Muskies — called the “fish of 1,000 casts” — are among the most challenging species in West Virginia, but there are some locations where they can be found in good numbers.
By Jeff Knapp
Few freshwater fish have the mystique that the muskellunge does. The species can be challenging to catch, grows to impressive sizes and tends to show up when least expected.
Their formidable dentures, propensity to strike close to the boat and occasional interest in a walleye, bass, or perch being played by an unsuspecting angler, doesn’t do much to dispel its mysterious reputation.
In addition to their cagy reputation, muskies are also known as a fish that’s most catchable during the fall. This is especially true in rivers, where muskies, like all fish of flowing waters, are pushed into deeper, slow-current holes as water cools.
Muskies can be found in a variety of West Virginia waters, including 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 also tend to be heavier, 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 slow-flowing pools, which muskies prefer. Soft-rayed species like suckers, carp, chubs and redhorse are common food sources for flowing water muskies.
Most reservoirs with muskies receive maintenance stockings, such as Stonewall Jackson, Stonecoal and Burnsville, all of which are considered to be better muskie impoundments.
As stocking programs evolve, fisheries managers learn better strategies, such as holding muskies to a larger fingerling stage, which appears to have a higher survival rate. Large fingerlings, which measure 10 to 12 inches in length, are about two to three months older than fingerlings previously stocked, which are around 6-inches long.
Hatchery space and food sources are limiting factors in rearing young muskies to the advanced fingerling stage, as such fish take up more room and require live minnows (as opposed to hatchery pellets).
The muskie picture on rivers and streams is a bit different than on lakes. While some flowing waters are stocked, there are also waters, like Middle Island Creek and portions of the Elk River, where good numbers of muskies are naturally reproduced.
During the past decade river muskies have been a focus of the WVDNR, with 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.
The study involved implanting microchips in muskies collected during electrofishing operations. When a muskie outfitted with such a chip was captured during subsequent efforts, the chip was scanned, providing biologists with information on movements, growth rates, habitat preferences and more.
Results indicate that muskies found in the six-mile section of the Buckhannon River’s catch-and-release section are pretty much “stay at home” fish. More than 300 muskies were captured and “chipped” during the study of which about 120 were recaptured and scanned. Very few of the recaptures moved more than a mile from their original location; most were within 200 yards of it. The special regulations section of the Buckhannon River is located within the Buckhannon Pool, a place loaded with muskie-holding habitat — shoreline laydowns mostly — which might have something to do with homebody nature of these fish.
Findings on Middle Island Creek differed from the Buckhannon Pool, where at least 240 muskies (84 recaptures) were collected and chipped. Fisheries managers discovered the average Middle Island Creek muskie moved around three miles, with males moving further than females. The longest journey for a male was 51 miles, while the most transient female moved 18 miles upstream from the location of its original capture.
The WVDNR hopes to use this research to better manage the resource in both stocked and self-sustaining waters.
Either by way of natural reproduction, or with the help of fingerling stockings, viable populations of muskies are found in the Buckhannon, Elk, Hughes, Little Kanawha, Mud and Tygart rivers, as well as Middle Island Creek. These waterways vary in size and habitat, thus furnishing a wide range of angling opportunities.
Besides the pure muskies of the free-flowing rivers, the state also stocks tiger muskies. One might find a tiger in the Monongahela River as the fish is stocked by both the West Virginia and Pennsylvania resource agencies. The Mon is an impounded, navigable river, adding a different element to river fishing.
In general, West Virginia’s muskie rivers can be characterized as being of low gradient, at least when compared to the whitewater rivers for which the state is well known. The combination of slow pools, moderate-current runs and gentle riffles is to the fish’s liking. Many of the best spots are well seasoned with wood cover in the form of laydowns and logjams. There are many areas for anglers to pursue muskies, but of course, some are better than others.
The Buckhannon Pool catch-and-release area has a dense muskie population. When the state DNR conducted its muskie tagging study it collected muskies, by way of electrofishing, at the rate of one every 12 minutes. Expect muskies in the 30- to 35-inch range, though some fish over 40 inches do show up. Propeller-driven boats can be used in this pool, but be sure to watch out for woody cover that’s prevalent.
The Buckhannon Pool can be accessed from the city’s Wood Street ramp.
A tributary of the Ohio River, Middle Island Creek has both a catch-and-release section, and miles of water under standard regulations. Even better, the tagging study revealed a muskie population as dense in the standard regulations areas as that of the catch-and-release area.
Middle Island Creek flows through Doddridge, Tyler and Pleasants counties. The catch-and-release area is in Tyler County, extending six miles upstream from the low-water bridge near Jug WMA. The best boat ramp is the Blue access, located at the mouth of Indian Creek.
The Elk River, from the Sutton Dam tailrace all the way to its merger with the Kanawha River in Charleston, furnishes muskie water that flows through Braxton and Clay counties.
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.
The Hughes River, the largest tributary of the Little Kanawha River, is formed by the North Fork and South Fork of the Hughes River, each of which is over 50 miles in length. From this merger, the main stem flows for about 14 miles before joining the Little Kanawha.
The Hughes River is a top-notch muskie water, regularly producing fish in the low to mid-40-inch range. And while the two forks don’t typically produce larger muskies, neither should be discounted, as both contain fish in the mid 30-inch range.
The North Fork Hughes River contains a section with a 40-inch minimum length limit, from the North Bend Lake Dam downstream to the CR 809 Bridge near the North Bend State Park campground, with two muskies per day allowed.
In Richie County, the main stem of the Hughes River can be accessed at the Chucks Ford access area. On the South Fork, the Haught and Westvaco ramps provide access.
The entire length of the Monongahela River is impacted by navigational locks and dams. Thus, it’s more of a hybrid, a cross between a natural river and a reservoir. Its proximity to the Morgantown area makes it a popular choice for anglers in this area.
Anglers might find pure muskies or tiger muskies, which are supplied by the WVDNR or the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, in the Mon. Tributary mouths are often the best spots to target on the Mon, as well as the tailrace areas of the dams.
In Monongalia County, public access sites can be found at Morgantown, Star City and Uffington.
Dunkard Creek enters the Mon in Monongalia County. Dunkard Creek once held a significant muskie population, but suffered a major fish kill in 2009. Since then efforts have been made to mitigate the damage, and the stream has slowly been recovering.
West Virginia muskie rivers (and streams) have a slow rate of descent, which provide plenty of slow moving pools and holes. Such streams are also much warmer than trout waters cascading down mountain drainages.
Anglers should expect to find river muskies in and around the deeper, larger pools, often located on river bends or where an incoming feeder stream creates a sand/gravel/rock bar that deflects the main force of the current. The presence of tributaries is also significant in that such places hold food fish, and often provides a sanctuary for muskies during periods of high/dirty water.
Within these pools, look for the best cover. River muskies like to ambush prey, so look for cover options, such as shoreline laydowns, submerged boulders, rocky ledges, beds of submergent weeds, and logs imbedded in the river bottom.During the summer — when water temperatures are warm — muskies aren’t current shy (in cold water, like all warm-water species, they shun hard current) — and will often nose up into areas where a riffle or fast run feeds a pool. Food fish like white suckers prefer the faster water of the riffles, and feeding muskies will invade the edges of such habitat when marauding for food.
It’s no coincidence that West Virginia hosts a couple of muskie fishing industries, including well-respected lure makers Crane Bait and Amma Bamma. While the lures from these two makers are used throughout the muskie range, their proving grounds have been the Mountain State. The minnow-duplicating Crane, such as the 206 and 208, are ideally suited for the working the wood-cover banks of a muskie river. The same can be said of the Amma Bamma, a jerkbait-style lure that’s produced in limited quantities.
Statewide, there is a 30-inch minimum length limit on muskies and tiger muskies, with a two-fish bag limit. Most muskie anglers, though, do everything they can to release fish safely to increase their chances of survival and the continuation of the species.