Catching West Virginia's Trophy Muskies
September 29, 2010
The three reservoirs highlighted here are your ticket to catching a big muskellunge this season -- if you have the patience, luck and skill. (June 2006)
Muskies have been known to drive men mad. The challenge of understanding their elusive nature and the fish's immense size forms an addictive combination that keeps anglers coming back to their favorite lake, reservoir or river again and again. It's not that we want to, it's just that muskie fishing gets in our blood.
Such an addiction provides the driving force behind the never-ending quest for finding trophy muskies. A big muskie is 40 or more inches of muscle, packed into a mean and contrary predator that only attacks one's offering every blue moon. But what excitement when it does! The magic of those precious moments keep us slinging over-sized plugs day after day. Muskie anglers will tell you, once you catch one, other fish just seem tame.
Muskies are rumored to be one of the most elusive fish in the world, in some cases requiring 10,000 casts to catch a single fish. Such poor catch rates would drive most anglers crazy, but diehard muskie anglers are willing to tough it out. They know that the next moment could reveal the largest fish they'll ever encounter.
Trophies are defined in the eye of each angler and certainly as rare as muskie catches can be, so each should be regarded as a treasure. However, most serious anglers would agree that any fish above 40 inches should be considered a true trophy.
Compared with other fish, muskies live a long time. Muskies can live 20 to 30 years in the far north of Canada, but they don't live quite that long in West Virginia's southern latitude. Muskie bones collected by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) and aged by experts in Canada reveal that it takes Mountain State muskies somewhere between 11 and 16 years to reach 50 inches in our home waters.
Males of this species rarely exceed 40 inches, so it is safe to say any muskie exceeding 40 inches is most likely a female. Indeed, West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky make up the southern tip of North America's muskie range. And make no mistake, southern muskies grow fast!
STOCKED VERSUS NATIVE
West Virginia features miles of waters where muskies reproduce naturally. These streams contain the Ohio River strain of muskellunge, which have existed in our state for perhaps hundreds of years. Many of these streams are excellent muskie fisheries and a few are even turning out lunker specimens. Middle Island Creek, for example, turned out a 50-inch muskie this past year and several other waters contributed 40-inch-plus fish.
However, it's the state's reservoirs that offer the best trophy muskie opportunities. All of our reservoirs and a number of the state's muskie streams are maintained by the DNR's stocking program. These fish are New York-strain fish and are stocked exclusively in waters where native muskies don't exist.
Muskies are stocked as 4- to 8- inch fingerlings in most waters, although a few waters are now earmarked to receive 10- to 14-inch advanced muskie fingerlings. Since these advanced fingerlings likely have a higher survival rate than the normal fingerlings, why not stock them everywhere? It's simply a matter of cost, which is always a big factor in the number of places these fine game fish can be stocked. Muskies remain extremely expensive to rear in state hatcheries. It takes seven acres of minnow forage to raise one acre of advanced fingerling muskies.
Anglers are reminded that West Virginia regulations require that a muskie be 30 inches in length to harvest. Although growth rates vary among rivers and lakes, it usually takes muskies four or five years to attain this legal size. The daily muskie possession limit remains at two.
In 2005, a 40-inch size limit was instituted on North Bend Lake. This new 300-acre impoundment may eventually produce trophy muskies, but right now, no waters can compare with the proven trophy potential of Stonewall Jackson, Burnsville and Stonecoal lakes.
Stonecoal Lake is a sleeping giant, according to many anglers who fish this water. Days of fruitless fishing can suddenly end with the fish of a lifetime.
That's what happened to Anna Marsh in 1997 when she hooked into a muskie while trout fishing from Stonecoal's shoreline. The remarkable catch was registered when she finally wrestled a 49.75-pound, 50.37-inch muskie onto the bank. The 10-pound-test line she was using held true even without a wire leader. The muskie still holds West Virginia's weight record to this day.
It happened again in 2003 when Glen Boyd was trout fishing on Stonecoal and spotted a large fish cruising the shoreline. Heaving the largest lure in his box, a 4-inch Mepps spinner, toward the fish, he certainly wasn't prepared for what struck the other end of his line. A 52.7-inch muskie engulfed the spinner and towed Boyd's boat around the lake for the next 45 minutes. After keeping the fish fresh in his bathtub all night, the enormous muskie was verified the next day as West Virginia's new length record, breaking an ancient mark established from Lester Hayes' Elk River giant.
Stonecoal Lake doesn't look out of the ordinary, but this 550-acre reservoir on the border of Upshur and Lewis counties has earned the reputation of being one of West Virginia's finest producers of large muskies. Completed in 1972, this steep-sided lake is very deep and its water stays extremely clear.
Muskies in this lake grow very fast. Growth data collected by the DNR shows that Stonecoal muskies are capable of adding length even at ages exceeding 10 years, something muskies in most waters simply can't do.
Many anglers have speculated that this sustained growth is due to the muskies ingesting a healthy diet of trout, which are regularly stocked in the lake. Meals of 12- to 18-inch trout sure would produce rapid growth, especially when muskies don't have to expend much energy to capture them. Stonecoal has repeatedly proven that big muskies dwell in its waters, and at any time an angler might hook up with a fish of a lifetime.
Make no mistake, this lake can be tough to fish. The water stays clear, cold and deep. Trout are abundant, so muskies don't have to feed that often. You have to be at the right place at the right time, and the best way to do that is by trolling.
Many anglers rely on trolling to catch muskies from Stonecoal. This technique has been especially effective when anglers troll along dropoffs and cove mouths. The more water trolling anglers cover, the more likely they are to encounter a muskie or two.
Most of the cove mouths act like funnels channeling baitf
ish into warm, shallow areas. That's kind of like ringing a dinner bell for muskies, and it doesn't take them long to find where the best tables lie.
A few anglers still fish with live bait on Stonecoal Lake. Frowned upon by many serious muskie anglers, this old technique continues to maintain a following on Stonecoal. Large chubs or suckers remain favorite choices for anglers who use live bait. The best way to keep from killing a muskie when using live bait is to employ quick strike rigs or circle hooks. These devices help prevent deep hooking that can lead to mortality.
Stonecoal Lake has two launch ramps, one at each end of the impoundment. The upper launch ramp is somewhat undeveloped as it features a concrete pad with a small dock and parking for about 10 vehicles. To find the upper ramp, turn off U.S. Route 33 about one-half mile west of Buckhannon onto Brushy Fork Road (county Route (CR) 7) and follow signs to the lake.
The West End access site near the dam offers a double concrete ramp and courtesy dock as well as a paved parking lot capable of handling over 30 vehicles. To access the West End ramp, turn off U.S. Route 33 about two miles east of Interstate 79 onto Georgetown Road (CR 15). Don't forget that Stonecoal has a 10-horsepower limit for all watercraft used on the lake. Boats may have larger motors, but motors larger than 10 horsepower may not be started on the lake.
STONEWALL JACKSON LAKE
Few anglers know this lake as well as Ken and Shelia McCord, a husband and wife duo who love to muskie fish. Stonewall Jackson is their home lake, and I don't know anyone who has caught more 40-inch class muskies from this lake than the McCords.
Their secret to catching big muskies on Stonewall: Cover plenty of water by trolling. I'm certainly not a world expert on trolling, but one day last summer I hooked up with Jim Moore, president of the West Virginia Chapter of Muskies Inc., and the McCords for a day of trolling on Stonewall Jackson Lake. It was a learning experience to say the least.
I was amazed at the methodical pattern employed by the trollers. First, they'll cover the different water depths with a multitude of lures with different actions and colors. We all know how finicky muskies can be. At times, a certain wobble or flash of color can trigger vicious strikes, while at other times, the lack of such preferences can turn off curious fish just as quickly.
We continued to troll in different directions working lake structures, such as points, islands and cove mouths, looking for a muskie "pattern" to develop. We even trolled over barren flats.
Despite our valiant effort, nine hours passed without a single muskie encounter. I'm sure a few muskies got banged on the nose as we blanketed the lake with swimming lures, but such is the life of a muskie angler.
The previous week, the McCords boated multiple 40-inchers, and the week after our trip, more 40-inch fish were boated. Oh, what muskie anglers would give for the hot bite to hit when they're on the water.
The summer months can be a surprisingly good time to troll on Stonewall Jackson. Many of the lake's largest muskies have been caught during the summer months. Even Jim Moore's first West Virginia 50-inch specimen came during the summer.
Keep in mind that the lake stratifies between 10 and 15 feet during the warm months. It will be important for trollers to fish above the thermocline where the lake's oxygenated water exists.
At 2,650 acres, Stonewall Jackson Lake remains a tremendous fishery for a number of fish species. However, muskies are the largest fish to call this lake home.
Trophy muskies get large by cruising through abundant stands of timber, which are found in countless creek channels, narrow coves and dropoffs. Riprap, sandy flats and even brief patches of vegetation are present throughout the lake. All of these habitats may be productive muskie areas during the year.
Several no-wake areas offer anglers the chance to muskie fish without the constant barrage of waves from passing powerboats. Anglers who fish renowned muskie lakes that are also popular recreational spots really appreciate these restricted speed areas.
Since Stonewall Jackson features an impressive forage base, it's not surprising that muskies in the lake grow very rapidly. This lake probably has more 40-inch and larger muskies present than any other body of water in West Virginia. Much of the trophy potential can be traced to the lake's ample forage base and abundant cover.
Trolling isn't the only way to fish Stonewall. Many anglers opt to cast among the timber with a variety of plugs, jerkbaits and even topwater lures. Many muskies can be found along shorelines or coves where thick cover makes trolling impossible. Quite frankly, muskies can turn up anywhere on the lake. It isn't surprising that many large muskies come from areas packed with standing timber, such as Little Skin Creek, Wolf Fork and Jacksonville.
Anglers can launch from any of the lake's five launch ramps. Georgetown, Vandalia Bay and Glady Fork are all located on the Skin Creek or Little Skin Creek arms of the lake. From Interstate 79, take exit 96 to get to the Skin Creek arm of the lake. Roanoke and Jacksonville are located on the West Fork arm of the lake and can be found by taking exit 91 from Interstate 79.
The old legend still holds that Burnsville Lake contains big muskies. It held them in the 1980s and 1990s, so why not today? In fact, fishing pressure remains minimal compared with the pressure muskie anglers exerted on this reservoir during those two decades.
Burnsville experienced significant pressure on its muskie fishery back then, but for some reason during the last 10 years, fishing pressure on muskellunge has dropped dramatically. Could it be that many anglers fell in love with Stonewall Jackson and forgot about old reliable?
Well, nothing has changed from the days of old in terms of the muskie population on Burnsville. The lake is still stocked with plenty of fingerling muskies each year, and the reservoir remains full of forage, primarily redhorse suckers. Redhorse suckers make hearty forage that can really pack pounds on big muskies.
This scenario of unlimited forage and low fishing pressure creates an atmosphere that enables muskies to live long, grow fast and ultimately attain trophy size.
Burnsville Lake still has good numbers of muskies, but the lake's best attribute is producing trophy muskies. How big? Well, how about the 55-inch, 47-pound muskie that was found by fishermen in 1996? This potential state-record muskie was found floating dead on the lake either having expired from a stressful battle with an angler or more likely died of old age.
The lake has turned out a number of 40-inch-plus muskies over the last few years, and with additional angling effort would likely have yielded more fish of this size or bett
er. The bottom line is that trophy muskies abound in this reservoir and not too many folks are pursuing them.
With 968 acres of water, this Braxton County reservoir features several areas of excellent muskie habitat, including patches of standing timber and small tributaries that flow into the lake. Many muskie anglers feel that the upper sections of the lake offer the best habitat, but muskies might turn up anywhere in the lake.
Jerkbaits or crankbaits fished near tributary mouths and around submerged timber continue to produce good muskie action, but trolling has become a popular method of probing the lake, too. Trolling has accounted for many of the trophy muskies produced by Burnsville Lake during the last two years.
Two launch ramps provide access for anglers. On the upper end of the lake, the Bulltown ramp is open from April to November, while the Riffle Run ramp, on the lower end of the lake, is open year 'round. The Riffle Run ramp can be easily reached by taking exit 79 off Interstate 79 at Burnsville. Located along U.S. Route 19 near Falls Mill, the Bulltown ramp remains situated in a more remote area.
For many anglers, nothing produces a fishing thrill like catching a trophy muskie. For those who have encountered such fish, you know what I'm talking about. For those who haven't, you might be in for a treat. That's if you head to one of West Virginia's premier trophy muskie lakes like the three featured here.