The Mud and Tygart rivers are our state's hottest places to catch big muskies right now. Here's where you should try!
By Kevin Yokum
"There he is!" screamed my partner as the water exploded near his side of the boat. His jerkbait had been attacked by a gorgeous 38-inch muskie, and it was putting up an incredible fight that encompassed some serious aerial shenanigans. As soon as the muskie was netted, we scrambled for our cameras. After photographing the fish, it was released back into the river. We performed a little boat dance celebration comprised of some excited hollering and high fives, along with thanks to the Heavenly Father. We then continued our pursuit of yet another muskie.
On this trip to the Mud River, I was fishing with Scott Smith, a veteran muskie angler who really knows the Mud River. An active member of Muskies Inc., Smith has fished for muskies just about everywhere these game fish are found. Like myself, a dedicated family man whose time is somewhat limited, Smith must make the most of his time on the water. We certainly did on our Mud River trip, encountering five muskies in just four hours of fishing. Our final tally showed five muskie strikes and three hookups resulting in two legal muskies being landed. This is pretty incredible action for a fish that is rumored to require 10,000 casts per each fish hooked.
Having fished the Mud River since the early 1990s, Scott Smith feels that muskie fishing on the Mud, and all across the state for that matter, is better than it has ever been before. He credits the state's muskie resurgence to rigorous stocking by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) and an emerging catch-and- release ethic among anglers who are voluntarily releasing muskies instead of harvesting them. Since it can take up to 10 years for a Mud River muskie to reach 40 inches, the catch-and-release ethic can be a valuable attribute in maintaining a quality fishery.
Over the last 10 years, muskie fishing has improved all across our state. In no place has the advancement been more evident than in West Virginia's rivers. The Tygart and Mud rivers are the latest Mountaineer muskie waters to attain fame among the state's muskie anglers.
West Virginia's DNR has kept records of muskies caught by muskie club anglers for over 36 years. Of the 66 state waters in which legal-sized muskies (a legal muskie must be 30 inches to harvest) have been caught and reported, both the Tygart and the Mud rank in the top 15, and most impressively, both rivers are currently producing some of the best muskie action in the state. According to this year's muskie club catch records compiled by the DNR, the Tygart and Mud rivers again rank as two of the state's top muskie waters.
Mud River expert Scott Smith holds a beautiful 38-inch muskie, which he caught on an 8-inch jerkbait. Photo by Kevin Yokum
MUD RIVER The Mud River in the southern part of the state is a small- to medium-sized river with often-discolored water. For the last few years, catch rates in the Mud have been steadily increasing to a point where the river is now one of the best places to catch a West Virginia muskie. Intensive stocking efforts as well as increased catch-and-release practices have turned this once marginal water into a phenomenal muskie fishery.
Each year, the DNR stocks about 500 muskie fingerlings that average about 6 inches in length into the Mud River. Like many West Virginia streams, the muskie fishery in the Mud River has been successfully established and maintained by fingerling stockings. It takes about four to six years for these fingerlings to reach legal size (30 inches).
Numerous small pools that are separated by a series of water-control dams, which along with some shallow riffle areas that make a continuous float unattainable, characterize the Mud River. Most anglers launch into a particular pool and concentrate their fishing efforts there. One of my favorite pools on the Mud River is the Milton Pool. Starting behind the water plant in Milton and continuing upstream about two miles, this pool is one of the most consistent muskie producers on the river. A carry-down boat ramp beside the Milton water plant provides access to the pool, but sometimes requires getting a key from nearby water plant personnel.
Another promising section of the Mud River stretches between the DNR access along U.S. Route 60 and Howells Mill Dam. This is a long, full-day float, but contains some of the best muskie fishing on the Mud. This area is probably the most popular stretch of river among our state's muskie anglers.
One more area certainly worth mentioning is found downstream of Howells Mill and is locally referred to as the Interstate pool. Anglers may enter this stretch of the river via a carry-down boat access that is located directly under the Interstate 64 bridge. On this stretch of water, boats can comfortably navigate three miles upstream from the access or a mile downstream from it. For anglers willing to navigate obstacles, muskies can be found on almost all the pools from Milton down to the river's mouth where the Mud dumps into the Guyandotte River.
Although some quality-sized muskies have been caught on the Mud River, this river's strength is in the sheer number of muskies found within its banks. Currently, the biggest muskie caught from the Mud River that Scott Smith knows of taped out at 46 inches, but each year larger muskies seem to show up. Of the numerous muskies Smith has caught over the past 10 years, the average size has been an impressive 38 inches. The Mud River has one of the state's largest populations of muskies in the 30- to 40-inch range.
One of the unique things I noticed about muskies on the Mud River was that seldom do the fish follow the lure to the boat without striking it. Smith commented that this was not unusual and that fish infrequently followed lures to the boat. On our Mud River trip, the muskies we encountered all struck aggressively at our lures. This can be refreshing after fishing a water such as the Buckhannon River, where anglers might see 12 muskies per trip, but may receive only one aggressive strike.
The Mud River features remarkably good muskie habitat. Fallen and submerged trees are the most obvious targets and provide the best holding locations. Behind these downed trees, the current is decreased and the slack water is a favorite place for muskies to hold. These areas are known as potholes. They become particularly obvious when surrounded by shallow water because not only is the water slack, but it is deep. Not really wide, the Mud can be thoroughly fished by boating anglers. The limited size of the Mud assures anglers that most of the muskies in the river will spot their lures.
There are a number of water-control dams on the Mud River. Although these dams are an annoyance to float-fishermen, they are a haven to shoreline anglers, especially t
hose who seek muskies. When the water level is up, the area immediately downstream of these dams becomes dynamite for muskie fishing. Several 40-inch-plus muskies have been caught below these dams over the past two years.
During the summer, muskie fishing usually becomes much tougher on many waters, but not so with the Mud. Although usually discolored, summertime provides clearwater conditions on the Mud River and the muskies seem to really turn on. Even though November is Smith's favorite time to fish on the Mud River, many of his muskies have come during summer float-fishing trips.
Sometimes Smith has to drag his johnboat over shallow riffles to get to deeper water, but most of the summer there is plenty of navigable water in which to fish. The best time to catch muskies during the summer is when the water is up and lightly stained.
No muskie angler likes to admit his or her lack of tackle when it comes to lure selection, but during our Mud River trip, I was unprepared. After trying several of my lures and then watching Smith hook up with his second muskie, it was time to borrow one of his lures. The lure turned out to be an 8-inch jerkbait and was it ever a great bait. After encountering five muskies in four hours, this bait really impressed me. These baits are made right here in West Virginia by Ray Hensley and Speed Jones of Widowmaker Lures. Interestingly enough, these lures were developed and field-tested on the Mud River.
Normally I don't brag on a particular lure, but this bait was so easy to work and the bottom line was those muskies were all over it. Smith admits that most of his Mud River muskies have been caught on Deadhead jerkbaits. Green and white or green and yellow were the hot colors on the day of our trip. I promise I will have my own assortment of Deadheads to fish with on my next trip to the Mud River.
TYGART RIVER The Tygart River in the northern part of our state is a full-sized river with long, clear pools. Some sections of the river have the ability to accommodate large motorboats, while other stretches are accessible only to shoreline anglers.
Since the DNR does not stock muskies below Tygart Lake, one might wonder where the muskies in the Tygart River are coming from. Fisheries biologist Frank Jernejcic suggests that natural reproduction may be occurring; but he feels, as I do, that most of the muskies are washing down from upstream stockings.
The Tygart River backwaters and the Buckhannon River, in particular, are the most likely sources. Both waters are connected with Tygart Lake and muskies have been documented moving toward the lake from stocking sites. During the DNR's 2002 Tygart Lake sampling, two big muskies were captured. The muskies, which were sampled and then released, measured 30 and 44 inches.
Many sections of the Tygart River hold these game fish, but one of the most highly rated sections is the eight-mile stretch from Tygart Dam to Valley Falls. Over the past few years, the area from the U.S. Route 119 bridge to Valley Falls has been yielding some remarkably big fish. Access to the Valley Falls area is via a private campground called Tygart River Camping Area or the public ramp located just below the Tygart Dam. The Tygart becomes inaccessible downstream of Valley Falls until you reach the lower three miles of the river. Woods Boat House is located about two miles upstream of the mouth and provides the best access to the lower three miles of the Tygart River.
Another of my favorite muskie stretches on the Tygart River is located upstream of Tygart Lake near the town of Philippi. Commonly referred to as the Philippi pool, this long pool stretches from the covered bridge in Philippi up to the mouth of the Buckhannon River.
The Philippi pool is capable of handling motorboats and anglers will find the boat ramp just upstream of the historic covered bridge.
Muskie catch rates in the Tygart are good, but the exceptionally large size of an average muskie caught from this river is what really impresses anglers. When muskie anglers travel to the Tygart River, they are primarily looking to catch trophy-sized muskies, usually fish in excess of 40 inches. Over the past few years, the Tygart has developed quite a reputation for producing trophy muskies. For the first time in many years, trophy muskies are present in abundant numbers on the Tygart River. Two years ago the river yielded its first 50- inch muskie. Several muskies 45 inches and larger were caught last year, so it should come as no surprise to see another 50-incher in 2003. Most serious muskie anglers would consider a 50-inch river muskie to be the crowning jewel of their fishing career, or at the very least, a revered trophy.
Much of the Tygart River is composed of long, deep pools. These pools are very important because they provide the necessary cover to hold muskies year 'round. Some of these pools have fallen trees sprinkled along the shoreline that make good muskie habitat, but one of the most consistent places to catch muskies are tributary mouths. Anglers floating the river should direct some serious fishing effort at any visible tributary mouth, even the tiny ones. Even small tributaries are capable of delivering food to hungry muskies, which often lay in wait by tributary mouths.
Water clarity can be substantially clear in the Tygart River during the summer months. Even though muskies can be caught in clear water, the best time to fish for them seems to be when the river is slightly high and has just a tinge of color to it. However, don't be discouraged if you show up to fish the Tygart and the water is crystal clear. I know of many Tygart River muskies that have been caught during clearwater conditions, and besides, seeing a 40-inch muskie rocket through the water and attack a lure can leave anglers with quaking knees and exciting stories that last for much longer than the fishing trip.
All muskie anglers have their favorite lures and most will work under certain conditions. Two lures seem to be particularly effective on the Tygart River. Several of the large muskies caught on the Tygart over the last few years have come on Hughes River jerkbaits. These 8- or 10-inch gliding jerkbaits have good action in the water, but require a stiff rod due to their substantial weight. Also, for years, big tandem bucktails have been potent lures on trophy muskies and they continue to work well on the Tygart. White and black seem to be the most effective colors, particularly during the summer months.
West Virginia muskie fishing is better than ever. All across our state anglers are catching more and bigger muskies than ever before. Improved management by the West Virginia DNR, catch-and-release practices by anglers and better water quality in our streams have all contributed to improved muskie fisheries.
There are numerous muskie waters available to zealous anglers, but if you are really serious about muskie fishing, then this year make sure to hit the Mud and Tygart rivers. Right now, these waters are two of the Mountain State's hottest places to catch the famed fish of 10,000 casts!
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