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West Virginia's Catch-and-Release Muskies

West Virginia's Catch-and-Release Muskies

The Buckhannon River and Middle Island Creek are two of the hottest waters to hook up with hard-fighting muskellunge right now in our state!

by Kevin Yokum

When was the last time you saw 11 muskies in a single fishing trip? It can happen. Tim McCauley, an experienced muskie angler who regularly fishes the Buckhannon River catch-and-release area, saw that many on one of his outings. On another trip, McCauley hooked and landed four muskies that were over 30 inches, and he saw several more muskies that day. Talk about some hot muskie action!

"Along with the exhilaration of seeing lots of muskies, the fallen timber makes an ideal target because muskies love to reside among the submerged trees," McCauley said.

McCauley adds that the catch-and-release area is a great place to take someone who is just getting started in muskie angling, because encountering lots of muskies provides the extra excitement that beginning anglers need.

Esox masquinongy, better known as the muskellunge, or muskie for short, is a member of the pike family noted for its vicious strikes and furious fighting ability. Reputed to be one of the most difficult sportfish to catch, muskies can be extremely finicky, and it is difficult to predict when a muskie will strike. Anglers sometimes fish for days without seeing a muskie.

Mountain State anglers who are looking for the best locations to catch muskies will find that the two waters featured here are the state's top waters for number of muskies. The catch-and-release areas on Middle Island Creek and the Buckhannon River offer the highest densities of muskies per acre anywhere in the state.

Citation-sized fish, which must weigh at least 15 pounds, are not prevalent in these areas, but these waters host a tremendous number of 30- to 40-inch muskies. The sheer number of fish provides excellent prospects for anglers who are looking to catch legal-sized muskies. Anglers should note that any muskie caught in either of these special regulation areas must be immediately released back into the water.


Photo by Gordon Whittington

The use of live bait, usually chubs or bluegills, is allowed in these areas, but anglers who use live bait are encouraged to set the hook quickly to prevent internal damage to the fish. Anglers who intend to fish live bait should be aware that several tackle manufacturers make quick-set rigs that are designed for live bait, and these are generally easier on the fish than standard hooks.

West Virginia has a statewide muskie size limit that requires fish to be at least 30 inches in length for them to be legally harvested. This size limit is designed to allow female muskies to reach sexual maturity. In most state waters, a female has the potential to spawn one or two years by the time it is 30 inches.

Although the majority of seasoned muskie anglers practice voluntary catch-and-release on all muskies they catch, these two areas were set up to be entirely catch-and-release for muskies. These areas are managed to provide opportunities for anglers who desire to fish in areas where muskies are very abundant and, to a lesser extent, to protect spawning fish.

West Virginia has had limited spawning success in many of its waters as the result of substrate conditions and the high frequency of flooding, which occurs during the critical spring months when muskies are spawning. This limited spawning success makes the muskellunge stocking program vital for sustaining strong populations in most state waters.

West Virginia has a very diverse muskie management program. A few streams in the state are managed as native muskie streams and are capable of sustaining self-supporting populations of native-strain muskies, but fingerling stockings maintain most state muskie waters. Two strains of muskellunge are stocked within the state: the West Virginia strain and the Chautauqua, N.Y., strain.

The West Virginia strain is stocked into waters that historically contained populations of native muskies, while the New York strain is stocked into reservoirs and waters where the native strain was nonexistent. Currently, the Division of Natural Resources (DNR) is studying the success of stocking advanced fingerlings (10- to 12-inch fish) in a few selected waters. This program is designed to reduce the number of fingerlings stocked and to ensure greater survival by stocking larger fish. Although numbers vary from year to year, the DNR currently stocks about 14,000 muskie fingerlings annually.

Middle Island Creek is one of the few waters within the state that is capable of sustaining an excellent population of muskies through natural reproduction. Stocking is not needed to replenish the population of "wild fish" in this creek.

Stretching over 6 miles, the Middle Island Creek muskie catch-and-release area starts at the state Route (SR) 18 bridge near Centerville and continues downstream to the low-water bridge at the Jug Wildlife Management Area.

Just how good is Middle Island Creek? Historically, Middle Island Creek is ranked No. 1 on the all-time list for muskies caught and released by state muskie clubs. Middle Island Creek was one of the first waters where muskie anglers actively pursued this hearty game fish, and the stream has held up well over the years. In fact, the muskie population is now better than it ever was. Muskies are so numerous that the DNR uses the catch-and-release area to capture brood stock to fertilize eggs at their warmwater hatcheries.

According to district biologist Scott Morrison, stream survey data collected over many years shows an average capture rate of about one mature muskie per hour of electroshocking. "This capture rate is indicative of a healthy muskie population," Morrison said.

Spring and early summer seem to be the best times to catch fish on the catch-and-release section of Middle Island Creek. One of the hottest muskie spots is near the boat ramp at the mouth of Indian Creek. The spot, better known as the Indian Creek pool, has superb cover and always seems to hold numerous muskies.

The riffle area just downstream from the boat ramp is another favorite place for muskie anglers to find early-spring fish as they move into riffle areas to spawn. I would encourage anglers who are fishing this section to stop and spend some time throwing tandem bucktail spinners through this riffle.

Another good area to fish is just upstream from the Jug WMA access ramp on the lower end of the catch-and-release area. This section upstream from the Jug is accentuated by some splendid muskie habitat that has generated multiple hookups for several different anglers who have been fishi

ng the area during the past year.

When fishing Middle Island Creek, anglers can expect to find a multitude of 30- to 40-inch muskies. Most fish will be in the 30-inch class, but occasionally a musky in the mid-40s is caught. Morrison reports that every once and a while a huge fish shows up, such as the 48-inch muskie he sampled a few years ago. While the potential for catching a trophy-sized muskie is not high, anglers will find that the odds of encountering a legal-sized muskie in Middle Island Creek are excellent.

Every muskie angler has his or her own favorite lures for a given water, but some lure types produce better than others on Middle Island Creek, especially in the spring. I recommend that anglers who are fishing Middle Island Creek should be equipped with at least three lure types: a bucktail, a jerkbait and a jointed plug that runs 4 to 6 feet deep.

Watercraft can be launched from two locations on the Middle Island Creek special regulations area. The ramp at the mouth of Indian Creek, off SR 18 (1/4 mile east of county Route 13), can accommodate most riverboats and is the area's best facility. Another access is located at the Jug WMA, off SR 18, near the lower end of the catch-and-release area. To launch boats from this graveled access, you should have a 4-wd vehicle in case conditions are muddy.

If seeing lots of muskies is your quest, then the Buckhannon River catch-and-release area is the place for you. The 6.5-mile section stretches from the water-supply dam in the city of Buckhannon upstream to the first riffle near the community of Sago. The entire area is one continuous pool that is commonly referred to as the Buckhannon Pool.

Natural reproduction is extremely rare in the pool; therefore, stocking is conducted to supplement the muskie population. Each year, the Buckhannon River receives about 400 muskie fingerlings, and about 150 of those fingerlings are put in the Buckhannon Pool.

The Buckhannon catch-and-release area has the highest concentration of muskies anywhere in the state. DNR data shows an astonishing four muskies per hour were captured during recent electrofishing surveys. With muskie densities this high, it is common for anglers to see more than a half-dozen muskies during a day of fishing, and considering that it takes some fishermen 10,000 casts to catch a muskie, that's a pretty impressive sighting. Historically, the Buckhannon River ranks third on the all-time list for muskies caught and released by state muskie clubs.

Spring is prime time on the Buckhannon, and muskies seem to migrate to the upper end of the pool or to tributary mouths during this time. The French Creek area is superb for early-season muskies, as is the area near the riffles that mark the upper boundary of the catch-and-release area. The clear water on the upper end of the Buckhannon Pool is an excellent place to find muskies as they move through the shallows looking for forage. However, the upper end of the Buckhannon Pool isn't the only place to catch springtime muskies; many fish are caught among the cascade of submerged timber scattered throughout the 6.5-mile section.

Anglers can expect to see plenty of muskies in the 30- to 35-inch range in the catch-and-release area. A few muskies over 40 inches inhabit the pool, but most are smaller, partly because of the slow growth rate of Buckhannon River fish. Additionally, the clear water of the Buckhannon River makes it one of the few places in the state where anglers can actually spot and stalk muskies. This technique is extremely exciting, and some anglers are fishing the Buckhannon just so they can utilize this specialized tactic.

The Buckhannon River is blessed with a colossal amount of muskie habitat. Almost the entire special regulation section is dotted with fallen timber or submerged root wads that muskies love. Some of the best concentrations of fallen timber are between the Poe Bridge (first bridge upstream from the Wood Street ramp) and the Tallmansville Bridge (second bridge upstream from the Wood Street ramp).

Sometimes, during the summer, sparse weedbeds develop along shallow flats in the river. Anglers who are traveling up the river shouldn't overlook weedbeds because, as these weedbeds develop, they become muskie hotspots.

Muskies see a lot of lures in the catch-and-release areas, so lure selection is critical on the Buckhannon Pool. Plugs seem to be the most effective lures during spring, and three lure types you should have for this area are jointed minnows, jerkbaits and crankbaits.

Most of the time, muskies respond to a straight retrieve, but don't be afraid to change retrieval speeds or even give plugs a sharp jerk when you are fishing on the Buckhannon. Many of the muskies I have boated on the Buckhannon have hit on lures that were given sudden, erratic action.

The Buckhannon River catch-and-release area has only one boat access, but it's a good one. The access can be found in Buckhannon, on Wood Street, just behind the campus of West Virginia Wesleyan College. To find the ramp, get off U.S. Route 33 and take SR 20 south into Buckhannon. Follow the signs to the college and go behind the campus to the end of Wood Street.

The access features a concrete boat ramp that can handle good-sized boats and has plenty of parking. Anglers should use caution when traveling up the river because there is a multitude of underwater trees limbs and stumps that can quickly destroy a boat prop.

Excitement can turn to frustration when anglers "raise" a muskie. This is when a muskie follows a lure to the boat or shore without actually striking the lure. Anglers use a technique called the "figure eight" to entice muskies into striking when a raise has occurred. This simply involves dipping your rod tip into the water and tracing the lure in a figure eight. Whether this technique creates confusion or mimics a frantic baitfish fleeing for cover, no one knows for sure, but it can be very effective.

Another trick veteran anglers utilize is to have a second rod rigged with a different lure. After a muskie follows one lure to the boat but doesn't hit it, you should switch rods and immediately cast the new lure back into the strike area. My favorite technique to use on stubborn muskies is to decrease the size of the lure. If I have repeated muskie follows but have received no hits, downsizing often solves the problem. The downsizing technique has been especially effective on the Buckhannon River catch-and-release area.

West Virginia offers anglers some fine muskie fishing opportunities. While some of the state's waters hold trophy muskies that reach up into the mystical 50-inch class, you won't find many of these gigantic fish in the state's catch-and-release areas. However, what these areas do feature is some dynamite numbers of muskies in the 30-inch range and up.

In fact, these areas hold more muskies per acre than anywhere else in the state. It is a refreshing change to come to one of these special regulation areas and see up to 10 muskies per trip after spending days on oth

er waters without seeing a single muskie. When fishing in the Buckhannon or Middle Island Creek catch-and-release areas, you will find that the odds shift in the anglers' favor as they pursue legal-sized muskies. It's an important factor to consider when chasing the elusive muskellunge.

Don't wait for 10,000 casts before you catch your next muskie; hurry to one of West Virginia's catch-and-release areas today!

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