If you're looking for your first 50-inch Ohio "husky muskie," these top-rated lakes are the places to be this month. Our expert has the story.
Photo by Tony Zappa
By Brian Ruzzo
It's tough to argue that the ferocious muskie isn't the freshwater version of the saltwater tarpon. Long and slender like the tarpon, the muskie is just as elusive and equally tough to land. And both species exhibit amazing hook-throwing qualities.
Fortunately for Buckeye State anglers, one of these rod-bending species - the muskie - resides right here in our back yard. However, according to Elmer Heyob, an Ohio Division of Wildlife fisheries biologist, only a small percentage of Ohio's anglers presently target muskies. If you've ever wondered what it feels like to have a 40-inch muskie on the end of your line, now is the time to get started.
Muskie fishing in Ohio is rated as excellent largely due to a successful management program. There are no categorical changes in Ohio's program for 2004, but Heyob still plans to stock nine program lakes that have been identified as having prime muskie habitat. The stocking quota is one advanced fingerling per acre of water. Depending on weather and rearing conditions, the final number of fingerlings available could rise or fall.
The real key to the program is the use of advanced fingerlings rather than fry. Biologists submit that larger advanced fingerlings, approximately 9 to 10 inches in length, exhibit much better survival rates when compared to smaller stock. Of course, advanced fingerlings take longer to rear, so stocking usually takes place in September and October.
BY THE NUMBERS
Last year, the state planned to stock 16,831 advanced fingerlings. However, there was a surplus of fish available, and more than 21,000 muskies were released into program lakes last fall. Alum Creek Lake, near Columbus, received the most muskies, with more than 4,100 new fish stocked. West Branch Reservoir, Salt Fork Reservoir and Caesar Creek Lake each received more than 3,000 advanced fingerlings.
Piedmont was stocked with almost 2,500 fish, and the remaining program lakes, including Leesville Lake, Clear Fork Reservoir, Cowan Lake and Lake Milton, each received between 620 and 1,653 advanced fingerlings.
But don't let stocking data sway your opinion against lakes that aren't fortified with several thousand muskies each year. Catch data provided by Ohio Huskie Muskie Club members show that Leesville and Clear Fork Reservoir have been, and still are, the top muskie producers in the state.
The Ohio Huskie Muskie Club is an integral part of the management of Ohio's muskie fisheries. Club members voluntarily collect scale samples and mail them to Division of Wildlife biologists. These samples assist biologists in tracking the age and numbers of fish caught at each fishery. From this information they can continue to adjust the stocking schedule so that anglers can get the most for their money.
In 2003, Leesville had the distinct honor of posting the most "huskie muskies" (fish over 50 inches in length) and the most total muskies caught, with 66 "huskies" and 528 total fish. Clear Fork Reservoir was second or tied for second in both categories, with 37 huskie muskies and 314 total fish. Salt Fork anglers also reported 37 huskie muskies, but fewer total fish (128). West Branch, Alum Creek and Lake Milton all posted more than 100 total catches, with 10 to 15 percent of those catches measuring more than 50 inches in length.
Here's a closer look at the top six muskie-producing lakes in Ohio.
Leesville Lake was constructed in the 1930s by impounding McGuire Creek just below the confluence of its north and south forks. The remote surrounding terrain is representative of eastern Ohio's hill country. There are no roads leading to the lake's wooded banks. The only access to its 27 miles of shoreline and 1,000 acres of water is by boat.
Both forks feature a creek channel and plenty of bays and inlets. Several bays are lined with weeds, including some reaching into water as deep as 15 feet. During spring and fall, many local anglers probe these weedlines casting crankbaits.
During the summer, muskies can be caught along the deepest weedbeds by casting crankbaits; however, local anglers favor trolling. Trollers concentrate on the main-lake channel and usually arm themselves with oversized crankbaits.
Trolling at slower speeds is important when water temperatures are in the 80s. Many experienced anglers run their boats at 2.5 to 3 miles per hour.
During periods of extreme heat, consider nighttime trolling. By early fall, when water temperatures start to drop into the 70s, you can increase your speeds up to 5 miles per hour.
When trolling, depth is just as important as speed to keep your bait in the strike zone. According to biologists, muskies often hover just above the thermocline during the summer months. Below this line, oxygen levels are inadequate for most fish species. In Ohio, thermocline depths usually range from 15 to 25 feet on most inland lakes. Therefore, identify the thermocline, which can fluctuate daily, and set your rigs to run just above that line.
Boaters may access Leesville Lake at Clow's Marina, which is along the southern shore near the dam (which is accessible from state Route 212), or the Petersburg Boat Landing, which is along the northern shore where North Fork McGuire Creek flows into the lake.
There is a 10-horsepower motor limit on the lake, which makes this an even better summertime angling destination because you won't have to share the water with ski boats and other pleasure craft.
For maps or more information, contact the ODOW's District Three office at 912 Portage Lakes Drive, Akron, OH 44319; or call (330) 644-2293.
CLEAR FORK RESERVOIR
Covering 944 acres of water and boasting 14 miles of shoreline, Clear Fork Reservoir is the top-ranked muskie lake in central Ohio. Located south of Mansfield, the lake was created by the damming of Clear Fork of the Mohican River.
Clear Fork has trailed Leesville in both huskies and total catches over the last few years. However, Clear Fork always challenges Leesville for the top title. Many Buckeye State muskie anglers consider the two lakes equally productive.
While the two lakes post similar muskie numbers, there are distinct differences in their physical characteristics. Leesville is long slash
of a lake, while Clear Fork is more oval in shape. Additionally, Clear Fork boasts several mid-lake islands. According to biologists, these islands, along with mid-lake humps, provide important habitat for summertime muskies.
At Clear Fork, trolling is the most popular method all year long. A good place to start is near the islands in the western portion of the lake. Anglers should also work the region east of these islands, where deeper water can be found. A map available from the Ohio Division of Wildlife shows these features. Employ the trolling methods described above for best results.
For anglers fishing the western end of the lake, there is a launch on the southwest shore of the lake off Route 97. Although there are no horsepower limits, Clear Fork does have an 8- mph speed limit.
Clear Fork straddles the Morrow-Richland county line, so the reservoir is technically in both districts One and Two. However, District Two has management responsibilities.
For maps or more information, contact the District Two office of the Division of Wildlife at 952 Lima Ave., Box A, Findlay, OH 45840; or call the office at (419) 424-5000.
SALT FORK RESERVOIR
Salt Fork Lake is nestled in the hills of eastern Ohio. It was constructed in 1967 by impounding Salt Fork Creek, and the resulting 2,952 acres of water make Salt Fork the second largest of the muskie destinations to make our list.
The lake comprises two forks: Sugartree Fork and Salt Fork. Sugartree Fork has better water quality and more weedbeds, making it more conducive to muskie fishing. During the summer, anglers should focus on the lower reaches of the arm near the dam.
One of the best summertime muskie destinations is the limestone reef approximately four miles north of the dam on the Sugartree Fork arm. During the summer months, shad will school along the reef, attracting muskies. Trolling big shad-colored crankbaits is a good way to entice these fish.
Salt Fork is popular with summertime pleasure boaters, so it's a good idea to fish during weekdays. If you are planning to fish on a weekend, try to get out early or start later in the day.
Two different sites provide access to the limestone reef. The first can be accessed from county Road 831 approximately 2.5 miles east of Interstate 77.
The second site is within Salt Fork Lake State Park, which can be reached via U.S. Route 22 and park Road 1.
There are two launch sites within the park. The launch site near the reef can be accessed via park Road 1 and then taking the fifth left-hand turn. This turn is marked with signs directing visitors to the lodge. The Sugartree Marina launching area is on the right.
For more information, call the state park office at (740) 439-3521, or contact the District Four office of the Ohio Division of Wildlife. For maps or more angling information, contact the District Four office of the Ohio Division of Wildlife, 360 East State St., Athens, OH 45701; or call (740) 589-9930.
MICHAEL J. KIRWAN RESERVOIR
In northeastern Ohio 25 miles east of Akron, Michael J. Kirwan Reservoir, also known as West Branch Reservoir, receives fewer accolades than the state's top three muskie lakes; however, it's still a great muskie fishery. In fact, it sometimes finishes ahead of Salt Fork in Ohio's "top three" category.
Its 2,350 acres of water and 40 miles of shoreline yielded 141 muskies last season, with 19 fish reaching the 50-inch mark.
Built in 1965 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for flood control and low flow augmentation, West Branch Reservoir is highlighted by a jagged shoreline. Several inlets, cuts and bays provide anglers with plenty of targets for muskies in spring, but by summer the muskies will have moved to deeper structure.
Trolling is the key for summer fish. Look for sunken roadbeds and humps in the lower basin near the dam. Structure rising to just above the thermocline is the best place in which to find muskies because the fish will suspend close to structure while still remaining in well-oxygenated waters.
There is a launch site on Gilbert Road that provides good access to the dam area. To reach Gilbert Road, follow state Route 5 east from Ravenna to Newton Falls Road east. Then take Wayland Road south to Cable Line Road east. Gilbert Road branches north from Cable Line Road.
For maps or more information, contact the District Three office of the Division of Wildlife.
A little to the south and east of Kirwan Reservoir, 1,685-acre Lake Milton posted similar numbers in 2003, with anglers catching 134 muskies, including 17 fish over 50 inches in length.
Trollers should focus on the narrows in the central portion of the lake. The narrows act as funnels, sometimes attracting schools of walleyes and muskies to feed on baitfish.
Anglers can launch from two different boat ramps along the northwestern shore near Craig Beach, which is north of Interstate 76. The southern tip of the lake also has a third launch site. It can be reached by taking I-76 to state Route 534 south to Ellensworth Road west.
For maps or more information, contact the District Three office of the Division of Wildlife noted above.
ALUM CREEK RESERVOIR
Alum Creek anglers produced more muskies last season (148) than were caught at West Branch Reservoir or Lake Milton. However, only 13 of those fish were over 50 inches; therefore, West Branch and Lake Milton finished higher on our list. But don't underestimate the Alum Creek muskie fishery. This reservoir could easily move up to fourth or even third place in coming years.
Since 1990, when it was added to the ODOW's muskie stocking program, Alum Creek Lake's fishery has continually improved. To date, the 3,387-acre lake has been stocked with tens of thousands of advanced muskie fingerlings.
Biologists added Alum Creek Lake to the muskie-stocking program because they recognized its potential to be an outstanding fishery. The lake has a strong forage base, including yellow perch, white suckers, gizzard shad and carp. Additionally, the abundance of deep wintering holes, underwater points, and aquatic weeds gives muskies plenty of all-season habitat.
During summer, look for humps, reefs and other underwater structure lying above the thermocline. Old roadbeds also crisscross Alum throughout the lower half of the lake. Focus on this region and try trolling crankbaits.
Several roads and ramps provide access to the lake. Along the eastern shore, there are two launches off state Route 36/37 and Africa Road. On the west side of the lake, anglers may launch from a si
te on Hollenback Road. Alum Creek State Park also provides access and camping facilities.
For more information, contact the Alum Creek State Park office at (740) 548-4631. For maps, write the District One Office of the Ohio Division of Wildlife, 1500 Dublin Road, Columbus, OH 43215: or call the office at (614) 644-3925.
For more information regarding the Ohio Huskie Muskie Club, its events and outings, simply log onto the club's Web site, which is located at web.tusco.net/ohiohuskiemuskieclub. For newcomers there is no better way to learn the sport than to spend time with experienced club members.
The club's site also has information explaining how to take scale samples. The more samples submitted to the ODOW, the better biologists can manage the stocking program, fueling this fishery for many years to come.
Anglers who are interested in collecting and submitting scale samples should contact the club or call (800) WILDLIFE for instructions and a supply of mailing envelopes.
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