West Virginia has myriad waters to seek sleek, hard-fighting muskies. There's no need to look any farther than these five picks! (June 2009)
When it comes to muskie fishing, West Virginia lakes take a backseat to no place. Indeed, our state features some of the finest stream fishing for muskellunge in the world, and each year our reservoirs prove that 50-inch muskies are real possibilities.
West Virginia has two distinct types of muskie fisheries: those maintained through an aggressive stocking program and those sustained through natural reproduction. Each type of fishery offers unique benefits as well as limitations, but both strategies have created magnificent muskie fisheries in the Mountain State.
For the serious muskie angler, West Virginia provides miles and miles of streams where muskellunge reproduce naturally. Such natural streams consist of the "native" Ohio River strain of muskellunge, which have existed in our state for perhaps hundreds of years. Many of these native streams remain exceptional muskie fisheries, and a few are producing trophy fish. Middle Island Creek, for example, has turned out 50-inch specimens, and over the past few years, several other waters have contributed numerous 40-inch-plus fish.
However, it's West Virginia's lakes that offer the best trophy muskie opportunities. All of the state's reservoirs and a number of its streams continue to be maintained through the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) stocking program. These stocked fingerlings are descendants of the New York (Chautauqua) strain and get stocked exclusively in non-native muskellunge waters.
Until recently, muskies were stocked as 4- to 8-inch fingerlings, but now certain muskie fisheries are slated to receive 10- to 14-inch advanced muskie fingerlings. Larger fingerlings generate a much higher survival rate than normal size fingerlings, but the cost of producing them can be prohibitive.
West Virginia anglers are reminded that muskies must be at least 30 inches for legal harvest, and although growth rates vary among rivers and lakes, it generally takes these game fish four or five years to attain this legal size. The daily muskie possession limit remains at two.
When it comes to muskie fishing in the southern part of West Virginia, the Mud River certainly comes to mind. The Mud River is a small to medium-sized stream with oft-discolored water (hence the name), but muskies sure find it appealing.
Over the last decade, catch rates in the Mud River have increased to a point where most Mountain State anglers now classify the river as a premier West Virginia muskie fishery. Intensive stocking efforts, as well as modern catch-and-release practices, have contributed to the thriving fishery.
Like many West Virginia streams, the muskie fishery in Mud River has been successfully established and maintained through fingerling stockings. Each year, the DNR stocks around 300 to 500 muskie fingerlings into the Mud River. But the magic doesn't occur overnight, as it takes three to five years for these fingerlings to reach legal size.
The Mud River is defined by a narrow channel that winds through a continuum of lengthy pools and potholes. The pools are separated by a series of water-control dams, making uninterrupted navigation a challenge. Under normal conditions, anglers will launch into a particular pool and concentrate their fishing efforts in that area.
Anglers who are looking to fish the upper reaches of the Mud River will find that the Milton Pool is a hotspot. Starting behind the water plant in Milton and continuing upstream about two miles, this pool remains one of the most consistent muskie-producing areas on the river.
But don't expect to launch a mega bass boat into this pool, because the area is best suited for small johnboats or canoes with trolling motors. A carry-down boat ramp beside the Milton water plant provides access to the pool, but sometimes it requires getting a key from nearby water plant personnel.
Another promising section of the Mud stretches between the DNR access along state Route (SR) 60 and Howell's Mill Dam. This is a lengthy, full-day float that contains an attractive array of muskie habitat. The area is a popular stretch of stream for knowledgeable Mud River anglers.
One more area certainly worth mentioning is found downstream of Howell's Mill and is locally referred to as the Interstate Pool. The primary access to the Interstate Pool is a carry-down boat path located directly under the Interstate 64 bridge.
On the Interstate Pool, boats can comfortably navigate three miles upstream from the access or a mile downstream. Anglers who are willing to drag their craft through riffles and portage around dams should be able to navigate the entire river from Milton down to the mouth.
Although impressive muskies continue to be caught on the Mud River, this river's strength is the number of muskies found within its banks. Fish of 40-plus inches are very possible, but the Mud is best known for multiple catches of 30- to 40-inch muskies.
The Mud River features plenty of first-class habitats. Fallen trees make obvious muskie hideouts and serve as consistent locations to encounter these large game fish. Downed trees usually create a significant break in the river's current, which often produces a sizeable area of slack water.
Summertime can be a tough time to catch muskies on many rivers, but not so with the Mud. Although usually discolored, the Mud can run semi-clear during the summer, and when that occurs, the muskellunge seem to turn aggressive. While less flow leads to the hassles of dragging a boat over shallow riffles to access other pools, anglers who regularly fish the Mud during the summer know the benefits.
NORTH BEND LAKE
One of our state's newest lakes, North Bend has quickly turned into a prime muskie fishery since being constructed in 2002. Since North Bend sits within the rich western muskie region of West Virginia, it should come as no surprise that this lake in Ritchie County has turned into a primo angling destination.
The 300-acre lake is packed with standing timber, thus the fishery should remain a thriving one for quite some time.
In 2005, a 40-inch size limit was instituted on North Bend Lake in anticipation that this fishery would quickly generate trophy muskies. The predictions were right on, and anglers are already reporting encounters with trophy-sized fish.
Soon after filling, North Bend Lake received a real jump-start when enhanced stocking measures (advanced fingerlings
) bolstered the lake's muskie population. Initial stocking efforts paid off and soon anglers were connecting with muskies. After only a few years, the lake is churning out muskies in excess of 40 inches.
The stocking program continues today with a sustained emphasis on advanced muskie fingerlings. During 2008, North Bend Lake received 171 advanced fingerlings, and by all indications, these embellished young fish have survived well.
Any section of North Bend Lake is capable of producing muskellunge, but wise anglers will pay particular attention to the creek channel as it winds through thick stands of submerged timber.
Anglers are reminded that North Bend Lake has a 10-horsepower restriction on boat motors, so be sure not to crank up those big motors on the lake, or better yet bring along a smaller johnboat powered by a 9.9-horsepower engine.
North Bend Lake lies just outside of Harrisville near North Bend State Park. Lake access can be found by traveling SR 16 to Harrisville and then turning on to county Route (CR) 5.
STONEWALL JACKSON LAKE
No water in West Virginia can match Stonewall Jackson when it comes to producing trophy muskies. Every year, multiple catches of fish exceeding the magical 50-inch mark are being documented.
At 2,650 acres, Stonewall Jackson Lake remains a tremendous fishery for several fish species. However, muskies are the water's largest inhabitants.
Trophy muskies live among the abundant stands of timber and the lake's countless creek channels. Narrow coves and main-lake points also form prime muskie hangouts. Additionally, riprap shorelines, culvert openings, sandy flats and even clumps of vegetation can hold muskies at any time.
Nearly 1,238 advanced fingerling muskies were stocked into Stonewall Jackson during 2008, and significant survival of these hearty young fish has been confirmed.
Forage quantities in Stonewall Jackson Lake seem to be a mounting concern, but since muskies sit at the top of the food chain, so far forage limitations haven't restricted muskie growth.
Many muskies can be found along shorelines or coves where thick cover makes trolling impossible, and quite frankly, muskies can turn up anywhere on the lake. Many Stonewall Jackson muskie anglers opt to cast among the timber with a variety of plugs, jerkbaits and even topwater lures. It's not surprising that large muskies come from areas packed with standing timber, such as Little Skin Creek, Wolf Fork and Jacksonville.
One proven tactic for catching trophy muskies on Stonewall is to cover lots of water by trolling. Efficient trollers cover different water depths with a multitude of lures searching for the correct depth. Selecting the best bait from a tackle box full of lures with different actions and colors is a mind-boggling task, but one in which the best anglers excel.
Trolling anglers will typically work a variety of lake structures such as points, islands and cove mouths when searching for a muskie "pattern."
Surprisingly, summer months are a great time to troll on Stonewall Jackson. Many of the lake's largest muskies tend to be caught during the summer months. 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 sits.
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 arm 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.
LITTLE KANAWHA RIVER
The Little Kanawha is one of West Virginia's premier muskie streams, which runs from the central portion of the state all the way to the western border before joining the Ohio River.
Since muskie fishing became established in the Mountain State, the Little Kanawha has been one of the state's best muskie rivers. Amazingly, the river has been self-sustaining throughout its history and still doesn't receive any stockings.
As a natural muskie stream, anglers can expect a range of muskie sizes and a 48-inch fish could turn up just as easily as a 28-inch specimen. The Little "K," as some in the angling community know it, continues to be one of the Mountain State's most consistent muskie-producing destinations.
The Little Kanawha is a small to medium-sized river with long pools separated by short, vibrant riffles. Submerged timber, undercut banks and occasional rock substrate offer fine muskie habitat along the river's path. Tributary mouths also stand as traditional hotspots for Little K muskies.
Muskies can be caught throughout the year on the Little Kanawha, but one of the best times to fish the river is in the late summer/early fall when Burnsville Lake is actively discharging water. The receiving waters of the Little K rise and color up, subsequently creating a feeding frenzy for resident muskies.
With over a dozen access sites ranging from full ramps to steep boat slides, the Little Kanawha offers a wealth of access for anglers. While the ramps are capable of handling larger boats, most accesses are better suited for johnboats with electric trolling motors or small outboards.
One of my favorite floats on the Little Kanawha lies in Wirt County between Wells Lock and Spring Valley. This 7.5-mile float is always good for a muskie or two, and in many cases, we're talking 40-inch-plus fish.
The Wells Lock put-in is approximately 1.5 miles north of Elizabeth on CR 14/7. Anglers will take out at Spring Valley along CR 4/3.
Anglers wishing to float some smaller water will find several upstream floats, including a nine-mile float from Leading Creek to CR 39 Ford and the mammoth 12-mile float from CR 39 to Grantsville. Historically, both of these stretches have been muskie hotspots.
Once regarded as West Virginia's top trophy muskie fishery, Burnsville has slipped behind Stonewall Jackson and Stonecoal as the most popular trophy water. However, Burnsville Lake still holds plenty of giant muskies, and anglers who are willing to put in a little time are reaping mighty rewards.
Present-day fishing pressure remains minimal compared with the pressure muskie anglers exerted on this reservoir in the 1980s, and the lake's stocking program has continued nonstop during the last decade. So, there's really no reason the lake shouldn't continue producing giant muskies.
During 2008, Burnsville Lake received 514 advanced muskie fingerlings, and since some of these young muskies were pushing 14 to 16 inches, you can be sure a high percentage of this group has survived.
Burnsville Lake features good numbers of muskies, but the lake's best attribute is certainly growing trophy fish. There is plenty of evidence to back up this statement. It would be shameful not to mention 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. No one is sure how it died, but possibly from old age. Each year, the lake continues to turn out a number of 40- inch-plus muskies, and additional angling effort will likely yield more trophy fish.
Several DNR surveys indicate that the muskie population on Burnsville Lake remains strong. In addition to receiving plenty of fingerling muskies each year, Burnsville contains a bountiful supply of forage, primarily redhorse suckers. Redhorse suckers make hearty food sources for top predators like muskies.
The combination of unlimited forage, continued stocking and low fishing pressure creates an atmosphere that enables muskies to live long, grow fast and ultimately attain trophy size.
Encompassing 968 acres of water, Burnsville Lake also has plenty of prime habitats, including numerous sections of standing timber. Small coves and tributaries are also noted muskie hotspots.
Launch ramps on both ends of the lake provide access for anglers. On the upper end of the lake along U.S. Route 19, the Bulltown ramp and the ramp at the Bulltown Campground offer easy access for anglers. On the lower end of the lake, the Riffle Run ramp can be easily located by taking exit 79 off Interstate 79 at Burnsville.
From world-class stream fishing to the state's largest reservoirs, West Virginia features a fine array of muskie fishing. Whether it's opportunities for multiple fish days or a realistic shot at a monstrous 50-inch trophy, the Mountain State has a perfect fishery for you.