to muskies. During the release, support the fish until it has the strength to swim off on its own.
Release tools every muskie angler should carry include long-nosed pliers, jaw spreaders, small bolt cutters and a proper landing device. Catch-and-release only works if the fish survives the ordeal.