July is prime time for river muskies, which may be found in many large and small rivers and creeks above and below the state's major reservoirs and lakes. Our expert has the story. (July 2006)
Photo courtesy of Tony Zappia
Doug Pavick announced that it was about time for him to get a hit. After all, it had been at least an hour since the Westmoreland County angler had boated a muskie. On the very next cast, as his shallow-diving plug careened off a submerged stump, a 3-foot muskie slammed it. The fish was the third of what would be a four-muskie day for Pavick.
During that July trip last summer, Pavick and I sampled a couple of quality muskie lakes in western Pennsylvania. It was an exciting day. In fact, right now is an exciting time to be a muskie angler in the Keystone State.
In most areas of the country where muskies exist, anglers have been bitten by muskie fever. Surveys indicate a growing interest in fishing for this toothy, top-level predator.
The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission is working hard to redefine its muskie management practices. Currently, biologists are looking at two possible changes in regard to creel length and minimum length limit. The first proposal includes implementing a one-fish, 36-inch minimum-length statewide limit on muskies. Also included would be the creation of a handful of trophy muskie lakes where a 45-inch length limit would be in effect. Possible trophy waters in this portion of the state include Lake Arthur and Loyalhanna Lake. The second proposal calls for a one-fish, 40-inch length limit statewide, with no specially regulated trophy waters.
Presently there is a two-fish, 30-inch length limit on muskies and hybrid muskies in Pennsylvania. Final action on any changes that may take place will occur later this year.
Pennsylvania boasts some good muskie fishing in a variety of venues. Large reservoirs, both deep and shallow, provide the big-water option. There are also plenty of smaller lakes and reservoirs where a small boat is the preferred craft. Many of these waters are limited to electric motors only.
Our major river systems, or portions of them, host significant muskie populations. Many of the smaller waters that feed these rivers also hold muskies, making the fish accessible to the bank and wade fisherman.
Following is a look at a selection of muskie waters that should offer good July fishing in 2006. In some cases, these waters are well known in their ability to produce summer muskie action. Also included are places that have good potential, but normally see little attention directed toward the fish.
The Allegheny Reservoir, which straddles the New York-Pennsylvania border, is not the place to go with the expectation of experiencing fast muskie action. Admittedly, even "fast" muskie action is slow when compared to other species. But on the Allegheny Reservoir, it's likely you will really pay your dues. The trade-off is the chance to catch a truly exceptional muskie.
Set in one of the wild areas of Pennsylvania, Kinzua Lake -- as it's better known -- is a steep-sided impoundment. Shorelines tend to be steep. Rocky points and flats are present, most often in the vicinity of incoming feeder streams. The lake is comprised of two main arms: the Allegheny River stem and the Kinzua arm. The main stem extends into New York, while the Kinzua Arm runs to the east into McKean County. Big muskies are taken from both arms of the lake.
A flood-control lake that sees dramatic winter drawdown, Kinzua has no aquatic weed cover. The primary fish cover is rock, shoreline laydowns, porcupine cribs and tire reefs. The variety of shiner and minnow species make up the food base at Kinzua.
The lake's muskie population is not a dense one, but big fish are present. Kinzua's thriving northern pike population may be a factor in limiting the lake's muskie numbers.
As one might expect, due to its physical characteristics and muskie population, Kinzua is an ideal trolling lake. With only limited shallow-water cover to hold fish, and with relatively few fish present, often your best strategy is to cover large areas of water. The most successful muskie trollers on Kinzua pay strict attention to schools of baitfish. Muskies tend to relate more to food sources than cover, although knowing the presence of large boulder fields is often part of the equation for locating fish. Big, deep-diving plugs are proven muskie producers on Kinzua.
The lake has no horsepower restrictions. The U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers administer access areas on the Pennsylvania portion of the lake. Fees are charged in some instances. To fish New York's side of the reservoir, anglers must possess a permit from the Seneca Indian Reservation and, in some cases, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. The Elijah, Wolf Run Marina and Willow Bay areas are popular access sites and suitable for larger boats. Many other ramps are available as well.
Fishing Hotspots produces a good lake map of Allegheny Reservoir.
Pymatuning Lake has bounced back nicely from the low muskie numbers of the 1980s. During that time, the combination of overharvest and red spot disease decimated the lake's muskie population.
Today, Pymatuning has a strong muskie population, fueled largely by the stocking efforts of the Fish and Boat Commission, with some fish also being added by the Ohio Division of Wildlife.
Pymatuning is a sprawling, relatively shallow reservoir that features stained, fertile water. The forage base is extensive. Gizzard shad and alewives are both present. Add to this young yellow perch, carp, sunfish and white bass, and it's no wonder that Pymatuning boasts some of the fattest muskies around.
Some 1.5 miles wide in some areas, Pymatuning is divided into northern and southern sections by the Espyville-Andover causeway. Though the lake is generally shallow, the northern portion is the shallowest. Depths there average 10 to 12 feet. Things get deeper in the southern basin of the lake, particularly at the extreme lower end, where the lake necks down within a mile or so of the dam.
Pymatuning's summertime muskies have a lot of location options. Most years, the lake features a good level of aquatic vegetation such as milfoil and curly pondweed. The springtime weather plays a big role in this. Springs that feature a lot of dirty water and cloudy conditions tend to equate to lesser weeds.
Such was the case last summer, when weed growth was sporadic. Clear water and
stable spring weather means more summertime weeds.
Wood is also an important fish attractor on Pymatuning. Shoreline laydowns are present in many areas. Stumpfields are also good places to find summer muskies. Fish attractors -- cribs, tire reefs and brushpiles -- are scattered throughout the lake. As with Kinzua, however, some muskies will be found near schools of pelagic baitfish.
This mix of habitat and forage creates a muskie fishery tailored to both the caster and the troller. For the caster, weedy areas rich with humps and points provide excellent targets for shallow-running crankbaits, bucktails and jerkbaits. Such areas are prominent in the northern part of the lake around the islands. The Ohio side of the southern basin, the 41 Bay area, also has a lot of good casting spots. The eastern shoreline of the southern lake, from Snodgrass down to the dam, features numerous rocky humps that rise up near the surface.
As good as the casting areas are, most Pymatuning muskie anglers tend to troll, working the shallows along the weed line. Some suspended fish are also taken in open water areas.
As of this writing, the motor restriction on Pymatuning remained at 10 horsepower, though raising it has been considered. Good boat access sites on the Pennsylvania side are Jamestown and Snodgrass on the southern part of the lake, and Manning and Linesville on the northern part. Good access areas are also available on the Ohio side of the lake.
A Pennsylvania license is good for fishing from a boat anywhere on the lake, but anglers will need an Ohio license to fish from that shore.
Consider the Monongahela River as a sleeper muskie water. Despite its dramatic cleanup, the river still isn't regarded as much of a muskie water by most anglers, who target walleyes, saugers and black bass instead.
The fact is, however, that the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission stocks both pure and tiger hybrids (a cross between muskellunge and northern pike) throughout much of the river. Surveys conducted indicate a good return on these stockings, with a dense population of river muskies being present.
Three of the better areas include Pool 3, the Maxwell Pool and the Pittsburgh Pool. Pool 3 extends from Locks and Dam 3 at Elizabeth upriver to Locks and Dam 4 at Charleroi. The Maxwell Locks and Dam creates the Maxwell Pool, which extends upriver to the Grays Landing L&D. The Pittsburgh Pool runs from the point in Pittsburgh upriver to Locks and Dam 2 at Braddock. Each of these three pools averages about 1,400 acres.
The pools of the Monongahela River are somewhat like small lakes. Weedy flats are present in some locations. Tributary areas tend to provide some of the best habitat. Current-deflecting gravel bars are often located at such places.
Current is influenced by recent precipitation and the amount of water being released through upriver dam gates. Current is always a significant factor in locating fish in a river system, the Monongahela River included. High current tends to push fish behind current-breaking obstructions, while during low flows, fish have the rein of the river.
Numbers of forage fish vary from year to year, based primarily on the hatches of the past couple of springs. When their numbers are up, gizzard shad become an important food fish on the Monongahela. All three rivers in western Pennsylvania had good baitfish production last spring.
Mon River access areas include the Southside Access in Pittsburgh, the Speers and Monongahela accesses in Washington County, Rice's Landing in Greene County and Point Marion and East Fredrickstown accesses in Fayette County. These are larger landings.
Many riverside towns also feature municipal ramps. There is no horsepower restriction on the Monongahela River. This is an industrial river with plenty of commercial barge traffic. Navigation charts can be purchased from the Government bookstore by visiting http://bookstore.gpo.gov.
Much of the attention toward muskies occurs in the western part of the state. Indeed, there are excellent opportunities in this traditional part of the muskie range, where the fish is native. But good fishing can be found in the eastern part of the state. The Susquehanna River is a good muskie water. In recent years, both the North and West branches of the Susquehanna have furnished excellent muskie fishing, with both waterways on the rebound from water-quality problems.
Smaller reservoirs, such as Francis Slocum Lake in Luzerne County, harbor good purebred muskie populations. Belmont Lake in Wayne County is a gem worth checking out. Tuscarora Lake in Schuylkill County is another good eastern Pennsylvania muskie option.
The many small rivers and larger creeks that contain muskies are perhaps the state's most under-utilized muskie resource. In many instances, these fisheries are pretty much unknown, even by the locals.
These fisheries can harbor good-sized fish, and in some cases, surprisingly good numbers of them. Chances are that a good muskie stream flows near you.
Here are the common denominators:
The main consideration is a physical connection to a larger waterway that holds muskies. It can be from either upriver or downriver, but upriver is better in most cases. What happens is that muskies escape from a lake by going either over or through a dam. This occurs with surprising frequency, especially during high-water events. Fish may also move upriver from a reservoir, particularly if it's fed by a fair-sized stream.
Creeks and rivers that feed the major rivers are also worth investigating. These transplants take up residence in smaller, flowing waters, often in streams that see little fishing pressure, especially in areas away from easy-access sites or bridges and roadside pull-offs. If it takes a bit of an effort to reach a spot, chances are that few people will fish it.
Many of the state's better reservoirs have shad or alewife populations, fish that find their way into the downstream outlet waters. Go to the tailrace area of a major dam, particularly during the late fall and winter, and you'll be amazed at the volume of small fish that pass through the dam.
The better muskie creeks feature a lot of slow, deep holes with logs and brush. Muskies pick the best available habitat, so when looking for good muskie spots, look for the biggest, deepest holes with plenty of rocks, wood, and brush.
One the most effective ways of exploring a new muskie creek is with a kayak or small boat. A kayak is easier to pull through the woods, and for paddling back upstream if you didn't park a vehicle at a downstream take-out point. Many kayak companies are now producing boats with the angler in mind -- stable models that feature open cockpits and rod holders.
A small pontoo
n boat is a more stable craft to fish from and more comfortable, plus you can fit more gear in it. It's not as easy to take to a spot that lies a bit off the road, however, and you can't row a pontoon craft back upstream as efficiently as a kayak or canoe.
It doesn't take a large selection of baits to explore a muskie creek. Take along a couple of large minnow-imitating baits designed for deep water. Spinnerbaits are excellent for working woody, weedy areas.
No matter where you fish for muskies in Pennsylvania this summer, remember that water temperatures are near or at their peak, and hooked fish will be quickly stressed. Land fish quickly to reduce fatigue and keep photo sessions to a minimum (during which time the fish are out of the water) to ensure their survival after you release them.